Blogpost: What Exactly is LGBTQ?

I can’t speak for other writers, but for me, writing about anything LGBTQ is difficult and puzzling. Anytime I attempt it, I hit a wall. Eventually, it’s time to stop and read what’s written on it: LGBTQ is not one thing. 

In the spirit of starting at square one, LGBTQ is an acronym for a group that is comprised of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning people. Newer versions of this acronym add “I” and “A” at the end to include intersex and asexual people, respectively.

Having a place that all people with non-conventional sexual orientations can call home has advantages. For instance, by identifying themselves as “LGBTQ-affirmative,” schools, businesses, and other organizations easily communicate that they are safe and welcoming for people who might otherwise stay away for fear of mistreatment.

And within the LGBTQ community, there’s abundant inter-group affection: for instance, many of us in the gay community feel kinship with our L, B, T, and Q brothers and sisters and share in their joy when they make strides in achieving equal rights.

However, are we making the world a safer, more inclusive place at the cost of unduly homogenizing a diverse group of people?

Using one “umbrella” term to contain five-plus distinct groups raises important questions about individual and group identity. I face these questions daily in my practice as a psychoanalyst and psychologist.

On my website, I identify myself as having expertise in LGBTQ issues, even though I only identify as part of the G group. Being an expert often derives, at least partially, from being an insider. I’m not a lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning person. I might count as queer, but I can only let you know once everyone agrees on its definition. I don’t have any first-hand knowledge about how lesbians live, or what transgender folks struggle with, or what’s on the minds of bisexual people, or what defines the experience of queer or questioning people.

What I am is a cis-gendered gay man who provides psychotherapy to gay men more than any other demographic group. So I know about coming out and the ways it changes your life, but the similarities between my gay experience and those of lesbians end where the gender divide begins.

And I’m not sure to what degree my experience overlaps with that of bisexuals, because I’ve not known the invisibility and invalidation that bisexual people experience constantly. I know what it’s like to feel confused about one’s childhood attraction to toys associated with the opposite sex. However, I don’t know the traumatizing shame and rejection that gender-dysphoric children endure, and I have no idea what it’s like to undergo hormone and surgical treatment to align one’s body with one’s true gender and heal one’s psychic pain.

So my ability to claim LGBTQ expertise is dubious because the commonality among group members implied by the term LGBTQ is dubious. The things we do have in common—such as dealing with feelings of inadequacy and fears of rejection tied to aspects of ourselves that are innate—give us a leg up on understanding aspects of one another’s experiences.

For instance, because I’ve experienced certain things as a gay man, I’m perhaps better positioned than a “non-LGBTQ” person to ask questions such as “When did you figure out that your attraction to dresses meant you were a girl rather than just a gay man with certain feminine quirks?” or “Do you experience yourself differently when you’re topping versus bottoming?”

However, having familiarity with someone’s experience is not the same as knowing it fully. We must be curious about a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning person’s unique experience, whether or not it conforms with our stereotypical notions of what LGBTQ is—and whether or not we identify as LGBTQ ourselves.

LGBTQ is many things and many people, and we need to honor diversity of experience by remaining ever-conscious of the things we don’t know. As I tell my patients all the time, “I don’t know” is a great place to start. So let’s begin.

*This blogpost was published by CP in Action for Psychology Today.