LGBPTTQQIIAA+ — How We Got Here from Gay

Bisexual activists Margo Rila, left, and Maggie Rubenstein in 2002.

Bisexual activists Margo Rila, left, and Maggie Rubenstein in 2002.

Gerard Koskovich, a curator at the The GLBT History Museum in San Francisco, remembers when the term LGBT first came about (the 1990s), and has seen it spread around the world to describe lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Today’s the perfect time to recall the acronym’s origins, since it’s the start of National LGBT History Month.

The word “gay” emerged as underground slang referring to both men and women homosexuals in the 1940s and 50s, but lesbians soon felt left out because people tended to associate gay with men. Gay women then claimed “lesbian” as their identification during the ’60s and ’70s feminist movements, and the common expression became “gay and lesbian” to describe all queer folk. Women hoped the change would give lesbians more visibility and boost their status to more than a footnote to gay men, says Koskovich.

Bisexual and transgender people were added to the description in the late 1990s—long after activists first demanded inclusion. Rightfully, they had felt excluded because bisexual people weren’t gay and “transgender” refers to gender identity, not sexual orientation. Among many others, bisexual activist Maggie Rubenstein and transgender activist Susan Stryker pushed organizations already representing their identities to honor them in their names, and the term GLBT emerged as a common term used through the early 2000s.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender identities have long been historically tied. In the 19th century, people believed sexual desire could only happen between a male and female, so they saw gay couples as having a male and female component. They referred to some queer people as the “third sex,” meaning a person having a woman’s soul in a man’s body, or vice versa.

With broad social changes over the next 200 years, many finally began to see gay and transgender as separate categories, but they stayed intertwined. Even in the 1990s, doctors used hormones and gender-reassignment surgery to try to “cure” homosexuality. People designated female at birth wanting to physically transition had to prove they wouldn’t end up gay men, says Koskovich. Because of this, trans activists such as Lou Sullivan, the gay founder of FTM International, sought out doctors who wouldn’t refuse to prescribe hormones or perform gender-reassignment surgery because of a patient’s sexual orientation, and today the U.S. medical field doesn’t bar people from physically transitioning because of their sexual orientation.

LGBT eventually replaced GLBT as the most common term in the mid-2000s, perhaps to again give lesbians more visibility. But people constantly need new words or letters to describe emerging identities and social roles, notes Koskovich, so today there is no single correct term. Some use the term LGBTIQ to include intersex, queer and questioning people, or go even longer—to LGBPTTQQIIAA+ (meaning lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, intergender, asexual, ally and beyond). Others use queer as an umbrella term, which is easier to say and fun to throw in the face of oppressors. But it also brings back an invisibility problem for lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. Also, labeling an organization “queer” can isolate and be hurtful to older people who still view it as the hateful insult they faced during the ’50s and ’60s.

“[Naming is] ultimately a discussion about respect,” says Koskovich, “a discussion about who is given visibility, a discussion about how power is distributed. … It’s not just a debate about an acronym or a set of terminology. That’s the proxy for discussion about social change, social power, respect, self respect, visibility—a variety of things that are absolutely essential to people’s ability to live in the world and feel that their experience and desire and sense of self is being honored.”

Amy Sueyoshi, associate dean of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University, and Rich Wandel, archivist and historian at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in NYC, also provided valuable insights for this story.

Photo from Flickr user The Other Queen under license from Creative Commons 2.0.


ME EMILYEmily Zak is finishing up her B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana as an editorial intern for Ms.







  1. So is the ‘homosexual’ agenda to conquer the alphabet one letter at a time?

    Why not refer to it as the ‘BLGT sandwich’?

  2. I usually use LGBT+, but I feel bad relegating so many people into the plus sign. For this reason, I’ve started to use queer more often instead.

  3. Gays and lesbians have much in common with each other and a bit less so with bisexuals but still an overlap. Trans is a whole different thing altogether with people rejecting their biology. Once the surgery is done these folks are straight and have nothing in common with the gays lesbians and bisexuals.

