Is it better to say LGBT, LGBT+, LGBTQ, LGBTI, LGBTQIA or another term?
It’s a question GSN gets asked often, particularly by organisations and brands who are anxious to get it right with our community.
Of course, in day-to-day conversation you can use all the terms interchangeably. But when you are choosing a name for a community charity, a group, a product or service targeting LGBT+ people or similar, it is a bigger decision.
By having a consistent term, you can help everyone in our company or organisation understands what to say and how to say it.
Using the right term can push forward acceptance. But people worry that using the wrong one may make them look out of touch or not truly inclusive.
There is no single answer about which initialism is ‘best’ but this article should help you think about the options and make an informed decision.
What do all the letters mean?
Firstly, here’s a simple guide to what all the letters mean.
L: Lesbians are women primarily attracted romantically or sexually to other women.
G: Gay most often refers to men attracted to other men. But ‘gay woman’ is also common.
B: Bisexual people are physically or emotionally attracted to both men and women or to people regardless of gender.
T: Trans and transgender are both umbrella terms for people who don’t feel they are the gender they were assigned at birth. There are multiple trans identities.
Q: The letter Q stands for both ‘queer’ and ‘questioning’. Queer means all LGBT+ people. Some find it abusive while others feel empowered by it, so use with caution. Meanwhile ‘questioning’ people are those still exploring their gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation.
I: Intersex people are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or a chromosome pattern that isn’t firmly male or female.
A: A stands for both allies and asexuals. Allies are straight (eg not LGB) and cisgender (eg not TI) people who support our community. Asexuals are people who do not experience sexual attraction to anyone, or sometimes low levels of sexual attraction.
+: The plus sign has been added to the end of the LGBT initialism to stand for all the other identities within our community.
From agender to pansexual and Hijra to Two Spirit, people in our community use plenty of other identities, many with interesting cultural histories. You can find more and keep discovering here.
What’s the difference between LGBT, LGBT+, LGBTQ, LGBTTQQIA and which is best?
Firstly, all of the options are umbrella terms for the same community. They all broadly mean the same.
However, by adding more letters means you are explicitly including more identities. On face value, that makes your choice more overtly inclusive.
Likewise, using the ‘+’ symbol is a more implicit way of doing that. By adding the plus, you include everyone else without adding a seemingly endless list of letters.
But remember that many people feel their own identities are overlooked within our community. After all, the initialisms don’t contain ‘pansexual’, ‘non-binary’ or many more. So why stop at just LGBTQ?
The truth is there is no option that everyone agrees with. And some LGBT+ people actively dislike some of the choices.
Ok, so which do people prefer?
Probably the biggest and most up-to-date study was by Community Marketing Insight.
They asked how people felt about LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBT+, queer, LGBTQIA+, and LGBTQIA.
LGBT and LGBTQ proved most popular, with about 70% ‘favorable’ towards them. However, around one in 20 people also felt ‘negative’ towards those terms.
Queer and the longer initialism LGBTQIA (with or without a ‘+’) really divided opinion. Broadly speaking, it seems people are pretty much as likely to hate those terms as love them.
The ‘plus’ options (LGBT+ or LGBTQ+) sat in the middle of the pack. Only 13% disliked them, Up to half of people felt happy with them and the rest were neutral.
It’s worth bearing in mind some strengths and weaknesses to the study.
The big strengths are it’s up to date (July 2019) and a large sample size (11,639 people). The main weaknesses are the sample is all from the US and may not represent the population accurately.
It’s particularly worth noting LGBTQ is more commonly used in the States, which likely skews this study.
Also, it’s paradoxical that ‘queer’ divided people the most, while LGBTQ was the most liked, despite having ‘Q’ for queer within it. Perhaps the lesson is that familiarity breeds acceptance.
Which term is most commonly used?
The easiest way to figure this out by looking at what people search for when using the internet. Of course, if you are naming an organisation, publishing a report about the community or running an event, online search may well be important to you.
Google’s data indicates LGBT is the most used globally and LGBTI the least, from the many options.
On the other hand, none of the initialisms come close to the words ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ in terms of ‘search power’.
How do I do the right thing?
Whatever language your or your organisation chooses, there are plenty of ways to do the right thing, and bear-traps to avoid.
1 We are not a Marks & Spencer sandwich: One of the UK’s best-loved grocery chains caused controversy when they created an LGBT sandwich for Pride 2019.
It’s long been a bad joke that the LGBT initialism sounds like a (bacon, lettuce and tomato) sandwich and a bit of a mouthful. Many thought the M&S ‘joke’ was in bad taste. So show respect.
2 Spell it out: Many people identify more strongly with a specific like ‘pansexual’ or ‘gay woman’ than they do with LGBT+
Of course, you can’t use every identity every time. But using specific names appropriately raises awareness of bisexuals, intersex and non-binary people and other overlooked identities. And it’s a way to include everyone over time.
3 Learn about all identities: The more you talk about the range of identities that LGBT+ people have, the better. Remember our community contains all races, ages, nationalities, social classes, economic groups and more, as well as sexualities and genders.
4 Understand it is controversial: Respect the fact that people naturally feel passionate about their identities. What may be just initials to you, is a sense of being excluded or ignored to them.
That’s why these choices can fire up debate. For example, read about what people thought when Wikipedia considered changing its LGBT page here.
Go global or act local
As I said, LGBTQ is more popular in the US. LGBT is the most recognised in the UK, though LGBT+ is gaining traction there, while LGBTQ is rarely seen. LGBTI is more widely recognised in Asia and Australia.
You may want to think about what is most commonly used in your country or region.
Alternatively, breaking out of what is normal can make people think. When GSN switched from using LGBT to LGBTI about six years ago, we spent years explaining what the ‘I’ and intersex is to people. And that was important work.
Change is inevitable
When I went to university just 25 years ago, our ‘lesbian and gay’ society was called GayLes. During my time there, it changed to LGB then LGBT.
At that time, Britain still had a Campaign for Homosexual Equality. It did important work but the name sounds hopelessly old-fashioned now.
Meanwhile, in the US, GLBT was more common than LGBT. There was no single decision to change it but gradually the L was put first through a feeling that women were too often overlooked in our movement and should be put first for once.
Our modern LGBT+ movement is only half a century old. And as it has progressed, it has helped many people understand who they are and gain understanding and recognition from others.
So it’s pretty likely that whatever you choose, you may need to change it later. But rather than seeing this as an annoyance or inconvenience, see it as a sign of progress.
Is there a way out of this maze?
Many people have suggested ‘queer’ be adopted as the single umbrella term for our whole community. But while it is often used in contexts like ‘queer arts’ or ‘queer cinema’ it remains controversial.
Sadly, too many people have been bullied and abused using that word for everyone to embrace it.
Others have suggested new generic terms. The UK government was widely mocked when it started using OTPOTSS (oriented towards people of the same sex) for gays and lesbians.
Likewise GSD (gender and sexual diversities) never caught on.
SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) has stuck in LGBT+ activist and charity circles. But it is hardly known beyond that and is more a technical term than an identity. Perhaps it sounds too much like ‘soggy’ to become popular.
What about LGBT+ rainbow Pride flags?
People who ask what initialism they should use also often want to know what version of the rainbow flag they should use.
There are now multiple ‘umbrella’ flags for our whole community as well as specific flags for many of the identities within our community. And there are even national LGBT+ flags.
They deserve their own article, which you can read here.
The most pedantic bit of this whole article
Some people wrongly think LGBT or LGBTQ are acronyms. In fact, initial letters are only an acronym if you say them as a word, like NASA.
Therefore LGBT+ and all the other options are initialisms, because you spell out each letter, like you do USA.
And finally, what does GSN use?
If you’ve been watching closely, you’ll have spotted GSN’s new house style is to use LGBT+.
We’ve agonised over changing it and would have dearly loved to represent more of the letters in our choice. But obviously we couldn’t include them all. And we saw that LGBTQI+ has low levels of recognition and (strangely) ‘likeability’.
The ‘+’ still feels like a compromise to us. But it is at least trying to include the full diversity of our community.
Meanwhile, GSN has always been at the forefront of writing about all these diversities in detail and we will redouble our efforts to do that with our relaunch. You can find out more about our ‘Truth and Unity’ mission here.
Conclusion: What to choose?
If you are naming an organisation or group (which is then costly to change) you may want to avoid the problem altogether and call it something timeless. You could reflect LGBT+ history, heroes, culture or be inspired by ‘the rainbow’ of identities we present.
And if you want a ‘house style’ on how to express ‘LGBT+’, understand there are pros and cons to all the options and no right answer. So do your best and be prepared to listen and change as the community moves on.
But most importantly, always remember our community is made up of 460 million individuals – so reflect their identities and respect their individuality in everything you do.