How we choose to label our sexuality or gender identity has a significant effect on how we present ourselves to the world. Sometimes, having a word to put with one’s identity can be liberating; other times, it feels limiting. Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot of debate about the use of labels in the LGBT community. Who is allowed to call themselves that? Do this or that group of people really belong in the LGBTQ+ community? While many of these debates are complex and have no definitive answer, they are still questions worth asking. As someone who has struggled with how to label my sexuality, I certainly have thoughts on the matter of labels within the queer and trans community. However, all I can do is provide my own opinion.
When I first came out to my mother some years ago, it was as asexual. At the time, I was unsure whether I experienced romantic attraction at all, but I was certain that I didn’t feel the sexual attraction to boys which seemed to occupy so much of the attention of my female friends. My mom is not a bigot, and in fact is quite open minded as middle-aged white women go, but I still found her response rather disheartening. It was something along the lines of, “Why do we have to label every attraction we feel? Why do you have to call yourself ‘asexual’ and me ‘straight,’ why can’t we all just call ourselves human beings?”
Now, as far as responses from parents go, this one was fairly positive. I was telling my mother that I identified as something she had never heard of, and she responded not with anger but simply with confusion and, I’d like to think, the genuine desire to understand. So why did I feel like her response was misguided? Why was I so resistant to the idea of ceasing to label myself as asexual and, as she had put it, just “call myself a human being”?
Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: labels for sexuality and gender identity give language to a shared set of experiences and emotions. When we have a label for what we’ve experienced, we can gain a sense of belonging. When multiple individuals find language to express their identity and congregate around that label, communities form. And that sense of community can be vital for the mental, social, and emotional health of people in the LGBTQ+ community.
The thing is, long before I had heard of the word “asexual” I had experienced moving through the world as a person who did not feel sexual attraction to any gender, and I had assigned my own labels to fit that experience. Taking cues from my slightly boy-crazy friends, my peers who seemed constantly fascinated by the opposite sex, and a media narrative that told me I should be half-crazed with hormones and horniness, I could come to no other conclusion than that there must be something wrong with me. So before I had the word “asexual” to label my experiences, I labeled myself as “broken.” Learning about asexuality showed me that there was nothing wrong with me, and allowed me to connect to a community who shared my experiences, fears, and emotions around sexuality. All of a sudden, I was no longer alone. Having a label for my sexuality let me identify as something other than “broken.”
Since then, I eventually came to realize that I am romantically attracted to all genders, although with a strong preference towards the same sex. Again, I was thrown into confusion over what to call myself. Was I biromantic? Panromantic or polyromantic? The definitions of bi- or pan-attraction broadly overlap. In general, bisexuality is defined as attraction to two genders, pansexuality as attraction to all genders, and and polysexuality as attraction to some genders. But most bisexual advocates will tell you that bisexuality does not limit one to attraction towards only men and women, but also includes attraction to those outside the gender binary. (According to GLAAD, “Today bisexuality does not typically signify attraction to two genders, because gender and attraction are not limited to binaries. The definition of bisexuality has shifted to reflect that.”)
Here’s the other thing about labels, though: they only matter insofar as they help us feel good about ourselves. Sexuality and gender are human-made constructs. Labels like “gay,” “straight,” “male,” “female,” etc are words that Western society has made up to categorize and explain our experiences. I believe that we can recognize this while still accepting and validating the way that individuals choose to apply labels to themselves. Sure, the definitions of bisexuality, pansexuality, and polysexuality overlap a fair amount; sure, all three are just concepts created by society. But the distinctions between those labels are important to some people, and that’s okay. Identifying as bi or pan gives many a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a context in which to understand and process their experiences and emotions. As a community we should be able to intellectually understand that sexuality is a construct, while still respecting how individuals choose to identify with or apply that construct to their lives. (The same goes for gender.)
Nowadays, I almost always tell people that I’m queer. I choose this label mostly because I honestly cannot say, “I’m asexual and biromantic” without cringing; most people’s reaction to that statement is somewhere along the lines of, “Okay, I get it, you think you’re special.” So, I’ve chosen the label that makes me feel the most comfortable, that provides me with a sense of community and belonging. (The history of the word “queer” and how it has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community is a lengthy discussion for another day. Suffice to say that there are some who still feel uncomfortable using the word, and I think it’s important to respect that. I don’t call people queer if they don’t want me to, but it is still the label I feel most comfortable using.) Labels are not bad in and of themselves, and in fact can be affirming and even liberating. They only become problematic when we assign them to others without permission. In the end, that’s what really matters— that we have control over what labels we choose to define ourselves by, and that we respect the choices of others.