LGBTQ acronym an ever-growing shortcut for hugely diverse community

Is it time to drop the "infinitely expanding alphabet" of the LGBT acronym for an umbrella term that reflects the community's vast and growing diversity? Activists and experts weigh in.

Some adopt umbrella terms like 'queer' to reflect community's diversity while others eschew labels altogether

Marching under a rainbow flag during a LGBT Pride parade in Manila, Philippines, earlier this week. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

For some, it's best not to refer to the LGBTQ community at all. The acronym, that is.

Longtime activist David Rayside prefers the term "sexual diversity" in his academic writings. It's one way he avoids the complications of what he calls the "infinitely expanding alphabet."

"You're inevitably caught up with the fact that sexuality has many colours, many forms, many ambiguities, so it becomes a challenge," says Rayside, an associate and former director of the University of Toronto's Mark S. Bonham Centre for sexual diversity studies.

"It's too unwieldy so I just stay away from it."

One of the most common incarnations of the acronym is LGBTQ, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities. In addressing the recent Orlando massacre, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau notably went with LGBTQ2, to include First Nations' two-spirited communities.

But more variations abound, with some acronyms swelling into the double digits to acknowledge an ever-growing number of groups seeking visibility.

For many years, the organizers of Canada's biggest pride parade — Pride Toronto — went with LGBTTIQQ2SA: "a broad array of identities such as, but not limited to, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirited, and allies."

This year, organizers appear to have eschewed the acronym in promotional materials, which instead tout "the history, courage, diversity and future of Toronto's Pride community."

The 'need to be recognized'

There are more groups to consider, with some people identifying as genderqueer, agender, cross-dressing, neutrois, asexual, pansexual, polyamorous, and kinky, notes a lengthy footnote on Queer Ontario's think-tank web page. Elsewhere it uses the simpler "LGBTQ..," with the asterisk pulling readers to the footnote.

Still more might argue for specific reference to community members of colour, and those with disabilities and/or living in poverty.

A reveller during the World Pride Parade in Toronto, on June 29, 2014. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

"The fact that it tends to be ever growing is a reflection of the diversity of the gender and sexually diverse communities," says Queer Ontario founder Nick Mule, also an associate professor of social work at York University.

"As a society we're becoming more and more sensitized to people's differences. And a lot of people just have a sense that they need to be recognized, they need to be named, they need to be identified. In some ways, it represents a political response to the kind of heteronormative, or heterosexist world that we live in."

But acknowledgment isn't always enough.

Although bisexuality has been entrenched in the acronym for decades, Rayside argues it "is still the most neglected, I would say politically, of all of those identity markers."

Transgender and two-spirited

The transgender community, meanwhile, has seen a dramatic gain in public awareness but many basic rights — "basic kind of survival issues," notes Rayside — remain out of reach.

"Trans populations are so minoritized, their members are so small, I think they were quite smart to try to hook onto the LGB movement and gain the sympathy and gain the support and then move forward with LGBT so that we can fight for all of those rights," adds Mule.

Albert McLeod of the organization Two-Spirited People of Manitoba was pleased to hear Trudeau mention the aboriginal community, noting that the term "two-spirit" has been around since the early '90s but remains lesser seen.

"It's kind of hit-and-miss and it kind of goes up and down over time," McLeod says of making inroads into the acronym, which can appear as "T," "2," or "2S."

A powwow at the 22nd annual International Two-Spirit Gathering in Manitoba in 2010. (Albert McLeod)

"Being two-spirit is more a political statement about indigenaity, valuing your indigenous (roots) if you're involved in anti-colonialism or cultural reclamation. And that's unique from the broader LGBT community."

And because it refers to a belief that one person can carry both male and female spirits, it challenges notions of binary gender, "which I think really is a part of colonization," McLeod says from Winnipeg.

Mule's provincial advocacy group uses the term "queer" to encompass an array of groups, many of them challenging the idea that people are either exclusively male or female.

Community not 'monolithic' 

But using an umbrella term risks overlooking the specificities of the groups it's meant to highlight, notes Mule.

And those differences can be stark.

Gays and lesbians were at the forefront of the burgeoning liberation movement, but the early days of their union were fractious at best, says Mule.

​Besides facing different hurdles, sexism was rampant. Many women found gay men as misogynist as straight males. Racial divisions, meanwhile, can loom just as much as in broader society, making it difficult for two-spirited people to feel comfortable at some events, says McLeod.

A woman marching in Toronto's Pride Parade in 2012. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Among this highly politicized group, it seems there will always be debate over identity, alliances and direction.

"Sometimes people just assume that the gender/sexually diverse communities are monolithic and we think alike and that we're all open and accepting," says Mule.

"But the truth of the matter is within communities there is struggle. There is a level of adjustment and education and acceptance, even within the communities."

No more labels 

Then there are those who'd rather not bother with labels at all. Mule points to queer theory, a field of academic critical thought that eschews the debate altogether.

"It tries to do away with all identities, including the term queer, challenging society to question itself as to why is it important for you to know who's male, who's female, who's gay who's straight, who's bi, who's trans," he says.

"The theoretical view is that sexuality and gender is fluid and we should not be boxing ourselves into one label or another.... Not all of us agree with that because it's a challenge to the way we think and the way we operate in society."

A demonstration along a street in Hanoi, Vietnam last November. (Kham/Reuters)

It's not much of a leap for RuPaul Charles — better known as the drag supermodel RuPaul — who mused on the idea before heading to Toronto for this weekend's pride festivities.

"Descriptions really are for other people to help them understand you — and to help them put you in a box," says Charles by phone from Los Angeles.

"I personally don't need a description. I just am. It does help other people understand it. I've always been someone who says you can call me whatever you want — you can call me 'he,' you can call me 'she,' you can call me 'Regis and Kathie Lee.' I'll answer to anything because what the truth is it's the intention behind the words that make the difference.

"If you're coming from a place of love, I can feel that."

With files from David Friend