Recently, on a sweltering afternoon that was “dunk-tank-envy hot,” per the
New York Times
, a handful of presidential candidates trekked to the annual Capital City Pride Fest in Des Moines and pitched their candidacies to a large crowd of revelers waving rainbow flags.
Political reporter Sydney Ember, searching perhaps for a fresh angle on a predictable event, focused on the crowd instead of the candidates, and posed the same set of questions to each person she interviewed. The first was “How do you identify yourself?”
While some readers undoubtedly expected to hear “liberal” or “conservative,” Ember was on to something larger.
“I identify as pansexual, nonbinary, demi,” responded 19-year-old Ren Kilworth of Waverly, Iowa.
“I’m cisgender and bisexual,” said 20-year-old Victoria Pettinger of Des Moines.
“Most of the time, female,” said Brittini Simmons, also 20.
It has been 33 years since
famously decided to at long last
“homosexual” with “gay,” triggering a seismic cultural shift. For years, the community proudly brandished the word, each utterance of which seemed like a small act of defiance by the people who wore the label.
But as millions prepare to celebrate the 50
anniversary of the Stonewall riots this weekend, the very definition of the community is in a state of flux.
It's difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when “gay” became passé, or, worse, a sign of male entitlement. Over the years, each segment of the community made its claim for recognition. “Gay” begat “Lesbian and Gay,” which begat “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT),” which acquired a “Q” over time despite confusion over what it stood for (Questioning? Queer?).
And there it stood until recently, when the very idea of sexual identity crumbled. We are far beyond the moment when “sexual orientation” was all-encompassing. Ember’s story sent us (and probably many others) scrambling to Google to translate her story.
We came upon a University of Massachusetts glossary, which helped us decipher young Ren Kilworth’s self-description (“pansexual, nonbinary, demi”).
“Demi” - short for “Demisexual” - describes those “who typically do not feel sexual attraction to someone unless they have already formed a strong emotional bond with the person.”
“Pansexual” describes those “attracted to others regardless of their gender identity or biological sex”
“Non-binary” includes “individuals who identify as agender, bigender, gender fluid, genderqueer, and various other genders.”
reporter Michael Gold took a
of readers that also produced “graysexual,” which we thought described us old people until we learned it describes people who float between sexual and asexual.
The perpetually expanding lexicon has the media doing backflips to remain sensitive yet maintain a fidelity to the language.
style guide warns its reporters to take “special care” in writing about “those who do not identify as either male or female and who prefer nontraditional courtesy titles (like Mx.) or nontraditional pronouns.”
“Do not impose a pronoun or courtesy title that the subject rejects,” it cautions. “At the same time, take care to avoid confusion for readers.”
But confusion reigns.
is hardly alone in its struggle to figure out just what to do with all these letters and identities. Its own website contains a page for L.G.B.T. news, but the word "homosexuality," is
right there in the url
In 2015, the
to allow reporters to use the word "they" to refer to an individual who doesn’t identify with a particular gender.
Reuters' style guide
says, "It is preferable to use lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender in place of the frequently used acronym LGBT."
There’s no consensus over what to call the community anymore. The acronym ranges from five letters (LGBTQ) to eight (LGBTQIAA+) and counting. The longer it gets, the less it’s clear what it means.
Not surprisingly, the snowstorm of sexual identities has triggered ideological debates. “Conservatives are not to blame for the fact that 12 percent of Millennials now identify as ‘transgender or gender non-conforming,’” Graham Hillard
. “We are to blame, however, if our conciliatory language impairs our ability to declare that this is wrong.”
We don't know if it's wrong, but the infinite number of sexual identities one can choose among these days can raise questions even among the fair-minded. Is a label really necessary to denote that you're only attracted to people you have feelings for? Is it a good idea to re-write the English language so people can refer to a trans person as "they?"
Even some on the left are complaining. "The alphabet-soup designation for sexual minorities,”
Jonathan Rauch of
, “has become a synecdoche for the excesses of identity politics, excesses that have helped empower the likes of Donald Trump. It's time to retire the term and find a replacement.”
“I propose a single letter,” he writes. “Q."
Whether represented by a single letter or eight, the millions of people who will march through the streets of New York this Sunday will have much to celebrate, despite the shifting landscape. "
There has never been a better time or place in the history of the world to be gay than in 2019 and in the West,"
Andrew Sullivan in
We agree. Happy Pride, fellow Q's.