Labels and Identity

my name isWith the recent controversy, which was basically a big argument about labels, I started to think about labels and identity in the BLGT community. Ultimately, do labels serve to unite, or divide? Would a more general label help unite those that are similar or have similar goals, but are not necessarily the same? Would it obscure people’s true identities? Do more specific labels help us understand each other better, or do they only serve mostly to divide us and make some people feel more excluded than others? What about people who use certain labels for political reasons, but don’t actually fit the label in their behavior? There’s a quote from the GLBTQ Encyclopedia that sums it up really well: “A significant distinction is between sexual preference and sexual identity. Sexual preferences are about various desires, positions, and fantasies one might have, whereas sexual identity is about how one self-identifies in terms of straight, gay, or bisexual.”  As that quote rightly points out, the two don’t always match up.

Whether some people want to admit it or not, the truth is that there are a significant number of people either in the BLGT community or who dabble in it—whose behavior and self-professed identity labels don’t match up: men who have sex with other men and label as straight, gay labeled men and women who engage in straight and/or bisexual behavior, and yes, some people who exhibit bisexual behavior who label themselves as gay, lesbian, or straight while not behaving like it or vice versa. What is the real “truth” here? Are these people who are in denial, use the labels to fit in, or are confused? Would using one label for the entire community, such as “queer”, put an end to this endless speculation about labels? What about those who want to add more labels to the community, such as pansexual, intersex, questioning, and asexual? Don’t they deserve to be included too? We do all share the experience of being ostracized from straight society. And each letter, B, L, G, and T, is so much more than just the letter or the word-there are many sub communities and subcultures of each, as well as overlap with other communities.

There really is no one answer to all of these questions, for some people it’s none of the above, for others, all of the above, and yet for others, a totally different reason; or there’s no explanation. Personally, I do like the idea of unity and inclusion and adding more letters, even though it may become cumbersome; as many communities as possible deserve to be represented. I also like the idea of having a more unified label such as queer, and have  used that term myself on occasion, but as I mentioned in my last article, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not want to admit you are bi or to say “bi but.”  A great example of the unifying power of using one term is the website Queers United , which has made a wonderful effort to include everyone. A unifying world would also help the whole “alphabet soup” problem, where some people think too many letters keep getting added on to the BLGT acronym.

love no genderHowever, I can also see the other side; if we all have one label, our diversity and individuality may vanish, and will it really put us all on an “even keel?” People who are really attached to their label and/or who have fought hard to use it will use it anyway, and not many will argue that they shouldn’t. I know that especially for the bisexual community, it’s important to be visible, out and proud, as discussed on the last Bi Talk Radio podcast.

Also, some people have trouble with the word “queer,” as it has been and sometimes still is used an [and] insult—even though the BLGT community has done a good job of taking it back. No one has been able to come up with a better word to signal unity. More importantly, even with all the labels we do have, people are so much more than a label, and a label shouldn’t ultimately make one feel they must restrict their behavior—if they see an opportunity for love that is outside of their label. In the end, love always wins out, which is why we sometimes hear about people who thought they were a particular orientation falling in love with the “wrong” gender; love knows no bounds or gender. So, how can we seek to unify ourselves, minimize distrust among various BLGT groups, and minimize bickering over labels and identity?

First of all, people need to understand that a label doesn’t always equal identity, and like it or not, labels can be permeable and fluid, and some people can move across the spectrum. The younger generations seem to be understanding this particularly well compared to previous generations. Secondly, we should celebrate the diversity and individuality of the BLGT community, by celebrating and including all the letters and adding more if necessary, but we should also focus on a word or words that helps to unite us as well; and try to move towards the day when labels won’t be as necessary or as big a deal. I see no reason we can’t aim for unity, while celebrating diversity at the same time, though I’m sure it won’t be easy.

So readers, I ask you for your comments and opinions; what do you think about the need for labels and how they affect identity, the difference between the two, and how we can do more to unite the BLGT community without loosing our diversity? Please write and let me know, and if I get enough responses, I’ll write a follow up article!


Vive la Différence!

Let me say this in case it isn’t at all clear: Women and men are different.  Peter, you’ve finally lost your mind, you may be saying to yourself right about now.  How long did it take you to figure that one out?  Well, it’s not that it took me any time to discover that central tenet of life.  It’s just that it seems that part of being bisexual is that it really doesn’t matter whether you’re dating a man or a woman. Sex and gender are irrelevant.  Only the ‘human qualities’ of the person we’re dating is important.

I feel as if I hear that a great deal. And in fact, I did some rooting around on the net where I found articles from Newsweek’s 1995 “Bisexuality” to the New YorkTimes’ 2001 “Love in the 21st Century; Polymorphous Normal” in which people appear to dismiss the gender of their love objects as only a minor consideration.  If you take a look at the 2008 documentary Bi the Way – and I really wish you would – you will notice that even more than the gender of the love object, but even the labeling is often avoided.

What’s going on here?  Saying that gender is unimportant – like saying the label ‘bisexual’ is unimportant – is in the same league as saying race, ethnicity, class, and a raft of other attributes don’t matter either.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I wish we lived in a society that was free of racism, sexism, biphobia, homophobia, classism and other the other notorious isms.  However, even if we did, these attributes would still be noticeable and have effects on our lives.  After all, we live this life in a physical body, through which we experience the world and hopefully draw lessons.  Even the fact that I am 6’ 4” means that I interact with the world differently than someone who is 5’ 4” or 7’.

Talking about difference – which we so seldom do thoroughly and honestly in our society – doesn’t mean that I think men should be the breadwinners and women should stay home and bake cookies.  That kind of analysis – men are big, strong and courageous; women are kind, shy and fragile – is too simplistic and is in the same vein as assuming that the masculine resides exclusively in the male and the feminine in the female.  We are far to complex to be stuffed in boxes of the sort.

Talking about difference means acknowledging that we all interact with the world in a myriad of ways and that they are valid.  I don’t even know if the word ‘valid’ is correct because the differences just are and to a large extent the interactions they lead to just are as well. For example, the mechanics of physical intimacy will vary depending on the sex of the partners involved.  That’s just how it is; being intimate with a man is not the same as being intimate with a woman.  And I like that.  That’s the variety that is the proverbial spice of life.

Beyond the physical though, I know that as a man I process information differently from women.  For example, like most men I navigate by feel, using more of the visual-spatial and kinesthetic.  Women tend to use landmarks.  (No, this is not a fancy way to say that women ask for directions and men don’t even though it may seem so.)  Imagine the scenarios possible as my partner and I go off for a vacation in the White Mountains. Two different genders, at least two different storylines possible.  Given that I’m involved, it’s probable that both are very humorous!  Humorous, but quite different.

That’s the point though: We’re not the same.  What a dull and lackluster world it would be if we were!  When I use the bisexual label, I mean that I like both men and women and while there certain qualities I find attractive in both – smarts, laughter, political awareness – one is certainly not the other. As they say in France, Vive la différence!