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Seen in various LGBT documentation spaces online:

This history of the acronym goes back to the last sustained trauma in the LGBT world: the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and 1990s. ... a more significant and largely unacknowledged support in the care of men with AIDS was a community of lesbians, creating a level of solidarity between gay men and lesbians that didn’t exist before. From the earliest days of the epidemic, lesbians stood by their gay brothers.

Commemorating L-Week – “Why L Comes Before G”

This claim apparently spread from a 2016 medium.com post which also asserts very emphatically,

When civic and religious leaders call us "GLB" or "GLBT" rather than a now normative version of LGBT, it is not unlike those awkward years in the 1970s when well meaning white people struggled to learn to say “black” or “African American” [et cetera, et cetera]

I don't know where to find more careful historical documentation of this. I am skeptical of this claim because:

  1. This is the kind of story that Tumblr users make up.
  2. In my dim memory, GLBT was used interchangeably with LGBT until the early 2000s. (I could remember wrong, however)
  3. It seems to me that the LGBT could have come to be the favored acronym simply because it was more euphonious than GLBT.

A positive answer could involve either oral history by a specific person who was involved in the community at the time, or a period publication advocating for the "LGBT" order for AIDS-related reasons. A negative answer could involve secondary sources adding more complexity to the issue, or an original source being misinterpreted, or period publications advocating for the "LGBT" order for other reasons.

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    Your first source is a corporate blog of a recruitment agency, and your second source is an unsigned op-ed in "The Student News Site of Taylor Allderdice High School". Are those notable sources? The earliest version of the claim I found in a brief search is a medium.com essay from 2016. The author of that one is an adjunct associate professor of religious studies with a PhD in Christian Spirituality.
    – benrg
    Apr 18, 2023 at 19:03
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    A far more likely explanation is that LGBT is just easier to say than GLBT... Apr 19, 2023 at 13:33
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    "Ell gee" just sounds smoother than "Gee ell". That's probably why the switch happened.
    – RonJohn
    Apr 19, 2023 at 19:48
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    You say "Ladies and Gentlemen", not "Gentlemen and Ladies".
    – gnasher729
    Apr 19, 2023 at 21:09
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    @ChrisMelville Wikipedia describes that as "a matter of some dispute", and includes citations from both the OED and Merriam-Webster demonstrating that "acronym" covering both types is common, and not universally considered "incorrect". Personally, I find the split unnecessary and confusing - how do you classify mixed pronunciations like "JPEG", or variable ones like "SQL"?
    – IMSoP
    Apr 20, 2023 at 10:43

3 Answers 3

9

A 2007 University of South Carolina document says:

LGBTQ: Is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning. The acronym can be used interchangeably: GLBT, GLBTQ, LGBT, etc. However, placing the “L” first represents the purposeful inclusion of women in the community that suffer from sexism and/or invisibility.

A June 2009 article LGBT vs. GLBT: A Presidential Perspective by NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists credits Obama for solidifying the standardization to "LGBT" over "GLBT":

Obama promises the LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities just about everything except for marriage. As an editor (and an admitted word geek), what struck me more than anything was the choice to use “LGBT” instead of “GLBT” to describe us.

I used to be a hard-core “GLBT” user, but I have long since weaned myself off of that habit. I know that “LGBT” has been embraced by many people and organizations as the preferred acronym (e.g., you may have noticed “LGBT” is the acronym of choice on this blog). I just hadn’t realized that the pendulum had swung so far in favor of “LGBT” straight into the White House.

For any remaining “GLBT” users out there, it’s now clear to me (if not to you) that your days are seriously numbered.

A 2011 discussion Do you say LGBT or GLBT or queer or something different? by a Youtuber with over 1.5 million subscribers says:

Here's the thing: In my blogs and videos, I almost always say LGBT, standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. But pretty much everytime I say it, i get emails from people that are so upset that as a gay man, I didn't put the "G" first.

To be honest, the reason I do it is because lesbians really face a double whammy of discrimination - first for being a woman, and secondly for being gay.

So I put the "L" first in the acronym to recognize that.

The 2012 article Batgirl - Gay Icon? says:

we put the L first to emphasis women’s struggles and contributions which have historically been minimized

The 2013 book Gender & Sexuality For Beginners says:

The decision to put “L” first in the acronym has historically been a political one; often the person employing it was asserting that lesbians are underrepresented compared to gay men.

The 2015 article LGBT-SEARCHING FOR AN IDENTITY says that putting the "L" first is more feminist.

For timewise information, the California Digital Newspaper Collection, which includes the Bay Area Reporter (a gay newspaper going back to 1971) and the Washington Digital Newspapers which includes the Seattle Gay News are excellent free sources. The acronyms GLBT and LGBT both started being used about 1993. Without the "T", the earliest two examples I see in those databases are a 17 August 1989 article about the "GLB Defense Institute for gay, lesbian and bisexual people" and a September 1989 inquiry about how to join the GLB Defense Institute. A 29 May 1990 article title refers to "LGB awareness week".

Overall, the terms, which started as GLB and LGB, were both in use in the 1990s and only in the 2000s there was gravitation to LGBT over GLBT, to place emphasis on women, but not specifically because of AIDS.

