PUBLISHED OCTOBER 19, 2021
October is LGBT History Month. Or, as some might say, LGBTQ History Month. Or even LGBTQIA+ History Month.
The terms for the community of people that encompasses people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual are as broad as that community itself: As society’s understanding, recognition, and inclusion of diverse sexual identities and gender expressions has grown, so has its acronym.
Here’s a look at how that evolution has happened—and why it’s all but certain the term will continue to change.
How lesbianism got its name
Out of all the letters in the acronym LGBTQ, the L was the first to come into existence. For centuries, the word had been associated with the works of Sappho, an ancient Greek woman from the island of Lesbos who wrote poems about same-gender passion.
The oldest use of the term to describe same-gender love has been traced back to the 17th century. But its modern use emerged in the 1890s, when it was used in an English-language medical dictionary and a variety of books on psychology and sexuality. Over time, it grew in popularity and was adopted by women who secretly, then proudly, loved other women.
The dawn of “homosexuality” and “bisexuality”
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a 19th century German lawyer and writer who may have identified as gay, was the first to try to label his own community. As early as 1862, he used the term “Urning” to refer to men who were attracted to men. “We Urnings constitute a special class of human gender,” he wrote. “We are our own gender, a third sex.”
But the term was quickly replaced by a word coined by Austro-Hungarian journalist Karoly Maria Kertbeny. In 1869, the Prussian government contemplated adding language that forbade male same-gender sexual activity to its constitution.
In response, Kertbeny wrote a passionate, anonymous open letter to the Prussian minister of justice calling the proposed law “shocking nonsense” and using the word “homosexuality,” which he had previously coined in a private letter to Ulrichs. He also coined the term heterosexual, referring to those who are attracted to people of the opposite gender, and bisexual, which referred to people attracted to both men and women.
Kertbeny’s letter emphasized that same-gender attraction was inborn and challenged prevailing notions that it was shameful and harmful. Early gay rights groups and practitioners of the growing field of psychology eventually adopted the terms.
Gay: Reclaiming a slur
In the late 1960s, activists reclaimed a decades-old slur, “gay.” Throughout the 20th century, same-gender attraction and sexual activity was largely outlawed, and this and other slurs that denigrated LGBTQ+ people were common. Though its origins are murky, “gay” was eventually embraced by men who defied the status quo with open expressions of same-gender love.
Activists also began using other terms like social variant, deviant, and “homophile,” which means “same love,” in an effort to sidestep commonly used slurs, emphasize the loving relationships of same-gender relationships, and protest discriminatory laws. These words were used “as the means whereby individuals could make sense of their own experiences, their active-undergoing of being homosexual in a homophobic environment,” writes sociologist J. Todd Ormsbee.
By 1980, wrote essayist Edmund White, “gay” had overtaken these other terms for men who are attracted to men. White attributed its growing popularity to the fact that it is “one of the few words that does not refer explicitly to sexual activity.” It was used both to refer to men who love men and anyone who expressed same-gender preference or gender divergence.
“Transgender” becomes part of LGBT
In the 1990s, the longstanding bonds between lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in both daily life and liberation activism led to the widespread adoption of the LGB acronym (lesbian, gay and bisexual).
But it took longer to gain acceptance for another term that is now part of the modern acronym: “transgender.” Though trans people have existed throughout history, the term only came into being in the 1960s. Historians have traced the earliest use of the term to a 1965 psychology textbook, and it was popularized by transfeminine activists like Virginia Prince, who argued that sex and gender are separate entities. As it replaced other terminology that mocked or minimized trans people, “transgender” was increasingly embraced as part of the wider LGBT rights movement and was widespread by the 2000s.
How “queer” became mainstream
More recently, Q has been added to the acronym. In use since at least the 1910s, it was also once a slur used to separate people from a heteronormative society. But “queer” was increasingly used by people within the gay rights movement beginning in the 1990s. Linguist Gregory Coles writes that it “can be read as at once pejorative and honorific,” depending on the speaker’s identity and intention. Scholars largely consider the use of “queer” as one of reclamation.
Q also used to stand for “questioning,” as a way to acknowledge those who are exploring their gender or sexual identity. This dual definition points to a larger, ongoing conversation about the meaning of personal identity and whether it’s even appropriate to use umbrella terms like LGBTQ as a shorthand about people’s lived experiences.
An unfinished evolution
Newer appendages to the acronym attempt to embrace an even wider swath of the community. A plus sign, referring to a wide variety of gender identifications and sexual identities, or the initials I (“intersex”) and A (“asexual”) are sometimes added after LGBTQ.
The acronym has its critics, especially among those who argue that no term can ever encompass the entire spectrum of gender and sexual expression. A variety of academic and governmental organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, have recently adopted the term “gender and sexual minority” in an attempt to be even more inclusive.
And it’s all but certain the words people use to describe gender expression and sexual identity will continue to evolve.
“No term is perfect or perfectly inclusive,” wrote a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee in a 2020 report. “The beauty of individuality is that self-expression, as well as personal and romantic choices, can manifest in a multitude of ways.”