The Linguistics of Queerness


It’s that time of year when we break out rainbows and glitter once more—along with a whole plethora of tired arguments about who is “queer enough” and what kinds of queerness “count.”

A hand, cast in shadows, reaches from the right side of the frame. A piece of paper rests in the palm, with the acronym "LGBTQIA" written in rainbow pencil crayon.
What does this “alphabet soup” of queerness even mean? (Sharon McCutcheon / Pexels.com)

One of the common complaints joined to this is how long and confusing the acronym has become in recent years. What started out as “LGBT” has blossomed into an “alphabet soup” of queerness, which confuses plenty of people—and upsets some of them too.

But the expansiveness of the umbrella shows the expansiveness of queerness—and queer experience. So, just what does the full acronym stand for?

LGBTQQIA (and More Queerness)

The full acronym is a lengthy one at this point, which is why you likely see it shortened to “LGBTQ+” or similar. In this section, we’ll run through each letter of the full acronym.

L stands for, rather obviously, lesbian, while “G” is gay, “b” is bisexual, and the first “t” stands for transgender.

Next up, we have “Q.” This letter originally included people who were unsure of their identity — so it stands for “questioning.”

A person with a beard wears black, feminine-coded clothing and exaggerated makeup, while waving a rainbow paper fan against an urban backdrop, as an example of queerness.
This person could have many identities, so “queer” might be the best descriptor until we can ask for specifics. (Rosemary Ketchum / Pexels.com)

More recently, the “q” has been understood as standing for “queer,” an umbrella term that many proponents argue encompasses identities that don’t fit the other letters. In short, you might not be trans or gay, but you’re “queer”—as in, not cishet.

When writing out the acronym some people only include one “q.” This can mean either “queer” or “questioning.” Other people, hoping to be more inclusive, add two “q”s.

Some people use the term queer to encompass multiple identities, such as being both trans and gay/lesbian. Others simply use it because they like the way it “fits” them, whereas other definitions may not feel quite right.

The next two most common letters to see are “I” and “A.” Sometimes, these letters end up behind the commonly added plus sign; sometimes they’re not.

“I” stands for intersex, simple as that.

“A” Is not for “Ally”

There’s a lot more debate about what the “A” stands for. Historically speaking, it has been used to include allies. In this specific context, “allies” were often people who couldn’t afford to be outed or didn’t want to come out. Being “an ally” allowed them to align themselves with the community and access resources.

Of course, not every ally is queer, even in the historical context. Some were simply cishet individuals who wanted to show their support. This remains true today–although many people who would have been “allies” in the past identify with other letters of the acronym today.

More recently, people have objected to including allies in the acronym, especially if these people don’t identify as queer themselves. In fact, some now contest the idea that the “A” ever stood for ally.

The consensus seems to be clear: if “A” ever stood for ally, it shouldn’t now.

“A” Can Stand for Asexual

Today, you’re more likely to see the “A” identified as asexual. There is a lot of debate about whether asexual people are part of in the queer community. Some of them are in heterosexual relationships and thus present as cishet individuals.

Some people add more than one “A” to the acronym, whether they think ace individuals are “queer enough” or not. The “A” can stand for at least two other groups.

“A” Can Also Stand for Aromantic or Agender

For some people, the second “A” stands for “aromantic.” Aromantic people are sometimes posed as being the “opposite” of ace individuals, in that they may experience sexual attraction, but they rarely feel romantic attachment to other people. That is, they don’t really fall in love.

Many ace people are also aro, however. Fewer people accept “a romanticism” as being truly queer, although I think we can certainly argue it is. When it appears in people who are also ace, these individuals tend to experience little to no sexual desire and little to no romantic attraction—experiences which are certainly a counterpoint to the norms painted by cishet society. In that sense, being aro, ace, or aro-ace (or anything along the spectrum of these two, such as gray-ace or Demi sexual) is queer. Very queer!

The other interpretation of the “A” is “agender.” Much like the “a” indicates a “lack of” in ace and aro individuals, agender individuals so not have a gender. That is, they don’t think of themselves as men or women, femme or masc. They do not conceptualize themselves as any of the above—hence being “neither.”

The P

The second last letter of the acronym is usually “P.” It stands for “pansexual.”

There’s been an ongoing debate about the terms pansexual and bisexual and how they differ from one another. Generally speaking, bisexuality is attraction to two genders, while pansexuality is attraction to any and all genders.

The cover of LIONS WILL TAME LEOPARDS, a book with a pan main character, has a lion's head inside a yellow circle, with blue leopards running around the outer edge.
Nix, the main character of Lions Will Tame Leopards, is canonically pan, although he “looks” bi.

Some people argue that “bisexual” is transphobic, although many bi individuals argue this isn’t true. The misconception seems to stem from the idea that bisexuals experience attraction to two sexes and that would somehow exclude trans individuals, who “cross” sexes.

This isn’t true, because trans men are men and trans women are women. A bisexual individual who experiences attraction to both women and men may also feel attraction to trans women and trans men.

Bisexuals also may not be attracted to the “standard” array of “men and women.” For example, someone might be attracted to women and agender individuals, or women and femmes. Someone else may prefer men and mascs.

What’s the Difference between Pan and Bi?

Generally, then, the difference is that bisexuality indicates a somewhat more limited attraction, whereas pansexuality is more all encompassing. That does not necessarily make one “transphobic”—it merely means one doesn’t experience attraction to all genders and sexes.

