Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: To Label or Not to Label
Originally Published: June 27, 2018
Revised: June 27, 2018
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 the “What Kind of Grandma Will You Be When You Grow Up?” quiz labeled me the “Rich Grandma.”) People are downright obsessed with labels. They follow their horoscopes and know what Hogwarts house from Harry Potter they would be in, even if they’ve never read the books or watched the movies!
While these can be fun and are only meant to pass time, other labels are more serious. For instance, before I first came out as bisexual, I really focused on trying to find the best word to convey my feelings to my mom. How could I possibly explain that I fantasized about both Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas? I explored the web, educating myself on lots of different labels. I felt like I needed to know exactly who I was. Finally, after some thought, the term “bisexual” felt like the best fit for me and seemed the least confusing for my mom. She understood right away.
Labels can help classify your sexual orientation (who someone is physically and romantically attracted to) and gender identity (a person’s inner feelings of being a guy, a girl, neither or a combination), which is helpful for people like my mom who might need more help understanding. The main goal of labels is to help you feel safe and OK when you speak up about your identity. They can help communicate about this part of yourself with others. You can also choose not to claim a label. Whether you feel unsure or aren’t comfortable sharing that information for whatever reason, you don’t need to use a label if you don’t want to. They’re only meant to help, and if they don’t help, there’s no point in using them. Curious about the pros and cons of labeling yourself, I talked to some teens.
You get to say who you are, how you identify or if you don’t want a label at all. It’s totally up to you.
Labels All the Way!
One of the main positives of labeling yourself is that labels can provide solidarity. You know you’re not the only one. Labels are reassuring; they help remind you that whatever you’re feeling isn’t all that new. If there’s a word that can describe it, that means it’s been done before. Isabel, 16, of Brooklyn, NY, identifies as AAA (agender, aromantic and asexual) and stands behind the use of labels. They (Isabel’s preferred pronouns are “they” and “their”) say, “Giving a label makes things much more comfortable.” It’s empowering to know yourself and how you want other people to interact with you. Isabel also goes on to joke, “In my history class, we learned about the Agricultural Adjustment Act that helped boost prices for crops. It has an acronym of AAA, so I love to joke that I’m a piece of wheat.” Labels don’t have to be seen in such a clinical, serious fashion. It’s your identity; you can choose to have fun with it!
Labels can also aid in communication with peers, friends and family. Vanessa, 16, of Edison, NJ, identifies as cisgender and heterosexual and is an LGBTQ ally. She says, “Straightforward labels help me contextualize who’s part of the LGBTQ community. When someone gives themselves an LGBTQ label, it tells me that they have a certain self-confidence in their identity that I admire. It’s also an outward statement that allows me to fully realize, ‘Oh, you’re part of the LGBTQ community.’” Labels can help people close to you by reminding them of who you are (such as which pronouns you prefer or which genders you’re attracted to), which make things easier when things related to relationships come up.
On the Other Hand…
Labels don’t always make everything better. Rachel, 17, of Fairfax, VA, identifies as bisexual and had an unpleasant experience with labels. She shares, “At the time, I was going through some stuff and was really confused. My friend kept asking me for a label, even though I told her I was questioning. Even now, it’s a little hard to come to terms with the word ‘bisexual’ because I was rushed and pressured into it.” It can be stressful to have to choose a label and identify a certain way when you need more time to figure things out.
Plus, while labels can be helpful, there is often pressure placed on people to choose them and a need to have chosen “correctly.” We all belong somewhere on a spectrum, both for sexual orientation and gender identity. Some people may not understand that sexual orientation and gender identity are on spectrum, and they feel pressure to be as precise as possible about how they identify and label themselves. If they aren’t fitting into their label 100 percent of the time, a fear begins to brew that maybe this was all a mistake; maybe they came out as the wrong identity. But is there a “wrong identity”? You get to say who you are, how you identify or if you don’t want a label at all. It’s totally up to you.
While choosing a label that suits you can be empowering, some people use labels as an excuse to discriminate or be hateful. Unfortunately, asexual and bisexual people are often discriminated against because some believe that they aren’t “gay enough” to be in the LGBTQ community. And transphobia, a fear or hatred of transpeople, is an awful reality.
Rex, 16, of Livingston, NJ, who identifies as bisexual and transgender, comments that even within the LGBTQ community, there is discrimination: “I think it’s super hypocritical. It doesn’t make sense to me why there are minorities within minorities that hate on each other. You should be banding together, not driving each other further apart!” The LGBTQ community is meant to be a group celebrating all kinds of love and identities, so it’s a sad reality that this might not always be the case.
Multiple Labels or None at All
Being heterosexual, gay or bisexual is not a choice. Neither is being transgender or cisgender. It’s just part of who you are. There might be an overwhelming number of labels, but only you get to decide which to affiliate with, if any at all. Feel unsure about all these labels at your disposal? Some people use “queer,” an umbrella term that describes anyone who is LGBTQ. Labels are tricky: there are times when they can be helpful and times they can be limiting or even harmful. Whether you decide to use labels or not, whatever decision you make is A-OK. You can choose to use multiple labels…or none at all! It’s OK to not pick one label over another if you don’t want to or if you identify on a spectrum because your identity is more fluid.
If you feel safe and comfortable, you can speak up and share how you identify—even if how you identify is to not label yourself. We can speak up for and embrace all the diverse ways of identifying and being our unique selves! In the end—label or no label, it’s all about your comfort and how you feel.
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