Life Lessons: Labels

By Jeff Walsh

"Once you label me, you negate me" -- Soren Kierkegaard

As many people on the site know, I'm not a big fan of labels. I feel they provide solace and false comfort, but in a way that offers no long-term gain. When I came out, way back when, you had two options: you were gay/lesbian, or you were bisexual. And, as I said in the first Life Lesson, The Moment You Knew, I was bisexual for a day or so before accepting I was gay.

But I think the larger problem with labels is not in what they actually mean. I don't think anyone gay rejects the classification that they are attracted to people of the same sex. If that's all it meant, it would be hard to argue with it. But all of the additional societal baggage we've attached to the label is where the problem kicks in.

Once you get past the dating angle, being gay is seem by many to mean you are: effeminate, promiscuous, weak, like to do drugs, enjoy dance music, wear tight clothing (when you're not in drag), and everything else you can think of. Which I know is untrue, because I'm not weak.

But seriously, what is the attraction of labels? We all acknowledge they mean far more than their face value. Around the time Oasis started in 1995, "questioning" became a term that was added to the gay alphabet soup lexicon (LGBTQQI2S*, etc.). At the time, I used "queer and questioning" to describe the audience for Oasis, mainly for the catchy alliteration and because the alphabet soup seemed to be growing too rapidly to keep up, and I'd rather go broad and inclusive than slight anybody.

It seemed easy and harmless. "Questioning" would just be that area you could go while you sorted things out. So, instead of my being bi for two days back in the day, I would have just been questioning. But, on more than one occasion lately, I've had people write that they "might be questioning" or they "think they're questioning." And it hit me that questioning had since changed from being a safe pre-label place to explore your sexuality before coming to some decision. It was a label now, too, and people were reticent to just jump right into being thought of as "questioning," even when it seemed strange to see them do nothing but ask questions about everything. To me, they defined questioning, so the designation seemed redundant. If you're questioning things, you're automatically "questioning," no?

"A person's sexuality is so much more than one word "gay." No one refers to anyone as just "hetero" because that doesn't say anything. Sexual identity is broader than a label." -- Gus Van Sant

"If everything had a label, we would live in a fully delineated but false world." -- Mason Cooley

"To be black and an intellectual in America is to live in a box.... On the box is a label, not of my own choosing." -- Stephen Carter

Of course, if you avoid labels, you have to explain things more. Technically, I'm vegan. I eat no animal products. I use the term because it is shorthand for my diet of no eggs, cheese, dairy, meat, and such. But when you say vegan, a lot of other things come up for people. That I am for animal rights. That I care how *you* eat. That I am a member of PETA. That I am going to lecture people about their food choices.

Given the choice, I would probably not say I was vegan, because it is such a loaded word, and almost always leads people down a discussion that I'd just as soon not have, especially considering it tends to happen at meals. But if you order a "Shrimp Primavera, no shrimp" (my usual order at The Olive Garden) and people don't know you're vegan, it seems stranger still.

So, before people know, it is something you have to navigate. And after they know? Pretty much the same. It is rare for me to have a meal with people and not hear how something would be better with cream, with cheese, how can I not eat meat... it's pretty constant. Part of that is because it is a healthier way to eat, so people naturally get defensive, as it brings their own food choices into question. When I go to parties when I'm back in Pennsylvania, more people are concerned about my food choices than I am. They point out which things I can or can't eat on a buffet, loudly yell across a room to ask if someone put butter in their dish (in a way that lets people know 'no' is the answer they hope to hear back), eat something and say how good it is, but quickly add "Well, I know you wouldn't eat this, but it *is* good... I like it... You can't be good all the time, you know..."

All of which I do nothing to prompt. And, it just goes on and on and on. Trust me, I've long given up trying to stop this activity. It just doesn't work. I mean, I know what I can eat on a buffet. I can taste trace amounts of butter after one bite of anything and stop eating it. It's easy. I know what things traditionally have animal products in them. And it's not an allergy or something life-threatening: if I eat some, I'll be fine.

But it remains a topic because, on some level, people don't respect it. It's foreign. I say this because I don't think if I were Jewish I would constantly hear how incredible bacon is. It just can't imagine it would happen as often. People wouldn't hold up pork and say I didn't know what I was missing. Ask if I'm allowed to have Baco's, since it's a soy product, but artificially taste like bacon. Of course, we're conditioned to respect people's religious choices. I just *decided* to not eat meat (although it is part of my spiritual path, but that's an even trickier can of worms to open).

I think being gay is very similar. I mean, can't I just date guys without all the other baggage that comes with it?

