The other night, as I was reading the wide variety of self-reference terms used by people sharing their personal stories in Riggle and Rostosky'sA Positive View of LGBTQ, it felt like I'd opened a window onto an existential crisis.
As someone who identifies as bisexual, I have to confess to having been amazed and baffled by people identifying in the book not just with single terms, like me, but with multiple terms simultaneously. There before me were people using not just the more common terms like "gay" or "trans," but terms like "Transgendered FTM Genderqueer" and "lesbian-identified queer bisexual." At the time, and despite celebrities like Lea DeLaria opting for "queer" because "queer is everybody," I thought that people had no idea who and what they are, or what to call themselves.
After some reflection, I came to realize that my thinking was overly simplistic, narrow-minded, and forgetful, not just for someone who has studied identity and identity politics, but who has struggled with accepting his own bisexual identity, and the "bisexual" identity label, for nearly twenty years.
I also came to realize that a major part of the problem we face is that labels can function as tools both of empowerment and oppression. That's part of why people are increasingly "reclaiming" the slur "queer" as a means to flip its meaning and subvert its harmful effects while homophobes continue using words like "queer" as an insult and attack.
To many, "queer" seems a better alternative than the "LGBT" or "LGBTQ+" acronyms because it doesn't lend itself to mockery as "alphabet soup." "Queer" remains problematic, however, because it is still a dictionary defined homophobic slur that many people, myself included, find deeply offensive. Using the slur may lead people to think it's now okay to use it, generating some of the same type of confusion that has arisen over use of the N-word by whites. It's also problematic because, as a slur wielded by homophobes, embracing it means continuing to define ourselves on their terms. You can flip a coin to change its face, but it remains the same coin.
For different reasons, "gay" is no better. Like "queer," "gay" is homogenizing. It negates the experiences with privilege, gender identity, and fluidity of attraction that can distinguish different perspectives and experiences, such as between a man and a woman, a bisexual from a lesbian, or a transgender woman from a transgender man (for those identifying with such binaries, which is not always or necessarily the case).
GSM, or "gender and sexual minorities," or GSD, for "gender and sexual diversities," also seem useful, but they are clunky and fall prey to becoming alphabet soup. GSM also emphasizes being an oppressed minority, which is hardly affirming or empowering.
The problem that all of this raises is that no single term is likely to be embraced by everyone, and most terms fall prey to the same problems as those we've already seen. They treat us as monolithic, negating our diversity and the multiplicity with which some people may identify. They also imply static and false dichotomies that encourage "us" versus "them" thinking when many people would argue that gender and sexual orientation fall along a continuum, one that can change and evolve over time.
Some might say that this is a strong argument for doing away with labels entirely, that labels serve only divide us. This perspective has merit, but it overlooks the benefits that labels can provide. Labels, for example, help create a basis for understanding and communicating about ourselves and others. They also enable people with similar experiences, attractions, and views to find and recognize one another, forming a basis for friendships, romantic relationships, shared history, even mobilizing to have our voices heard.
Rather than abandoning labels altogether, an alternative to the quest for a single, all-inclusive term might be to disentangle the LGBT+ acronym. In this perspective, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other voices and experiences are not conflated or treated monolithically. It can be seen instead as recognizing that we are a community of communities, each diverse, strong, beautiful, and valid--not just in unity, but each in our own right as well.
Another alternative might be "Pride" or "Pride Community." This would acknowledge the plurality of diverse voices and experiences within the community and avoids homogenization. While saying you're "Proud" or part of the "Pride Community" may not be recognizable unless it becomes widely embraced as having a particular meaning, it does have a basis in popular use. Pride month, pride parades, and pride events are widespread and recognizable in the LGBT community, suggesting that "Pride" may be on the way to becoming a viable alternative that, unlike the slur "queer," is positive and reaffirming.
We may not be in an existential crisis, but we are in the midst of an existential evolution. How we see, recognize, and identify ourselves is evolving, and will likely continue to evolve for quite some time. But whatever directions we may go in, and whatever terms we do end up using to refer to ourselves, we can do a lot better than alphabet soup and slurs. We need terms that are constructive and affirmative--driven from within, not from without.
DaShanne Stokes, Ph.D., is a sociologist, author, and television and radio commentator who writes about culture, politics, and civil rights.