LGBT or LGBTQ? Words Matter. So Do Letters.

An Open Letter

Eight-striped rainbow flag. Drawn by Fibonacci.

June 19, 2012


Patrick Bassett

President, National Association of Independent Schools

1129 20th Street NW, Suite 800

Washington DC 22036


Dear Mr. Bassett,

My son’s K-8 independent school in the San Francisco Bay area recently participated in the NAIS supported AIM (Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism) survey earlier this January. While the full survey results are not out, I found the process of keen interest as someone who managed survey design programs earlier in their career.

I was surprised to learn from the Head of School that NAIS supports the use of the term LGBTQ (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender and Questioning) to identify family members with that “affinity” for demographic identify purposes. I also understand that Q for “questioning” in the NAIS vernacular is  standard.

The purpose of this note is to encourage NAIS to rethink that LGBTQ usage, and consider using the more commonly used “LGBT” descriptor for these purposes in those programs which lack a history of inclusiveness evidenced by a representation that’s reflective of the geographic area(s) in which the community resides and by active participation of multiple LGBT members in a school as evidenced by things such as presence – beyond token levels –  at the board, staff, parent and faculty levels.

While LGBTQ (as in Queer) is used, it’s mostly used within the LGBT (or LGBTQ) “in-group” community in the same way that a band of female singers call themselves the “Dixie Chicks;”  OK to use if you’re a female singer speaking about yourself or other females, not so OK if you’re out of group (e.g. male in this case) talking about women. OK to if the community is clearly inclusive; not so OK if diversity and inclusion is questionable.

The use of Q to mean “questioning” is not only odd, it’s off-putting. Like the once-used, now discarded term “sexual preference,” it suggests that sexual orientation is highly fluid when in fact research confirms that it’s not-so-fluid, and that orientation is largely genetic with a cultural and situational overlay.

As the parents of what I think is the only boy out of several hundred students who has two dads for parents, there’s not much “questioning” at home about our sexual orientation. And because ours is a household that has a psychiatrist in it, the use of the “questioning” term suggests that the (much discredited) work of people like Charles W. Socarides or more recently Michelle Bachmann’s therapist husband has credibility.  So unless we’re polling students on their sexual orientation, which would seem troubling at best, using the term seems frankly inappropriate in grade school settings.

While I don’t think it’s NAIS’ intent, using the Q-word can also give people implied “permission” to bandy around words that used out of context or inappropriately are hurtful, harmful and malicious. While I don’t think the use of the term “mulatto” by the New York Times to describe Michelle Obama’s family ancestors had an intent to harm, I have little doubt that some will find the Time’s use of the word a “proof” that it’s OK to use that word today – despite the legacy of injustice and discrimination that it evokes. I get a similar reaction when an out-group person tells me that “it’s great to have LGBTQ families involved” because I know that I’ve just been called a fag. Speaking in “code” still unfortunately exists.

Later this month the annual LBGT (no Q) Pride Parade, North America’s largest, will be held in San Francisco to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The Riots are often cited as beginning of the LGBT(no Q) movement.”  While the parade won’t march all the way up Market Street to reach the building, much of the prep training for things like safety monitors and traffic coordinators will be held at the San Francisco LBGT (no Q) Center.

I recently got some time with Shonda Rimes, who, apart from being a successful business person, is one of the leading chroniclers of cultural norms and changes in society. Ms. (not Miss, not Mrs.) Rimes said that “the LGBT (no Q) rights are the civil rights movement of our lifetime.” 

I’d agree with Ms. Rimes and would hope that NAIS would agree that accurately supporting that movement by using commonly accepted language in educational settings is important. While I won’t be surprised if LGBTQ becomes the default standard – or perhaps just BTQ – it’s not there yet.

One start to show support thought would be to reconsider how it defines LGBT families in the community of independent schools, and rethink the current use of LBGTQ in things such as the AIM survey.

Though what counts most is action, words matter. Turns out that one letter of the alphabet matters as well.




J. Mike Smith


P. S. My son’s school at this point seems great; he’s thriving, most teachers have been outstanding, and apart from the rare staff person or two, administration seems excellent.

P.P. S. Updated December 2013: A speaker from an LGBT outreach program from the county in which the school is located spoke at my son’s school. Her take? Stick with LGBT. Unless the climate is supportive and inclusive, LGBTQ is inappropriate.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

Eight-striped rainbow flag. Drawn by Fibonacci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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