Marketing the Rainbow


LGBT, or GLBT stands for four groups of sexual (or gender) minorities: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. These have been joined by no other reason than they all being that: a sexual minority. For the purpose of marketing, this combination has practically no meaning, and it is mainly a political one to ‘join forces’, be all-inclusive. To further extend this (feeling of inclusion), a number of other letters have been used in the past two decades as abbreviations for self-identified groups of people who are a sexual minority.

Note: LGBT itself is part again of “S” in the abbreviation SMERF, which stands for Social, Military, Educational, Religious, Fraternal. These are market segments used predominantly in the CVB (Convention & Visitor Bureau) market.

Q (since 1996): Queer. Wikipedia defines Queer as “an umbrella term for sexual minorities that are not heterosexual, heteronormative, or gender-binary”. It can also encompass: pansexual, pomosexual, intersexual, genderqueer, asexual and autosexual people, and even gender normative heterosexuals whose sexual orientations or activities place them outside the heterosexual-defined mainstream, e.g., BDSM practitioners, or polyamorous persons.” 

This definition in itself shows how diverse the group of sexual minorities is!

Like many names before, the term Queer is often controversial because it used to be a derogatory word for gays (in Dutch ‘geuzennaam’). Many LGBT do not approve of its use for that reason, and you see it used now mostly by the more radical, young gays. Arguably the most famous use was that in the TV series Queer as Folk (originating in the UK, then adapted and expanded for the US market), a series about a group of gay and lesbian friends. The name of the series derived from a saying, rather than from gay terminology.

Q has also been used for “Questioning”: often for young people who have not yet found their sexual identity, or for those who do not wish to apply a social label to their sexuality.

This latter Q has also been used as U, for Unsure Guys, as in (L)GBTU.

T’s have also been added for "transsexual" sometimes (also as TS or just 2) for Two-spirited (see below).

I for Intersex (since 1999): an intersex individual may have biological characteristics of both the male and the female sexes, and can also be called Hermaphrodites.

A (or SA) is in use for Allies: heterosexuals who support the community and the cause. In a growing number of schools Gay-Straight Alliances are being set up to create an environment of inclusion and tolerance.

A has also been used for Asexual and Aromantic.

F was only used by the Outgames in Wellington, and means Faafafine, a third gender specific to Samoan culture. The organizing committee stated: “We explicitly market to the LGBTIF (adding Intersex and Faafafine to the rainbow umbrella) community but will not preclude the mainstream from participating in the Outgames.”

P stands for pansexuality or polyamorous.

2 or Two-spirited people (or winkte): a two-spirited person exists in the American native tradition dating from before colonization and contact with European cultures. It believed in the existence of three genders: the male, the female and the male-female gender. Traditionally, the Two-spirited person was one who had received a gift from the Creator, that gift being the privilege to house both male and female spirits in their bodies: they were revered as leaders, mediators, teachers, artists, seers, and spiritual guides. They were treated with the greatest respect, and held important spiritual and ceremonial responsibilities. The arrival of the Europeans was marked by the imposition of foreign views and values on Native spirituality, family life and traditions.

Note: many native American tribes have three, five, or even seven genders. Each Native nation (i.e. each with its own language) would have a specific term (and practice) which referred to those we (westerners) might call "other-gendered: I-coo-coo-a (Sauk and Fox); Agokwa (Ojibwa); Hee-man-eh (Cheyenne); Ougokweniini (Anishnawbe); Winkte (Sioux and Lakota); Ihamana (Zuni); Nadleeh (Navajo); Tanowaip (Shoshoni); Kwidó (Tewa); Manly Hearts (The North Piegan). "Berdache" remains a term used by many anthropologists, but is considered (by many Native Americans) to be a European, racist slur.

MSM (i.e. "men who have sex with men") is clinically used to describe men who have sex with other men without referring to their sexual orientation.

In a broader context Same-sex attraction (SSA) is being used: the term refers to the feeling of attraction as a discrete phenomenon, rather than as an aspect of a sexual identity or lifestyle. It occurs mostly in circles that are restrictive in the acceptance of sexual behavior, but less so regarding identity, for instance the Mormons. Some men have come out as being attracted to other men, but they do not “act upon it”, and marry a woman to fit in.

Other feelings, like (accusations of) racism, play a role too. SGL (i.e. "same gender loving") is sometimes favored among African‐Americans as a way of distinguishing themselves from what they regard as white‐dominated LGBT communities. In fact, one African American participant in my survey felt insulted that I used the term “gay”, as this did not apply to him.

DL, or down-low is an African-American slang term that refers to a subculture of men who usually identify as heterosexual, but who have sex with men. In this context, "being on the Down Low" is more than just men having sex with men in secret, or a variant of closeted homosexuality or bisexuality – it is a sexual identity that is, at least partly, defined by its "cult of masculinity" and its rejection of white culture (including white LGBT culture) and terms.

Finally, there is O for Other, in case some people feel left out. Seriously.

The combination and collaboration of these different groups (and with different I do not only mean that they are not the same, but that they really have very different characteristics) is based on the feeling that the relevant minorities should support each other, and with the idea that there is power in numbers. At the same time, the unification of these groups is often artificial and only the feeling of tolerance, unity and support is what is holding them together. Gay men and lesbian women probably differ more from each other than heterosexual men and women. Yet, they unite for reasons of solidarity.

The image shown to the outside world is, or should be, a unified one, but internally the differences play up, and the interests of sub-groups lead to big internal struggles. Within organizations that include (mostly) lesbians and gays, there is often a power struggle for fear of being the weaker of the two: after all, many of the lifestyle elements – and hence desires, needs and wishes – are very different. Some members of one group may feel no relation to the persons in other groups denoted in, let’s say, the LGBTQI community and find such persistent comparisons offensive. Some argue that transgender and transsexual causes are not the same as that of "LGB" people.

In spite of my research being set up “widely” in order not to exclude of offend anyone, I still got complaints from people who felt they were not properly addressed: for instance from one pre-op male to female transgender who was sexually attracted to men. I guess that suffering from traumatic sexual identity issues, people tend to go to extremes to feel, or rather be included.

While organizing the event GayDay@Efteling (comparable to Gay Days Disney) in 2011, I experienced that some minorities are overly sensitive as to feeling excluded: although I did on occasion use the term LGBT (in the Netherlands, at that time, not very well known) and, in the press release for the event as well as on the website, mentioned “lesbians, gays, their families, friends, colleagues, neighbours and everyone interested”, I received complaints from people who said their bisexual friends felt excluded, and LGBT parents who would have liked to have “children” included in the enumeration…

It goes to show that “enumeration” is, and probably for a long time will remain, a very sensitive issue.

Pride Toronto is the organization that went the longest extra mile to include everyone (?): LGBTTIQQ2SA.  Their mission is to “celebrate the history, courage, diversity and future of Toronto's LGBTTIQQ2SA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer/Questioning, 2 Spirited, Allies) communities”. In November of 2016, the Canadian Prime Minister announced a Special Advisor on “LGBTQ2+” issues – funding it with $3.6 million dollars – so even the government expanded the usual LGBT connotation.

The term LGBT has become so mainstream in the US, that even presidential candidate Obama and his wife Michelle used it as a noun in their speeches running up to the presidential election in 2008.

By now (2021), a + is often added to indicate that the four letters are not a limitation - but a general consensus as to a description of the group. I think LGBT+ is complete and inclusive, and will use this in my publications. 

This article was last updated Dec 24, 2020.


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