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What's in a letter?
Simon Copland

14 Nov 2016 - 4:28 PM  UPDATED 14 Nov 2016 - 4:28 PM


No matter which way you write it, the 'alphabet soup' is an acronym to describe gender and sexually diverse communities. As it becomes more widely used, however, it is worth us thinking deeply about whether this ever-growing acronym best represents our community and its issues and politics.

The acronym was primarily born in reaction to the dominance of the use of the term ‘gay’ within sexual discourse. Its initial formation - ‘LGB’ - was a way to incorporate lesbian and bisexual identities into this growing discussion. As sexual politics began to merge with gender politics, the acronym began to incorporate trans and intersex identities as well, and now many add identifiers such as queer, asexual, pansexual, and others. The term merged with a growing identity-based discourse, with the acronym working to incorporate as many sexual and gender identities as possible.

I have embraced the 'alphabet soup' in the past, but have more recently become skeptical of how useful it actually is to the community.

The primary concern is that the ‘alphabet soup’ lumps identities together, assuming that we all face the same issues and concerns, and all have the same politics. Leading gay activist Dennis Altman has made this criticism many times, arguing that we cannot equate the persecution - nor the needs of people in the different categories -as being the same.

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It’s not just that the acronym equates identities together, but rather, that it perpetuates the dominance of identity politics in the first place.

By making the acronym our key coverall term, we assume that to be a persecuted sexual or gender minority we must fit in one of the identities that exist within the acronym. This is a process of placing people into particular boxes—as each new letter becomes increasingly essential—also leaves us inherently limited. It’s not just that it ignores those who don’t want to ascribe to one of these boxes, but it also limits our imagination. Compared to a past movement that assumed that sexuality and gender was fluid and that everyone had the potential to be what was often called “humansexual”, the identity politics of the 'alphabet soup' limits us to one identifier, a box we cannot escape no matter what we want. 

This is the other inherent limit of identity politics—by focusing on identity we ignore the very physical realities of our existence and our oppression. Oppression does not come from identification but from physical acts — whether it is restricting our sexual practices, conducting forced surgeries on intersex bodies, or denying trans people access to medical assistance. Gore Vidal described this the best when he said that “there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo or heterosexual acts.” The identity language of the acronym does not deal with these physical realities. In fact, it actively ignores them.

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What is the solution? 

While language we use is very important, it is valuable to recognise that we will never get it perfect, nor even be able to be 100% inclusive of everyone all the time. We all have different views on the type of language we want to use when talking about the queer community, and it will be impossible to always engage with that.

At the same time, however, the identity-focused language of the 'alphabet soup' has actually become increasingly restrictive, ignoring the diversity of experiences and oppressions faced by gender and sexually diverse people. The challenge, therefore, is to expand our possibilities beyond identity politics to instead start to see gender and sexuality as a more fluid processes. This is obviously a big challenge—one that goes well beyond language—but is one we need to tackle. 

In a more practical sense, there are some terms I think that are better than the alphabet soup. I often use the term “queer” as a way to describe those who do not fit into heteronormative social expectations. However, this term has taken on an identity-based approach more recently, one which many reject. One alternative that has been adopted for example by the Midsumma Festival is “diverse gender and sexuality communities”, a good, broad coverall term that moves closer to physical realities and further away from identity politics. These terms take away specific identifiers, allowing for more fluid sexual and gender experiences.

The identity politics of the 'alphabet soup' is inherently limiting. It continues to place us all into boxes, and ignores much of the physical reality of sexual and gender oppression. As a limiting force it is something we must reconsider.