GLBT? LGBT? LGBTQIA+? What's in a Name?

History, Resillience & Hope for LGBT Americans after #Orlando

It's taken a minute or two for many religious and civic leaders to speak clearly and supportively about the Orlando shooting as an act of violent hate that specifically targeted lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Many of these public statements — like this from Utah Lt. Governor Spensor Cox — have been incredibly powerful and moving, revealing a deep well of compassion even among those whose political and religious leanings might otherwise mark them as well outside the circle of straight allies who have stood with LGBT family and friends in the aftermath of the shooting.

And this support has also taught us that we still have much to learn as we work together for justice and peace. Here's one thing many straight allies need to work on: using the correct acronym to describe the impacted community. So you know: It's LGBT (with some variation), not GLBT.

Here's why it matters that you try to get it right: If you are a religious or civic leader who, when speaking publicly about #Orlando, uses “GLBT” rather that LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA, or LGBT+, you are saying, along with whatever else you think you're a saying, “I have no real understanding of LGBT culture and history, and it really doesn’t matter to me to find out more.” And you're saying that by getting wrong the one thing that perhaps most clearly says, "I know you. I see you." — a name.

This history of the acronym goes back to the last sustained trauma in the LGBT world: the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and 1990s. During that time, as most people are aware, thousands of gay men and transwomen died (as did many straight and bisexual men and women). Not only were the retroviral drugs that make HIV/AIDS chronic rather than fatal conditions today not available, but sustained, compassionate care through the torturous path of the disease was lacking. Gay men themselves rallied to each other’s sides as did many straight allies, providing companionship, meals, and some measure of nursing care to many people with AIDS.

But a central, and largely unacknowledged, factor in the care of men with AIDS were organized and more loosely configured networks of lesbians. John-Manuel Andriote, author of Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America (Chicago 1999), explained the impact of this coming together of lesbians with gay men:

AIDS expanded the gay civil rights movement generally and created a level of solidarity between gay men and lesbians that didn’t exist before. From the earliest days of the epidemic, lesbians stood by their gay brothers — whether as care providers for the sick or lobbying in Washington for just policies.

As historian Lillian Faderman details, lesbians donated blood for gay men in the 1980s when gay men themselves were prevented from doing so. They navigated the healthcare system, often from within the gendered nursing system that allowed them a particular sensitivity to the masculinized, heterosexist structures of much medical care. They organized to provide food, clothing, and housing. With so many gay men sidelined by HIV/AIDS, women were took more leadership roles in LGBT communities, breaking through a pronounced gay male chauvinism that often veered into misogyny, dampening participation in post-Stonewall organizing and activism for many lesbians.

As the AIDS crisis itself contributed to an enduring politicization of the LGBT community, women began to challenge the masculinist structures of power within a community whose very survival depended (depends still) on deconstructing such structures. At the same time, as treatments for AIDS became more promising and more available and affordable, gay men themselves increasingly recognized the role lesbians had played in mitigating the crisis. By the late 1990s, then, "gay community centers" across the country became "lesbian and gay community centers," and it became common to switch the “G” and the “L” in standard acronym (as well as, over time, to add the “T”…and then the “Q”…and so on).

…the gesture of the acronym change speaks volumes about what makes the LGBT community so strong and resilient through ongoing and, as we have seen, increasing attacks.

While it may seem such a small thing — a mere quibble — to comment on this now, the gesture of the acronym change speaks volumes about what makes the LGBT community so strong and resilient through ongoing and, as we have seen, increasing attacks. It is a marker of our ability to attend not only to injustices inflicted upon us, but also to injustice within our community. Certainly, there is much to do on that front still. Issues of racism and classism within the LGBT community undermine our unity and strength. Our own treatment of our trans sisters and brothers, whose needs often seemed to many of us to compete with the needs of more socially normative “good gays,” is only beginning to change. And, you will certainly hear LGBT+ people who are unfamiliar with our own history flip the letters. We’re not perfect. But there is in our history tremendous good that is the source of our hope for the future.

When civic and religious leaders call us "GLB" or "GLBT" rather than a now normative version of LGBT, it is not unlike those awkward years in the 1970s when well meaning white people struggled to learn to say “black” or “African American” (and less well-meaning ones thought the whole idea of a people having some need to claim its own name was silly). It erases part of our history, especially the history of women in the LGBT community and in our struggles for civil rights. It takes away a real and meaningful power — the power of naming — that has been marked throughout history and culture as critical to shaping and asserting authentic and authoritative identity.

So, the "L" before the "G" is more than a nit-picking alphabet soup. It is a signal of respect, of solidarity, and of hope for a shared future of equality, justice, and love.