From LGBTQIA+ to SOGIESC: Reframing sexuality, gender, and human rights

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The ever-expanding term LGBTQIA+ serves the worthy purpose of including a diverse array of categories and identities relating to sexuality and gender. But the term’s shifting, amorphous, and under-defined qualities make LGBTQIA+ ill-suited to the discourse and practice of international human rights law, which requires greater clarity, precision, and stability. 

Fortunately, the alternative term SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics, often pronounced “soh-jee-esque”) has increasingly been adopted by human rights advocates. More than a mere shift from one awkward abbreviation to another, the use of SOGIESC promises a reframing of sexuality, gender, and human rights that is more accurate, more inclusive, and ultimately more universal—and therefore one that is a better tool for advancing human rights. 

The roots of the term LGBTQIA+ can be found in efforts since the 1990s to move beyond use of the predominantly cismale term gay as a false generic, much as the word men (e.g., “all men are created equal”) is no longer acceptable as a way to refer to all people. Gay has most commonly been expanded to LGBT, but the logic of this expansion has continued to add more letters to refer to queer (Q), intersex (I), and asexual (A) categories, with the plus sign (+) signaling an openness to still other identities.

Inevitably, a question arises: Shouldn’t the letters TS or 2S be included to denote Native American concepts of “two-spirit people? And, if so, what then about the numerous other traditional terms used in different cultures? UN Free and Equal offers a nonexhaustive list of words, including hijra, meti, lala, skesana, motsoalle, mithli, kuchu, kawein, travesty, muxé, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, and hamjensgara. 

At the same time, other new forms of identity are steadily emerging: pansexual and demisexual, agender and pangender, non-binary and gender non-conforming. Additional terms will likely continue to evolve as greater social freedoms allow the exploration and articulation of different sexual and gender identities.

Thus the abbreviation LGBTQIA+ has lately begun to backfire. Indeed, a well-intended practice introduced in the spirit of inclusion can now be seen as a means of exclusion whenever a new letter isn’t added. Further, the term can be critiqued as a form of Global North dominance since Western-derived categories like “gay and lesbian” are used in place of local or traditional terms. 

Also problematic is that the ongoing addition of new, unfamiliar, and often narrower categories ends up moving the discussion away from, rather than toward, the universality that is at the core of all human rights. The use of the LGBTQIA+ abbreviation can actually end up reinforcing the idea of otherness by setting up a proliferation of small, discrete groups perceived as separated from the general population. 

The alternative framing of SOGIESC offers an antidote to many of these dilemmas. “The term SOGIESC is more expansive because everyone has a sexual orientation, a gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics. So a straight person has a sexual orientation, a gay person has a sexual orientation, a cisgender person has a gender identity, a transgender person has a gender identity, and so on,” notes human rights attorney Luíza Drummond Veado, senior program officer with the United Nations Program of the NGO Outright International.

SOGIESC shifts the focus away from specific populations and toward deeper shared traits. A useful comparison may be with the right to freedom of religion. Human rights does not, per se, protect groups of people—such as Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, or Buddhists—but rather defends the underlying basic right of each person to have their own religious beliefs and worship practices, or to have none at all. The right to freedom of religion thus covers a multiplicity of different religious traditions, while recognizing that other new religions may continue to emerge.

The SOGIESC framing gained traction in 2016 when the UN Human Rights Council mandated an independent expert to focus not on “the rights of LGBT people” but rather on “protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” This crucially important mandate, which has been renewed twice, is commonly known as the IE SOGI. The acronym SOGIESC now further includes “gender expression,” which is outward-facing in contrast with a person’s inwardly experienced gender identity. And the term has been rounded out with “sex characteristics,” which refers to chromosomal, hormonal, anatomical and other biological aspects relating to conventional classifications as male or female.

Although the term is not yet commonplace, the International Organization for Migration now offers a SOGIESC and Migration Training Package, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees likewise provides a Training Package on SOGIESC and Working with LGBTIQ+ Persons in Forced Displacement, and UN Women has released a Diverse SOGIESC Rapid Assessment Tool. A 2022 posting about the UN’s policy on preventing sexual misconduct invokes the term SOGIESC, while the Council of Europe has committed to “inclusion of SOGIESC-diversity in the Workplace [and] combating SOGIESC-based hate crime.” The European Union’s Agency for Asylum is developing a training module on applicants with diverse SOGIESC and the Asian Development Bank recently completed a review of how SOGIESC is addressed in its policies and strategies

The SOGIESC framing also has grassroots applications because it does not require “non-Western activists to have to explain their lived realities, just to use this model to protect themselves and their activism independently of where they are and of how groups are recognized (or not),” added Veado, Outright International's senior program officer. “There's no need to worry that one term may be used in the Pacific while another in the Caribbean, because all are covered. And SOGIESC avoids having to rewrite the letters repeatedly while guaranteeing that changes over time still offer protections and that nobody is excluded due to changes in identity.” 

Every June, the multicolored rainbow flag is featured at Pride celebrations around the world. The LGBTQIA+ abbreviation reflects that laudable commitment to diversity and inclusion, and it still has a role to play. But for human rights advocacy, policy, and law, SOGIESC offers a valuable option that provides accuracy, inclusion, and a focus on universally shared traits.