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This year, the DC Center—the sole community center serving the District’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents—will no longer be known as a “GLBT” community center. It will be known as a center for the “LGBT” community. It’s a simple transposition of two letters, but it offers a glimpse into the complicated gender politics of the people the DC Center serves.
GLBT—an acronym which stands for “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender”—was coined in the 1990s to reflect the widening umbrella of identities represented by what was originally referred to simply as the “gay community.” But when the title expanded to include additional marginalized identities, few agreed on who should come first. “There have always been fights in the community over acronyms, which letters to include, and what order they ought to be in,” says Sean Bugg, co-publisher of District LGBT—or GLBT, depending on who you ask—magazine Metro Weekly. “You sometimes wish there was a board saying, ‘This is what it’s going to be now.’”
Recently, several local institutions have arrived at some consensus: LGBT is in. And GLBT is, ahem, out.
Why the concern over the placement of a couple of letters? David Mariner, Executive Director of the DC Center, says that his organization’s acronym switch-up is “not a big deal either way,” but that the Center made the change “to be consistent with the other national organizations we are affiliated with.” CenterLink, which serves as a hub for “LGBT Community Centers Around the World,” favors the L, but its 201 affiliated centers vary on usage.
“I think it’s often a local preference,” says Terry Stone, CenterLink’s Florida-based Executive Director. “In some parts of the country, LGBT is more predominant. In other places, it’s GLBT. I don’t think that much deep thought goes into choosing LGBT or GLBT. People just use what has become familiar to them in their coming-out process.”
The DC Center’s switch isn’t the only indication that the District is now batting for LGBT. Metro Weekly also recently began favoring the acronym; Bugg says the change from GLBT to LGBT was codified in its style guide about six months ago. “I hesitate to change our style guide without having a really strong reason for it,” says Bugg. The rationale: Metro Weekly’s style was becoming increasingly inconsistent with community standards, and ‘GLBT’-schooled Metro Weekly reporters kept returning with quotes from ‘LGBT’-happy subjects. “A lot of people would be using ‘LGBT’ in a quote, and we would be using ‘GLBT’ as a matter of style,” says Bugg. “It became a bit awkward and confusing.”
The DC Center logo, before and after the switch.
Also confusing: navigating the ever-expanding roster of initials that can be added to the standard four-letter-acronym. Local newspaper the Washington Blade has an evolving approach to the acronym. According to Editor in Chief Kevin Naff, the paper “uses LGBT in stories and headlines.” In its branding, however, the paper now tacks on an extra Q.
“We’ve recently added the Q to our tagline in response to reader inquiries and concerns that those ‘questioning’ their sexual orientation were excluded from coverage,” Naff says. “We have not added the Q to standard references in stories, mostly because the alphabet soup starts to get unwieldy.”
Other emerging subgroups may add more letters to the acronym: an I, for “intersex”; an extra T, for the Native American identity of the “two-spirit”; an A, for either “ally” or “asexual”; and the Q, for either “queer” or “questioning.” Bugg says that Metro Weekly eschews the Q for clarity reasons. “We don’t use Q because it’s not standardized,” he says. “If you start packing on Q, depending on the context it can mean ‘queer,’ or it can mean ‘questioning,’”adds Bugg. “You want your readers to know what you’re talking about.”
Beyond D.C., there remains no industry acronym standard. According to GLAAD’s “Media Reference Guide,” which instructs journalists how best to cover the community, both “LGBT” and “GLBT” are acceptable. GLAAD notes that acronyms “are often used because they are more inclusive of the diversity of the community,” but warns that “Care should be taken to ensure that audiences are not confused by their use.”
Perhaps that’s why the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the New York Times refrain from mentioning any of the related acronyms in their style guides—for the uninitiated, even the four basic initials can require a more verbose explanation.
But the politics of community acronyms go far beyond scannability. “Acronyms are tough,” says Deb Greenspan, who writes for local entertainment site Brightest Young Gays. “On the one hand, you’re able to give a bunch of discrete, self-identifying groups representation while making life a bit easier on your reader. On the other hand, whenever you start to list letters, you get the sense that you better list them all,” she says.
Lists also imply rank. “You inevitably have to put someone first and someone
last in the string of letters,” says Greenspan. The potential for point-counting is one reason Greenspan prefers to call the whole thing off: “I tend to use queer, since it removes the issue of rank,” she says. Zack Rosen, editor of local website The New Gay, also uses queer: “I want to make sure that we don’t use terms that leave anyone out, and I think queer is the most inclusive umbrella term,” Rosen says. “It doesn’t make any assumptions about how people identify.”
But for some, moving the ‘L’ to the front of the line constitutes an important political statement. “I always understood it as a nod to feminism,” says Greenspan. “For a long time, the gay community was not inclusive of women, and lesbians had to forge out on their own in a lot of ways. The balance still isn’t perfect, but I think the L in front is a recognition of that.”
If putting ladies first is a sign of respect, what does it mean that bisexual and transgender people consistently take up the rear? For a long time, working to simply tack on the ‘T’ was met with controversy. “T is still a fairly recent addition, and it’s not one that is fully accepted by all parts of the community,” says Bugg.
Since the wider community’s best-known activists don’t always focus on the concerns of Is, As, Qs and Ts, acronym inclusion can come off as tokenism. Metro Weekly’s internal style guide now contains a four-paragraph discussion of acronyms, which warns reporters against overstating the magazine’s coverage via acronym. “We only use LGBT when we’re speaking about an issue that is inclusive of all four of those. If it’s solely about gay men, you use ‘gay men.’ If it’s something that deals solely with lesbians, you use ‘lesbians,’” says Bugg.
“It’s all well and good if we use inclusive acronyms, but if you’re not actually reflecting all those letters in your magazine, then it really doesn’t matter,” he says. “As important as it is to be inclusive, it’s far more important to actually tell the stories of those lives.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery