Humans are meaning-making animals – we find it hard to comprehend a concept for which we have no name. Everything we encounter, every part of our lives is filtered through language, for better or worse. Concepts as nebulous as sexuality and identity are doubly difficult to describe. To make matters worse, language is mainly formed by dominant social groups. Before the 19th century there was no English word for “homosexuality” – it wasn’t even a linguistic option for us. When the LGBT+ community burst forth from cultural obscurity in the 20th century, it brought with it new words to describe new lived experiences. These words have now acquired historical and cultural meaning. For young queer people coming to terms with their identities, prominent people self-defining as LGBT+ gives them possibility, hope and often even a lifeline.
However the prominence of these labels brings with it challenges. The general categories under the LGBT+ umbrella have been condemned by certain queer theorists as being not only wildly impractical but also potentially incredibly harmful as they erase internal differences such as race or class. Some members of the queer community also believe these labels can divide us also, as it shouldn’t matter who we are attracted to. This can be a seductive way of thinking but what are we really asking for when we say our self-defined labels “shouldn’t matter”? What these people perhaps mean is that we should be able to live in a world where we are not stigmatised for our sexualities. But stigma doesn’t come from the labels, it comes from people who stigmatise.
When heterosexual or cis-gendered people object to our labels, the implications can be altogether more sinister. Alternative labels irk these people because they want to be viewed as the default, and our existence threatens that. In the same way as when people say they are “colourblind” to race, they are erasing the very real racialised histories that people have colour have lived. This sort of thinking isn’t necessarily meant with any sort of malice, but it serves the purposes of the speaker by allowing them to seem liberal and considerate whilst side-stepping problems that inconvenience them.
For bisexual and transgender people the debate over whether or not to label oneself is even more complex. Bisexual people are constantly being forced and from all sides to identify as either gay or straight and so the need to hold on a little tighter to their self-definition is understandable. For me, as a queer woman in a long-term relationship with a man, my label is important to me as it helps bind me to a part of my identity that would otherwise feel invisible. For trans people, the decision not to publicly use labels can often be one motivated by physical safety, and some people who we might think of as ‘trans’ may just not feel that the term accurately describes their particular gendered experiences.
The decision we take as LGBT+ people of how to use labels is political as well as personal. We may never completely eradicate the stigma attached to our labels, as there will always be people who object to the community’s very existence. The important thing is that we continue to make these terms useful and inclusive amongst ourselves. The LGBT+ community is vibrant and growing but it is founded on these taxonomic terms – so whether our current descriptors are positive or negative, they are clearly not going anywhere.
Rosie Dent-Brown (Comment Contributor)
2 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Do Without Labels”
Although I agree with much of what has been said, my own experience when interacting with the LGBT student community during our forums, is that many don’t want to wear any form of label. The majority of students who have interacted with us is that although they understand why people want to “belong”, it is no longer necessary with in our modern and diverse society. In some ways I agree with this. We don’t need to carry a label, but for some of us “mature and older folk” (and I mean that warmly,lol) we belong to a society when public opinion forced us to adopt such labels.
While I agree with what’s been said here – and while finding a label for oneself can be an immensely comforting thing – I feel it’s also important to respect that some people feel genuinely uncomfortable being asked to label themselves (I am not talking about cis straight people here, or people who insist that we shouldn’t NEED labels). Personally, I’m happy to identify with the label queer, but don’t feel comfortable using a more specific label than that. Being asked to use a word that specifies exactly what kind of attraction I experience makes me feel nervous and uncomfortable – it almost feels as if by forcing my orientation into a specific name I’m reducing it and cutting it off from myself. Whether these feelings are rational or not, I feel they should be respected.