Stirring Up the Origin of the ‘Alphabet Soup’

Take a closer look at the history behind the words and phrases used to identify LGBT people

By Ray Simon, LGBT History Project, October 2017 Web Exclusive.

Today, references to the LGBT community are commonplace. One hears them in both the mainstream media and everyday conversation.

What’s not generally discussed, though, is how this particular combination of words came to represent the LGBT community. Why were some words admitted to this “alphabet soup” while others were excluded?

As it happens, the history behind the words and phrases used to identify LGBT people is both curious and revealing.

No Homo: How homosexual faded from use

Consider the word :homosexual.” Its absence from the initialism LGBT is conspicuous, because it was the label most frequently applied to gay men and lesbians for several decades during the mid-20th century.

Before then, same-sex behavior was either condemned as a sin on religious grounds or punished as a crime for legal reasons. But well into the early modern era, there was no commonly accepted word or phrase to describe individuals with a physical attraction to, romantic feelings for or a sexual interest in people of the same sex.

That began to change, gradually, during the 19th century. With medicine and psychology emerging as scientific disciplines, some began to think of so-called sodomites less as sinners or criminals and more as patients.

In 1869, Karl-Maria Kertbeny, an early advocate of gay rights, coined the German word “homosexualität.” Roughly two decades later, English author John Addington Symonds included a discussion of “homosexual instincts” in his 1891 book, “A Problem in Modern Ethics.” Scholars cite this as the first use of the word “homosexual” in English.

By the early decades of the 20th century, “homosexual” had become common parlance among medical doctors and psychologists, but to no avail. As the historian John D’Emilio notes in his book “Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities,” “Although the medical profession strove from the 1880s onward to wrest power over the fate of homosexuals and lesbians away from the criminal-justice system, the attempt did not initially seem to benefit gay individuals.”

In effect, gay men and lesbians went from being sinners or criminals to being sick. Unfortunately, the cures proffered by the medical profession included remedies as gruesome as castration, hysterectomy and lobotomy. It’s no wonder, then, that by the 1960s, gay men and lesbians were eager to shake off the word “homosexual” and replace it with a label of their own choosing.

Author Edmund White traces the gradual replacement of the word “homosexual” with the word “gay” in his essay “The Political Vocabulary of Homosexuality.” As he notes, the pace of change was given added impetus by Stonewall, but the experience of African-Americans struggling for civil rights was also important. According to White:

Just as Negro had been rejected as something contaminated because it had been used by (supposedly hypocritical) liberals and the seemingly more neutral black was brought into currency, in the same way homosexual, with its medical textbook ring, was dismissed in favor of the more informal and seemingly innocuous gay

By the 1970s, the word “gay” became more common among both gay men and lesbians, as well as the general public. Psychologists and psychiatrists, however, needed a bit more convincing: Homosexuality continued to be listed as a “non-psychotic mental disorder” in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

That finally changed, thanks to Dr. John Fryer. At the APA’s annual meeting in 1972, Fryer donned a mask and participated in a panel as “Dr. H. Anonymous.” His remarks began: “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.” In 1973, when the next edition of the DSM was published, the APA no longer listed homosexuality as a mental illness.

It’s here, it’s queer!

The word “gay” may have positive connotations, but the same can’t be said for “queer,” which has enjoyed a resurgence recently. This is surprising because the epithet “queer” is an intensely hurtful pejorative, one that many older gays and lesbians revile.

“Queer”’s initial meaning is innocuous. Webster’s defines it as “differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal.” Its synonyms include “strange,” “eccentric” and “unconventional.”

In the late 19th century, however, “queer” acquired a secondary meaning: male homosexual. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, its first appearance in print is a letter from John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry, to Alfred Montgomery dated Nov. 1, 1894. Douglas’ oldest son, Francis, had died days before — probably a suicide. In this vituperative missive, Douglas excoriates many people, including “The Snob Queers like Roseberry.” His meaning was perfectly clear.

The idea that anyone called such a loathsome curse would turn around and use it as a badge of honor or a weapon seems farfetched. And yet, by 1990, “queer” made that transition when four AIDS activists in New York City started Queer Nation. Angered by a spike in violence directed at gay men, they were determined to meet it with an aggressive, confrontational response.

At that June’s Gay Pride March, they distributed an anonymously written pamphlet titled “Queers Read This.” It’s a blistering reproach directed at straights, the media, Sen. Jesse Helms and John Cardinal O’Connor, to name just a few targets.

The pamphlet is a call to arms; its opening paragraph concludes, “You as an alive and functioning queer are a revolutionary.” For the authors, queerness isn’t about assimilation or tolerance; it’s “about being on the margins.”

