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How do you brand a rainbow?

The rainbow flag is striking and immediately recognizable as a symbol of gay pride unlike the many conflicting initialisms for the queer movement around the world

A supporter at a pride parade to mark the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia in Bhopal this May. Photo: Hindustan Times
A supporter at a pride parade to mark the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia in Bhopal this May. Photo: Hindustan Times

Two weeks ago, for a story that had multiple references to the queer community, we were at a loss for the correct initialism to use. Like several newspapers, we follow a stylebook, which is updated periodically to be accurate and sensitive. But the queer movement, hearteningly, is moving at a pace that is hard to keep up with. We have in recent times gone up a letter from LGBT and settled on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer). But this time there was some deliberation on leaving out the new additions: I (intersex) and A (allies). An online search of The New York Times suggests that the paper has stayed with LGBTQ. The Guardian, however, seems to use LGBTQ, LGBTIQ and LGBTIQA, in that order of frequency. The Times Of India uses the first two. Part of the discrepancy arises from opinion pieces—a guest writer might wish to use LGBTIQA, for instance, as The Guardian usage reveals.

After we put our issue to bed, I tweeted that LGBTIQA was losing the plot as an initialism, which is, after all, meant to make referencing easier. We couldn’t possibly be adding more letters to it. Since Twitter is an excellent place to be corrected, somebody pointed out that it had already expanded to LGBTQQIAAP (adding questioning, asexual, and pansexual). A journalist friend from Canada said LGBTTIQQ2SA (adding transsexual and 2-Spirited) was winning favour in that part of the world. Twitter also steered me to QUILTBAG, an acronym with dubious aesthetic merit. A feasible suggestion was to use either LGBT or LGBTQ with a + sign.

To cross-check, we asked Genderlog to publish a poll on our behalf. Genderlog is a Twitter handle started by novelist Nilanjana S. Roy and run by journalists Noopur Tiwari, Amrita Tripathi and Lounge columnist Natasha Badhwar, as an effort to broaden discussions on gender. Twitter polls only allow four options so we had LGBTQQIAAP (11 %), Queer (22%), QUILTBAG (2%). LGBT+ or LGBTQ+ was the clear winner at 65% (this is what we will use in Lounge henceforth).

The 2016 Media Reference Guide by GLAAD, a US non-governmental media monitoring organization, states that LGBTQ is the preferred initialism, being more inclusive of younger members of the community who embrace queer as a self-descriptor. But this is not an issue easily resolved. A gay friend argues that “queer" is itself an umbrella term. For him, including queer as part of the initialism is redundant. Queer is full-spectrum. Queer is the rainbow, he insists.

Why should it matter how we refer to queer persons, movements and protests? It should matter because the value of effective branding for a cause cannot be underrated. Think Rosie the Riveter for feminism or the charkha for the swadeshi movement. The rainbow flag is striking and immediately recognizable. LGBTTIQQ2SA is only immediately recognizable as a bad idea.

The rainbow flag was originally designed in 1978 by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker, who was challenged by Harvey Milk to come up with a symbol for the community. Even if you didn’t know that Gilbert had assigned specific meanings to each of the original eight colours —turquoise for magic and art and hot pink for sex—I would find it hard to imagine a Lounge reader who didn’t associate the flag with gay pride.

Better branding might not draw more people to identify as queer. But like an efficient real-world hashtag, efficient branding can bind together disparate efforts in favour of the queer movement.

Unlike marketing, which pushes ideas, products, and services, branding is about pull. It communicates the values and attributes that define what a brand is and what it is not. An inability to agree on an initialism suggests a confused self-identity. It also suggests that members of the queer community are unable to come together. For a movement that is chiefly about identity and acceptance, surely that is the last thing the community would want?

The writer tweets at @ aninditaghose

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