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18 February 2011, 12:00 pm 6 Comments

Sexuality: Labels and Why I Would Rather Not Do Them

Submission by Kay, TNG contributor

Labels can be helpful yet simultaneously limiting

The LGBT community has fought long and hard for equal rights, acceptance and an identity of its own. The way we have been referred to and how we have come to see ourselves has changed a lot in the past three decades, while some things still remain the same. There is more support and awareness out there and yet, going through that passage of accepting one’s own self is just as overwhelming as it was years ago. Things are better and yet, there are some core issues which will take years to be classified, studied and get a remotely workable plan of action to resolve them. We have moved on from blanket and clinical sounding terms like ‘homosexuality’ and are looking for ways to describe the very real and powerful feelings, including the myriad of realities within the LGBT community.

As ‘queer folk,’ we think, analyze and worry a lot. About how we are feeling, whether it is acceptable and how is living in the land of queers different from living in the regular straight environment that we have grown up in? Then it is a relief to hear conversations where words like ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ roll off easy from heterosexual and homosexual tongues alike and are accepted as a part of the mainstream culture. These small things give hope that things are changing for the better. It makes it a little easier to ignore the ‘dyke’ and ‘faggot’ jokes. That is what this article about: Labels and how they support us and provide an identity but also limit us.

I get the struggle and pain involved in getting the LGBT community recognition and an identity. I honestly do. I applaud the efforts of each and every person, regardless of their sexual orientation, who made it easier for people like me to come to terms with our sexuality and be able to consider living a life free of fear a very doable reality. My shot at a happy life is possible because of their courage, time and dedication to the cause of love for all and equal rights.

But I always hesitate when I am asked about my sexual orientation. I know what will be the gender of the person I will love and want to be with forever and ever (Once I find that special someone or she finds me!) but at the end of the day the fact is ‘I don’t do labels.’

For me, that should be a valid and acceptable alternative, both within the LGBT community and outside, to the usual LGBT or Questioning labels we often use to describe ourselves and how we love. Who cares if it really doesn’t answer the question what will the anatomy of the person I love?

‘I don’t do labels’ is not a new cool yuppie attitude. For me, it sends out the message that I believe in love and love only. And that I am not talking about physical anatomy even though it plays a big role here. It gives me the option to not feel boxed in or tied down – of ironically having to fit within the image of a community that fights a so called unconventional or unnatural image on a daily basis. The answer gives me the freedom to admit that I have a preference but fluidity of sexual preferences or orientation is a concept I strongly believe in. Isn’t fluidity the basis of the LGBT community? That every person is a tag or a label till they are not anymore and then a different label describes how and what they feel inside.

There is just so much processing to deal with when one is stepping out, I would rather not have to specify an image of the person I could fall in love with. I am far more comfortable stating that I believe love is beyond form and people should accept it as such. That I am just looking for love and love has little to do with the rules and regulations that society deemed acceptable for centuries. My answer about not doing labels leads to the correct assumption that I am a member of the LGBT community. But why should it? Is it only the gay people who would ever speak up against labels or embrace the true nature of love – free and unconditional?

I could draw flak from certain quarters within the community for not ‘choosing’ or ‘standing up’ because of the ambiguous nature of the answer on the face of it. I understand their point of view and why it might seem like I am merely dipping in the alternative lifestyles or I am still unwilling to commit myself to another woman. However, my lifestyle and every second of my existence is a testament to my preferences.

What I want is an inclusive world where using definitions like lesbian, gay, transsexual, bisexual or even straight is a choice we make in the bigger picture of following our hearts and not as tools capable of dividing love into acceptable and not acceptable. A stupid but relevant example of this is how people are more comfortable with two women together than two men being in love. It is the same thing but one is deemed slightly less offensive than the other. Woman on woman action turns on the straightest of men but mention two gay men holding hands and everyone runs out the door. We all know well how frustrating it is to have your commitment and relationship belittled or questioned in comparison to another purely on the basis of gender of the parties.

Every label brings forth positive and negative images and clichés. In my experience, the term ‘gay’ elicits more positive response that ‘lesbian’ when used by homosexual women, almost as if it is perceived as more casual or less threatening. In some extreme cases, a woman saying she is gay is treated as just a passing phase, something she will grow out of. For emotional and practical reasons, labels are indispensable but they should not define us. They should not serve as rigid or set rules expressing what we feel and desire. Even within the LGBT community, there may be a handful of people who might not be comfortable with certain sections.

The most common example of this is the bisexual person. I think we are all a little scared of putting ourselves out there and building a life with someone who is looking for her perfect someone from both the gender pools is a very scary thought. We may understand that being bisexual doesn’t necessary mean she will leave us for a man or be less committed to making the relationship work. But doesn’t that label bring up a negative image often evoking a rejection in an attempt to safeguard ourselves or stick to that we consider ‘normal and acceptable’ – women who want only women and nothing else? At times like that, we forget the first argument we make with the straight society – that being a lesbian is about loving and following the heart.

Each and every one of us had to find out what love means for us as individuals and decide what limitations, if any, we accept on this universal emotion. It is probably that decision which makes it more important for me to acknowledge other people’s right to love even as I go about my life. In this world where I found love and support from unexpected quarters, I want to highlight the common thread behind all the labels.

