Over the last few weeks I have found myself drawn into a number of online conversations around labels. For those of us who identify as LGBTQ+ (see, we’re already at labels!), this can be a contentious and difficult topic. Some people find labels essential. They help people bring clarity and visibility to parts of themselves that are otherwise unwise or even actively erased. Others hate labels because they too narrowly define them, cause division, and carry too much baggage. In the end, both sides of the argument have a lot of merit.
I am someone who believes in the power and importances of labels when used appropriately, while still acknowledging their inadequacy at times. I am very public about identifying as bisexual/pansexual/queer. One of the main reasons I think it is important is because it resists the very prevalent heteronormative bias that exists in the world. For example, one friend recently said to me, “I don’t think it is helpful for you to define yourself my your sexuality. I’m straight, but I don’t go around telling people that I am.” However, despite the fact that he (and most straight people) do in fact “tell” the world they are straight in countless ways every day, the point is that he didn’t have to do so because his orientation was assumed. Straight is the socially assumed default.
I am sympathetic, however, as labels can be used to be divisive. They can reinforce “us vs. them”, both with the wider culture(s) and within the LGBTQ+ communities. They can used to pigeonhole people, dismiss them, and even discredit them. I remember reading about a political strategy used by one US politician decades ago where he discredited his opponent by publicly accusing him of being a “homo sapien” and someone guilty of “habitual mastication”. These are silly examples of extreme misuse, but they illustrate how they can be problematic.
In the end, though, I believe the positives outweigh the negatives. Defining things help us understand the world and how we (and others) relate to it and each other. After all, if you go to a restaurant and the waiter tells you that this evening’s special is “meat”, you are going to want some more specific definition. Rather than the question being “Labels: Yes or No?”, the question should be “How do we use labels appropriately?”. The answer that question is an ongoing process that will never end, in no small part because language is constantly changing, morphing, differing across regional and cultural lines.
While the following video is not primarily about sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, it can highlight the benefits of acknowledging and wrestling through the labels that help define us.
What have your experiences around labels been like?