Let’s Talk About Alphabet Soups

The tradition in the making is to refer to sexual and gender diversity and stuff by accumulation of significant letters to include more and more people, creating a longer and longer list (or, as some jokingly put it, longer and longer alphabet soups). Ever since trans people fought for adding a T after LGB to make LGBT, it seems that every category out there wants to add a new letter, including Q (queer, questioning), I (intersex), A (asexual, ally), P (pansexual, polyamory), 2S (two-spirit), and others I forget.

This is great, as it shows how all these people are recognised. I totally support inclusive ways to refer to our universe of oppressed people. However, what isn’t great is how people misuse them. There are many purpose for using alphabet soups like these. Let’s look at them, and at a few specific problems.

(Note: Uses vary wildly, so for the purpose of this article, I’ll use LGBTQIA as a standard alphabet soup. LGBT is the most frequently used, but I like LGBTQIA best. Amongst other things, I prefer not to talk about two-spirit issues as I don’t feel knowledgeable enough on this issue at the moment, so I won’t put them in my personal soup so as not to misrepresent them.)

We represent this alphabet soup

Many groups or organisms in the queer universe say that they represent LGBTQIA people as part of their mission, because they want to show inclusiveness.

This intent is good. However, if you do want to include, say, trans, intersex and asexual people, or even bisexual people (because let’s be honest, gays and lesbians are generally not forgotten), don’t start with changing your alphabet soup: change your practices, services and discourses first. Being asexual and trans, I have received some weird receptions in supposedly LGBTQIA spaces, especially about asexuality, and seen several such organisations not do anything at all that could be related to trans issues. Using an over-inclusive alphabet soup and waiting for newly rhetorically-included people to create changes in services is the wrong way to go about this.

Now, to be clear, I believe that organizations targeting gay people should also try to extend their services to include bisexual, trans, intersex, and asexual people. This is a partly a question of historic reparation, as the “gay rights movement” since the 70s has tended to hide or exclude its least normative members (especially trans people) even though they were the most active and needy; partly because these issues are all related, especially in cases of harassment and violence, which usually targets gender expression, not strictly “sexual orientation”; partly because some people are treated badly in “gay” contexts because they are inconveniently “gay” (such as by being romantically attracted to same-sex people, but not sexually, or by being also attracted to opposite-gender people, or by having transitionned); and partly because gay organisations are often the ones with resources (political and financial), while trans and intersex people, in particular, need them the most.

But my point is: changing the alphabet soup should be the consequence of a more inclusive practice, not the manner of achieving inclusion.

Add nutrients before changing the soup’s packaging.

We’re fighting for alphabet-soup rights!

Or when people say stuff like “this thing is a great advance for LGBTQIA rights”. Does this thing really mean anything to all your letter? Probably not. If so, there is a solid chance you are erasing someone’s experience.

The most frequent “LGBTQIA right” mentionned is marriage equality. Obviously, this is a nice thing to have, and a reason to celebrate. It’s mainly an LGB issue, but I’ll grant it affects other people. For instance, trans people may be denied right to marry in any relationship without same-sex marriage laws. Although homophobic laws may work strangely in a transphobic context, allowing sex-same marriage and banning opposite-sex marriage (as Russia learned), straight couples with a trans person become impossible in these situations. Ban of same-sex marriage also forced some trans people to divorce as they transitionned — and at some point, this was a prerequisite for transition.

All the same, asexual aromantic people often couldn’t care less about marriage equality in their personal lives, and from where I stand, it is not a high priority in intersex activism. Heck, it’s not even a high priority for trans activists: even though they may touch some trans people, issues related to marriage are sort of less important than access to healthcare and having our identities recognized.

This is even more oblivious when large features promise to talk about “LGBTQIA!” rights, and then proceed to talk about marriage equality and stuff like that.

The reverse is true. If some place, for example, votes a law to ban or limit forced surgical sex assignment on babies, no need to attribute this to the LGBTQIA movement — intersex activists fought for it, most likely, and deserve the full credit and their moment in the spotlight, even if they had other allies (LGBTQA or not). And if a law is passed to allow easier legal sex change, well, that’s a trans fight that basically benefits only to trans people — it is they, not a wider LGBTQIA constituency, who should be mentioned. Specificity is a good thing.

Not everyone likes every soup flavour.

Our research shows that LGBT people are totally awesome

So this is how it works. Some researcher decides to do a paper or monograph or whatever on homosexual people, and possibly on how oppressed they are or something. But current practice wants us to use LGBT, so out of nowhere, the article will say “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender”. There are many problems with this approach:

  1. The research question is generally framed to talk only about homosexuality, so the “T” is silent, as always. So people will be discriminated against for their “sexual orientation” (actually, their gender non-conformity, but anyways), discover their sexual orientation, first have a relationship with someone of their gender, come out to their parents, etc. These findings are meaningless to most trans people, whose specific experience is very different from that. Yes, trans people experience similar things — discrimination and harassment, starting to understand they are trans, experiment with gender for the first times, coming out to… everyone, ultimately –, but if research questions are about sexual orientation, well… what should a trans person do? Talk about their (possibly unproblematic) sexual orientation? Or may change the questions in their head so that they apply to their experience?
  2. They assume sexual orientation is fixed. In the case of trans people, this is flawed for two reasons. 1) Our categories for describing sexual orientation are cissexist, in that they take the gender identity of the subject for granted, as if it were always the same. Therefore, if a (binary) trans person is attracted to women, they will have appeared homosexual and heterosexual at some point in their lives, even though their attraction never changed. This may seem trivial, but it explains that some trans men identify as lesbian, because they still feel a bond to the lesbian community they were part of, or that transition is more acceptable for people who will be straight in their gender of identification. Also, non-binary people have no word for themselves. 2) Many, many trans people experience changes in their attractions as they transition. Some trans men attracted to women before transition come to be attracted to women also later on. Myself, I was asexual aromantic before transition. Now that I’m full-time, I’m more homoromantic, I even have a girlfriend. And I wouldn’t be surprised if SRS were to change my attitude to (a)sexuality as well, making me a grayer shade of gray than I am.
  3. Often, the way to find out who is trans is through a question like “Male/Female/Transgender”, whereas another (or several) specific question will be dedicated to determining sexual orientation. This erases the experience of many trans people. Some trans women like me would rather answer “Female”, but this means they would be invisible. And many trans men attracted to women identify as lesbians even after their transition, and may decide to frame themselves as women so as not to be labeled “straight”. Using “Male/Female/Transgender” is about as accurate to determine trans status as is asking “Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual” to determine gender identity — sure, it works for some people, but others will be necessarily mislabeled.
  4. In my experience, these researches never allow for people to disclose their intersex status — it’s not something their interested to know. And being asexual is impossible, as these researches don’t offer a “not attracted to anything” option anywhere. But at least, I never saw a research stating it would investigate “LGBTQIA” concerns, so the I and the A are more forgotten than erased. However, it is also true that they are also forgotten in research focusing on trans people, many of whom are intersex or asexual

If your research does not have a single thing to contribute to trans issues, please please please, do not say it does.

There is nothing wrong with not mentioning something that has nothing to do with your research in the first place. Is that clear? At least, it won’t pop up on Google Scholar or EBSCO when I look out for trans experiences.

When you look into the nutritional properties of Lipton soup, don’t say your results work for wonton soup.

“A is for Allies”

The idea of including “allies” in the alphabet soup is to recognize that straight, cis allies are necessary for some changes to happen — and indeed, some people like President Obama do great things with regards to LGBT rights, like granting health care benefits for transition expenses and striving for marriage equality, while not being LGBT themself. So in some contexts, this makes sense.

But this doesn’t mean that everything, everywhere should include “allies”. And sometimes, this is pushed to the bizarre end of combining this with other alphabet-soup problems — fighting for LGBTQIA rights hardly makes sense if “A is for Allies”, because by definition, allies are in a position of privilege here, and we’re not fighting for their rights.

