There has been a steady increase in the number of letters being added to the name “LGBT”: it used to be “gay and lesbian,” then, somewhere along the line, it was decided that bisexuals—or some of them—are, after all, really bisexual (not just halfway-out-of-the-closet-homosexuals), so we added the “B.” Then the “T” for transgender people was added. Because the main reason for the additions was to reflect as accurately as possible the diversity of the queer community, there was a felt need to add more in order to include more: so we have “I” for “Intersex,” and “Q” for “queer” and/or for “questioning.”
As a side note, depending on what we mean by “queer,” it could be that we might just as well use the “Q” and only the “Q,” in place of the longer acronym, which is a suggestion that Jonathan Rauch makes in “It’s Time to Drop the ‘LGBT’ from ‘LGBTQ’” (The Atlantic, January/February 2019). This is because if it means something like “anything that is not heteronormative” (whatever this means), then it would refer to all the identities we wish to refer to and future ones that we have not yet imagined, as long as they are not heteronormative: gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, intersex people, and more. The problem with “Q” is that, despite its tidiness, efficiency, and the ease with which it rolls off the tongue, it does not properly reflect the diversity by referring to each group using its own initial—it fails to recognize each group. It also faces the problem of being too inclusive, depending on how many more identities it includes, which opens the door for perhaps some groups that are not very morally wholesome, even though they are sexual minorities or non-heteronormative.
So we are left with the daunting possibility that the initials can keep expanding. Consider one such expanded version—LGBTQQIP2SAA, which stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, two spirit, asexual, and ally” (mentioned in Rauch’s article and in Jeffry J. Iovannone’s; https://medium.com/queer-history-for-the-people/a-brief-history-of-the-lgbtq-initialism-e89db1cf06e3). This is not only a mouthful, but one with the potential of becoming more of a mouthful given that it can be expanded with new identities, such as another “B” for “bigender” and “GQ” for “genderqueer.”
Another variation is adding the “+” at the end to arrive at “LGBTQI+.” Although some might see the “+” as a sign of open-ended inclusion, it might as well be seen as a sign of desperation, in effect saying, “We can’t keep up, so we’ll just add the ‘+’ to include whichever identity comes up.” Using the “+,” however, is in effect the same as using only the “Q,” but one put in place after the realization that the addition of more letters had failed in the face of more and more incoming identities. And its problems are the same as those of using just “Q.”
The problems that plague decisions as to which letters to include in the acronym can be seen as the result of a crucial yet unanswered question: Whom are we trying to group together under this acronym? Is it non-heterosexual sexual orientations? Is it non-cis genders? Is it people whose sex does not belong to the common sex binary? And to answer this question, a more important one is why we want to group together whomever we want to group. Is it because these groups share a common property? Or is it because it is politically advantageous to do so? I will discuss in this post some reasons for joining together these groups, and raise problems with each of them. The discussion, I think, is interesting and leads to fascinating issues.
One puzzling thing common to all these suggested acronyms is the lumping together of sexual orientations with non-sexual orientations. Consider LGBTQQIP2SAA: the “L,” “G,” “B,” and “P” (and maybe the first “A,” depending on how we understand asexuality) refer to sexual orientations, while “T” and “2S” refer to gender, while “I” refers to sex, while others’ reference is ambiguous (both “Q’s,” the second “A,” and maybe the first “A,” again depending on how we understand asexuality). My concern is specifically with transgender and sexual orientation, and I will approach the acronym in general through these two aspects—sexual orientation and gender—of a person’s being.
What are some proffered reasons for keeping them together? The website of the Cambridge University Students’ Campaign for LGBT+ (https://www.lgbt.cusu.cam.ac.uk/resources/trans/the-t-within-lgbt/) lists several reasons for why trans people and gay people should be placed together. Let’s briefly examine them. (Reasons  and higher on the following list are not from this website but mine.)
