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.