It continues to be an education. Back in the late 20th century, we learned (as we had kind of known all along) that people were not simply male or female but heterosexual or homosexual. The latter we learned to designate as gay, as opposed to straight. And then we learned to separate homosexuals by gender as gay or lesbian. So far, so good.

But then, as we investigated sexuality and gender identity more thoroughly, other types made themselves known. There were bisexuals, whose sexuality encompassed both homo- and hetero-. And there were people who were born with the equipment of one sex but identified with the other, who often used surgery and medication to make the transition. We called these transsexuals.

This gave us four types of exceptions from the older categories of heterosexual male and heterosexual female. They were lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals: LGBT (or GLBT) for short, a convenient abbreviation to help us remember them all. (And we learned that transgender might be a better term than transsexual.)

But as researchers in gender studies delved deeper, they discovered ever more variants on the theme. And people with these other variants began emerging from the crowded closet, asking (or demanding) that their kind of sexuality be recognized and protected against discrimination.

We have learned, for example, that some people are born intersex. What’s that? The Intersex Society of North America explains:

Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types. … Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.”

So would adding I to LGBT take care of the variations? No, it gets more complicated. There’s the category queer and questioning. Anatomy is no longer destiny, it’s inquiry. We learn that we don’t have to conform to a label imposed on us by others; we get to choose our gender identity for ourselves, to decide whether we are gay or straight, male or female, in between—or none of the above.

That’s where the category asexual comes in. One percent of the population, we’re told, actually doesn’t care about sex. No kidding! Of course, this too is a little more complicated. The website Hoyden About Town explains:

“Asexuality is a lack of sexual attraction to other people. Sometimes that manifests as not having or being interested in sex; other times it means that people are happy to have sex for reasons other than sexual attraction, such as pleasing a partner, or simply because sex can physically feel good. All the sexual people out there: Can you really say you’d only ever have sex if you were completely sexually attracted to someone?”

And so, putting it all together, we get the abbreviation LGBTQQ2IA. Not so easy to remember. So someone came up with an alternative, the anagram Quiltbag. The Queer Dictionary website explains:

“It stands for Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Allied/Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer. It is meant to be a more inclusive term than GLBT/LGBT and to be more pronounceable (and memorable) than some of the other variations or extensions on the GLBT/LGBT abbreviation.”

Urbandictionary has a slightly different interpretation of the acronym, posted three years ago:

Q – Queer and Questioning
U – Unidentified
I – Intersex
L – Lesbian
T – Transgender, Transexual
B – Bisexual
A – Asexual
G – Gay, Genderqueer

with this example of use: “The lesbian community is just one of the many different pockets in the Quiltbag!”

But neither LGBTQQ2IA  nor Quiltbag is likely to be the last word. As gender-studies research continues, and discussion proliferates, other variations are likely to emerge.

So young people nowadays have choices to make that they didn’t face before. And it’s not a once-for-all choice; they can question and redefine themselves at any time. They even need to let others know the pronouns by which they should be addressed. I’ll discuss these next week.

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