(1) “[M]any trans people are gay, lesbian or bisexual and conversely many gay, lesbian or bisexual people are trans.” But this is not good enough, because by the same token, many trans people are straight, and many straight people are trans, yet this does not give us a reason to include straight people under the umbrella of LGBTQ. Moreover, given this reason, an acronym made up only of initials that refer to sexual orientation identities can still include transgender people who are oriented to members of the same gender or sex. (I am assuming for now that transmen and transwomen are, respectively, men and women in the sense needed for them to be gay and lesbian, given that the concepts of gay and lesbian refer not only to the target of the sexual attraction, but to the sex or gender of the person with the attraction; to wit, a lesbian is a woman who is attracted to women, and a gay man is a man who is attracted to men. However, please note that this is a controversial assumption because the issue is much more complicated owing to the differences between gender and sex, and to whether sexual orientation refers to a person’s sex, gender, or both. So, if sexual orientation refers to the sex of the person with the orientation—if a man is gay because his sex, not his gender, is male—then it’s unclear whether transmen who sexually desire other men are gay or have a different sexual orientation altogether. I shall return to this issue below.)
(2) Historically speaking, trans people have always been part of the gay community and have played a crucial role in the gay rights movement. This, however, provides merely a historical reason, not a conceptual one. Granted that historically speaking trans people were part of the initial struggle, is there a non-historical reason that trans people and gay people should be grouped together? To see this point better, suppose that, historically speaking, vegans were part of the initial movement of LGBT rights (I am not claiming that this is actual history—I am imagining history to have been different to make a point). This would give us at most a historical reason to put together vegans and LGBT people under the same name, but it would not give us a conceptual reason.
(3) Learning to accept one’s trans identity can be similar to learning to accept one’s gay identity, including the social pressures one is subjected to when one comes out. However, unless we have a more basic reason to assimilate gender to sexual orientation, this reason is not different from any other process of coming out, such as coming out as non-Zionist to one’s Zionist family and social group. Yet this gives us no reason to include non-Zionists under the LGBT umbrella.
(4) “We’re stronger together.” But this reason gives us as much reason to include anyone who can make us stronger (the second “A” above for “allies”) or with whom we can both be strong together (e.g., vegans).
What we need is a reason that combines both sexual orientation and gender using one or more criteria to which sexual orientation and gender are relevant, while reasonably excluding irrelevant features. (The rest of the reasons that I examine are not from the Cambridge website.) So, we might try:
(5) We share a common history of oppression on the basis of sex or gender. This is a good start. After all, what seems to be common to all the groups joined together under the LGBT+ umbrella is some connection to sex or gender. But we have to be careful. Consider sex: it is an ambiguous concept in that it refers to various things, including gender (which is often used synonymously with “sex”) and sexual desire, the latter of which can include sexual orientation. But this only pushes the question one step back: Given that sex and sexual orientation are different things, why group them together under the auspices of “oppression”? Consider next gender: Given that sexual orientation and gender are very different things, why group them together under the auspices of “oppression”?
In response, one might argue that the same social systems that oppress people on the basis of gender or sex also oppress them on the basis of sexual orientation, because such systems aim to control various factors related to sex and gender, such as sexual desire and activity, reproduction, and gender roles.
This is a promising response, but it requires further argument. This is especially true in light of previous feminist arguments in favor of separating sexual orientation oppression from gender oppression (e.g., Cheshire Calhoun’s 1994 essay, “Separating Lesbian Theory from Feminist Theory” [Ethics 104: 3, 558-581), and in favor of grouping together non-sexual with sexual oppression because, say, patriarchy’s reach is far and near-exhaustive (e.g., Karen Warren’s 1990 essay, “The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism” [Environmental Ethics 12: 2, 125-146]). That is, there is no clear consensus one way or another about grouping these issues together. This might be extended to argue that oppression on the basis of binary genders is also different from oppression on the basis of transgender. For instance, there is no reason to believe that the oppression of ciswomen is the same as that of transwomen, and surely transmen face obstacles that cismen do not. My point is that we need better arguments to focus on and identify that precise system of oppression that oppresses on the basis of the sexual in such a way that it includes both sexual orientation and transgender identities. Vague references to patriarchal systems or to sexual minorities might be insufficient given that the mechanisms and bases of oppression can differ in ways that depend precisely on whether the target is sexual orientation or gender.
