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!

 

Using the Questioning Label

question markOne of the arguments against bisexuality and the bisexual/pansexual community that I’ve seen written on too many gay blogs is the whole “when I first came out I said I was bi too, then later I realized I was gay.” This tiresome argument drives me nuts, because for starters—just because that’s how it happened to some people, doesn’t mean that’s how it is for everyone. But unfortunately, even I can’t deny that it does happen, and I’m not too fond of the whole “bi now, gay later” bit. For a while now, I’ve wanted to say to people; when you first come out, if you aren’t sure, don’t use the word bisexual—because if you do and you later realize you are gay, it will only lend credence to the stereotype. When I first came out, even though I was reasonably sure I was bisexual, I just said I was “not sure” and “questioning”, until I was sure, as I explored the BTLG world. The bi/pan community is a very welcoming place to explore one’s sexuality, something that has always been an asset, but unfortunately this can backfire if people go on to realize they are gay or straight; they can think that bisexuality and/or being between gay and straight in general is just an “in between” phase or label.

I’ve started seeing the whole idea of the “questioning” label being encouraged more, even sometimes being added to the end of GLBT to make GLBTQ. I think it’s a great idea. It seems that for some people—when they first come out,  they don’t know what label to use, and they jump to the bisexual label—because there’s this rather erroneous idea in the straight community (and unfortunately too often in the gay community as well) that it’s the “easiest” label to deal with—and that it’s more acceptable to come out as bisexual. Later on, if they realize they are gay, they drop the bisexual label, and this gives rise to our least favorite stereotype.

Using the questioning label definitely has much less potential for misunderstanding and stereotypes; after all, the label itself implies searching, transition, and being temporary. It sounds a lot better to say “I was once questioning and then I figured out I was gay”, then to say “I was once bisexual, but then I realized I was gay”. As far as I know, there aren’t people who claim questioning as a permanent label—nor is questioning an orientation. The questioning label also allows for “comfortable exploration” even for straight people—if they later realize they are straight, they can always see the questioning as a phase.  It seems most people in the BTLG community are comfortable with people who are just out using that label as well.

So how do we encourage people who are just coming out—but unsure of their orientation, to use the questioning label? The best way is already being done—to make the idea of GLBTQ more visible. Several BTLG centers now use the acronym “GLBTQ” (among others with more letters, such as GLBTQQIA) to acknowledge, and encourage people who are questioning—to come in and use their resources. Several website profiles that allow you to list your orientation, now have “questioning” or “not sure” as a choice. I’ve heard it used more on TV too; “so and so is questioning their orientation.” Hopefully, this will make its way more into BTLG vocabulary. One way we bi/pan people, especially bisexuals, can encourage its use is to encourage anyone we do know who is starting to question their sexuality to use the questioning label, until they figure things out. We can also counter the stereotype of bisexuality as a transitional label for everyone— when someone says, “I was bi once, then I realized I was gay”—we should answer, “No, you were questioning, not bisexual. You were in the process of coming out and then you did.”

To be fair, not everyone can always use the questioning label—some people may truly genuinely believe they are bisexual—then realize they are gay, and vice versa. But, I think that overall the questioning label can be used by most people—questioning their sexuality and coming out or thinking about coming out. The younger generation does seem more willing to embrace it, and both the gay and straight communities seem pretty accepting of using it. It can take the place of the word bisexual—when coming out, and help erase some of the stereotypes and biphobia that have surrounded the bisexual label and orientation. That’s something we can all look forward to in the future.

To learn and read more discussion about the Questioning Label, check out this post on Queers United.