Although they acknowledge that “queer” is a difficult word, they insist that it’s right for the times, because it’s inclusive and reflects the righteous anger many felt during the AIDS crisis. As they put it, “Yeah, QUEER can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe’s hands and use against him.”

Queer Nation eventually faded from the scene, but the word “queer” endured. From 2000-05, for example, Showtime aired the popular series “Queer as Folk.” Within academia, Queer Theory became a fruitful area of inquiry.

Today, especially among some younger people, “queer” is a capacious term that encompasses anyone whose sexuality or gender falls outside the norm, whether they are asexual, gender-nonconforming, kinky, polyamorous or LGBT.

Despite that, “queer”’s negative connotations can still provoke disgust among older gays. The Huffington Post initiated a flap over this in 2016 when it changed the name of its LGBT site from “Gay Voices” to “Queer Voices.” Among those who objected was Mark Segal, longtime publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News and winner of numerous LGBT journalism awards.

Regarding “queer,” Segal wrote, “It’s popular with only one segment of our population, and that segment is overwhelmingly activist-driven.” The majority of LGBT people, he argued, “still feel hurt when they hear that word.”

Trans*-former: The emergence of transgender

The history of LGBT labels isn’t just a narrative of old words being dropped or formerly shunned words being reclaimed. As the burgeoning transgender community shows, new LGBT vocabulary is being coined right now.

Throughout history, there have been individuals who did not conform to the typical gender roles they were expected to take on. Joan of Arc is a well-known example, but there are others, including Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man so that she could fight with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Today, we’d most likely say they were “transgender.”

During the early to mid-20th century, various labels were used to “name” these individuals, like “transvestite” and “transsexual.” Unsurprisingly, these words generally originated in medicine and psychology. They were also, equally unsurprising, inadequate. Transvestite, for example, included both straight men who enjoyed dressing in women’s clothes and men who wore women’s clothes because it was a genuine expression of their true gender. To compound the problem, these same people were generally lumped together with gay men and lesbians, even if they didn’t have same-sex desires.

Trans activist Leslie Feinberg summarized the situation in a 1992 pamphlet called “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come.” Feinberg acknowledges a growing community of “gender outlaws,” whose number includes “transvestites, transsexuals, drag queens and drag kings, cross-dressers, stone butches, androgynes, diesel dykes or berdache.”

As Feinberg’s title suggests, one word that might actually describe this disparate group of people is “transgender.” According to scholars, the word first appeared in print in John F. Oliven’s 1965 book, “Sexual Hygiene and Pathology.” Oliven writes:

Where the compulsive urge reaches beyond female vestments, and becomes an urge for gender (‘sex’) change, transvestism becomes ‘transsexualism.’ The term is misleading; actually, ‘transgenderism’ is what is meant, because sexuality is not a major factor in primary transvestism.

Although Oliven’s understanding of “transgender” is not the same as our understanding of it today, his use of it is still significant. As K.J. Rawson and Cristan Williams note in their book, “Transgender*: The Rhetorical Landscape of a Term,” Oliven didn’t use the word in the book’s 1955 edition; it was added later, when the second edition was revised and published.

Gradually, some members of this marginalized community began to apply the word “transgender” to themselves. For example, Virginia Charles Prince, publisher of the long-running periodical “Transvestia,” occasionally used a variation of the word, “transgenderal.”

By the 1990s, gay-rights groups began to recognize transgender individuals and included them under the umbrella term LGBT. More recently, the general public has become more familiar with “transgender,” sometimes thanks to positive role models like Laverne Cox and Chelsea Manning, but also, unfortunately, because of debates over so-called bathroom bills.

As the transgender community continues to grow, it’s also enriching our vocabulary. “Cisgender,” for example, is often employed to denote those who are not transgender. For some, even the word “transgender” is inadequate; instead, they prefer to use “trans men,” “trans women” or even just “trans*.”

Conclusion: A word to the wise

This brief sketch of the history of three labels referring to the LGBT community reveals a few broad themes. To begin with, language — like gender and sexuality — is a complex, fluid phenomenon. Any attempt to circumscribe a word’s meaning or usage is foolhardy.

Second, we must always be alert to the context in which words are used. Is a label used by LGBT people to define themselves, or is it being applied to them by someone else, perhaps someone openly hostile to them? The distinction is crucial.

Finally, history is a record of change, so LGBT people, however they refer to themselves today, would do well to remember that a new generation of LGBT individuals might prefer other labels just two or three decades from now.

As Feinberg wrote, “The language used in this pamphlet may quickly become outdated as the gender community coalesces and organizes — a wonderful problem.”


Ray Simon is a writer and editor from Philadelphia. In addition to LGBT issues, he’s written about games, music and sustainability. You can follow him on Twitter at @raymondpsimon.