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    This seems to be saying that Obama recognised the shift, and was one of many people around that time making the change. He's being congratulated for adopting the term, not credited with originating it. The quoted text doesn't say anything about why the shift was happening.
    – IMSoP
    Apr 19, 2023 at 13:07
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    The article references one statement released by Obama that uses the term LGBT, which the author took as an indicator that it had become the preferred term. It does not go so far as to credit Obama for popularizing the term, his use of it was merely an indicator that it had become popularized. This article was published 4 days after the statement, clearly the author could not have known potential future effects of Obama's statement merely days after it was made. The article does not argue that the use of LGBT became solidified due to (and just days after) Obama's statement. Apr 19, 2023 at 13:10
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    I find it odd that this was marked as the accepted answer. It’s certainly an interesting data point, but it doesn’t address the main claim in the question at all (viz., that the shift to L-initial happened because of the AIDS pandemic two decades before Obama’s presidency). Apr 19, 2023 at 14:51
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    @Avery the internet is a scary place. Apr 20, 2023 at 0:18
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    @thelawnet It's hard to say what was first. The 1992 Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations says that "GLB" now means "gay, lesbian, bisexual", replacing the older meaning of Girls Life Brigade and that "LGB" means local governing board (with no mention of a gay meaning). OED says that the August 1985 newsletter Valley Woman's Voice used "L.G.B.", while their earliest example of GLB is not as old as the example in my answer.
    – DavePhD
    Apr 21, 2023 at 15:51
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Neither word was used much until the late 1990s, by which time the AIDS epidemic had been around for over a decade.

"GLBT" had a brief surge in popularity in the early 2000s, but its usage still remained well below that of "LGBT".

Google Ngram Viewer

Word frequency graph showing LGBT well above GLBT

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    The terms originated without the "T". GLB was more popular than LGB at first. You can see in Ngram comparing "GLB students" to "LGB students". This 1990 book only used "GLB" for example google.com/books/edition/…
    – DavePhD
    Apr 19, 2023 at 2:08
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    "GLB" = "gay, lesbian, bisexual" was in the 1992 Oxford Dictionary of Acronyms, but not "LGB" = "lesbian, gay, bisexual". google.com/books/edition/The_Oxford_Dictionary_of_Abbreviations/…
    – DavePhD
    Apr 19, 2023 at 2:22
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    @DavePhD: Absolutely! Here’s a similar n-gram, with LGB and GLB also included. In summary, it suggests: GLB, LBG first gained broad currency in the ’50s, and co-existed in fluctuating but relatively similar proportions through to the early ’90s. In the early 90’s, the “…T” versions started to take off, and were predominant from around 2000; also from the early 90’s, the “LG…” versions conclusively overtook the “GL…” versions.
    – PLL
    Apr 19, 2023 at 16:40
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    @PLL there are other meanings of GLB and LGB. That's why I recommended comparing "GLB students" to "LGB students", to weed out other meanings. The gay, lesbian, bisexual meaning only started in the 1980s.
    – DavePhD
    Apr 19, 2023 at 17:15
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    @Barmar: Speakers of English show the tendency (but it's not a strict rule) to order binomials (=noun phrases with the structure "X and Y" that occur so frequently that they're almost fixed expressions) so that the monosyllabic noun comes first: salt and pepper, oil and vinegar, bed and breakfast. Gay and lesbians follows this pattern, but once and bisexuals is added, the tendency doesn't apply anymore.
    – Schmuddi
    Apr 20, 2023 at 6:34
4

It has nothing to do with their role in the AIDS crisis. It was placed first as an optics strategy and it originates from second-wave feminism. The insinuation that their solidarity with gay men wasn't pronounced until the AIDS crisis is offensive and sounds like a claim made by some younger member of the community who has absolutely zero historical context for the struggle that lesbians and gay men shared prior to the sexual revolution that started in the 1960s.

Lesbians and gay men helped each other survive for DECADES before the AIDS crisis. Gay men would often wed lesbian women as a cover for each other, so they could freely pursue their separate sexual interests. It was far preferable to cheating on an innocent spouse who is under the impression their partner is genuinely sexually attracted to them, but for most queers it wasn't easy to find these convenient arrangements. A spouse who is helping a homosexual partner cover (implying they know), whether they are straight/bi/gay/ace themselves, is known as a beard.

ONE, Inc. was one of the first LGBT activist organizations (pre-dating Stonewall by nearly two decades) and allowed women to join. Lesbians were some of the original founding members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

You won't get through biographies about prominent gay rights figures like Vito Russo, Harvey Milk, Gilbert Baker, Larry Kramer, etc. without hearing first-hand accounts from some of their closest friends, many of whom were lesbians.

While it is true that misogynistic gay men and misandrist lesbian women exist, they are certainly minorities and those of us united under the queer label disown these attitudes as exclusive and prejudiced. The reality is that gay men and lesbian women have a long history of sharing fear, hope, struggle, love, unity and so much more.

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    You open with "it has nothing to do with their role in the AIDS crisis", then link to an article that states, "The AIDS crisis also factored into the “gay/lesbian solidarity” that led to lesbians being more recognized in the community. While a huge portion of gay men were suffering from AIDS, the lesbian community was largely uneffected [sic]. Lesbians were the ones helping gay men with medical care. They were also a massive part of the activism surrounding the gay community and AIDS at the time."
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 20, 2023 at 9:53
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    You're right that it wasn't entirely due to their role in the AIDS crisis, but you can't state so emphatically that the AIDS crisis had nothing to do with it when your own evidence says otherwise.
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 20, 2023 at 9:56
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    (Crap, @F1Krazy already quoted the source just fine. No need to repeat it.) ...Well, anyway: Did you post that first link in order to contradict it, or did you not read it before posting?
    – FeRD
    Apr 20, 2023 at 13:03
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    The first source in this answer was the second source in the original version of the question.
    – DavePhD
    Apr 21, 2023 at 13:07

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