How To Be An Ally To the +

Author: Evelien Feys.
Time: 10 min

You have probably noticed that in many forms of the acronym, be it LGBT+, LGBTQ+ or LGBTQIA+, there is a ‘+’ at the end of it. This post will give you some more information on why people put it there and what it can mean.

So what does the + mean?

There are identities and labels that are not included in the most commonly used acronyms. Here are some of them:

  • Pansexual is a sexual identity, generally defined as ‘attracted to all genders’. ‘Pan’ is a Latin word that means ‘all’ – which means that there is no link with any kitchen utensils, though this “confusion” is a source of obnoxious comments towards pansexual people (but then also appropriated by pansexual people in the form of memes and Twitter jokes).
  • Non-binary is a gender identity and an umbrella term that generally refers to people who do not exclusively identify as a man or a woman. They resist the gender binary, and exist in between or outside of it. Identities like bigender (having two genders) or trigender (having three genders) or agender (having no gender) fall under this umbrella term. ‘Non-binary’ itself is generally understood to fall under the ‘transgender’ umbrella term.
  • Genderqueer and gender-fluid are gender identities that are closely related to the term ‘non-binary’, but are generally used to put a greater emphasis on being fluid, indefinable, challenging the idea of separate genders, etc. As with non-binary (and for example ‘queer’), it is difficult to give an exact definition of these words, since they are intentionally vague.
  • Two-spirit is a gender identity that is a modern term used by indigenous people in North America to describe native people who have a traditional third gender (or another gender outside of the binary). In Canada it’s quite commonly included in the acronym, resulting in LGBTQIA2+. Note that there are many cultures around the world that have terms for ‘other’ gender identities.
  • And there are of course people who do not use any labels, for their gender or their sexuality.

Please note that these (and other LGBTQIA) labels are not mutually exclusive. People can identify as both a woman and genderqueer (perhaps in an alternating way), as both non-binary and gender-fluid, as both trans and gay, as both pansexual and bisexual, as both lesbian and queer, and so on.

An opportunity for inclusion

Sometimes other labels are rewarded a ‘+’ at the end, like bi+ or trans+. Sometimes the ‘+’ is a ‘*’ (like trans*). People do this to acknowledge that these words are broad and dynamic, and to signal to people who are not a fan of rigid categories, that they as well are included. Trans+ or trans* refers to trans people, including non-binary, genderqueer, gender-fluid people, … Bi+ is used to refer to all non-monosexual people, so everyone who can experience attraction to more than one person: bisexual, pansexual, queer, …

But there are limits

The list of terms in the first paragraph might have informed you about diverse identities in the community, but it is also inherently problematic. Simply by listing some identities, some others will be excluded – especially since the terminology around gender and sexuality is very dynamic and people are constantly coming up with new words (or reintroducing old words) to describe their experiences more accurately.

The fact that there is a ‘+’ admits the limits of an acronym. It is essentially a gesture that wants to reach out to the people who do not fit into the included categories. This is a source of criticism, and rightfully so, since it creates some sort of hierarchy. Even though it’s dynamic and ever-expanding, it remains a hierarchy

A Western idea of sexuality and gender

It is also important to acknowledge that the acronym produces and reproduces a very Western way of thinking about sexuality and gender. Here we tend to think of these things as a part of our identity, which is not necessarily how people in other parts of the world see it. For some it is merely behaviour, or an act. Although there has been a growing conversation around and acceptance of fluidity in Western society, the dominant ideas around gender and sexuality are still very much centred around a “born this way” discourse, which sees these things as fixed and intrinsic parts of people, which are then categorised under labels, with a certain set of images and ideas attached to them. And this has some harmful consequences.

Through the globalisation of the gay rights movement, and later the LGBTQ+ rights movement, different organisations have been able to support each other in their battle. However, similar to the women’s rights movement, this has resulted in the universalization of the Western ideas of progress and liberation, and the Western strategies on how to achieve this. These ideas may not be applicable to non-Western cultures, because they just have different views on what “homosexual behaviour” means, and imposing these ideas on their lives is harmful. Moreover, what we would call the “homophobic attitudes” in non-Western countries cannot be seen separate from the modernist, binary ideas that Western countries imposed through colonialism. An opposition between these “backwards homophobic cultures” and the “accepting civilised West” is created, and is instrumentalised to further a xenophobic and/or racist and/or islamophobic agenda. A part of this agenda is a “saving the gays” narrative, which constructs gay liberation and religion (in particular Islam) as opposites, and which is very clearly present in how we LGBTQIA+ refugees.

Western strategies to further the cause of LGBTQIA+ people might not work elsewhere, because of the different historical and cultural context. They might even have adverse effects, for example because of the proposed link between Western ideology (and its colonial influence and oppression) and homosexuality, which is furthered by both Western and non-Western countries.

For LGBTQIA+ refugees who are seeking asylum here, it means that they have to fit into the common Western idea of what it means to be LGBTQIA+, thus what it means to be homosexual. As this article shows (and I would really urge you to read it entirely), the asylum procedure is a very hostile, invasive and traumatic experience for these people, and the approval numbers are below the average. Their fate depends on a subjective, seemingly quite arbitrary assessment of whether they are “actually gay”, based on bizarre criteria like their knowledge of the Belgian gay scene.

It is important to acknowledge that, even though categorisation can create empowerment, self-understanding, community and culture, the idea of these categories and what is attached to them as universal is very problematic and can have opposite effects if applied to or imposed on people coming from, or living in different parts of the world.

Some final words on this series

As the editor of this series, it has been very educative and positive journey for me to collect information about LGBTQIA+ issues and help create these articles. But the thing is: I wrote the first part of this series in 2019. Since then I have also learned a lot, by being a part of UNDIVIDED, by taking different courses, by looking for different perspectives. (Also, I have since completed a year of Gender and Diversity Studies, which I definitely recommend.) Consequently, there are probably some things in these articles I would write or edit differently, if we were doing them now. Perhaps in five years this series will be out-dated. And that is not a bad thing! On the contrary, it means that we keep on learning and evolving and making progress. Nevertheless, I do believe that it is a good base of information, especially if you’re new to the ally-thing. But don’t take these articles as universal and ever-lasting truths.

My final message is, dear ally: the most important parts of being an ally, to the LGBTQIA+ or another community, are to keep educating yourself, to welcome marginalised perspectives into your mind, and to not be afraid to question yourself and your own perspective. You have to be willing to lift other perspectives up onto the same level as your own – or even above your own – in order to be an ally. And I can promise you that it is an incredibly valuable, upsetting, fulfilling and necessary way to look at the world.

UNDIVIDED for KU Leuven

UNDIVIDED is an intersectional student organisation in Leuven. We work on decolonization of academia, LGBTQ+ right and anti-ableism through research, policy, activism and community-building. Stay updated on our socials, participate in our events or reach out to us to join the team!

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