In my mind, by using a label – I am declaring that I am comfortable in my skin which is great. But by saying that I am for love without labels, I am declaring that everybody, even the heterosexual, is free to love whoever they want and I support them. That it is okay to love whoever you want. Eventually that is what we all want.  ‘I don’t do labels’ is an identification tag of sorts but it serves as a reminder that we all deserve love irrespective of the gender of our significant other. Each and every one of us. That we all are the same even if we love different people or love the same people albeit differently.

(In my limited exposure to LGBT forums and the like, I found many people who feel the same way. The aim behind stating this on paper is to let others know that they are not alone and the LGBT community is one and the same despite all the different factors and factions. We all just want love and celebrate every kind possible. Even when as we go about it in very different ways.)

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  • Ray Schiel said:

    Reminds of the time some guy asked me at the gym
    “So, are you gay or staright?”
    I answered, “Are those the only choices I get?” He laughed but when I told him that I generally don’t label myself, I thought his head was going to explode in front of me. He didn’t know how to handle that answer.

    That being said, labels may be important to a certain degree and for certain situations (dating preferences?) but I think its important that if I am going to use labels, then I need to be able to articulate about what that specific label specifically means to me and also have the patience to listen to what your interpretation of that label is as well. Then we have a starting point.
    Not that you have to agree with my definition, nor do I have to agree with yours, but at least we have a basis to go on. I think alot of problems arise because people don’t take the time enough to try and define the labels they use for themselves and the ones they here others using.

    Even beyond that, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I feel that too much emphasis is placed on categories/labels and not enough on character.

    I’d much rather be noticed for who I am as a person than as to how I categorize myself.

    “Character over category.”

  • oddboyout said:

    I think you’re confusing the relationship between labels and identities a bit. You state that “labels… provide an identity” but it is the other way around. If I identify myself as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans it is because of a desire to join a community of these shared identities. Outsiders take our words and use them to label us as “the other,” but that doesn’t mean we have to apply their definitions to our lives. We create our own meaning for our shared identity.

    And now this is when I play Devil’s Advocate: “Fluidity” is no longer a pillar of the “our” community. The self-appointed leaders believe adamantly in essentialism. You’re born one way, you figure out which way you lean at puberty, and that’s that for the rest of your life.

  • Carmine said:

    It would be incomparably harder to have a meaningful conversation on almost any subject– without labels.

    ‘American’, ‘mother’, ‘Asian’, ‘Democrat’, and so on, are all no less labels than ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ are.

    Labels can provide an identity, if you want them too, but that is up to the individual. The primary function of any label is as descriptor, rather than definition.

    If we are all honest, there isn’t anyone who truly ‘doesn’t do’ labels. They may ‘not do’ one particular set of labels (like those for sexuality), but you can be sure there are other labels they apply to themselves, and to others too, with or without the consent of those others.

  • mim said:

    I agree, especially since the politicts around LGBTQ are so fixed on these lables. If I’d label myself as a lesbian and then fall for aguy, it would feel like some sort of fraud. If I label myself bisexual, byt my feelings start to veer towards pan or asexual it feels like I’ve been lying. Though I can’t stree this enough, being bi does not determine how or where you’re looking for a partner. For me it is also about looking actively for a person of one gender without denying your attraction to the other one. It could be about being attracted to one gender in one way and being attracted to another gender in another way. You’re not more open for suggestion because you’re bi, so the competition is not bigger. It’s exactly this kind of misconception that gets us marginalized in the first place.

  • Jon said:

    You can compromise between labels and no-labels and just confuse people. The 1st time they ask you say “gay”. The 2nd time you say you don’t like labels. Then you spontaneously refer to yourself as gay. The fourth time you go back to rejecting labels. When they ask for an explanation you say “whatever my mood is.”

  • Kay said:

    Ray Schiel: Totally, I’d take character and internal worth over category any day.

    oddboyout: I love fluidity. In life, work and love. Maybe if more people accepted that everything is in a constant flux and ever changing, the world would be a better place. But then, each to his own. If I have a right to have and voice an opinion, so do others.

    Carmine: I agree :-) My label reads ‘I don’t do labels’. If it was not a label, perhaps I would not have to clarify my position at all. Practical worth and emotional comfort of labels can not be denied. Without labels, I would go crazy figuring out whether I can ask someone out or not.

    I know it is idealistic and a tad bit naïve but the more I look around, the more I want an open world. It is not about eliminating the hate, war and tons of other problems. It is about living happily in harmony and getting there peacefully. Sometimes I wonder if the 60’s have returned. The ambiguous labeling is also a product of the same thinking and maybe that is why it appeals to some.

    It is a label for sure but one that serves as a metaphor for a world that so many of us are trying to build.

    Mim: Thank you for the comment.

    Just because someone is a lesbian does not mean that they would ‘want and thus, turn’ straight women into lesbians. We are not grocery shopping in the women’s market. We are in the market to be with a person who wants to be with us. Period. The same rule applies to bisexuals too.

    I have seen a lot of understanding lesbians for whom a bi partner might not be an outright no. It does not take away from all the stories and jokes I hear about the bi women which point to the fear of lesbians committing to a bisexual woman. But I think things are changing for the good and people are more understanding. Lets hope for the best.

    Jon: I wish I could do that. Apparently I set off the ‘gaydars’ of even the most straight people imaginable. So labelling myself is just about finding my own spot and sending out a message in whatever way I can. Maybe I could confuse them by saying I am straight!