Choosing the Alphabet Soup

In a recent article for the Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argues for the alphabet soup of gender and sexuality politics to have a single term refer to all gender and sexual identities.(1) They propose using the letter “Q” as that term. “Q” would be a term in and of itself, not necessarily standing for the word “queer”.(2) A letter as an umbrella term if you will.

He argues that the various terms which are used to define various sexual and gender identities are necessary for people to be able to articulate who they are and and for getting their needs met. However, using them as a foundation for “the movement” is destabilizing.

They state “once activists started listing identities and groups, they realized that anyone not specifically included might feel specifically excluded.”(3) Meaning if my specific letter isn’t listed in an extended acronym such as “LGBTTQQIAA2+” then obviously people like me aren’t welcome. Which, while faulty logic in and of itself, is a common reaction. Pan and straight people I talk to regularly have both complained to me about feeling excluded due to not having a ‘PS’ tacked on the end of that linguistic contortion. Of course identity is fluid not just for individuals, but cultures as well. Meaning in the future new identities are bound to be invented. However, if their name happens to not be from the 7/26th of the alphabet already in use, would we be expected to simply continue expanding the alphabet soup until it is simply the entire English alphabet in a different order plus duplicate letters and some Cyrillic, Greek, Chinese, Korean and other characters as well? Seems a bit of a stretch at first. That is, until one considers that I don’t even know what all the letters in the above acronym stand for. I think the second ‘Q’ is questioning, as for the extra ‘A’ and ‘T’… I haven’t the foggiest. And I’m an alleged “expert” on the topic!

Rauch builds a foundation for their argument on the word “gay” having been originally meant to be a wide sweeping term for all gender and sexual minorities by invoking Frank Kameny. Considering Kameny has 36 individual entries in the index of “The Gay Revolution” by Lillian Faderman (4) as a tireless organizer, activist and leader in the movement, he makes for a strong foundation to build on.

Rauch then continues their article by arguing that no other special interest group uses a string of letters to describe themselves as a coalition of interests facing a system of oppression. They then contend that by defining LGBTQ and company as various distinct identities, the result is ever smaller divisions between groups of people within the movement. Up to this point I agree with them. However, they continue to say: “[LGBTQ] has become symptomatic of the parochialism that is alienating white, straight, male America from the claims of the civil rights movement. Every time [LGBT]QIAA+ activists demand the recitation of a string of initials, they implicitly tell a story about seeking equality for groups, not for individuals, and not for that other set of initials, U.S.A.” (5)

I disagree with this for multiple reasons which can be summarized as follows: the alienation of “white,” cis male, heteronormative people is not caused by LGBTQ people, but the systems of indoctrination and control endemic to “white” culture. The process of othering only works as long as the other remains separate, reviled, and unknown. In a word, alien. Therefore the alienation of ‘white’, cis male, heteronormative people is the fault of their own “whiteness.” The only thing LGBTQ people can be “faulted” for in this scenario is having successfully pointed out to the dominate culture the alienation they have perpetrated against themselves.

Second, Rauch is assuming that equality between groups is somehow a bad thing and that equality between individuals or groups is somehow possible. Kurt Vonnegut Jr thoroughly lampooned the concept in his short story “Harrison Bergeron” by showing the destruction of self by society caused by the myth of people with obviously different needs and lived experience being forced to take on limitations in the name of treating everyone the same. While in “Harrison Bergeron” it is the people with advantages who are hurt by the system, the story is casting light on the harms caused to disadvantaged people through the draconian insistence that they meet standards set just barely below what those with advantage are able to accomplish. Meaning what is expected is defined by what those in power can accomplish causing those without power to be judged for failing to live up to standards impossible for them to meet without some sort of support.
It is expected of me that I can make it through daily life without having to randomly excuse myself to go have a small panic attack. For someone without an extensive mental health history and who is not subject to constant verbal sexual harassment this is a reasonable expectation. But for myself it is a standard impossible for me to meet because of my history and stress from all the harassment I receive for being trans. How could the disadvantage of my individual lived experience be made equal to the advantages of a hypothetical “white,” cis male, heteronormative person? Can we legislate mental health issues and bullies out of existence? Or see to it that everyone does a tour in a psych ward and get horrible things said to them on a regular basis?

The falsehood of equality is why the concept of equity was invented, and the limitations inherent to the concept of equity will (most likely) result in the eventual development of a new framework which will replace it in turn. Thus while the acronym LGBTQ may be unwieldy, it does its job which is to draw people together with a wide variety of lived experience against the systemic oppression they have in common.

Third, Rauch claims using LGBTQ language makes activists un-American by placing LGBTQ people before the USA. Placing the concept of a country before the people living in that country is called nationalism, which caused WWII, and all the horrors associated with that, American internment camps, German concentration camps, and the only use of atomic weapons in a theater of war in human history. Nationalism is bad and I feel comfortable leaving that as a blanket statement.

In conclusion, Rauch set out to put forward a call for unity within the LGBTQ community by rallying around the singular label of “Q” in much the same way a wide variety of people have used trans as an umbrella term to include all kinds of variance, experimentation and even violation of gender norms. However, due to their argument of American Empire being undermined by the term LGBTQ, they managed to argue for keeping the alphabet soup monstrosity around rather than its replacement. If the term LGBTQ is eroding Empire and settler colonialism, it can’t be all bad.

1) Rauch, Jonathan. “Don’t Call Me LGBTQ: Why we need a single overarching designation for sexual minorities” The Atlantic. Jan/Feb 2019. pg. 16-18

2) ibid. pg. 18

3) ibid. pg. 17

4) Faderman, Lillian. The Gay Revolution. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. 2015. pg. 782

5) Rauch. (2019) pg. 18

6) Vonnegut Jr, Kurt. “Harrison Bergeron,” Welcome to the Monkey House (New York: Dell Publishing, 1968), pp. 7–14.

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