Living and F*cking with Acronyms: A response to Dennis Altman’s call to rethink LGBTI

Author: Dr Annie McCarthy, lecturer in Anthropology at the Australian National University. While her ethnographic research focuses on Indian slum children’s everyday experiences of development and marginalization, her interests and passions are considerably broader. Never wanting her sexuality to pigeonhole her in an academic setting, her passion for queer communities of all kinds is increasingly leading her down the path of thinking more academically about queerness and gender. This semester she will teach a course called Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective. 

Last week Australian academic Dennis Altman published a provocative piece in The Conversation, suggesting that it was time to re think the label LGBTI. He challenged  Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival for its use of the acronym LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) arguing that ‘there is risk of becoming so inclusive that the term loses all meaning’. Ironically, it was the Midsumma event First Nations Pride, a panel discussion that foregrounded ‘First Nations voices on the topic of First Nation bodies’, which provoked me to think further about this article. So before I begin my response, I want to acknowledge my debt to the panellists and Maddee Clark, the organiser of that discussion, for planting the seed that has grown into the collection of thoughts below.

Desire ≠ Behaviour ≠ Identity

Altman begins his article by arguing that the acronym LGBTI and all of its additions confuse desire, behaviour and identity. This is not, in itself, a new revelation, and it is one that has been grappled with for many decades by different groups within the ‘community,’ who have each in their own way questioned the validity, or even possibility of, an alliance of groups based around what are often divergent experiences, interests, needs and objectives. That the community is fragmented, and that it often perpetuates rather than challenges structures of power, race, class, gender, etc. that exist in the world is not in dispute, nor is the extremely valid of question of whether it is possible to speak of a ‘community’ at all. Yet Altman is not concerned with debating the possibility for community. Rather, he focuses on questioning the relationship between individual experience and identity. Early in the article, he cites an instance in which a person introduced themselves as a ‘proud LGBTI person,’ noting with some smugness the absurdity and impossibility of this statement. Yet this semantic slip is illuminating because of the way that it alerts us to the difficulties of having a term that is broad enough to encompass difference, but retains its meaning in a sentence phrased in the first person. Altman, is however not concerned with ‘first person’ identification arguing that a focus on identity ‘ignores the complexity’ of experiences and practices that occur globally in the absence of identity politics. In the place of the acronym LGBTI, which he describes as ‘a direct product of American identity politics’, he proposes the acronym SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) a term that originates in human rights discourses.


Now it is here, as a white, queer anthropologist who studies what development means to slum children in India, that the celebration and adoption of a term produced by a global body like the UN baffles me a little.

While Altman argues that SOGI avoids the ‘liberal western notions of identity politics’, he seems to utterly fail to recognise the liberal western notions of the individual that underlie human rights discourses. Additionally, he does very little to explore or unpack the arguably very brief history of this acronym. Given this, I think it is worth briefly noting that the term ‘gender identity’ was used for the first time in a UN Statement only in 2006. And that in 2003, only 15 years ago, a number of member states (including the US) argued that ‘sexual orientation was not a proper subject for consideration by a human rights body’. It was not until 2008 that a statement on sexual orientation and gender identity was read out in the UN General Assembly, and it was not until 2012 that the first ‘intergovernmental panel discussion on the application of international human rights law to end violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was convened’. While the last five years have seen this term come into more frequent use, as McGill argues, ‘the incorporation of SOGI into human rights discourse at the UN produces a new matrix of inclusion and exclusion that must be unpacked analysed and contested’.