"I consider any emblem or label a prejudice." -- Anton Chekhov

"I don't believe in labels." -- Lyndon B. Johnson

"Who we are has been sidetracked by labels for who we aren't. Phrase names have divided us. Stay-at-home mom, new dad, parent of special needs child, working mother, job sharer, non-custodial parent, single parent, empty nesters, spouse caring for spouse, parent with teens, teenage parent, elder caregiver-these and so many other titles have put us in little niches and kept us thinking that we can't help each other because ... we are so different." -- Paula C. Lowe

"I came to live in a country I love; some people label me a defector. I have loved men and women in my life; I've been labeled "the bisexual defector" in print. Want to know another secret? I'm even ambidextrous. I don't like labels. Just call me Martina." -- Martina Navratilova

But what's the alternative? I mean, sure, it would be interesting to go out into the world and just say, "Hi, I'm Jeff" and let people figure everything else out a piece at a time. But it's not very realistic. And just a tad too precious.

And whenever one label gets too much baggage, we split off a new term and tweak it a little. There are probably 20 different terms today that would have been simply called "bisexual" when I was coming out. But to me that just speaks to our need to have labels. We never seem to just reject them, despite the obvious conflicts we had. We just create new ones that fit better.

"A name is a label, and as soon as there is a label, the ideas disappear and out comes label-worship and label-bashing, and instead of living by a theme of ideas, people begin dying for labels... and the last thing the world needs is another religion." -- Richard Bach

"Those wearing tolerance for a label call other views intolerable" -- Phyllis McGinley quotes

"I've always felt that sexuality is a really slippery thing. In this day and age, it tends to get categorized and labeled, and I think labels are for food. Canned food." -- Michael Stipe

I've lived in a strange world for much of my life where I never really cared much about labels. Still don't. I know I was looking on an online personals site recently, and told my friend that all the guys in whom I was interested want someone masculine. He was waiting for the problem. Finally, it became clear that I didn't really think of myself as masculine, and he said I was "totally masculine." (So there!) But I never thought of myself as masculine. Or feminine. Or anything else. I sort of just never cared to box everything in my life and quantify it. I have no clue why that is.

I dated a girl in high school, but I say I'm gay. Other people who dated girls at some point in their life say bi, just to factor their old lives into the mix.

So, I'm constantly torn between finding labels somewhat necessary, but once you get too deep into them, they are only limiting. Gay. Straight. Democrat. Republican.

As soon as I sign onto being a Democrat, I'm saying I'm not a Republican. But I can disapprove of a lot of what the Democrats want to do, and find things I would support on the Republican side. Of course, labeling myself as a Libertarian sends the message that I want my vote to not count, or that I exercise my vote to show I don't support the two-party system. I don't really want to be lumped in with any large group of people, just because we decided to use the same word to self-describe.

It's all too confusing.

"Labels are for cans, not people." -- Anthony Rapp

"We don't want to be labeled, because being gay or black or a rapper or a redneck or alternative has only separated us, and those are labels previous generations have come up with, not us. We need to embrace our differences, not focus on them." -- Found on quotes page online with no attribution

So, I guess I'm a top-level labeler. I'm gay, because I date men. Madonna, dance music, drugs, parties, effeminacy, drag, and promiscuity... all optional. I'm vegan because I don't consume any animal products. PETA, animal rights, throwing blood on people wearing fur coats, militant foodie, dinnertime lecturer... again, optional.

On some level, I do just subscribe to the theory that I'm Jeff, and everything else can filter in at the appropriate time. The gay, vegan, and other high-level labels tend to come up quickly, just for my sanity and the sanity of those around me.

It's easy to say you don't believe in labels. But the world does. So, you can't avoid the question forever. There has to be a balance.

So... Why do you label your sexuality? How do you label it? Why do we need labels? How can we avoid it? Can that ever happen?


jojojo's picture

The anti-labelists...

The great asset of labels is that they allow me to communicate.

I've been "anti-label" for quite some time, but I've come around to calling myself lesbian/gay. It was a pragmatic step. I had not fared too well with my anti-label policy, so it was time to try something else. There was also another element to my embrace of the label "lesbian", namely that I rememberes various instances of attraction to girls in my early teens.

My anti-label stand often ended up alienating, and simply resulted in me staying in the closet. I mean, as what should I have come out? As long as I was with my girlfriend, the whole label/no-label issue was not so pressing. I could come out to people by telling them that I was gonna meet my girlfriend. I might even have identified as lesbian, but all it meant was that I was in love with, and in a relationship with a woman. It did not mean that I envisioned to date many other women.