(6) An interesting reason for grouping sexual orientation and gender together is anchored in the popular conception of sexual orientation. Some background is necessary before explaining this reason.
Our current, popular conception of sexual orientation is what I would call “dualist” or (as the philosopher Kathleen Stock calls it), “reflexive” (“Sexual Orientation: What Is It?”; unpublished manuscript in which Stock defends the popular conception of sexual orientation, which she calls “the orthodox view”): it involves not only the sex (or gender) of the object or target of the attraction, but also the sex (or gender) of the person with the attraction. For instance, a lesbian is not only someone who is sexually attracted to women, but is someone who is herself is a woman (hence we often say that lesbians are attracted to other women, with “other” implying the womanhood of the person with the orientation). In general, homosexuals are attracted to members of the same sex, while heterosexuals are attracted to members of the opposite sex. The words “same” and “opposite” imply a reference to the sex (or gender) or the person with the orientation.
This dualist conception of sexual orientation is different from a monist conception, one which emphasizes only the target of the attraction. (A monist conception could refer to only the person with the orientation, but that would be a mere possibility and utterly pointless.) An example of the monist conception was recently defended by the philosopher Robin Dembroff in “What Is Sexual Orientation?” (Philosophers’ Imprint 16 , 1-27), in which Dembroff conceives of sexual orientation only in terms of the sex and gender of the object of the sexual attraction. Dembroff’s conception, that is, has no reference to the sex (or gender) of the person with the orientation. (Dembroff’s view is one example of the monist conception because their view, which Dembroff calls “Bidimensional Dispositionalism,” considers the sex and/or gender as bases of the attraction, whereas monism could elect only one of these two as the basis.)
On the dualist conception, straight men and lesbians have different sexual orientations, even though they have the same type of object of desire. On the monist conception, they would have the same sexual orientation. The current, popular or orthodox conception of sexual orientation is the dualist or reflexive one, not the monist conception.
One thing to note about the dualist conception is that not only does it link the sex (or gender) of the person with the sexual orientation to the sex (or gender) of the target of the orientation, but it does so in a very strong way, by making the sex (or gender) of the person with the orientation primary. What does this mean? It means this: if someone’s sexual orientation changes, this does not change the sex (or gender) of the person. But if the person’s sex (or gender) changes, this does change the person’s sexual orientation. For instance, if Rafael used to be straight and, somehow, becomes gay, this would not change Rafael’s sex (or gender), not unless Rafael decides to take the additional step to make the change. But if Omar, who is, let’s say, straight, changes his sex (or gender), he also changes his sexual orientation, without needing to take any additional steps. Omar now becomes a homosexual woman whereas he was once a heterosexual man. It is in this way that the popular or dualist conception of sexual orientation strongly links a person’s object of attraction with their own sex or gender.
The point is that this popular conception of sexual orientation, by forging a strong link between one’s sex (or gender) and sexual orientation, gives us a crucial reason to group together gender and sexual orientation.
But despite its being a strong reason, it is not ultimately convincing. This is because the popular conception of sexual orientation makes essential reference to the person’s own sex (or gender) only as far as sexual orientation is concerned. This sounds trivial, but it actually is not. To explain: the popular conception refers to one’s sex (or gender) only to elucidate one’s sexual orientation. When we say that X is attracted to women, we need to know X’s sex (or gender) in order to know X’s sexual orientation. This means that the popular conception is not concerned with someone’s sex (or gender) as such, which means that it gives us no reason to group gender with sexual orientation just because that someone has a particular gender. Thus, if we are trying to group together identities on the basis of sexual orientations or on the basis of gender, it still makes little sense to group transgender people with LGB people using this conception of sexual orientation.
