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!

 

What I’ve Learned Since Coming Out

come outSo it’s been over a year since I’ve come out, and a few months since I wrote my four part coming out series, which you can read here. On this National Coming Out Day 2009, I wanted to go ahead and share what I have learned since I wrote those articles last April.

I’ve learned there is politics as usual in the BLGT community, just like in any other community. Growing up Catholic, I always had this idea that “those gays” were a big united front that wanted to take over (yes, they actually told us this in church). Having been in the community; I have to laugh every time someone talks about the “gay agenda”. If there is an agenda, no one can seem to agree on what it even is! There is infighting in the community just like any other community. There are many voices, not just one. Unity is one thing many minorities have had trouble with; BLGT people are just like the others that way.

The irony is that the diversity of voices and opinions that can sometimes contribute to the infighting also contributes to an amazing community that so many people like. You can find and meet so many different kinds of people, so many different ideas about gender, looks, sexuality, politics, and many other things. What needs to be done is to find a way to at least have the different voices “sing in the same key”, so the community can present a more unified front and get what it needs. We need to focus on what unites us and common goals we share, not what divides us. Those are two major things I’ve learned about the community in the past few months.

I’ve learned that religion still plays a role in many BLGT people’s lives. Another thing I heard growing up—that gay people are all “godless heathens”. I lost religion myself, but I have noticed that in the community there are many BLGT religious clubs and institutions, and there are several liberal churches that are accepting; for many people religion or some form of spirituality is still important. I’m glad they have this in their lives; as this seems to also help people deal with any guilt issues they might have, of which unfortunately there seem to be many.

I’ve learned that just like in the rest of the world, there is tension between genders, orientations, and races. People of color, bisexuals, transgender people, and many others too often feel excluded and not represented, as do some women. I’m seeing this problem addressed more and more, so that is a good thing to see. I’ve also learned that there is such a thing as BLGT Republicans.

I’ve learned that you don’t have to be “gay” to be bashed. I unfortunately know this from personal experience. As I wrote in my article about the myth of bisexuals and “hetero-privilege” bisexuals most definitely can be victims of hate crimes, as can be straight allies who support BLGT people.

I’ve learned that BLGT people throw amazing parties. Seriously, no offense to my straight friends, but you’ve haven’t been to a party till you’ve been to a “queer” one!

I’ve learned that beyond the four letters of B, L, G, and T, there are many sub communities as well, that you don’t’ always here about, such as bears, leather, polyamory, pansexuals, intersex, genderqueer, asexual, heteroflexible, homoflexible, questioning, and others. I’ve also learned that some people just prefer the word queer and don’t like to focus on other labels; this is particularly true among the younger generation.

Last, but certainly not least, I’ve learned that the bisexual community, which I never knew much about and always assumed was just integrated into the gay community, is a wonderfully amazing and diverse group of people with a great subculture, where I feel the most at home. Over the past few months working on bringing our bi contingent together for the National Equality March, I have seen unity and the bi community rally for representation when asked to, showing that yes we do exist and we do have large numbers, and getting results! I am so proud of them, and I hope this is the beginning of something wonderful leading to a bigger community of our own.

I’ve learned so much, and I hope to learn much more by next year. Happy coming out day to all of you, and you were all with us at the National Equality March in spirit.