Gay, Straight, Bi: These Labels Don’t Apply
Originally Published: April 11, 2008
Revised: September 5, 2012
“I love the person, regardless of the gender.”
This is how I described my sexuality at 14. I would say that love was something that just happened and that the gender of a person wasn’t a big deal if I loved that person. But people were not usually OK with that answer. People wanted to know exactly how I identified: Gay, straight or bi? I felt the need to pick a label, but nothing quite fit. “Bisexual” didn’t sound right. It kind of sounded like a terrible disease. But while it sounded pretty horrible, it was the closest word to how I felt.
As I got older, I tended to be attracted to girls, but was still attracted to boys sometimes. I remember talking one time with a bisexual friend about how I wished I could identify as a lesbian because that word sounded so powerful. Lesbian women sounded so sure of who they were. I wished I was that sure.
There isn’t really a good word to describe who I am and who I like.
For a long time, I tried to fit into the lesbian label. I did everything “right.” I only dated girls. I cut my hair into a fauxhawk and watched The L Word every week. I was the poster child and cheerleader for the lesbian club. But then I had a crush on a transgender guy (born female, but he identified as male). I soon saw that while identifying as a lesbian made me fully accepted by the lesbian club, crushing on a guy (whether he was born one or not) excluded me from it.
I began to wonder, what do these labels mean? Is there ever any one word that can perfectly describe who you are? I realized that to be part of the lesbian community I had joined, I had to confine myself to certain ways of being. This meant specifically dating only girls. But what does dating a guy or a girl even mean anymore, as more and more people identify not only as male and female but somewhere in between the two?
I know some of my straight friends feel the same way: They mostly date people of the opposite gender, but identify as “heteroflexible,” or even refuse to label themselves. It’s easiest for them to say, “I’m straight,” but that label does not completely describe who they are. Sometimes my “straight” female friends get serious crushes on other girls. Or sometimes, like me, they feel attracted to people who do not identify as male or female. We have no idea what label to use in that case.
These days, I try not to label my sexuality. There isn’t really a good word to describe who I am and who I like. There’s no word for a feminine, nerdy, outspoken girl with a nose ring, who’s not really attracted to other feminine girls (except for that one really cute girl I dated this summer!). There’s no word for a girl like me who loves intelligent butch girls who are in touch with their emotions and trans guys with mohawks and lip rings who identify as queer feminists. But even this description of me isn’t always true, because I am constantly changing.
How can one word—gay, straight or bi—that never changes describe how complex we are? There will always be times when that label for our identity doesn’t hold up. Identities can be really powerful. They can help us form communities with other people who identify the same way. But they can also be confining and exclusive. I’m not opposed to labels. I think they’re a great way to express yourself in a simple way to others. But life is complicated. Those labels often break down. To really explain who we are, we need millions of words, not just a single label.
Illustration by Maisha Foster-O’Neal
Please login to comment on this story
Labels are all around us. For example, I procrastinated writing this article by scrolling through Tag Yourself memes on Tumblr, while Googling and taking personality quizzes. (I might have felt more joy than I should have when my results for […]
Read Story »
My sexual health education lasted one semester of middle school. I listened to my seventh-grade science teacher explain the importance of condoms, which I will call “external condoms” to distinguish them from “female” or receptive condoms.…
Read Story »
I’ve always loved reading. In elementary school, I was often scolded for being the girl with a book hidden in her lap during a lesson. In fact, due to my constant reading, I quickly jumped from the easy reader section […]
Read Story »