(7) Another reason for keeping the “T” and the “LGB” together is the following. (I beg your patience because this will be a bit complicated.) I have been writing as if sex and gender are interchangeable for the purposes of sexual orientation. For instance, I have been writing that the popular conception refers to the sex (or gender) of the object of attraction and of the person with the orientation. But some believe that the popular conception refers primarily to the sex, not the gender, of the person with the sexual orientation and of the object of the orientation. (Kathleen Stock, in her essay, defends this claim though she does not explain why sexual orientation works this way—a difficult task by all means. Dembroff, in their essay [p.3], states that the popular conception is a “conceptual jumble” when it comes to a number of points, including lack of clarity as to whether sexual orientation is about sex or gender.) That is, a gay man is gay because his sex is male, and he is attracted to other men because they are sexually male, not merely because their gender is male. Of course, their gender is usually the epistemic entryway to one’s desire: Muhamad, as a gay man, is attracted to Owen (partly) because he perceives Owen to be a man, and he perceives Owen to be a man (partly) on the basis of Owen’s perceptible gender or gender presentation.
In addition, as Stock explains in her essay, to claim that the concept of sexual orientation primarily refers to sex, not to gender, is to claim that in a large number of cases (and this is of course ultimately an empirical claim), what sustains Muhammad’s desire for other men is Muhammad’s belief and perception that they are male—that their sex and body is male. It is also to claim, as a corollary, that were Muhammad to discover that Owen is a transman, Muhammad’s sexual desire for Owen likely ceases or weakens, and that additional elements have to be present for his desire for Owen to continue. For example, his attraction to Owen on the basis of Owen’s physical looks is so strong that it sidelines his lack of attraction to him on the basis of his belief that Owen’s sex might not be male or typically male (though how far this strong attraction takes Muhammad is unclear: maybe to make out with Owen, but not to engage in sexual activity or certain forms of sexual activity).
Is it plausible for the popular conception of sexual orientation to primarily refer to sex, not gender? One argument that it is plausible goes as follows: Sex, not gender, is primary in the concept of sexual orientation because the attraction—gay, straight, or other—to other people is sexual, and sexual attraction is strongly tied to the role that the person’s sexed-body and genitalia play in the attraction. Put differently, sexual attraction to others is sex-dependent in that it is tied to what we believe their bodies are like, including their sex organs. This does not mean that people are attracted to each other only after they have seen each naked or seen each other’s genitalia, or that people are attracted only to each other’s genitalia or that when they have sex they focus only on the genitalia. Instead, it means that the belief that the object of one’s sexual attraction is male, female, or a specific configuration of sex and genitalia typically animates and sustains the attraction for the other. It forms the background condition for desiring someone. The other’s body is seen as attractive in light of beliefs about their sex. For instance, imagine seeing a pair of hairless legs but in such a way that you cannot see the rest of the person’s body and are thus unable to form beliefs about their sex. Coming to know or to form beliefs about their sex will likely affect your sexual attraction to the legs: if you are straight and you come to know that they are the legs of someone of the same-sex, this will likely deflate your attraction to them. (I say “likely,” “primarily,” and so on because these are all generalizations and variations in human beings’ sexual attractions are well known.)
The focus on sex has an explanation likely based in evolution and the role that the sex organs play in procreation. Beliefs and perceptions about the sexual organs and sex of the other are likely crucial in the formation of desire because this would be nature’s way of getting us to copulate heterosexually. It would make little sense, evolutionarily speaking, for us to feel sexual desire regardless of our beliefs of the other’s sex because this would have led to less-than-efficient mating strategies. Again, this does not mean that every time a heterosexual couple desires to have sex they also desire to procreate, let alone that gay couples want to procreate whenever they desire to have sex. Sex to us is crucially a mental matter, and on the surface sexual desire has many goals (primarily sensual and non-sensual pleasure, but also status, conquest, etc.), but the historical formation of sexual desire likely has an evolutionary explanation, and this is what we need in order to explain the role that sex and sex organs play in desire, even when they deviate from heterosexual statistical norms, as they do in same-sex attraction or in cases of attraction to mixed-sex bodies.