The ubiquity of “A is for Allies” is so ridiculous that World Pride succeeded, in one of the longest alphabet soups I ever saw (LGBTTIQQ2SA, meaning “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer/Questioning, 2 Spirited, Allies”), to forget that A is really for Asexual. I mean, when Mr. Cisheterodude is more important to you than actual marginalized people from your own community, you might want to ask yourself if you’re doing something wrong. (Spoiler: Yes, you are.)

One might argue that the “A” is meant to include friends and parents and whoever has a relationship with someone on the rainbow, because these people may also need help coping. However, two things here. 1) Their place is not necessarily in queer spaces or as people whose rights we fight for, as they generally need different services than queer people. 2) These are parents and friends, not just “allies”, and should be defined as such. President Obama is an ally. My mother is not principally an “ally” — ally or not, she’s my mother, and she is related to trans issues as the mother of a trans child. I’m fairly certain that she lives trans stuff differently than Obama.

Sometimes, we need to keep grandma’s soup recipe for us.

We want a letter too!

Another basic problem with the principle of alphabet soups is that they include (a finite number of) categories. This means that when another related category appears and demands inclusion, the only way to accommodate them is to add another letter. So the soup grows ever and ever denser and less useful. And yet more people will still not feel included. So we must add more letters, and more letters, until it is, in this end, hard to manage. People will forget letters, or put them is a different order. Adding an asterisks, a plus sign or an AI for All-Inclusive doesn’t solve the issue, as some categories will be explicitly included, and others only as “not important enough to be in the main list, but hey! you’re technically there!” — basically, this is a loophole for justifying lack of inclusiveness.

And I want to be clear: every group or category should be included.

This is why we need better inclusive language. We need expressions that center on oppressions, on experiences, not on categories. That’s what we do in our LGBTQIA fights, in fact: we don’t have laws say “Gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against”, we say “One should not discriminate against sexual orientation” — where sexual orientation includes many experiences that go beyond “gay and lesbian”, and some that legislators or activists didn’t think. Same thing in the trans universe: we talk of gender identity and of gender expression, not of given categories under the trans umbrella.

What are our candidates?

One of the letters, Q (for queer), is very inclusive — at least in theory. “Queer” should include all non-normative categories gender and sexuality. However, because LGB people are very many, it generally reduces its scope in practice to non-normative sexualities — prompting some non-binary people to specify that they are genderqueer. In practice, I’m not sure I feel included or erased in “queer” as a trans person. Also, the term is very, very white.

Personally, I like “gender, sexual and romantic minorities”, or GSRM, as an alternative. Its scope is very broad and inclusive. Any “minority” (which I define as a group that is oppressed and made into a minority, non-standard experience through discourse, not through numbers) — any minority that experiences oppression because of gender, sexual or romantic norms is potentially included. Partial list: trans people (binary or non-binary), asexual people (romantic or aromantic), polyamourous people, LGB people, intersex people (with a broad definition of gender at least), two-spirit people, people with variant gender expressions, etc. Hey, it’s even more inclusive than, say, LGBTQIA2S, and it’s open-ended, so it includes people I didn’t even think about I’m sure! But it hasn’t caught on yet, so if I go on about “GSRM”, no one will understand me, which is a problem.

Therefore, I will probably continue using alphabet soups (the long kind), within the bounds I’ve given myself (i.e. no unwarranted letters, but as many as possible). In fact, thinking about whether you should include one letter makes you think about what you are doing for some members of the GSRM constellation. If you want to use LGBTQIA for your organism, or to describe a new policy, or for research purposes, you have to ask: “Is this something queer or LGB people might want? What about trans people? What about intersex people? What about asexual people?” And if you want to add 2S, you have to start your own little reflection on postcolonialism (which, incidentally, I had to do for writing this very article). This sort of reflection is important. And maybe it’s the point of the longer soup formulas?


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