Enrolling at Parsons College in New York the other day, a friend was asked to state her name, subject and PGPs. Her what? Her preferred gender pronouns. In other words, did she want to be referred to as ‘she’ and ‘her’, or ‘he’ and ‘him’, or ‘it’, or ‘they’, or none of the above, and was she a Mr, Miss, or Mx? If she wasn’t sure, a support group was on hand to help, called the LGBTQIAGNC. There was no need — she said her name was Clare and ‘she’ would do fine. And the rest of the class? ‘No one stated a PGP other than the obvious,’ she reports, ‘although we do have a large LGBT community.’
Your reaction to that story might be to think how marvellously inclusive Parsons is — an institution so evolved that people can live gender-neutral lives without prejudice. Or it may be to ask: what on earth does LGBTQIAGNC stand for? And to wonder whether some people in the gay rights movement haven’t veered off course. As one activist sighed when I asked if he could spell out the acronym, ‘Matthew, there are so many letters now that nobody can keep up.’
A little light googling reveals that it stands for ‘Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual and gender-non-conforming’. Go a little deeper and you discover that there are dozens of different acronyms, and that nobody can agree on what the official one should be. Well, how do you find a name for individuals who are united by being different? Other terms being tacked on to the LGBT movement include ‘questioning’, ‘pansexual’, ‘ally’ or ‘allied’, ‘straight’, ‘leather’ and ‘fetish’, though nobody has found a way of stringing them together to make a snappy word, which I always thought was the point of an acronym. Someone did come up with ‘Quiltbag’, though perhaps understandably, it hasn’t caught on. A more sensible suggestion is ‘Glow’ — ‘gay, lesbian or whatever’.
Peter Tatchell, who has done more for gay rights than almost anyone, is bewildered by the proliferation of incomprehensible acronyms. ‘It’s great to be inclusive,’ he says, ‘but the new alphabet soup is a confusing and alienating mess — made even worse when people get into spats over missing initials or the inclusion of initials they disagree with. The longest I’ve ever seen is LGBTIQCAPGNGFNBA. This is absurd. It makes us a laughing stock and devalues serious issues around sexuality and gender.’
The problem seems to be that the western world is only just coming to terms with transgenderism. For even the most enlightened liberal, the idea that we are anything other than just men and women is unfamiliar territory. Perhaps that’s because incidence of intersexuality is rare. Accurate figures are hard to come by, though the Intersex Society of North America puts the number of people born with neither XX nor XY chromosomes at one in 1,666. Is that really enough to merit institutions asking for our PGPs? Or for the Whitney Museum to install gender-neutral toilets, in addition to male and female ones? Or for some British schools to insist that teachers no longer address classes as ‘boys and girls’, for fear of offence?
This might all sound silly — and the rush to take offence does undermine the LGBT movement. But surely it is important to create a society in which trans people can live without fear and prejudice? According to Stonewall, nearly half of trans people under 26 have attempted suicide. That perhaps puts a few odd pronouns into perspective.
Personally, I wonder if the trans movement isn’t now at the beginning of an arc that gay rights and anti-racist campaigns were at a generation ago. In the 1950s, we prosecuted Alan Turing for homosexual acts but now recognise this as such a terrible injustice that he has been given a posthumous royal pardon. In the 1970s, we used to laugh at racist jokes in Rising Damp – now they appal us. I still doubt that, in 50 years’ time, terms like Mx will have caught on. But by then, it will perhaps be entirely irrelevant what gender or sexuality you are, and we’ll look back on the PGP as a relic of a long-gone fretful age.