Some individuals have started using bi/pan to indicate more inclusivity, either for themselves or for the community as a whole. As it turns out, bi/pan people have much more in common than they have dividing them.

Some people say “pansexual” is likely newer terminology that may eventually make “bisexual” outdated. Indeed, younger people might be more likely to adopt the term “pan,” whereas “bi” may appeal more to older queer people. Eventually, we may see more older people drop “bi” in favor of “pan,” and we may see the term “bi” fall out of favor. This would be similar to the way many older trans people prefer the term transsexual for themselves, although this is now a huge faux pas and transgender is the preferred term. Above all, using someone’s own language to refer to their identity is the smartest move.

An Indigenous Identity: T/2S

Finally, there is a second “T” or “2S.” This term is specifically for Indigenous peoples. It refers to a third gender, who embody both male and female spirits, which appears in many Indigenous cultures across North America. These people call themselves Two-Spirit, which can be represented by a “T” or “2S.”

It’s important to remember that this identity is only available to people of Indigenous descent, as it is a different cultural framework than much of the queer community. To adopt this identity without being Indigenous is to engage in cultural appropriation.

Why Are There So Many Labels for Queerness?

The complaint we see most often is that there are so many different labels—and more seem to crop up every day. Already this list doesn’t include terms like genderqueer or pan and bigender. It doesn’t include nonbinary individuals, mascs or femmes. It doesn’t include, specifically, butches or twinks, nor does it include the leather community (which has always been a big part of Pride).

The answer is that there is power in names. When you name something, you can know it. Many queer people acknowledge this reality: they knew there was something “different” about them, but they didn’t know the words. When they learned about transgender people or gay people, they were suddenly able to name themselves.

Words Make Something Visible and Knowable

This is what some people call “rapid onset,” but it’s really just the process of being able to name oneself for the first time. Language is power; names are powerful, and the anti-LGBTQ+ forces out there know that. That’s why they take such umbrage with the rise of new language. It’s why they want books off shelves. They’d much prefer queerness be kept in the dark, because then they can’t name themselves or recognize themselves.

That doesn’t change the fact people are queer. People are queer whether they can name themselves or not. Often, they’re queer even if they don’t immediately recognize queerness or understand it. Heck, even some people who deny it are queer—or they would see themselves as such if there wasn’t such stigma against it. (I’m thinking of all those girls who “experimented” in college but then settled into neat, heteronormative lives and deny that college was anything but a “phase.”)

More labels allow us to recognize more “shades” or “flavor” of queer, which in turn enlightens more queer people. It gives them the language they need to articulate who they are. Maybe “gay” never fit for someone—because they were actually not a gay man but a trans woman. Maybe someone thought they were trans, but they realized they were actually nonbinary: they’re not “a man” or “a woman.”
This is why more labels are actually a good thing—and human diversity is not necessarily a bad thing.

When Labels Become a Problem

That said, labels can also create division, which is something we’re seeing a lot of lately. Some people want to defend what’s “gay” or “lesbian” enough.

Two women, one Black and one white, wearing cropped white shirts and blue jeans with black belts, hold hands. They most likely identify with some form of queerness.
I dunno, folks, if they’re not wearing Birkenstocks, they might not be real lesbians. (Anna Shvets / Pexels.com)

This desire for division is rooted in understandable—albeit erroneous—thinking. People worry that some of the people joining the community aren’t “really” queer—in that they don’t understand what it means to fight the good fight.

This allows cishet society to re-absorb the people we reject as “not queer enough,” who then participate in our oppression. And since we’ve drawn such clear lines around ourselves, it becomes very easy to single out queerness—and from there it becomes incredibly easy to oppress people.

This is why defending the borders of queerness is nonsensical.

We can see ace oppression happening in Jennifer Lawrence’s new movie. What are the chances the love interest is asexual? Yet because masculinity is associated with a high sex drive, cishet society says there’s something “wrong” with a man who isn’t interested in sex.

In that sense, he’s just as queer as a gay man. Their desires—or lack thereof—are forms of queerness, rejected by society at large. At different points in history, both men would have been medicalized. In fact, the ace man still is medicalized, with doctors suggesting they can help with libido. What if low libido isn’t necessarily a problem, though? What if it is just someone’s natural state of being and they’re perfectly happy with it—excepting the pressures of modern society?

Queer as a Catch-All for All Identities

Some people do not like the term queer, in part because it was a slur for many, many years. The community has done its utmost to reclaim it, and today, queer has more positive connotations. It’s in the full acronym, for chrissakes.

Queer is a wonderful term; the community’s efforts to reclaim it make good sense, because it so perfectly encapsulates all the multitude experiences people can have. Some people experience more than “one letter” of the rainbow alphabet, and “queer” becomes an easy way of explaining themselves without too much detail. In other cases, someone may not feel anything truly “fits,” although they’re certain they’re not cishetnormative.

And queer unites us easily, in a way that LGBTQIA+ cannot. (After all, what’s involved in the politics of who is out front and who is hidden behind the +? What about various factions trying to drop letters and exclude?)

So, as much as we love labels and nuance, I think “queer” is the term we should use—and we shouldn’t ever let anyone tell us it’s a slur ever again.

About the author

By Cherry

Recent Posts


OUT NOW! Get ready for high seas adventure with SAVED BY THE SELKIE!

Read Now


Want to get all the latest delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the Ficsation newsletter!