If, then, sexual orientation links the sex of the person who has the orientation to the sex of the object of attraction, it is possible that a new category of sexual orientation (or more than one category, actually) can arise for people whose sex does not conform to the two binaries, for people whose sexual attraction is for those whose sex does not conform to the binaries, or for people who are both. We can add letters as we see fit to the acronym. Here, however, we have to be careful. Consider Ahmad, who is sexually attracted to gender non-conforming individuals. This attraction, on its own, does not usher in a new sexual orientation (if, that is, we keep fixed the concept’s reference to sex and not widen it to include gender) because it does not tell us what Ahmad’s attraction is to, as far as the sex of the object of attraction is concerned: it does not tell us whether Ahmad is attracted to gender non-conforming individuals who are sexually male, female, or other. If Ahmad is attracted to male gender non-conforming individuals, then he would—or should—be classified as gay on the popular conception. If he is attracted to female gender non-conforming individuals, then he would—or should—be classified as heterosexual. (The “should” is important because if the popular conception of sexual orientation refers not only to the sex of the object of attraction, but also to the match between the sex and the corresponding socially accepted gender, Ahmad’s sexual orientation would be in limbo. What makes this issue even more complicated is that “gender” can refer to various things, from basic bodily appearance to comportment to mannerisms to clothes to other things.)
Going back to adding new letters to the acronym: we can establish the existence of sexual orientations of and to people whose sex does not conform to the usual sex binaries. Because on the popular conception of sexual orientation the sex of the person with the orientation is either the same as or opposite to that of the object of the attraction, and because the sex of non-binary people is neither the same nor opposite to the binary sexes, we will have on our hands new sexual orientations, using the popular conception as our template. We can, then, by going beyond the sex binaries, add sexual orientations on the basis of the non-binary sex of the person with the new orientation or on the basis of the non-binary sex of the person who is the object of the attraction.
(There might be, however, constraints that such orientations need to meet in order to count as genuine sexual orientations, whatever this means; for instance, that they are numerically large enough to matter, and that they are not variations on the other basic sexual orientations, though how to fix these constraints is a philosophical headache.)
The point, however, of this discussion is to provide a reason to group transgender people with LGB people. Do we have this reason? We will have it only if we make the following assumption: that people whose sex does not fall into the sex binary are transgender people. It is this assumption that will take us from the new sexual orientations to transgender identities. But, obviously, this is a false assumption because of the crucial differences between sex and gender that allow people of the same sex to have different genders and that allow people of the same gender to have different sexes. Just because someone’s sex is not one of the two sexes does not mean that they will be transgender. So this reason, interesting, fascinating, and instructive as it is, fails.
(8) One final reason for grouping together sexual orientation and transgender was suggested to me by my colleague and friend, Andy Yang (though he does not necessarily endorse it). It goes as follows: it makes sense to classify transgender people with LGB people because the former were or will at one point be gay or lesbian themselves. How so? Consider a cisman who becomes a woman: if he used to be straight, s/he will become a lesbian upon becoming a woman; if he used to be gay, s/he will become straight upon becoming a woman, but he was at some point gay. Either way, a trans person will have at some point in their life a gay sexual orientation.
Interesting as this reason is, it faces some difficulties. First, trans people who consider themselves to be members of the LGBTQ+ community need not think of themselves as members of the community because of the above reason. They might think they are members because they are, simply, trans and trans people have always been considered as part of the LGBT community. Now, I admit that this difficulty smuggles in a constraint on what counts as a good reason for the grouping together of transgender and LGB groups, a constraint that I have not yet raised (but that’s because I hadn’t yet needed to), namely, that a good reason for the grouping should cohere with the reasons that the members of the groups themselves have for the grouping. I am, however, unsure of the importance of this constraint because, though it might be important for political cohesion, it is less important for conceptual reasons for the grouping.