I even found the whole idea of claiming a sexual prientation utterly unromantic. I thought of romantic life as an endless source of surprise and unpredictability. How unromantic to make plans like: I am gonna date many women, and eventually I am gonna find "my woman" and stay with her. I thought I respected my future lovers and friends too much, as that I could approach them with a ready-made role which they should fulfill in my life. I wanted to sort out our relationships as I would meet people.

To some extent that is still what I want.

I once dated a guy, and when I had some issues with our dating relationship, he made very clear that he knew what he wanted (female, smart, willing to have regular sex with him, etc.), and that I could decide if I wanted to fill this role, or else he'd look for someone else. Thank God I was smart enough to tell him to look for someone else! He was my anti-model for how to think about sexual orientation.

It might sound strange, but for me the idea of claiming a sexual orientation implied taking such a rational-instrumental approach to human relationships as that guy did.

But I wanted to write more about the problems I ran into while I did not label myself. It was very hard to object to people's assumption that I am straight and looking for a man. Just take the ubiquitous question "Do you have a boyfriend". Of course there are creative ways of answering that question, like "No, neither do I have a girlfriend." But to tell you the truth, I did not have the guts to do that. I was too shy and insecure. It is much easier to tell people "No, but I'm gay." And it makes me feel better. Less invisible, less alienated, more active, more interesting.

My anti-label phase also did not help me to meet other LGBT/queer/questioning/no-label/hahahahaha people. I did not even realize how important it was for me to have queer friends (in real life, not only this site), until I took steps to find them.

When I started to go public at my university as an LGBT organizer, it was unavoidable to deal with the labeling question. I might of course have insisted that my sexuality was to complex to be labeled, but if the little space which our university newspaper made for a short article about our organization were spent on that, there would have been no more space for the more important things (our activities, etc.). Furthermore, I still think that the anti-label position can too easily be read in a homophobic way. "No, I'm not gay! It is just that I...." (I think if there were no (latent) homophobia, the anti-label position would have much less appeal. Not everyone who goes no-label does it out of internalized homophobia, but I am sure some people do.) So, in mainstream media, it is much better to say "Yeah I am gay, next question please", than go into the datials of the labeling and anti-labeling philosophy. Unless of course you are REALLY REALLY such a unique special case that there is no label to you (like - for example - you are attracted to gay men on SUndays and to bisexual women during the summer.)

I think all labels are less than perfect. Just as all representations are mis-representations. To some extent. The important question is not, whether or not a label fits perfectly, but whether it fits well enough. Lesbian fits well enough for me. There is no way for it to fit perfectly. But if I don't claim that label, people think I am straight, and that label certainly fits me much less.

I thought: No, I cannot be lesbian, because "being lesbian" means you plan to date women throughout your life. I do not have such a plan, that's why I am not lesbian. Now, my stand is more like: Being lesbian, in my case, means that I have had my significant sexual/emotional ties with women, and that I am interested in women. (Not that this description is really clear, but whatever! SOmething like that. I don't feel like specifying any more. It means more.) I acknowledge that there are other lesbians for whom being a lesbian means something slightly different, but so what? I used to search for my individuality outside the labels, because I thought of the labels as a threat to my individuality, to my uniqueness. I haven't given up on my individuality - it's just that I search for it, that I try to assert it, WITHIN the label gay/lesbian/queer, rather than outside of it. So if ever someone comes up to me and says: "But you're a lesbian, you should be like this and that.", I won't have very much patience with that person. I don't have much patience with people who tell me what to do, what to want, how to behave, whom to be, etc. If I don't fit someone's understanding of "lesbian" or "gay" or "queer", then they should broaden their understanding of that word, rather than try to push me into the limits of their understanding.

Interestingly, I have started to think about the position, not to label yourself, just as another category. Yesterday a friend told me about her father, who used to be with a woman for a long time and then left her for a man. My friend told me that she had suggested to his father that he was bi. But, as she reported, her father "does not want to give it a name".
Can you imagine my reaction? I totally recognized that impulse to resist names, and, as I indicated to my friend that she did not have to explain much more about her father's motivations to avoid labels, I implicitly labeled him in my had: O, another one of those anti-label people! I sure understand him. I've been one like him myself!

Perhaps I begrudge other people's attempts to stay "no-label", because I did not succees in doing it, and I don't want them to enjoy the privilege (of not being labeled), while I can't have that privilege. So I just label them "anti-label", so we are even again. He is "anti-label", just as I am "gay".

We have all been injured, profoundly. (Donna Haraway)
I Am Out, Therefore I Am. (Okay, mostly.)

