Acronym Acrobatics

by Bill Retherford '14JRN Published Summer 2016
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Acronym Acrobatics

Even those who resolutely cling to the lumbering acronym LGBTQ readily concede its linguistic clumsiness. Unmemorable, unpronounceable, unhitched from vowels, and untethered from cadence, the ungainly LGBTQ serves our syntax as a shorthand for the spectrum: L (lesbian), G (gay men), B (bisexual), T (transgender), and Q (queer or questioning, your pick). Hence, the acronym’s singular virtue — inclusiveness. Supposedly, LGBTQ, an earnest if inelegant cipher, embodies the entire rainbow community.

“LGBTQ attempts to be inclusive, and I applaud that,” said Marcellus Blount, an associate professor of English and African-American studies at Columbia.

“But it’s still imprecise.”

Imprecise, because so much is missing. LGBTQ avoids A (asexual). LGBTQ ignores I (intersex). LGBTQ precludes P (pansexual). LGBTQ averts another A (allies). LGBTQ quashes a second Q (queer or questioning — again, your pick). 

But cram those together and create an even clunkier pile-up: LGBTQQIPAA. (Or concoct a mathematical amalgamation, and conjure this gargoyle: LGBT2QIP2A.)

“We don’t really have a terminology that does what we want it to do,” said Blount. “It gets in the way of what we want to say.”

Even LGBTQQIPAA (ten letters!) is hardly all-inclusive. Consider C, for cisgender. D, for demisexual. TS, Two-Spirit. Bigender, genderqueer, aromantic — just do a Google reconnaissance — and discover all the ways of slicing the spectrum.

“No matter how many letters you add to LGBTQ, it will never be the perfect term,” said Jared Odessky ’15CC.

Which is why another descriptor — long familiar, but reconstituted by a new generation — is an easily pronounced, eminently spellable one-syllable word.

“Queer,” said Odessky. “A much better umbrella term.” As one member of the Columbia Queer Alliance put it: “Queer is more encompassing.”

And not just at Columbia. Queer, as a new and improved synonym for the LGBTQ acronym, trends globally, though mostly among millennials.

Odessky confirms it’s an age thing: “Around my parents, I generally use gay, but among friends I tend to say queer.”

But Blount, a Columbia professor for thirty-one years, has issues there, too. “We should be very careful how we use queer,” he said.

The word’s jarring etymological narrative traces back to the early 1500s, when it denoted something strange, even eerie. By the late nineteenth century, queer became “a term of ridicule,” said Blount — a slur aimed at homosexual men. In the 1990s, gay activists politicized it (“we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” was their prevailing mantra). About that same time, LGBTQ attained wide acceptance — and commenced to compete with queer for usage in both academia and pop culture. 

“Queer is now a sign of pride, not derision,” said Odessky. “We’ve reclaimed a word that was used to harm the community.”

Reclamation is laudable, acknowledges Blount. “But by itself, queer is a weak umbrella,” he said. “It has been used so unevenly it can mean anything.” Plus the word’s pejorative history: “That, unfortunately, is lost on my students.” Picking between the two, Blount prefers the admittedly imperfect, but slightly more specific, LGBTQ. 

“At least LGBTQ attempts to enunciate differences, rather than smoothing over them,” he said. “It doesn’t speak of identities in a single breath.” Then, he suggests: “The language is evolving, just as identities themselves are evolving. Let’s agree to disagree and put this aside.” Otherwise, get stalled in semantics — and the community won’t go forward. “I care about the language, but I care more about the movement,” he said.

Till then, though, the tiff over terminology remains “hotly debated” in Blount’s classes. “Language and identity cannot be separated, so students are passionate,” he said. And in this war of words, Blount rarely gets the last one. “I just try,” he said with a sigh, “to keep the peace.”

Read the related article Under the Rainbow: http://magazine.columbia.edu/features/summer-2016/under-rainbow.

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