Here’s Why the ‘L’ Comes First in LGBTQ?

The acronym LGBT feels like second nature to many queer folks and allies. But how did this term come to be? Where did each letter come from, and why is the L always first? Here’s a brief history of the term LGBT!

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Evolving Terms

Way back in the 19th and 20th centuries, “homosexual” was the only term used to describe people who didn’t fit into the heterosexual, cisgender paradigm. Thus, that was the term that many people used to describe themselves. According to Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States for Young People,

“Homosexual was used by doctors, social scientists, newspapers and everyday people. It was, in many ways, a polite and acceptable word, invented to replace words such as “sodomite,” which implied that gay men and lesbians were sinful.

However, there were a few problems with the word homosexual. First off, it had a very clinical tone to it (especially since it was used by doctors), and it gradually began to take on the stigma of previous terms. Plus, it tended to only describe men. Any queer person who wasn’t a man had no way to define themselves. So, women in the 1800s began using the words “lesbian” and “sapphist” to describe themselves, based on the Greek poet Sappho, who lived on the island of Lesbos.

In the 1920s, the language queer folks used started to evolve again, with people of all genders using the word “gay” to describe themselves. Over the years, the word “bisexual” gradually made its way into the lexicon, with its usage picking up as people began to recognize that bisexuality is an identity in its own right, and not just a waystation on the way to being completely gay or lesbian. Eventually, being trans also came to be accepted as a distinct identity unrelated to someone’s sexuality, and the terms “transsexual” and “transgender” became more common. Eventually, these four terms—lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender—were combined into the acronym LGBT.

But why does the L come first, especially since the word “gay” is used to refer to people of all genders? There’s no one official explanation for the word order, but one common explanation is that queer rights activists began putting the L in front as a nod to feminism and an effort to center people who weren’t men.

More Recent Additions

Of course, the queer rights movement hasn’t stopped at using LGBT as an identifier. Members of the asexual or “ace” spectrum are represented by an A, people who identify as queer or questioning are folded in with a Q, and Two-spirit people are sometimes represented by a 2. Intersex people are represented by an I, although it’s important to note that not all intersex people identify as queer or want to be included. A plus sign is often added at the end in order to include anyone who isn’t already represented, which is why you sometimes see acronyms like LGBTQIA or LGBTQ2+. Other people, especially younger ones who never experienced the word “queer” as a slur, just say queer.

Whether you’re a member of the community or an ally, the terms you use are flexible and ever-evolving. The important thing is to make sure that whatever term you use, you use it with sensitivity and respect.

(featured image: Vladimir Vladimirov for Getty Images)


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Author
Julia Glassman
Julia Glassman (she/her) holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and has been covering feminism and media since 2007. As a staff writer for The Mary Sue, Julia covers Marvel movies, folk horror, sci fi and fantasy, film and TV, comics, and all things witchy. Under the pen name Asa West, she's the author of the popular zine 'Five Principles of Green Witchcraft' (Gods & Radicals Press). You can check out more of her writing at <a href="https://juliaglassman.carrd.co/">https://juliaglassman.carrd.co/.</a>