Most people can agree with the L, G, B, and T in the acronym LGBTQ+ stand for: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. But when it comes to the Q, it gets a little more complicated. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the Q stands for queer. But according to Planned Parenthood, the Q stands for “questioning (or queer).” For PFlag and The Trevor Project, the Q stands for both, equally.
Even style guides don’t agree. The Associated Press Style Guide notes that the Q stands for “questioning and/or queer,” but the Los Angeles Times’ style guide notes that the Q “most commonly means ‘queer,’ but can also mean ‘questioning.” Similarly, GLAAD’s media glossary notes that the Q “typically means queer and, less often, questioning.”
Though activists have been using the acronyms “LGBTQ” and “LGBTQ+” for much longer, the Q has only come into mainstream use in the past few years. HRC officially began using "LGBTQ" across their work in 2016, though they had been using it in youth programs earlier. In 2016, GLAAD issued an announcement, “for the first time, encourag[ing] journalists and other media content creators to adopt the use of ‘LGBTQ’ as the preferred acronym to most inclusively describe the community.” One year later, the Associated Press changed its style guide to allow either “LGBT” or “LGBTQ.”
Both HRC and GLAAD added the letter in response to a growing number of young people identifying as queer. While “questioning” simply means you’re still figuring out how you identify, “queer” is a little more complicated. “Queer” can be used as an umbrella term for anyone not cis and straight — for example, a person might identify as both bisexual and queer — but a growing number of young people identify simply as queer, with no other label.
While some LGBTQ+ folks use the word queer to describe the whole community, others would prefer not to use it at all. The word technically means "strange" or "odd," but as Cara Giaimo detailed for Autostraddle, beginning around the 1890s, the word “queer” was used as a derogatory term for LGBTQ+ individuals. In 1970, a linguistics researcher noted that while the majority of gays and lesbians were familiar with the term, they had only experienced it as a slur.
Then, beginning in the 1980s, some LGBTQ+ activists began reclaiming the word “queer.” In 1990, some AIDS/HIV activists from the group ACT UP formed a new group that they named Queer Nation. In a 1990 leaflet, they addressed the name, writing, “Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we've chosen to call ourselves queer. Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world. It's a way of telling ourselves we don't have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the straight world… Yeah, QUEER can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe's hands and use against him.”
While Queer Nation was only active for a few years, Giaimo notes, “the reclamation it had started struck a chord and stuck around." The word “queer” grew and was increasingly used as a positive term for the LGBTQ+ community throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. And while some LGBTQ+ folks still avoid using the word “queer" because of its history as a slur, others find it’s the best way to describe themselves. "For me, it felt like the only word that was all-encompassing enough to accurately describe my sexuality," Daisy, 25, previously told Refinery29.
As for the +, it’s meant to indicate everyone else who isn’t straight, but doesn’t identify with the L, G, B, T, or Q. You may also be familiar with other acronyms to describe the LGBTQ+ community — such as LGBTQIA (the I stands for intersex and the A for asexual), LGBTQQIA (the two Qs are for both queer and questioning), LGBTQ2 (the 2 stands for Two-Spirit, a term used for gender non-conforming or genderqueer folks in the indigenous community in North America), LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual), and QUILTBAG (queer, intersex, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, asexual, and gay).
The language we use to refer to the LGBTQ+ community is always growing and changing to become more inclusive — and that’s definitely a good thing.