The History of LGBTQIA+ as an Acronym

The LGBTQIA+ acronym has evolved over the years. So has its representation. You might still not know what each letter in this umbrella term (aka the TikTok-famous “alphabet mafia”) stands for. Or why it’s so important to have the words to identify and express who you are. Chelsea Del Rio, historian and associate professor of history at LaGuardia Community College, helped us break down the communities behind LGBTQIA+. Including the ones that don’t always get mentioned.

What does LGBTQIA+ stand for?

LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual/agender. In other words, “It represents those people who in some way do not identify with heterosexuality and/or the gender binary,” said Del Rio.

The LGBTQIA+ definition has been evolving since the 1970s. “Initially ‘gay’ served as an umbrella term, mostly for gay men and lesbians. In the 1980s, we see the addition of ‘lesbian’ — for example, the National Gay Task Force became the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force,” explained Del Rio.

B and T entered the picture in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Del Rio. “The 1993 march on Washington was for ‘Gay, Lesbian, and Bi Equal Rights,’” she said. Organizations began changing their names to include LGBT or LGBTQ in the late ’90s and early aughts. “It has been a consistent evolution to reflect the growing diversity of our community.”

The evolution to LGBTQIA+ has provided even more room to represent and respect more communities within queer culture, as well as their history. “The acronym reflects increased recognition of gender and sexual diversity — and better appreciation for this diversity,” said Del Rio.

While some of the letters may be newer to the acronym, the people they represent are not. “Studying the history of sexuality reveals that queer people, diverse sexual practices, and gender identities have always existed. This knowledge is an important part of pushing back against homophobia and discrimination,” explained Del Rio.

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Which communities are represented by the LGBTQIA+ acronym?

While no term or flag can fully capture the spectrums of genders and sexual identities in the world, here’s a brief history of the communities represented by each letter in LGBTQIA+.

Lesbian

Women who are romantically or sexually attracted to other women. The term came into popular usage in the late 1800s when the first known lesbian rights organization in the US, The Daughters of Bilitis, formed in San Francisco.

Gay

Romantic or sexual attraction towards a person of the same sex, typically referring to men who are attracted to other men. This term entered the public vernacular in the 1960s during the gay liberation movement. It included history-making events like the Stonewall Riots.

Bisexual

Romantic or sexual attraction to more than one gender. The National Bisexual Liberation Group was founded in 1972, at which point use of this term began to spread.

The term “pansexual” has since entered the chat. Note on pansexual vs bisexual: Pansexual is defined as someone who has romantic, emotional, and physical attractions to any person, regardless of gender. The terms “bi” and “pan” are often said to live under the same umbrella.

Transgender

People whose gender expression or identity is different from the biological sex they were assigned at birth may identify as transgender. The word wasn’t coined until the 1960s — the earliest usage was found in a psychology book from 1965. Transfeminine activists like Virginia Prince popularized it in place of the outdated term “transexual,” as they argued that gender and sex are separate.

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Queer or Questioning

The New York group Queer Nation in 1990 adopted the term and made it a popular and positive label as the HIV/AIDS epidemic took over the country. Any LGBTQIA+ community member can identify as queer. It typically indicates that someone is not straight, or that their sexuality or gender identity changes over time or doesn’t fit into a specific identity. In the past, it was — and occasionally is today — used as an insult. But overarchingly, “queerness” has been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community, who use it as a term of pride.

The Q can also stand for “questioning” — someone who’s exploring their sexuality or gender.

Intersex

Someone born with sex characteristics (genitals or chromosomes) that don’t fall into the binary male or female categories. There are multiple ways that a person can be intersex. It can be in reference to their internal sex organs, chromosomes or external genitals.

Doctors often assign intersex children into the gender binary of male or female. That doesn’t mean it’s the gender they’ll identify with. The term was coined in the 1950s as doctors performed surgeries on intersex children to alter their anatomy. In the 1990s, advocates spoke up against these surgeries and provided a spotlight for the intersex community.

Asexual

Someone who experiences little to no sexual attraction to others (also known as “ace”). Hungarian Karl-Maria Kertbeny introduced the idea of asexuality in 1868 while discussing the idea of monosexuality (people who only masturbate) in response to a sodomy law in Germany.

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What does the “+” in LGBTQIA+ represent?

No math here. The “+” indicates that “the community includes more than can be contained in the acronym,” said Del Rio. “If I’m speaking about the community and write LGBTQIA+, I am trying to convey that I also include people who are genderqueer, non-binary, or any of the other lesser-known terms.”

This isn’t the full list of queer vocab. There are plenty more ways to identify yourself, including but not limited to:

  • Genderfluid: Someone who doesn’t identify with having a fixed gender.

  • Demisexual: Feeling sexual attraction to someone who you have an emotional bond with.

  • Aromantic: Different than asexual. This is someone who doesn’t feel a desire for romance or romantic attraction.

  • Gender non-conforming: Not following the traditional feminine or masculine norms set by society.

  • Polyamory: Meaning someone who’s in multiple loving relationships at the same time.

  • Graysexual: When someone falls somewhere between sexual and asexual.

  • Reciprosexual: When someone only experiences sexual attraction with someone who is attracted to them (aka reciprocates).

  • Akiosexual: Someone who may feel sexual attraction but may not want those feelings returned.

  • Aceflux: Someone who’s sexual attraction changes over time (aka fluctuates).

theSkimm

Not everyone’s sexuality or gender identity can be captured through labels. Knowing what LGBTQIA+ stands for and which communities it represents is key for representation, identity and expression.

Updated on Apr. 18 to reflect new information.

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