Coming to terms with terms

Opinion: Columns

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

As a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community and as a journalist who needs to keep up with terminology, I couldn't help noticing the lengthening of letters over the past 25 years — from LGBT to LGBTQ to LGBTQ , the " " sign indicating a growing series of added initials. A longer version is LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual), which represents an admirable effort to be as inclusive as possible. What started with sexual orientation now includes a wide spectrum of gender identity.

I applaud the effort to be inclusive, but as a journalist and editor, I struggle with the inflation. I also notice people stumbling as they say LGBTQ , including Democratic presidential candidates during the first debate. I stumble, too, and I know the order and what it stands for. 

So I started wondering if there might be a way to simplify. LGBTQ is not a true acronym where each letter stands for a word and the letters also form a separate, related word, which makes it easier to remember (and say). The local organization, OPALGA (Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association ), for instance, is an "initialism," but even though it doesn't form a word, people can pronounce it. LGBTQ doesn't allow for that.

One acronym does exist. QUILTBAG (queer and questioning, intersex, lesbian, transgender and transsexual, bisexual, asexual and ally, gay and genderqueer) has the advantage of not only being a word but also a metaphor (quilt), symbolizing the diverse-yet-unified nature of this proud, and growing, community.

But QUILTBAG hasn't caught on yet, so I wondered about "queer," which I hear used more and more often. One of the things I admire most about the LGBTQ community is its resilience. A number of its members have embraced this former slur and now proclaim it proudly, defiantly transforming a negative into a positive.

Curious, I asked around to see if "queer" has been adopted as the official umbrella term for LGBTQ . 

The answer is, not yet. Although the younger generation — and some of the older — seem comfortable with it, further consensus is needed. Here's what I learned in my informal survey: 

Elizabeth Ritzman, a local pastoral counselor, health-care activist and therapist, said, "I want women who love women, and who identify as women who love women, to be called 'lesbian.' If you look, you will see that word used less and less, even in publications serving sexual minorities. But I am a second-wave feminist. My daughter is happy to have everyone but heterosexual devotees called 'queer.' I really believe it's appropriate to describe the actual group you are referencing. It's never too much trouble. We are not an LGBTQ monolith. I want more specificity, not less."  

Jay Cohen, an Oak Park resident, doesn't use the term at this point, but that could change. 

"I think it's great that others are using it now, but I don't identify with it yet. I was a teenager in the 1970s and a young man in the 1980s, and I think that for many in my generation (and older), 'queer' is still a pretty loaded word.

"If the LGBTQ community wants to create a widespread definition, I could become comfortable. I am a believer in forward momentum if that is good for the whole. I would probably still identify myself as gay but could see it in the broader context of queer."

However, he cautioned, "when people who are in the majority try to push back about too many syllables or too much vocabulary, it can be perceived in a negative way by those in the LGBTQ community. If this is ever going to go down to one word, I believe it would need to come from inside the community."

Caronina Grimble, of Woods Fund Chicago, a nonprofit that supports equity initiatives, responded, "Some folks are fine using the terms interchangeably; some are more inclined to use one or the other, based on their experience. Also, 'LGBTQ ' excludes a number of folks, and I think that, for some, queer is a more inclusive term." Grimble says she uses both, but mostly "LGBTQ ."

"I recognize there are so many questions around inclusion," she said, "and making sure the words we use are inclusive. White cis-folks have driven the conversation for so long; the opportunity to have other folks drive and impact the discussion is much needed. I think people are the experts in their own self-description."

Jim Kelly, of Oak Park, longtime member of OPALGA and co-founder of the South East Oak Park Community Organization (SEOPCO), noted, "I still struggle to appropriate 'queer' as my identifier. I still don't understand clearly the differences between bisexual, gender fluid, nonbinary, nonconforming. At my age, I am far removed from the generation of people who are trying to expand the terminology for how sexuality is described. I think the effort is legitimate and necessary. It will be the responsibility of younger people to be disciplined about creating clear definitions of this expanding lexicon so the meanings are both clear and differentiated. That's the way to make those terms more universally understood and accepted."

Bernadette Smith, of Forest Park, CEO of Equality Institute, a diversity and inclusion training firm "with a deep expertise in LGBTQ issues," writes, "In general 'queer' should only be used by those who self-identify that way and/or are otherwise LGBTQ-identified. There's still some baggage around that term. However, if writing about an event that describes itself as a 'queer event' or for the 'queer community' or similar, you should repeat back the language they use so you describe it accurately. 'Queer' is an acceptable umbrella term for some, but not all, LGBTQ folks. I personally don't identify that way. But language evolves, and I can't predict what's coming. Perhaps 'queer' will be the main term 10 or 20 years from now."

LGBTQ is a culture that has made amazing progress and seems to be evolving so rapidly that defining itself is an ongoing challenge.

What I take from all this is the need to respect how others define and use the terms they adopt for themselves. I consider myself an ally — trying to be anyway — so I think the rest of us (cis-community?) need to educate ourselves, and I gladly look to the LGBTQ community for guidance.

Thanks to all who responded to my unscientific survey, especially Rebekah Levin for suggesting several contacts. I learned much from the exchange.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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