Approaching this task of ‘unpacking’ by a somewhat circuitous route, let us for a moment return to the reasons Altman favours this term. First, he suggests that it avoids ‘assumptions about fixed identities’, and allows for messy and changing experiences of gender and sexuality. Second, he suggests that it is less linked to ‘Western notions of identity politics’ and is thus less likely ‘to be attacked as part of neo-imperial attempts to destroy traditional cultures’. Third, that it ‘serves to remind us that we are not speaking of discrete minorities, rather of the complexities of human experience’. Lastly, he questions the ability of the ever-expanding acronym LGBTQIA+ to retain meaning whilst continuing to incorporate diversity. On this last point, it is worth noting that SOGI has, in a number of circles, already been expanded to SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression) SSOGIE (sexes, sexual orientation, gender identities and expressions) SOGIB (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Body), SOGIBI (Sexual orientation, Gender Identity, Bodily Integrity), and SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics) by various organisations globally advocating the necessity of further representing the experience of intersex and trans people. This suggests that SOGI is unlikely to ultimately satisfy the very relatable demand for a shorter snappier acronym.

In Between Violence and Desire

To return to Altman’s other arguments, while it is important to be aware of the American history of the LGBTIQA+ identity politics, I would challenge his assumption that these ideas have a single origin and do not have unique (and, yes, often violent) national and regional histories. Yet these histories are worth exploring in their own right, and deserve to be foregrounded above any universal acronym born out of global governance mechanisms. Of course, it is deeply important to be wary of the histories of violence that come with western terminologies. To presume, however, that western terms operate only within and by the logics of colonialism, capitalism, western medical knowledge, etc., fails to recognise the ways that these terms have been chosen, vernacularised, and made meaningful to a range of contexts by a diverse range of people and groups.

It was not until I spent some time in Qveer (Hindi pronunciation) communities in North India that I began to realise the complex ways in which these terms are implicated in violence as well as resistances. But after hearing chants like, lezbianon ki azadi (freedom for lesbians [pluralised following the conventions of Hindi grammer]), bisexshualon ki azadi (freedom for bisexuals) at protests against colonial era laws (section 377 of the Indian Penal Code)  criminalizing voluntary ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’, I was forced to recognise both the complexity and the convictions that informed this use of language. Likewise, when hearing people in India with only limited English describing themselves as genderqveer, attending events that were described as LGBTQHK (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Hijra, Kothi) and reading the work of Anthropologists like Tom Boellstorff, I was further pushed to recognise the different ways experience and identity come together in specific national, regional and cultural contexts.

Although, as Altman notes, there are good reasons to question the fixity of ‘identity’ and engage with the fluidity of experience, to my mind part of doing this requires us to recognise the choices of individuals and communities in the non-West to adopt terms like gay, genderqueer or transgendered. It requires us not to reify ‘traditional cultures’ as fixed unchanging objects and to not merely assume that English language terms are by default ‘neo-imperial’. Instead, we could better question the reasons behind the growing discontent with identifications like Lesbian, Gay and even Queer in the West. And contrary to Altman’s suggestions, it is important to note that this discontent is not with the idea of identity itself, as Facebook’s 71 gender options no doubt attest to, but something else.

Something Else?

To return to the million-dollar question: is this ‘something else’ to be found within the diplomatic vastness of SOGI? Can an acronym that nobody has ever marched behind, come out to their parents using, or been abused with in the school-yard ever encapsulate complex lived experiences and histories? Can we separate queerness from history? The universalizing language or rights, from the violence of colonisation? Practice from identity?

By way of answering this final question, a brief look at MSM (Men who have sex with Men) shows us that although it was designed as a term to describe ‘practice’ it very quickly became a term of identity. Yet, unlike MSM, SOGI cannot be used to directly describe a community (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Community? NO!) or an individual (I am a Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity?  No!). And for those who Altman seems to be particularly concerned with, who randomly have sex with someone of the same-gender during a summer in Italy, whilst living out the rest of their lives as heterosexual, does SOGI do anything? Well, I wouldn’t pretend to know.

Notwithstanding the very real problems with LGBTQIA+, in response to Altman I would say that it is actually in the adoption of a universalising tool of bureaucratic governance that we risk losing all meaning.

                                                                                          [Image by Annie McCarthy]



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