There’s a certain power in naming things. In Genesis, God names the sky, night, land, and sea as He makes them. When He made Adam, He let Adam name all the animals, too.
More than that, names have a power of their own. In Egyptian mythology, Isis, the goddess of healing and magic, learns the real name of the sun god Ra and therefore has power over him. In Spirited Away, a witch makes her employees forget their names to keep them trapped and loyal only to her. Going back to Genesis, Jacob gets a new name after beating God at wrestling (I mean, he should probably get an award, but a new name is good, too, I guess).
The point is, words are arbitrary — the sounds, letters, and symbols of words have no meaning in themselves, but rather, have meaning based on what we attach them to — but they matter. Just think about the cultural impact the word “selfie” has created in the last decade or so, or how the current pandemic has given new meaning to words like “long hauler” and “bubble.”
Naming things makes them real in a way that makes us better able to think and talk about them with others, even though some of these things may have always been there before. This is especially true for those things that tend to be abstract or fuzzy. Take “kindness,” for example, and “freedom.”
So, names hold meaning and power over our lived reality and how we might see the world. For example, “pro-life” is the term the movement chose for itself as the supposed opposite of “pro-choice” — not “anti-choice.” Moreover, the meanings we attach to words change over time, and therefore, they hold a certain history. These histories of how we decide on what names to use and what these names mean hold power, too.
For this article, I’d like to focus on the now-common term LGBT, and how the name came to be the way it is.
The ABCs of LGBT
The term LGBT wasn’t always the word people used to describe those who aren’t heterosexual or cisgender. Depending on where you are in the world and how far back you go, queerness and queer love might be described with words like gandharva or binabae.
In the US, the term “homosexual” was most common prior to the ‘40s and ‘50s, when the word “gay” began being used as a slang term for those attracted to the same sex. Before the late 19th century, it used to mean “cheerful” and “carefree,” which, ironically, gay men didn’t really have much room to be. “Gay” became mainstream in the ‘70s, and by then, the term “lesbian” was also becoming popular as a way for women-loving women to differentiate themselves.
So that’s the L and the G. Some have noted that these terms were already pretty common among queer circles as far back as the ‘50s.
For B, or bisexuality, its meaning has seen numerous shifts over the years. First used in 1793, bisexual used to mean “possessing characters of both sexes,” and more recently, it meant “attraction to both men and women.” With more conversations about non-binary people, the dictionary meaning has been adjusted to “sexual or romantic attraction to people of one’s own gender identity and of other gender identities.”
Lastly, T refers to transgender people. Where L, G, and B describe sexual orientation (that is, the gender/s to which one is sexually attracted, like heterosexual), T describes gender identity — and more specifically, when one’s gender identity is different from the one they were assigned at birth.
These letters together began being used in the late 1980s, but the term LGBT fully made it to the mainstream in the 1990s. And since then, there have been other words — LGBT has evolved into different initialisms, like LGBTQ, the lengthier LGBTQIA, and more simply, LGBTQ+. Here’s a quick rundown of what the other letters mean:
- Queer: Originally meaning “strange” when it was first used in the 16th century, it became a homophobic slur around the turn of the 20th century. It’s being reclaimed by younger generations of LGBT people, though, but it’s understandable if some may still be uncomfortable around the term. The Q may also mean “questioning.”
- Intersex: An estimated 1.7% of people are born intersex, and have a mix of both female and male anatomy. However, they are often assigned a binary sex at birth. For comparison, there is an estimated 1 in 250 — or 0.3% — chance of having identical twins, and we talk about them way more than we talk about intersex people.
- Asexual: To be asexual is to not have any sexual attraction to others.
Why the L Goes First
At the start of the gay rights movement, there was a huge focus on men’s issues (unfortunately, even within the community, misogyny is still very much alive). And so, older documents and photos might refer to the community as “GLBT.”
Moreover, lesbians have also been historically underrepresented in media. Where gay men’s representation was pretty poor, lesbians weren’t represented much at all, and so the G tended to go first in the public imagination as well.
The push towards putting the L first in LGBT began with the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the decades since, the science around HIV and AIDS has given us much more information about what causes the disease, how it’s passed on, and more crucially, how it can be treated.