A second difficulty, and one connected to the first, is that the suggestion relies on sexual orientation as a description or property of who one is, whereas the letters in “LGBTQ+” might refer to more than that, to an explicitly adopted or accepted identity, such that one is not merely a homosexual but also gay, with all the cultural and political connotations that come with it. Indeed, given the politics behind the acronym, it is best understood as referring to political identities, not merely to one’s descriptive property of, say, having a same-sex orientation. If so, then what might matter to a trans person is their identity as trans, not their sexual orientation as such, and what matters to a lesbian is her lesbian identity, not merely her same-sex sexual orientation. (More on this below.)
A third difficulty is that the reason’s convincingness rests on the dualist conception of sexual orientation. If we change this conception to a monist one, we pull the rug from under this reason. Since, however, I have been operating with the popular conception, this difficulty is not severe.
A fourth difficulty with this reason is that it cherry picks what it wants from the popular conception of sexual orientation. On the one hand, it relies on the popular conception’s reflexivity or dualism to make its point. On the other, it neglects what might be a crucial aspect of the conception, which is its reference to sex, not to gender. (“Might” because this aspect of the conception is debatable.) On the popular view, and given the reference to sex, a straight man who becomes a woman need not become a lesbian because the concept of lesbian is sex-dependent, and much will depend on the transwoman’s body and how many female sex features it has. The point is that it is assuming very much to claim that trans people become lesbians or gay if they used to be straight (or straight if they used to be lesbian or gay). So this last reason should not bank on it.
I have considered eight reasons for putting together sexual orientation and transgender groups, and I have come up mostly empty-handed. At the least, none of the reasons is straightforwardly convincing. This should not be a surprise, because, in general, sexual orientation and gender are very different kinds of thing. The first is primarily about one’s sexual energies and attractions, and the second is about, well, gender.
It seems to me that the best reasons for the grouping will have to be political—that is, that being joined at the hip will allow these groups to attain political gains more efficiently, attain more political gains, or (inclusive “or”) attain more political gains more efficiently. But we have to remember that we are now in different times: in the west, gay people have attained their rights, and though they suffer from homophobia and other challenges every now and then and every here and there, their war is almost won. Not so for transgender people. Moreover, there has been some recent fractions among these groups, especially between gender critical feminists and some transgender thinkers and activists, which indicates that we need to get our political ducks in a row before we start speaking of attaining these goals together.
Indeed, the need to get our political ducks in a row is more evident if we understand the acronym to refer to the political and cultural identities of being gay and trans, as opposed to sexual orientation and gender descriptive aspects of one’s being (e.g., a reference merely to one’s desires for members of the same sex, or merely to one’s feeling of belonging to a different gender). For in the former case, political and cultural identities imply political goals and postures not implied, or not implied so obviously, by a reference to a description of one’s being. Given that the acronym clearly refers to the political and cultural identities of being gay and trans, coming to an agreement to what the respective political and social goals are is a must.
However, to my mind, political reasons for unity do not themselves have much cache unless they are grounded in something else, something that gives us a good reason to group these groups together but not those. That is, the political reasons themselves must be grounded in something that unifies LGBT groups with each other as opposed to unifying, say, trans people with other groups, if unity with these other groups is better for the hoped-for political and social gains. The closest we have to unify LGBT groups is that they are all sexual minorities, which might be a good enough reason to start with for political purposes, though I worry, as I argued early on in this post, about using the ambiguous concept of sex to justify this grouping.
I have conducted this discussion on the basis of the popular or dualist conception of sexual orientation. On a monist conception, whether Dembroff’s Bidimensional Dispositionalism or another version of the monist conception, we do not have better reasons to join the two groups together. Monist conceptions focus solely on the sex (or gender) of the object of attraction, so there is no temptation to develop arguments that proceed from a conception of sexual orientation that relies also on the sex (or gender) of the person with the orientation.
Thus, the acronym “LGBTQ” needs to be seriously re-thought. If we are to keep it intact or if we are to add more letters to it, we should make sure we have a good reason for doing either or both.