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Understanding the context and history behind LGBTQ+

The founder of ‘Historical Homos’ explains the evolution of the letters and meanings in the LGBTQIA+ ‘alphabet.’

Understanding the context and history behind LGBTQ+
[Photo: Getty Images]

In any issue of diversity, identity, or inclusion, language is one of the most fundamental markers of difference and constructive definition.

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I’ve seen this in the historical development of words like colored or minority. We’ve all seen it in contemporary political debates around issues like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. And I know from personal experience that one of the biggest knowledge gaps lies in people’s understanding of the LGBTQIA+ “alphabet.” The terms covered by this acronym seem to expand annually, and they have a history that stretches back hundreds of years.

To help unpack this last point, I interviewed a friend who works on queer history. Bash Hendra is a writer and public historian who recently founded Historical Homos, a digital and print exploration of humanity’s greatest queer figures. Through art, humor, and innovative storytelling, Historical Homos strives to make queer history more accessible to all people, both within the queer community and beyond.

I spoke with Hendra about where the LGBTQIA+ acronym comes from and how significant it is for the community today.

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Porter Braswell: Let’s begin at the beginning. There’s a handful of terms within the LGBTQIA+ acronym—so can we just clarify what they all stand for to get on the same page?

Bash Hendra: Yes, excellent question. People aren’t always on the same page about what each letter stands for. But most people agree that the acronym goes: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual—while the “+” sign represents the litany of other fabulous terms we’ve developed to describe more specific sexual/romantic orientations and gender identities. 

Sometimes the Q is expanded to include Queer and/or Questioning, and the A can similarly do double duty as both Asexual and/or Ally. That’s why you sometimes see the rather inelegant label LGBTQQIAA—or some variation thereof—when people are really stressing the inclusivity.

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I think the definition of most of those terms is clear, but sometimes people ask about intersex and asexual. Intersex refers to people who are born with male and female sexual characteristics. Around 1.7% of the global population is estimated to be intersex, roughly the same as the population of red-haired people.

Asexual simply refers to people who do not experience sexual desire—or in some cases, very low levels of it. They of course can still feel love and may experience other forms of desire, but it’s most important to note that the term is distinct from celibacy or abstention.

Braswell: I remember when the acronym was just LGBT. It seems like things have evolved. Where did these terms come from originally?

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Hendra: Well it’s fairly uneven. Some of these words, like lesbian and gay, have been around much longer, though they haven’t always meant what they mean today. The term lesbienne, for example, was first used by a French writer in the 1500s to describe same-sex desire between women.

Lesbian originally meant someone from the island of Lesbos in Greece, because one of the most famous “historical homos” of all time—Sappho, a 2,600-year-old poetess who wrote about her love for women and men—was from Lesbos. Her name also gave us the term sapphic.

Other terms, like bisexual and transgender, are much more modern and only acquired their current meanings in the last century. In the 1860s, bisexual originally referred to bodies that exhibited female and male characteristics, so it was a stand-in for our modern term intersex—and it was only 50 years later that people began to use it to describe sexual attraction to both genders, or to all gender identities, which is where it starts to overlap with pansexual, a broader term that implies attraction to all people irrespective of gender identity.

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But there is a difference between words and the ideas they conjure up in our minds. Before the 19th century, lesbian may have referred to romantic or sexual attraction between women, but it never really described an individual who defined themselves as a lesbian until the late 19th century at the very earliest.

Braswell: That’s interesting. Can you say a little bit more about the difference between the two?

Hendra: I think it really goes back to the origins of the terms homosexual and heterosexual, which were essentially invented by German psychologists in the 19th century to describe sexual behavior in a medical, classifiable way.

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It might surprise a lot of straight people to learn that the concept of a heterosexual—an individual who is sexually oriented uniquely toward members of the opposite sex—was just as nonexistent as the concept of a homosexual prior to the invention of these terms. People simply did not think about sexuality as a defining factor of identity in this way until the 18th century, at the very earliest.