But at the time, none of this information was available to anyone. Because HIV and AIDS were first observed medically among injection drug users and gay men, the homophobia kicked in and the disease was falsely associated with the gay community — so much so that for a time, it was known as GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency. And so, gay men and the trans community took the brunt of the public hysteria.
It got pretty ugly from there, and I’d rather not go into the details. But suffice it to say that gay men and trans women were dying en masse, and people were not just lost on how to help them — many also downright refused to, believing that it was some sort of punishment from God.
So who did gay men turn to?
The lesbians, of course.
When much of the world turned their back on sick gay men, it was the lesbians, who are relatively low-risk (though not risk-free!) for HIV, that helped them out.
Though existing as a separate community to gay men at the time, lesbian women provided food, clothing, and housing. Those who could, worked within the healthcare system — which was (and still is) deeply gendered — to enter patients’ rooms and treat gay men when other doctors were too scared to.
“Suddenly, the hospitals were full of lesbians who were volunteering. Volunteering to go into those rooms and help my friends who were dying,” said Jon, an elderly gay man who lived through the outbreak in San Francisco. “I remember being so moved by them because gay men hadn’t been too kind to lesbians. We’d call them ‘fish’ and make fun of the butch dykes in the bars — and yet, there they were.”
Aside from all this, lesbians also literally gave their blood for gay men. In 1983, in a criticized effort to prevent the spread of HIV through blood transfusions, men who have sex with men were banned from donating their blood. This made it harder for HIV patients, many of whom were severely anemic, to get blood transfusions for themselves.
And so once again, the lesbians showed up.
Barbara Vick, who had been a regular blood donor in San Diego along with her then-partner (now wife), had noticed this ban in 1983. And so, she decided to create the San Diego Blood Sisters and established an account with the blood bank to designate those with HIV and AIDS as the recipients of the donations.
In July of that year, the Blood Sisters held their first drive. Barbara thought 50 or so women would come. Instead, 200 women gave their blood, forming a queue around a whole block.
The Blood Sisters then held regular drives to help those with HIV and AIDS, with similar groups sprouting in cities like Boston, Memphis, and Los Angeles.
Noting the role lesbians played in the HIV crisis in both the US and the UK, historian Jad Adams said, “It is important to remember that a lot of these men were not out to their families or were explicitly rejected by their families.” It’s heartbreaking, but many gay men of the time were abandoned and left to die alone. “They really needed the support which gay-friendly women could provide.”
And support them, women did. When it felt like the government, too, had abandoned gay men (then President Regan, for example, only spoke about AIDS in 1987, after it had killed 20,000 and infected about 36,000 Americans) lesbians also lobbied for them through and alongside organizations like Act Up and TAG.
Providing for gay men’s needs, donating their blood, and taking charge as leaders both on the streets and in Washington — all this is why lesbians have been called the unsung heroes of the AIDS crisis.
The AIDS crisis further politicized the LGBT community, and the overflowing support from lesbians also meant a more expanded gay civil rights movement, explained John-Manuel Andriote, author of Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America. He wrote, “[it] created a level of solidarity between gay men and lesbians that didn’t exist before.”
As lesbians continued to challenge patriarchal structures of power outside and, crucially, within queer spaces, gay men also recognized the role lesbians played in the AIDS crisis. In the late ‘90s, “gay community centers” in America started being called “lesbian and gay community centers.”
Along with this, finally, came the switch in the letters of “GLBT” — putting the L before the G to create the initialism we see more often today.
What’s in a Name?
It seems like a small thing. It is, after all, still just letters, and a switch between two letters that were already next to each other in the first place to create the term “LGBT.”
Like with everything else we name, it’s not just about the letters. The L going first is about solidarity, especially in light of past and current attacks on the community. It’s about compassion, and our ability to care for others who may be neglected, to go above and beyond to ease their suffering. It’s about standing up to injustice and oppression. It’s about speaking out when others are quiet.
Moreover, it’s also about being conscious of the ways the patriarchy operates even within the LGBTQ community, and by extension, how structures of racism and classism divide and undermine us.
Thus, the change in the order of letters is both a reminder of the good we are capable of and what there is left to work on as a community — both of which can help guide us in the road ahead.
There is tremendous power in naming, especially in naming ourselves. We are asserting who we are in a world largely structured for the hetero and the cis, and we are remembering what the community has done, and what we can still do.