Lol-taire's picture

Yes, current labels are

Yes, current labels are loaded words but they are still necessary because before they can just melt away (if that can ever happen) in order to neutralise the power of the stereotypes you describe, they have to be proven inaccurate. By distancing yourself from the concept of 'gays' or even (lord help us) a 'gay lifestyle', you tacitly confirm that actually the stereotype is largely accurate; you cease to be the exception to the presumed rule and people can just cast your own example away because you are this separate entity.

Also when you're young and uncertain, you need a label to attatch yourself to so desperately because really you're still reasoning like a child. I was 12 when I first started to notice girls and although I thought I was terribly clever, I think I still dealt with absolutes. It was a not knowing that was the worst and you can't expect people to live in the grey areas all the time. There have to some anchors or else you have no starting point to adress all of life's other uncertainties.

These labels were adopted by people for whom being gay was inescapably a political statement because they had to chisel their way into mainstream society (you might even have been one of them). And you can't rally around a vague sentiment.
At least you're not a Victorian medicalised 'homosexual', third gender, Uranian or any other 19th century text-book case study.

Even though I have some blonde hairs and some red hairs and some black hairs on balance my hair is brown.
You can give yourself a name while still recognizing the nuances of your personality, but expecting the whole world to accomodate these nuances and contradictions is the absolute definition of self absorbtion. In life you have to abridge yourself. The people you love will learn your subtleties, but for the rest you've got to be prepared to give a synopsis.

dreamers imagine someday's picture

Sadly...I depend highly on

Sadly...I depend highly on what people label themselves, I have hard time grasping what another person is without them. I'm sorry I have to. Everything in my world needs a definition, or I fall apart. That is why I like labels. But I know labels change I can understand that. I used to be a loner. But now I am a theather dork/nerd/otaku/bookworm/foodie/ex-cheerleader/theologist/psycho/lesbian/tomboy/virgin. Therefore, I know the labels change, and it just makes things easier, but it can make things harder. I just wish people would know the labels change, and they can change fast.

V is the bomb, he blows with anarchy!!!

deepspace87's picture

Well, i dont have much of a

Well, i dont have much of a problem with labels, but i have no problem with people who dont want to be labeled. I personally like to label myself because it helps ME out. But i think if your going to be ok with labels, you also need to be willing to stand up to people when they call you something you arnt, and stand up if people put something else into the group that isnt you. I'm a girl, but im not a lesbian, im gay. because i dont like the word lesbian, i dont like how it sounds, i dont like the look of it, and it just doesnt sound like me, so if someone calls me a lesbian, i simply correct them and say i prefer to be called gay. or if someone lumps in some other title with any other label that goes with me, i simply correct them and call it good. or in your case wiht people always saying stuff about you being vegan, im not vegan, but if i was, i would simply mention something to someone and call it good. although, i know thats always easier said than done, but im the kind of person to not let people tell me what to do or what to be, and im not afraid to stand up for myself if i dont agree with waht is said. im a very opinionated person, and will never let someone tell me i am what im not.

"Never apologize for saying what you feel. It's like apologizing for being real."

Ginger's picture

although i am interested in

although i am interested in men, i label myself as lesbian because for the most part i strongly dislike the attention of men unless i know them really well, and so im alot more comfortable getting to know them if they know that im not interested. and when i am interested, ill let them know. maybe that is kind of a man-phobia thing. it seems like there's three catagories of people in my head:
women (i like women. theyre nice and easy to talk to)
men (theyre really big and scary and can physically overpower or control me and i want to stay as far away as possible)
friend-boys (i like friend-boys. theyre nice and easy to talk to and open jars for me)
maybe thats because my dad was physically abusive growing up. all i know is, for the most part (even though i do love them), my dad and stepdad remain in the bigscarymen catagory.

"The gay, vegan, and other high-level labels tend to come up quickly, just for my sanity and the sanity of those around me."

i use labels simply because im not the kind of person that you described above. its so much easier for someone to hear around campus that im gay than for them to wait and figure it out from being around me, because im just not the type of person that talks about their love life alot. earlier today the girl that ive eaten lunch with everyday for the past two years noticed that i was vegetarian. alot of people dont realise that im gay unless they heard the label applied to me by someone else. labels limit you only if you let them. i mean, how ridiculous would it sound if you asked me what my hair colour was and i said i didnt want to say because it might limit me?
Pronunciation: \ˌhō-mə-ˈsek-sh(ə-)wəl, -ˈsek-shəl\
Function: adjective
Date: 1892
1 : of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex "
is no different than that. lesbian means i like women. which i do. and i think that if people try (more than likely unsuccessfully) to peg me into the other meanings they have assigned to that, then that's their problem, not mine.