LGBT is Not Me: Why LGBT+ umbrella terms fall short
In January 2020, Emoji standardiser Unicode Consortium unrolled a lineup of 117 new Emojis to the excitement of social media users around the world. Nestled among the new beetle, baby seal, potted succulent and fondue icons were a series of gender-inclusive options.
The expanded collection includes male, female, agender and androgynous Emojis feeding babies and wearing veils (previously both options were only for women), as well as the pink, blue and white transgender flag.
Unicode Consortium is not the only organisation pushing a more inclusive agenda. Social networking platform Facebook, which previously allowed users to choose from up to 71 different gender identity options (depending on the region), now simply offers an empty box where one can enter a custom gender identity.
Over the past few years, acceptance of sexual and gender minorities has continued to grow around the world, as has the terminology used to differentiate sub-groups and individuals.
“No one can agree on which overarching umbrella term is most representative of sexual and gender minorities.”
Localising LGBT+ language
The term “LGB” first emerged in the US during the 1980s. By the 1990s, “LGBT” became more common. Even with an expanding vocabulary and gradual normalisation, it seems no one can agree on which umbrella term is most representative and supportive of sexual and gender minorities.
There are over a dozen terms to consider: the acronym LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender), which The New York Times uses in its reporting; LGBTQQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning), preferred by left-leaning British political parties; and LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual), standardised by many NGOs and publications like Pink News and The Guardian. At Ariana, for instance, we use LGBT+, which means “LGBT and related communities” to include the full range of sexual orientations and gender identities.
However, the preferred terminology often comes down to individuals and the regions in which they live. For instance, in Indonesia, sexual and gender minorities use LGBT to refer to gender and sexual minorities on the whole, while they use slang like “lesbi” to describe lesbians as a sub-group.
As another example, the term “waria” (a portmanteau of the words “wanita”, female, and “pria”, male) is used to describe the nation’s transfeminine third gender. The waria have existed for centuries, well before the term “transgender” was coined in 1965 by psychiatrist and author Dr. John F. Oliven.
In Hong Kong’s LGBT+ space, activists are also debating this question. Kaspar Wan, a 41-year-old transgender man (which he points out is different from being transgender male; the former being “more about the gender role, whereas being transgender male is about identifying as a biological male”) is one such activist.
Wan, who runs an NGO called Gender Empowerment, says he rejects the most popular acronyms, LGBT and LGBTQIA, because sexual orientation and gender identity should not be grouped together.
“In my opinion, gender identity is the gender you identify as [male, female, queer, trans, nonbinary, etc], while sexual orientation identifies the gender of the person or group that you are romantically [or sexually] attracted to,” he says, adding that the most appropriate choice of terminology also depends on the context of each situation.
In Hong Kong, identifiers tend to be based on American LGBT+ culture, since we don’t have specific terms in Cantonese. “I’ve observed my younger trans friends using English-language terms,” says Wan.
In academic dialogues on anti-discrimination or in the courts, Wan supports the use of all-inclusive terms such as SOGIESC (pronounced soh-gee-esque), which stands for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Expression (for instance, cisgender or nonbinary), and Sex Characteristics (intersex, etc).
“SOGIESC covers everyone,” says Wan. LGBT+ is more about community and identity, whereas SOGIESC is more neutral and has been recommended by global organisations like the United Nations to be used in human rights and anti-discrimination policy framework as a way to be more inclusive, adds Wan.
LGBT+ umbrella terms miss the mark
While “LGBT” is often used as an umbrella term to refer to sexual and gender minorities, some critics like Wan feel that the term is not representative of the plethora of identities that exist within it.
He compares it to saying you’re an ethnic minority in Hong Kong, rather than introducing yourself as Indonesian, which is more precise and personal. In the same way, he says: “You wouldn’t refer to yourself as a gender or sexual minority,” but as your specific sexual or gender orientation.
In some situations, such as in the case of transgender or intersex-identifying people, sexual and gender minorities should be identified as distinct groups. For instance, Wan encourages the usage of “LGB QQ TGNC” which separates the terms Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual; Queer, Questioning; and Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming.”
“LGB QQ TGNC is really quite a liberal American term,” says Wan. “But I’ve seen people use it in Hong Kong because we don’t have such a term in Chinese.”
He also suggests using more precise language, such as “gender diverse” and “gender expansive,” to describe transgender sub-groups under the broader LGBT+ umbrella. The former refers to nonbinary or genderfluid people who show different expressions of gender identity, while gender expansive is used when someone’s gender is not “clearly expressed”, such as children who appear to be questioning or nonbinary.
For JN Chien, a Hong Kong-Canadian cisgender gay man, umbrella terms like LGBT+ simultaneously aim for inclusivity yet homogenise the group. Generic terminology can potentially blur diversity, perpetuate stereotypes and lead to further alienation.
“There is also tension among the loose coalition of people nominally included under the term LGBT+,” he says, noting the relative privilege that white cisgender gay men might have over people of colour and less prominent groups such as transgender, bisexual, lesbians, and non-binary identities.
Such individuals can at times feel excluded or marginalised, whether due to their gender or faith, class, appearance or race. In fact, a 2012 survey of more than 600 LGBT+ individuals by Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, revealed that 48 per cent felt “somewhat” part of one or more LGBT+ communities, with many anecdotal examples of “unwelcoming and/or exclusionary” communities and spaces.
Respondents also noted hierarchies within LGBT+ groups, who described the scene as “male-dominated and/or specifically focused on young gay men” with biases based on “ableism, ageism, biphobia, fatphobia, racism and transphobia.”
“Awareness of LGBT+ terms doesn’t challenge the broader structures of power.”
Though umbrella terms like LGBT+ may make it easier for the media, the general public, and advocates to spread a message of equality and empowerment, Chien argues that painting with such broad strokes does little to propel civil liberties forward.
He refers to the institutionalised marginalisation of LGBT+ identities, such as the lack of right to marriage, or legal recognition of non-binary gender identities in many Asian countries.
“Awareness of LGBT+ terms doesn’t challenge the broader structures of power that give and withhold recognition and rights [for these groups].”
The United Nations recommends using SOGIESC because it is the most inclusive option.
SO Sexual Orientation
GI Gender Identity
SC Sex Characteristics
5 Key Takeaways
- The term LGBT emerged in the US during the 1990s.
- There are now dozens of acronyms, including LGBTQIA and LGBT+.
- Some feel that broad categorisations may homogenise sexual and gender minorities.
- Umbrella terms may also perpetuate the conflation of sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Within the LGBT+ community, some minorities experience alienation and discrimination.