There are numerous reasons for this, but one of the most fundamental is that the economic life of preindustrial societies was heavily organized around families and kinship ties. For both women and men, it was an economic necessity to marry and procreate, as well as being socially desirable in the eyes of most religions and cultures. Same-sex desire and behaviors still existed, of course, but they wouldn’t have defined you as “homosexual” or “queer,” just as a traditional marriage couldn’t be classified as “heterosexual.” It was the only option.

In the 19th century, all of that started to change. This was a century of great urbanization, industrialization, and scientific advancement. The increase in knowledge demanded a simultaneous increase in categorization and labels.

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If you think the “alphabet soup” we have in the LGBTQ+ community today is impressive, then you should take a look at some of the lists the Germans and Victorian Brits came up with. Urning, invert, Uranian, intermediate—these early psychologists and sexologists developed a cacophony of new terms to add to the already impressive stock of slang Europeans used to describe non-heteronormative behavior, which has, of course, been around since the dawn of civilization.

Braswell: So what exactly did that shift in language change? Why was it important for people to start talking about homosexuality, heterosexuality, and sexuality as an identity?

Hendra: The changes were slow in coming over the course of many decades, but the first thing it did was establish medical (i.e., psychiatric) norms of sexual and gendered behavior.

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To some extent these norms appear earlier in history, as for example in the form of “sodomy trials,” where men and women were variously arrested, fined, tortured, exiled, or executed for exhibiting queer behavior. The punishment depends on the period—some societies, like Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, were much more lenient than others.

But in the late 19th century, the medicalization of sexuality suggested paths for “treatment,” while simultaneously establishing heterosexuality and cisgendered identities as the norm from which “deviants” might stray. If homosexuality was now a “disorder” of the mind, traceable to individual characteristics or personal histories, it could be corrected and regulated by law, medicine, and charity. This, in turn, helped create a nascent social justice movement for queer people, many of whom were prominent and had powerful friends.

More to the point, defining something gives it greater visibility. We see this today in the trans community in particular—the increasing visibility of transgender people in the past several decades has led to a simultaneous rise in violence against them. Unfortunately, defining an identity also helps define prejudice.

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For homosexual men, a similar phenomenon was triggered by the notorious 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde, a gay—or bisexual, depending on who you ask—Irish playwright and literary celebrity whose conviction for “gross indecency” (i.e., homosexual behavior) created the first gay celebrity in the Western world. Wilde was sentenced to hard labor in England and quickly died after his release—penniless and without his family in Paris.

But his story turned him into a double-edged star: On the one hand, it glamorized the figure of the talented and unfairly oppressed homosexual, which encouraged some people to be more open about their own sexualities. But it also served as a warning to many people: Step out of line, and you lose everything.

Braswell: So when did true visibility begin with terms like lesbian, gay, or transgender? At what point did queer people feel safe using them about themselves?

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Hendra: That probably depends on who you ask, what country they lived in, and what their socioeconomic background was. In France, for example, homosexuality had effectively been “legal” since any mention of sodomy was left out of the Napoleonic Code in the early 19th century. That also meant it wasn’t illegal in French-occupied territories in the global South and East, by the way.

In 1920s Weimar Berlin, there was an absolute queer free-for-all as men and women sought to refashion their lives and identities in the wake of the First World War. Marlene Dietrich, one of the 20th century’s most fabulous bisexuals, got her start in these queer cabaret bars of 1920s Germany. Whereas during the same period in England (and all English-occupied colonial territories, like India), sodomy was outlawed and rigorously punished.

In America, homosexuality remained personally risky well into the 1960s. The “Lavender Scare” that occurred parallel to the Red Scare of the 1950s showed how dangerous it could be to be openly queer. The Lavender Scare refers to a period in which the federal government routinely fired people from their jobs because of their alleged homosexuality.

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In fact, there was even an idea that, similar to international associations of Communists who supported one another, there was a Homintern equivalent that allowed homosexuals to advance their agendas covertly in governments and institutions around the world.

Of course, there was no formal homosexual “conspiracy” as such. But this was the period in which queer people began organizing themselves, which inevitably required clearer labels. The homophile movement of the 1940s and ’50s spawned groups such as the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, which created safe spaces for queer people to gather, support each other, and launch publications to share knowledge. They also focused on nonviolent protests and picketing demonstrations to increase visibility.

