Behind the acronym
The acronym LGBTQI originated in the US in the 1990s and is made up of the first letters of the words “lesbian”, “gay”, “bisexual”, “transgender”, “queer” and “intersex”. The latter two terms were added in the 2000s, and are now sometimes joined by “A” for “asexual” and a plus sign or asterisk as a placeholder for other identities. It might seem like all these varied terms have little in common, but there’s one thing that they share: they’re all counterposed to heteronormativity.
And what’s heteronormativity?
It’s the still widespread belief that there are only two genders, which correspond to the biological sexes, and that heterosexuality is the default or preferred sexual orientation. The LGBTQI movement aims to break down these constraints and help everyone live freer lives.
Behind the words
Social change is always accompanied by linguistic change. So we took a look at the individual words in the acronym to discover when they entered mainstream usage.
“Lesbian” literally means “from Lesbos” – as in the Greek island. Why? It’s all to do with the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who lived on Lesbos in the sixth century BCE and wrote poems praising love between women; the term “sapphism” was also used in the nineteenth century to describe this love. While early medical textbooks classified “lesbianism” as a form of mental illness, it had become the community’s own preferred term by the time it gained visibility in the 60s and 70s. Unlike most other words in the acronym, which are used only as adjectives, “lesbian” can be both an adjective and a noun.
The word “gay” originally meant “happy”, “carefree” or “frivolous”. Its meaning shifted over the course of the twentieth century, and it was being used to refer to homosexual men by the 1960s. These days, it’s the preferred term, and “homosexual” may even be considered offensive due to its clinical connotations.
The Latin prefix “bi” means “two”, and this term originally referred to having two sets of sexual organs. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was therefore used to describe what are now known as intersex traits. These days, it’s instead used for those who are attracted to people of more than one gender.
This word also has its origins in Latin: the prefix “trans” means “across” or “on the other side”. It’s used to describe people who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, and, unlike many other terms in the LGBTQI acronym, has nothing to do with sexuality. While some transgender (also known simply as “trans”) people identify with a binary gender, others reject this model entirely and consider themselves to be genderless, genderfluid or to have more than one gender. The term “transgender” developed in the US in the 1980s, and made the jump to Europe in the 1990s. Today, “cisgender”, used to describe people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, is also coming into mainstream use.
The word “queer” originally meant “odd” or “strange”, and was a homophobic term of abuse for much of the twentieth century. However, since the late 1980s and the introduction of the academic field of queer theory, it’s slowly been reclaimed. Today, it’s often used as a collective term in place of “LGBTQI”, particularly among groups opposed to assimilation into heteronormative society.
“Inter” is another Latin prefix, this time meaning “in between”. The term “intersex” is used to refer to people with variations in their sex characteristics, whether chromosomal, hormonal or genital. Intersex people are often forcibly assigned a binary gender at birth, and may be subject to medical interventions to make their bodies look more “male” or “female” before they’re old enough to consent to them. Like “transgender”, this term has nothing to do with sexuality.
Asexuality describes the absence of sexual attraction to other people, regardless of their gender. Though the term “asexual” has been around since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept’s visibility and inclusion under the LGBTQI banner are much more recent. In the acronym, “A” may also be used to refer to agender – in other words, genderless – people.
And the world of gender identity has plenty more linguistic innovations to offer, from “genderqueer” to “bigender”. In over your head? Supertext can help.
Cover image via Unsplash