    Tacking them onto the GLB community seems more the desperate need for inclusion in any group that will open. And these trans “females” do not act like women and impose their views and tastes on the lesbian a d women’s communities, insisting on breaking into women safe spaces. It just doesn’t work. We didn’t get a voice in that decision, did we?

    • Kimberly: What do you mean “we”? Trans folks did not impose themselves on the existing gay/lesbian/bisexual community. Why don’t you ask leading figures in the community and they will tell you how that all came about.

      But hey, thanks for reminding us all that transphobia, courtesy of Gail Dines & Co., is still a problem that needs to be addressed.

  4. So we have a LBGT History Museum? Well and good. But when are we going to get a feminist history museum? It’s about time that we demanded that feminism get as much respect as any other social justice movement. It was a disgrace that the media completely ignored Women’s Equality Day this year. And the feminist movement let them get away with it. Please, we cannot let this country ignore Seneca Falls Day, Women’s Equality Day and Int’l Women’s Day.

    • Kathy raises a good point. The reason why the LGBT community is moving forward, whereas the feminist seems to be losing ground, is that mainstream feminist organizations are tied to the Democratic Party, and constantly accept the “lesser of two evils” mantra during election-year cycles.

      LGBT organizations are willing to be ruthless and not so nice (see: ACT UP), and as a result, accomplish more. They’ refuse to be ‘Roe v. Waded’ into submission.

  5. thomas plagemann says:

    Informative? No Doubt! Interesting? No comment. The irony cannot escape that while bourgeois academics split hairs in the 1st World, the focus of the vast majority of ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ%£ folks in the rest of it remains.. Dodging a bullet, bomb or rocket (US made) Finding enough food to keep one’s self or family from sickening or starving to death. Escaping public shaming, beating, forced marriage, genital mutilation, rape, kidnap & enslavement, extortion, torture or murder. But I digress: Don’t let me disrupt priorities or distract from your cutting-edge journalism.

    • That is actually something I wanted to include in my discussion, but I decided against it because I wanted to focus on the progression of the acronym’s semantics, which reveals changing cultural standards and emerging queer subgroups — which is important because analyzing words calls attention to the underlying societal attitudes behind them. However, I agree: Too often people of privileged positions quibble about naming, and this can distract from discussion of real problems in society that affect the people who are actually being described. All of the atrocities you mentioned deserve more coverage.

  6. Estraven says:

    The research community has been using Gender and Sexual Minorities, or GSM, for years, and the popular press is beginning to follow this usage. This has the advantage of beingneutral and totally inclusive, without getting longer and longer, like LGBPTTQQIIAA+ every time someone on Tumblr invents a new word, and shortening to only three letters for headlines.

    Instead of “homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia”, which also gets very long if you include them all, they use “sexual prejudice.” Also neutral, and much shorter. And much more accurate, since no one runs away screaming when they see a GSM person; it is not a fear, it is a prejudice.

  7. I prefer “GSM” which stands for Gender & Sexual Minorities. It’s inclusive of all kinds of marginalized identities, even extending to practices like BDSM, sex work and polyamory/-gamy that intersect with heterosexuality.

  8. You forgot “S” for solo sexual…for one who choses life of solo or mutual masturbation. Its place at the end is perfect alit makes the acronym plural!

  9. “Queer” is simply not acceptable as an umbrella term, regardless of how aggressively some activists tout it. “Queer” is an elitist term that assumes that all of society (instead of certain enclaves) have “retired” the derogatory sense of the word. That is definitely not so. I’ve even heard Gay men use the Q-word in an insulting way; terms like that are always a double-edged sword. I also question the wisdom of lumping every non-heterosexual/non-binary gender minority under a “catch-all”. That seems at best disrespectful of individual identity and at worst horribly heterosexist and gender-bigoted. It’s like throwing all the “abnormals” together in a miscellaneous bin!

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