In Defense of Labels

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In my feminist, sex-positive, queer-positive travels, I constantly hear folks complaining about labels.  Let’s just stop with all these labels.  If we could just get away from labels.  It’s the labels that are the problem.  When I hear this, I often wonder how any of the progress that’s been made to expand notions of gender identity beyond the binary and make space for non-heteronormative and queer forms of identity could have been made without labels.  How could we fight for gay marriage without the word “gay?”  How could we raise awareness that not everyone fits neatly into male/female categories without labels like transgender, intersex, and genderqueer?  I can understand the frustration with labels when it feels like they narrow who we can be and pigeon-hole us into existing categories, like male and female, for example.  But ironically, I believe the way to expand notions of identity and free ourselves from those limits is also through more labels.

I recently heard the phrase “Gender, Sexual, and Relationship Minorities” for the first time.  As someone who focuses my career in the mental health field on those very groups, I was so pleased to finally have found a quick and dirty label not only for the folks I work with but for myself, as a queer-identified pansexual.  However, after my initial excitement, I started to feel a bit sad.  Would this mean I would have to stop using the acronym I coined on my blog and have been using for over a year… LGBTQIAPK?

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (questioning), intersex, asexual (androgynous), pansexual (polyamorous), kinky.  I think when a lot of folks see this acronym, they think to themselves, Ok, this acronym business has gotten totally out of control.  That’s part of my temptation to throw in the towel and move to something like GSRM.  Then again, the absurdity of LGBTQIAPK (and growing) is precisely why I like it.  It sends a message.  Someday when every letter of the alphabet is included in that acronym, we will finally realize what we are describing is simply the diversity of human sexual, erotic, biological, and gender identity.  After all, if I started using GSRM, in a few months I would discover a new type of identity beyond gender, sexual, and relationship preferences and GSRM would also start to grow out of control!

The very things that make labels absurd, can make them powerful as well.  Why ARE there so many labels for who we love, what we find erotic, how we have sex, who we partner with and how, and all the various ways gender can manifest?  Perhaps it’s because the idea that there are normal forms of sexual and gender expression that most of us conform to, and then this group of “minorities” that don’t, is actually very wrong.  Perhaps it’s because what there is really a massive amount of diversity among human beings not only on these but a whole bunch of other spectrums.  It’s a bit like spirituality.  There isn’t one main way to be spiritual and then a few smaller, very rare ways.

There are simply an infinite number of ways human beings experience and express spirituality.  We human beings seem to have mostly accepted this, and I’m guessing that’s why we don’t need a long acronym detailing a whole bunch of religious, spiritual practices, in addition to the lack of religion or spirituality.  But we don’t seem to have gotten this about gender and sex.  We seem stuck on the notion that the vast majority of us are into monogamous, vanilla sex with an opposite-gender partner who fits neatly into a male or female identity.  Statistically, though, the number of us who fit all those criteria is actually pretty small.  So shouldn’t we just abandon labels then?

A young person in a group for gender variant youth recently introduced me to the term “demisexual.”  Demisexual, which as of yet doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, is none-the-less being utilized by a subset of young people, many of whom identify under the broader label “asexual.”  It suggests that one requires a strong emotional connection in order to feel romantic or sexual attraction or be interested in a sexual encounter.  When I first heard the term, I thought to myself, isn’t that just being a person with a preference?

We all have preferences, we all have levels of comfort we need to feel attracted, to want sex, some of us feel attraction frequently, others hardly ever, etc.  Some of us like sushi, others prefer our fish cooked.  Where do we draw the line between something worthy of a label and something people just differ on?  I like red-heads, does that make me a gingersexual?  (I thought I was really clever when I wrote that, until I just googled gingersexual and found an urban dictionary entry for “gingercurious.  Turns out there are folks out there who identity by their sexual interest in redheads!)  Seems like I will have to add a “G” to my acronym.  Make it stop!

After a few minutes of confusion, however, I started to think how wonderful it was that this transgender young person could articulate to his peers with this one simple word something crucial about his sexuality and erotic life.  What’s the harm, I thought.  In fact, these kids are empowered.  When I was their age I was extremely confused by my lack of sexual interest.  While it probably wouldn’t have stuck for the rest of my life, I think I would have been a lot more empowered if I could have just called myself demisexual and moved on.

Young adults and even young children are feeling less alone and able to accumulate more support and resources because they have terms for gender variance and a variety of sexual orientations.  Many gender, sexual, and relationship minority youth aren’t going to spend much of their lives just searching for a way to articulate who they are and/or wondering if anyone else feels the way they do.  As a result, many of them will set up their careers and relationships already knowing who they are, rather than having families and marriages disrupted when someone realizes they are transgender, gay, or one partner wants polyamory and not monogamy, for example.

So labels can force us to acknowledge the breadth and depth of human experience, empower us to greater comfort with who we are, and low us to identify ourselves more clearly to others.  They can help us feel less alone and seek support and resources.  Of course, labels can also be used against us as hate speech and in the name of discrimination and oppression.  But to me that only belies the power of words.   Words can change.  Words can be taken back.  Perhaps they can never be fully stripped of their hateful meanings, but they can be imbued with new, more powerful meanings.

Look at “queer.”  A hurtful slur that damaged so many just a generation earlier, for me invokes feelings of pride, empowerment, and clarity of identity.  “Sluts Vote” was a recent slogan seen on display at the Democratic National Convention – attempting to take back a derogatory term and focus instead on magnifying women’s voices and demanding reproductive rights.  Rehabilitating words can be tricky business, and I believe for some words, the pain attached may just be too great, and retirement from the lexicon may be a better option.  But what we can always change is those associations – those ideas and images that fill our brains when we hear words like boy, girl, gay, slut, queer, poor, kink, faith, black, pregnant, etc.

Words can trap us in the ruts of worn neural pathways leading to stereotyping and even discrimination.  But words can also free us from those very same ruts and lead us to enhanced understanding of our identities and improved quality of life.  When I first learned the word pansexual, it felt like a puzzle piece that had been just shy of fitting into a puzzle suddenly shifted into place.  None of the other words had ever been the right fit, but this one was.  Some of us are lucky enough to find a word like that, but for others that perfect word hasn’t come along yet.  That’s why instead of blaming labels and fighting against words, we should be making more.  Our paths out of the confines of the gender binary, heteronormativity and limiting concepts of sex and relationship structures are littered with words that grew out of the spaces between other words.  Out of transgender, polyamory, asexual, sado-masochism, grew demisexual, genderqueer, neutrois, polyfidelity, and BDSM.  At times, words may be the enemy, but ironically our best weapon is an ever-expanding words.

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