Last week, I ran a QUILTBAG+ 101 workshop at an LGBT conference. In all three groups, participants raised a number of interesting questions, some of which I’d like to explore in more detail here.
QUILTwhat? you ask…
“Alphabet soup” is a common criticism of gender and sexual minority communities’ attempts at inclusion. LGBTQIBBQWTF is a much-used spoof of the ever-expanding series of letters used to denote different parts of what is, at best, a loose community formed around shared experiences of oppression and exclusion. Hence QUILTBAG+: It is relatively inclusive, a bit twee but also easy to remember. It is far from perfect. As someone who in some contexts identifies as pansexual, the fact that there’s no P in QUILTBAG does bother me, but that’s what the “+” is for: it stands for a certain openness to identities not explicitly covered in the acronym. It is – I hope – not the acronym to end all acronyms but it’s one of the better ones we have at the moment.
For the 101 of what each letter means and some first steps you can take in being an ally to QUILTBAG+ people, go to QUILTBAG101. No, really, do. It’s an excellent crowd-sourced site with input from across the QUILTBAG+ community and it’ll take you all of 10 minutes to read. I’ll be very surprised if you don’t learn at least one new thing from it, no matter who you are.
Isn’t this an acronym too far?
It’s a common argument. LGBT is short, punchy, established, people know what it stands for. Of course, so was “gay” as an umbrella term, except it mostly meant gay men, and “lesbians and gays” works quite well, doesn’t it now, if it was’t for those pesky bisexuals. I’ve sat in enough meetings trying to decide whether a group or organisation is LGB or LGBT to last me a lifetime.
Here’s the thing: If you’ve been excluded all your life, your default assumption when approaching any new situation or group becomes exclusion. Therefore the responsibilty falls on those with, relatively speaking, more privilege to proactively reach out and include those with less. While being lesbian or gay or bi may not often feel like a privileged position, in many cases it is. It may even be easier to exclude other groups and deliberately pursue assimilationist policies, seeking entry to more privileged groups by emphasising what we have in common with them and rejecting those less privileged than us. It doesn’t take much reflection, however, to realise that this is not a game we can win. It may work out very well for a small number of fortunate individuals but the majority of us are more likely to be the ones thrown under the bus in the process than the ones doing the throwing.
Adding a letter to an acronym is the first step towards giving someone the confidence that your space, your group, your organisation is one that welcomes them. Even if you know absolutely nothing about intersex, or genderqueer, or asexual issues, and don’t know how best to support people with these identities, I would argue this is a step worth taking. People will come forward, they will tell you what their needs are, you will learn from the experience, and the community will be stronger as a result. Of course, some people or groups may not want to be associated with the wider QUILTBAG+ community. That, too, is their prerogative. My strong preference continues to be to err on the side of inclusivity – people can still exclude themselves if they want to.
But surely the issues are all different?
QUILTBAG+ encompasses identities rooted in sexuality (gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, pansexual), gender (trans*, genderqueer), and biological sex (intersex). Of course the political, legal, social and economic issues different parts of the community face vary hugely. Where, as Stonewall keep pointing out, the legal fight for equality for lesbians and gay men in the UK has been won with the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, for intersex people it has barely begun, and other parts of the QUILTBAG+ community are at different stages of that legal journey.
There is, however, a very significant overlap on many issues, and we ignore that at our own peril. Let me give you some examples. Prior to the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, transgender people who were married or in a civil partnership had to obtain a divorce or dissolution, respectively, before they could get legal recognition of their gender. This is because marriage and civil partnership as institutions and legal constructs were defined based on the genders of the parties involved, and one party transitioning to a gender different to the one the law recognised them as did not fit within those definitions. As civil partnerships continue to only be available to same-gender couples, this continues to be an issue for some trans* people and their families even after legal equality for cisgender people in same-gender relationships has been achieved. To make matters worse, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act introduced a spousal veto for married trans* people seeking to transition.
Another example: Germany has recently introduced a legally recognised indeterminate gender, to be used for babies born intersex. In many ways this is great progress for the intersex community who continue to struggle against medical practices seeking to assign them physical characteristics of one sex or the other at a very young age, which can lead, among other things, to sterilisation. The removal of the legal obligation to assign a sex to a newborn can relieve some of the pressure on parents to agree to such surgery. This innovation in German law, however, comes without a wider review of legislation based on sex and gender. Marriage and civil partnership in Germany continue to be defined based on the legal gender of the partners, and so the rights of people who are legally recognised as of indeterminate gender with regards to these institutions are currently unclear. Comprehensive legal reform will be required over the next few years to deal with this, and that is highly likely to have side effects – intended or otherwise – for other parts of the QUILTBAG+ community.
We need to recognise that gender, bological sex, and sexuality are firmly linked in our culture, society and politics. A lot of negative attitudes towards all parts of the QUILTBAG+ community have their roots in the gender binary, and in deep-seated beliefs about gender roles and the respective value of people of different genders. Challenging these is no easy task, and we will continue to experience backlash as we poke and prod at what it means to be male or female, at whom we can love and how. Where the interests of different parts of the QUILTBAG+ community overlap we need to speak with one, strong voice. Where they do not, we need to be aware of the unforeseen consequences we still may cause for each other, and ensure we do not, accidentally or otherwise, throw parts of the community under the bus. The only way to achieve that is by forming inclusive communities, listening to each other, and remembering that we are both all different and all human.
There are so many identities I’d never heard of before! How do I make sure I don’t get it wrong and offend people?
Listen and seek to understand. Ask questions respectfully and accept that people are under no obligation to answer. Share your experiences, your needs, and your fears. Be human. For more ideas, see QUILTBAG101 and this post I wrote a while ago on being an ally.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *