Being a B: Choosing One’s Letters in an LGBTQ+ Community

by Bendita Cynthia Malakia
Global Diversity & Inclusion Lead, Hogan Lovells

Recently, I gave a web talk on bisexuality based upon an article I’d written, “Being a B.” In my introduction, I tried to explain some of my terminology, like “B” before I delved into the substance of my presentation. Afterward, I got a question: “At the beginning, Ms. Malakia referenced some points about people who liked or didn’t like appending some letters to LGBT. Could she explain that further? I don’t want to sound ignorant or give inadvertent offense to my LGBT co-workers.” It occurred to me that although I am part of a community that is used to using letters as shorthand with assorted meanings, some fairly simple, but others more complex and nuanced, it might be useful for people like the questioner if I tried to explain how I understand the definitions and applications of the letters we use and where disagreements may arise.

Let me say at the outset that I am not a linguistics expert nor am I tapped into every localized community or sub-group to have a universal understanding of how the evolution of identity terms every single member of the community. I do, however, seek to use language that could be accessible to the broader community from an advocacy standpoint and that validates and empowers my identity. Every community, and individual, should have the ability to define themselves without others dictating who they are. My aim is to make sure that organizations and individuals that need some basic, straightforward advice about how to address members of a community that I love. This doesn’t mean that true allyship and support doesn’t require continual learning or understanding the nuances.

When discussing the various gender identity and sexual orientation communities in the aggregate, my preference is to default to LGBT+ or queer.  These terms may not resonate with everyone and may, inadvertently and unintentionally, offend others. The choice of these terms is deliberate for me. 

  • LGBT+ balances brevity, recognizes that the community includes so many more identities than just lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and connotes positivity. This is the term I tend to use professionally. 
  • Queer also balances brevity (my personal preferences are starting to become apparent), and gives me all the feels. It is a term with a complex history, but makes me feel empowered, that all the beautiful variations of different for the sexual orientation and gender identity community are encapsulated without division and that we are celebrating that difference. I also like coopting language, when it feels empowering to me. 

Language develops over time. In my view, the community that has been negatively impacted by derogatory language has the right to take a look at it and decide if it fits them or can mean something different for them. While many in the younger generation feel similar to me and less in older generations tend to, this decision is individual. Some of us have painful pasts and will not have the ability to pivot with language that has historically been used to harm. Given that language is a lawyer’s sword and shield; I use alternative language to ensure that there is language that is accessible and also prevents marginalization or further harm of the community, but that allows me to connect to my community in a way that is empowering to me. 

There is a history here and this community has been referred to in many ways over time: some references are now almost universally considered to be offensive (e.g., fag, he-she, she-male, hermaphrodite, etc.). Others are currently used by different groups in different ways, the most popular, LGBTQ, stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. This is a more popular variant than the LGBT+ term that I use.

Other variants of the acronym on the spectrum that are generally viewed as more acceptable include LGBTQIA (with the “Q” also meaning “questioning” and adding intersex and asexual individuals). Alternatively, there is LGBTQQIAP2S, which is the longest version I’ve seen, which separates queer and questioning, and adds pansexual and two-spirited individuals. You could also meet in the middle with LGBTQ+, which is a hybrid of the most popular referent to the community together with the + sign I love, to encompass the increasing recognition of the humanity of sexual orientation and gender identity minorities.. The New York Times offers this handy guide on definitions of terms included in the acronym or in this identity sphere: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/21/style/lgbtq-gender-language.html.  For a broader history of LGBTQ initialism, see this Medium article: https://medium.com/queer-history-for-the-people/a-brief-history-of-the-lgbtq-initialism-e89db1cf06e3

If I didn’t work in a conservative profession, I would probably use “queer” exclusively. Some will not find queer to be inclusive – further, they may experience it as othering, polarizing and traumatic. I believe that each person has the right to identify in the way that is meaningful and truthful to them, and in celebrating the radical notion of being able to live authentically yourself. Queer feels like it describes me and the best of my community perfectly. Some others agree: How the word ‘queer’ was adopted by the LGBTQ community. As a member of the community, I use the word “queer” because it resonates with my version of bisexual identity in a way that the alphabet soup of initials doesn’t. 

What term do you use if you want to be inclusive of your colleagues or at the very least, don’t want to cause offense? LGBTQ+ seems to be the safe bet in the US; outside of the US, LGBTQIA tends to be standard. The queer community is dynamic, and generally experiencing increased recognition, so terms may change and people may comment on how out of touch I am. That isn’t a bad thing – the changes over the last two decades and even over the last few years is the community’s own internal affirmative reckoning with expanding its notion of who is included. Regardless of the communicator’s intentions, recognize that impact matters. We won’t always get it right for everyone we interact with, but  It doesn’t negate the value of trying to develop a shared understanding to make sure that our personal and professional environments are as inclusive as possible.