Not long ago, I got into an argument on the internet.
Revolutionary, I know. But for me, it’s fairly unusual these days. As much as I love to use my words, and as much as my debate team history would imply I love arguing, I’ve never been good at comment wars. Maybe it’s something about the unending nature of arguing on the internet – the constant “ping” to let you know it’s still happening, and may continue in perpetuity. Or maybe it’s the stories from this election cycle of women being harassed for their political opinions on Twitter. Whatever the reason, when I start replying to a “hot topic,” I usually stop myself and backspace the hell out.
So when I found myself engaging in this particular debate, I surprised myself – especially given that the issue was one I’d never considered one of my “pet” topics.
The discourse centered around the LGBTQIA acronym, and whether it should be expanded. The discussion had been started by some straight allies who were genuinely concerned that they were using it incorrectly, that they hadn’t added enough letters, and that they’d be called out on it. Their concern was genuine, and palpable. They had the best of intentions, and were debating with one another what the current consensus might be among the gay community – and whether they were being bad allies if they weren’t sure what all the letters stood for.
Then, someone (who happened to be a straight man) popped into the conversation and said “Hey! I just heard about this great new version of the acronym! QUILTBAG! Isn’t it amazing! I like it a lot because the ‘quilt’ image evokes things like the AIDS quilt, and also it’s easy to remember. I think we should all start using it!”
This comment had the anatomy of an internet fire starter written all over it. It was a comment by a straight man about a Queer term – something that’s always a little touchy in internet flame wars. It had the casual association of gay = AIDS that is preventing gay men from donating blood to their brothers and sisters in Florida. And – probably most importantly – it involved a straight man telling other people “Here is what we should definitely do. We should do it because I personally like this thing!”
“Actually,” I said, “I’m the ‘L’ in that acronym, and I’ve always hated ‘QUILTBAG’. Some people like it, but it’s not my thing. It sounds too much like ‘Carpetbagger’ to me, and also like something a middle schooler would call me in a school bathroom.”
He continued to press the issue, conveniently ignoring most of what I’d said and saying “But it’s definitely the best thing we have.”
Sigh. Here we go, I thought.
But before I could even get another word in, other members of the queer umbrella had joined in. “I like ‘queer’,” one said. A few more agreed. “I agree with him; I like QUILTBAG,” another said. “I like LGBTQ+” said another. Voices kept coming in. Other people liked the “A” because they assumed it included allies. Others argued back that the “A” was for “asexual,” not “ally,” and don’t forget about “I” and “P”.
“Is ‘P’ for ‘poly’?”
“No, I think it’s for ‘pansexual’.”
Finally, I had had enough.
“Maybe when we get to a point where no one knows what the letters stand for anymore, the acronym is getting too long.” I said. I know this is not a revolutionary thought; plenty of people say the same thing in order to mock the queer community all the time. “What’s with all those letters? How can you expect me to remember all that stuff?” I felt a certain level of guilt for even admitting my feelings. But I pressed on. “When we string a bunch of letters together, we do it with the intention of becoming more inclusive. It’s a big umbrella! Everyone come stand under it! But the thing is, the longer that list gets, the more the individual meaning of each term within it is erased. If people aren’t even sure what the letters all stand for, how can they know what, specifically, they are supporting when they throw the acronym up on a screen? And look at all the different responses from queer people saying they prefer different terms. Even the community itself isn’t sure what it wants to be called. Maybe it’s time we examine our terminology a bit more closely.”
Suddenly, I found myself caring quite a lot what people called me. After not caring for years – after shrugging it off and just using whatever term the people around me utilized most – I suddenly felt a passionate attachment to a specific rhetoric. Particularly, I felt singularly attached to my definition of myself as lesbian. “I am the L,” I thought to myself. “But I don’t know why I care so much.”
And then Orlando happened.
I was home alone. My girlfriend was at work, away from her phone and away from the news. The words scrolled across my TV screen the moment I awoke on Sunday morning.
Worst mass shooting in American history.
Death toll rises.
When I picked up my phone, I learned the remainder of the details – that the most recent shots had been fired in an ongoing battle against people like me – gay people. Lesbian people. People who kiss their gay partners in public.
Pulse Nightclub shooter was angered when his son witnessed two men kissing on the street.
By now, we all know the fallout from this event. We know about the shooter pledging allegiance to ISIS, about the myriad of voices saying “This is not about being gay. This is about terrorism!” We know the chorus of gay voices saying that “it’s awfully convenient for you to care about us when you can define the shooter as ‘other’. But when the hate comes from within your own hearts, you find a way to justify it.” If you’re reading this site, I assume you don’t need me to explain the subtleties of that argument, or why it matters that the shooting happened at this specific place, on that specific night, and why it hurts so much.
I’m hoping I don’t need to explain why LGBTQwhatever-you-want-to-call-us people fight back when someone says “It shouldn’t matter that this was a gay club. Stop trying to separate and box people in! It’s about humans!” As though suddenly we’re humans when our humanity is necessary for the narrative. We’re treated like poorly written characters in a tv series – conveniently malleable, becoming whatever someone needs us to be in a given moment, when it suits the story they want to tell.
But what I do think I need to explain is how Orlando helped me parse my frustration with the ever-expanding acronym.
This past Sunday, I realized how clearly and distinctly every single identity in that acronym matters. Who you are, and how you define yourself, MATTERS. Because we live in a world where someone might kill you for that definition. When we elide all those letters together and forget about them, wave our hands and say “just tack another one on; they’re all the same thing, basically,” what we’re doing is allowing people to forget that every single group in that acronym has had to fight for their specific individual rights against a militia of anger and hate. They aren’t all basically the same thing.
“Queer” is a nice term, and I suppose that reappropriating slurs is empowering. “LGBTQ” is easy and convenient shorthand for the news media. But when that shooter walked into that club, when he chose those particular targets? He did so because of something very particular about who he thought they were. And when we run all the letters together without a second thought, we’re pretending that those distinctions don’t exist – and maybe don’t matter. But they sure matter to the people who hate us. They matter to the person who manages to be “okay” with a gay man, but “can’t abide this bisexual business.” They matter to the person who thinks two ladies kissing is AWESOME, but would punch a man in the face for holding hands with another man. They matter to the trans people who have had to fight a battle all their own, often without any help from any of us.
Those letters matter.
And, for me, stringing them all together erases some of the uniqueness of each term – erases the struggles that have all been different and defining.
I am not arguing for a community divided. In this time, in this moment, it is vital that we all stand united.
What I am arguing for is that we stand in unity while recognizing, appreciating, and respecting the differences that brought us together in the first place.