In Defense of Labels: Why Self-Identification Terms Matter

Self-labeling is usually descriptive rather than prescriptive. For most of us, it’s not a matter of boxing ourselves in. We aren’t taking on a label to erase everything else about ourselves.
Publish date:
January 19, 2016
gender, lgbtq, language, nonbinary, identity

I’ll share the world’s worst-kept secret with you: I have a lot of labels. If I brought home a flag for every label I at least somewhat identify with, I could wallpaper my room with flags.

But why on earth would I need so many labels?

Honestly, most days I don’t. The only ones I use frequently are queer, nonbinary, and transgender (and to a lesser extent, polyamorous). But each of my labels has at least some use to me in specific circumstances. They’re ways that I explore myself and find community, jumping-off points rather than the end-all, be-all of my self-identity.

There are a lot of labels out there for sexual orientation, gender identity, interests (sexual or otherwise), and relationship style. Sometimes from a distance, it can appear that others are constantly inventing new labels for seemingly minor or nonsensical differences.

I’ve been on both sides of this since, as I mentioned, I have a fair number of labels, but I also get frustrated at how much the terminology seems to change and how arbitrary some labels seem to be.

Ultimately, however, I realized that just because I may not see the need for some labels doesn’t mean I should be a jerk to people who use them. I hope I can offer a bit of insight into self-labeling and the good it can do folks, even when we have a knee-jerk reaction to roll our eyes. I encourage people to use labels if they’re comfortable, but I recognize they’re not for everyone and they can never replace meaningful conversations or connections.

A lot of the people who use labels are in the process of discovering their identity. They’ve been told their entire lives, “You were born with a vulva, so you should wear dresses and make-up and identify as a woman,” or, “You’re either gay or straight,” or, “Everyone experiences sexual attraction,” or “You can only date one person at a time.”

While these messages are all reinforced by media, we receive them from family, school, and peer groups as well.

We all internalize those messages to an extent, and for some people, most of those messages are pretty in line with how they feel and relate to the world. Essentially, the labels they would use for themselves align with what seems to be “normal” and how the world labels them.

However for some folks, there’s always a sense that there’s something wrong with us, because we don’t feel comfortable in dresses, or we are attracted to men and women, or we don’t experience sexual attraction, to name a few possibilities.

Then, one day, we see a label that describes the way that we feel different from the norms we’ve seen. And we latch onto it. In many cases, it can lead to months or years of discovering new labels, and that excitement continues. There’s a profound feeling of validation, that yes, there are other people like us. Especially for people who grew up socially awkward or feeling like an outsider (me!) without any obvious reason why, that’s a powerful, important feeling.

This self-labeling is usually descriptive rather than prescriptive. For most of us, it’s not a matter of boxing ourselves in. We aren’t taking on a label to erase everything else about ourselves, or define ourselves by labels alone.

Instead, it’s a way to connect with other people who have similar experiences and to remind ourselves that how we are right now is okay and valid.

By saying I’m nonbinary, for example, I’m not saying that I can’t do anything masculine or feminine. It doesn’t mean I can never, ever identify with female experiences or that I can’t grow a beard or wear skirts. Rather, the label helps me assert that my experience with gender is extremely different from that of most people who are male or female, and that I have a lot in common with other nonbinary people. It identifies that I’m different than most cisgender people in a number of ways, including (for me) gender-related dysphoria and the sense of not “fitting in” with men or with women. This in turn helps me find a sense of community, identifying with other nonbinary people whose experiences won’t be identical to mine, but who have some commonalities in how we interact with society and its gender expectations on a day-to-day basis.

It’s also important to note that a lot of the enthusiasm for labels comes from people in their teens or twenties, a stage in which many people are still figuring themselves and their lives out. For some of us, we aren’t mature enough as teenagers to fully grasp how to accept ourselves and make meaningful connections while not quite meeting societal expectations. I certainly wasn’t.

Labels can be a tool to help us identify other people with shared struggles, whether we’re genderqueer, asexual, pansexual, polyamorous, kinky, or something else entirely. These aren’t just outward issues of harassment and violence, though in many cases that is a factor (nearly 75% of LGBT students were verbally harassed for their sexual orientation last year, and over half for their gender expression). There’s also the inner struggle of wanting to understand and accept one’s self when one’s feelings don’t line up with our society’s messages about gender, sex, relationships, and so on.

That said, many other people don’t feel drawn to labels. Some people are close enough to the socially expected “default” that it’s not relevant. Others may have supportive families or peer groups which help them feel healthy and normal as they are despite not fitting into some of society’s expectations. And there are some folks who simply find labels constricting or don’t want them for other reasons.

All of those are completely valid. The only trouble is that it’s easy to think, “Well I don’t need that label, so why do you?” Even if two people have something in common, such as a low level of sexual attraction, they might be coming in with extremely different experiences. One person might find the term “demisexual” or “gray-a” to be really helpful in accepting and understanding their own experiences, while someone else, despite having a similar feeling towards sex and relationships, simply doesn’t feel any need for the term.

Especially for people who have been marginalized, such as transgender teens or teens with mental health struggles, it can be extremely validating to have a label because it reminds you that you aren’t alone.

Even people who don’t think much about labels use them. I, for example, am sometimes surprised by how many labels there are related to race and ethnicity—because I’m white (which is usually seen by society as the “default”) and I’ve never had to deal with feeling out of place due to my race, culture, or ethnic background.

We’re comfortable with common terms like “straight,” “woman,” or “white,” and as a result, we don’t often put a lot of thought into them. They’re labels, and not only do they feel comfortable and familiar, but we also hear others use them all the time as well. Some labels which used to be rare or extremely stigmatized are slowly becoming less so, such as transgender. On the other hand, when we hear new terms that we don’t identify with, it can be easy to dismiss them.

I do agree that labels shouldn’t completely define us, but that’s rarely the intent of labels. Essentially, labels should be starting points. They’re usually shorthand for a particular type of lived experience within a community, a way to summarize some aspects of an identity and to facilitate further conversation where applicable or simply give an overview if not. They shouldn’t be the only way we define ourselves or find our communities. But they do serve a useful purpose.

Even with all of this said, yes, there are still moments when I see new labels and want to shake my head. Personally, I don’t see the need for all of them. Sometimes, it’s because the label is similar enough to my experience that I think, “Well, I don’t need a label for that to be a part of me, so why do they?”

When that happens, I try to take a step back and remember that their experience might be very different than mine. But more importantly, it’s not my personal opinion of a particular label that matters. If a label helps the person who’s using it, that’s more important than my self-designated role as The Arbitrator of Legitimate Versus Ridiculous Labels.

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