During his speech addressing terrorism Monday afternoon, Donald Trump said many things that were striking, but only one that was truly surprising. In the midst of listing off as many instances of foreign and domestic terrorism as his speechwriters could come up with, the Republican nominee pronounced (with some difficulty) an acronym his supporters are likely unused to hearing: LGBTQ.
“In June, 49 Americans were executed at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, and another 53 were injured,” he said. “It was the worst mass shooting in our history, and the worst attack on the LGBTQ community in our history.”
At the Democratic National Convention last month, Hillary Clinton made a similar statement during her DNC speech, but with a notable difference: “We will defend all our rights: civil rights, human rights, and voting rights; women’s rights and worker’s rights; LGBT rights and the rights of people with disabilities.”
It might not seem like much, but tacking the ‘Q’ onto the end of the LGBT acronym includes a group of people that has been traditionally marginalized. The ‘Q’ at the end of LGBT (which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) is commonly understood to stand for “queer,” although in some cases it’s said to mean “questioning.” And although many nonprofits and campus organizations consider it a default part of the acronym, so far the ‘Q’ has yet to make its way into the Associated Press or New York Times stylebooks, let alone into mainstream politics.
Part of the reason for that, said activist Mara Keisling, is because legislative language is often out of date. “The language that our community uses is constantly evolving, and that’s a good thing, but it means that sometimes allies aren’t fully up to speed on what we think the language is at any given time,” she said. “It’s our job to try to move the language forward.”
Keisling helped write this year’s Democratic Party platform, and she attended a July platform meeting in Orlando, where a motion to include ‘Q’ in the platform’s LGBT acronym was introduced. She described the meeting as chaotic, with hundreds of state representatives clamoring to include the issues that mattered most to them. At one point, in the midst of debating the foreign policy plank, someone raised their hand and proposed an amendment to change LGBT to LGBTQ.
“It caught everybody off guard,” she said. Most people were in favor of the amendment but didn’t want it to distract from the foreign policy plank. “And this is going to sound horrible,” she said, “But I think everybody just forgot.”
She went on, “it’s an important inclusion, but it wasn’t the prize,” she said. “It may have been for somebody, and I’m so glad of that, but it wasn’t in the top-five list of things I was trying to do.”
But David Braun, who told BuzzFeed that he proposed the amendment, saw the exclusion of ‘Q’ as an affront. “The idea that we can self-identify and name ourselves is very important,” he said. “It is very unfortunate that queer people have to fight to be identified properly by a party that is supposedly paying lip service to our community.”
Keisling’s and Braun’s attitudes represent both sides of a debate within the LGBTQ community, between what Patrick Egan, an associate professor of politics and public policy at NYU, calls activists and policy makers. “I think it [depends on] where you’re devoting your energy, whether it’s more toward representation and symbolism or toward policies and laws,” he said.
There’s also a generational divide — whereas younger members of the LGBT community are beginning to reclaim “queer” and to use it as an umbrella term, to older members it still carries the stigma of the ‘70s and ‘80s when it was used primarily as a homophobic slur — in a 1970 article for American Speech, linguist Julia Penelope wrote that gays and lesbians she interviewed felt the term, “was only used by heterosexuals to express their disdain for homosexuals.”
“It doesn’t have the same kind of currency that the other four terms [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] do,” Egan said. “So people are not advocating as strongly for its inclusion.”
Not only is it a somewhat divisive term, but the inherent meaning of the word queer also makes it tricky to wield when crafting policy because it has no solid definition — it’s an open-ended term by design of the people who adopt it.
“In a way the construction of the identity is at odds with a kind of standard civil-rights framework in which most politics and legislation revolve,” Egan said. “You identify the groups that need help, you specify who those groups are in legislation and policy, and you hope those policies alleviate the concerns of those groups. And because you’ve got a group that’s resisting definition and resisting boundaries, the question arises: What do you do for that group that you’re not already doing for L, G, B, and T?”