Later, at the tail end of the ’60s, frustrated by the slowness of their progress and emboldened by the success of the civil rights movement, queer people were catalyzed into action by the Stonewall Riots of 1969. This uprising against a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York City quickly launched new organizations advocating for queer liberation and gay rights, terms which had previously only been theoretical for most governing bodies in the West.

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It was in this period of increasing visibility that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender became more officially codified and widespread in colloquial language, even though the ideas behind them had been around for a century already, if not more.

Scholars in academia also began investigating a new field of historical, literary, and sociological inquiry called Queer Studies. This helped popularize some of the more complex issues such as transgenderism and the history of identity for the public.

Braswell: I imagine it also, like you said before, helped turn some of these terms into weapons, too. Was the increase in visibility followed by an increase in prejudice?

Hendra: Yes, I think so. I mean, queer used to mean “weird,” just as gay used to mean “happy” or “fun.” In our lifetimes, obviously, and especially in our childhoods, gay came to mean “lame” or “stupid,” while queer was reappropriated as an umbrella term to refer to any sexual/gender identity, theory, or behavior that challenges sexual and gender norms.

So it works in both ways. I think the word queer is a powerful example of how quickly and controversially language can evolve. For many in the gay community, particularly older men, queer still brings up extremely negative and painful associations as a pejorative term.

For younger people who grew up in the age of “Queer Studies,” it’s a more welcome term that emphasizes our solidarity as a community, because queer can be used to refer to anyone (or any concept) that falls under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. That’s why I often use it interchangeably with homosexual in my own writing.

Braswell: One last question: What do you say to people who criticize all the new terms that keep being added to the “alphabet soup,” as you put it?

Hendra: There has been a bit of an acceleration, yes. Pansexual, demisexual, polyamorous, polysexual, aromantic, nonbinary, nonbinary transgender—it can sometimes feel difficult to keep up with all these terms and their various combinations. In fact, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the Victorian era of British and German psychologists fine-tuning every detail of an individual’s sexuality or gender identity.

That said, I wouldn’t ever want to give up the freedom and inquisitiveness we have fought for in our identities. All these terms demonstrate an engagement with issues of sex and gender that is a social and human right. We should never forget that things were not always this open.

On the other hand, I do think definitions can overemphasize difference. There is perhaps a risk that we become more focused on what sets us apart or makes us unique than what connects us. There’s an “us versus them” mentality that can easily develop within the community—and that’s counterproductive to the overall project of queer liberation.

For example, in the 1970s, when the movement first started gaining ground, many gay and lesbian people were nervous about including transgender people under the banner of their associations. This has led to a continuing—though increasingly minority—contingent of homosexual men and women who feel that transgender issues should not be conflated with their own (an unfair assessment that ultimately comes down to a toxic combo of transphobia and respectability politics, in my opinion).

That’s why you’ll sometimes hear people shouting at demonstrations or posting on social media, “There is no LGB without the T.” Most of us feel that there is no conflict between transgender rights and agendas, and the gay and lesbian equivalents.

So while I do think we should celebrate difference in all its forms and continue to poke and prod for new ways of understanding ourselves, we also have to remember that we’re stronger together— and that, as we saw historically, even though words change over time, it’s the ideas they represent, and the evolution of those ideas, that are far more important than the labels themselves.

Braswell: Thank you Bash. I really appreciate you sharing your perspectives on this topic. It’s important we all educate ourselves on the meaning of these words and, more importantly, on their history to gain the full context.


Porter Braswell is the cofounder and executive chairman of Jopwell, founder of Diversity Explained, author of Let Them See You, and host of the podcast Race at Work. Subscribe to his weekly content pieces at Diversity Explained to stay up to date on all new content.

Bash Hendra is a Cambridge- and Columbia-educated writer and public historian who recently founded Historical Homos, a digital and print exploration of humanity’s greatest queer figures. Through art, humor, and innovative storytelling, Historical Homos strives to make queer history more accessible to all people, both within the queer community and beyond.

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About the author

Porter Braswell is the Co-founder and Executive Chairman of Jopwell, Founder of 2045 Studio, author of Let Them See You, and host of the podcast Race at Work. Subscribe to his weekly content pieces at Diversity Explained.

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