Culture February 17, 2017
When it comes to identity formation, labels might be something that you normally take for granted. Before you could even walk or talk, you were probably assigned several labels like “boy,” “girl,” “brother,” “sister” or even just “heterosexual.” These labels were assigned to you whether you agreed with them or not; you probably weren’t old enough to know what you were even agreeing to.
If you accept the labels assigned to at birth, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the significance of sexuality terms like queer or pansexual. Many people don’t have that privilege, however. In fact, although the population statistics for LGBTQ members are largely uncertain, some researchers estimate there are around 9 million LGBT Americans today – and that’s not counting those who identify as queer.
READ MORE: Why I Can’t Label My Sexual Orientation
For these people, labels are not only a means of self-expression but also an instrument for self-advocacy and empowerment. Yet, labels can also become boxes to limit their sexuality. To find out the benefits and drawbacks of sexual labels, ENTITY reached out to LGBTQ advocate Rebecca Vipond-Brink and Dr. Ritch Savin-Wlliams, retired Cornell director of the Sex and Gender Lab and author of books like “Becoming Who I Am: Young Men on Being Gay.”
Here are five important truths about sexual labels that everyone should know.
Even though we’re in 2017, violence against “out” members of the LBGTQ community “is a reality that’s still very present for more queer Americans than I think people – especially white, urban, young queer people – realize,” says Vipond-Brink. In fact, data from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs suggests that 20-25 percent of lesbians or gay people will experience a hate crime in their lifetime. Queer people of color are even more common targets of violence: in 2014, 43 and 23 percent of hate attack survivors were respectively Latinos/Latinas and Blacks.
While labels can be dangerous at times, they can also help create safe spaces for marginalized groups to gather and talk about the pressing issues in their communities. Dr. Savin-Williams points out that labels might be especially helpful for youth, who can sometimes be “linked to similar kinds of other [people]” through shared identifications. Beyond talking about everyday experiences or challenges, these safe places can spark conversations about (systematic or shared individual forms of) oppression. According to some activists – like Sian Ferguson – labels even play an important role in giving people “the vocabulary to discuss oppression.” Without the vocabulary to discuss privilege, power
and oppression, silenced minority groups will continue to go unheard.
In a way, labels are double-edged swords: while they can hurt those who use them, they can also be used to create a safer, more accepting environment for people who identify as LGBTQ.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of sexual labels is how they can help raise awareness about who LGBTQ members really are and what problems they are facing. True, the LGBTQ community still has a long way to go. In fact, 92 percent of LGBT youths report that they regularly hear negative messages – from their peers, Internet and schools, especially – about being LGBT. However, a 2013 Pew Research survey shows how far America has come: since 2003, Americans’ social acceptance for gay men and lesbians has increased by around19 percent.
For Vipond-Brink, one cause of this increased acceptance could be the increase in visible LGBT representatives. “The gay rights movement only started gaining serious mainstream traction when celebrities started coming out in the 80s and 90s,” she explains. “Straight people who held homophobic views were forced to reckon with the possibility that someone who was homosexual could also be someone they liked and whose work they admired.” You don’t have to be a celebrity to make a difference, either. “Being out and proud forces people to reconcile the best of who you are with the fact that you’re queer,” says Vipond-Brink,
Labels also allow the formation of non-profit groups and governmental organizations that focus on meeting LGBTQ needs. After all, it’s pretty hard to advocate for a group of people if those people don’t have an umbrella term or name that united them! One could even argue that labels are more important now than ever because of the role social media often plays in political or social campaigns. For instance, last week, two trending Twitter hashtags were #BlackGaySlay and, in Saudia Arabia, a hashtag that translates to “I love gays and I’m not one of them.” Could gay men and women – along with allies – advocate for LGBT rights without using the word “gay”? Probably. But it would be a lot more complicated to explain…and a lot harder to fit inside Twitter’s character limit!
In the same way that labels can give a voice to the voiceless, they can also help raise public awareness on previously overlooked LGBTQ members and issues.
One of the hardest part about labels is that language, by its very nature, is slippery. What do I mean? Well, first of all, sexual labels “are always changing both in words and meaning,” says Dr. Savin-Williams. For instance, the term “gay” originally meant “joyful” or “bright and showy.” By the 19th century, it (ironically enough) described men who slept with a lot of women (often prostitutes). It wasn’t until 1955 that “gay” finally acquired the homosexual meaning we often know it by today.
It’s not just the terms that are changing, either. Several studies have found that sexuality is also more fluid than people often think. For instance, a 2010 study examined over 2,500 adults’ sexual orientation identity during a 10-year-period. When researchers interviewed the same people in 1995 and 2006, they found that 2.15 percent of the participants reported a different sexual orientation, with bisexual and homosexual women being the most likely to report a change. A more recent study of New Zealand adults similarly reported that 16.1, 16.3 and 11.8 percent of women in the respective age groups of 21-26, 26-32, 32-38 reported a change in sexual orientation. Changes also occurred in surveyed men, though only around 3 percent of them per age group.
Because sexualities can change over time, Vipond-Brink says, “[Some] people don’t want to put a label on themselves, come out to their loved ones, learn as time goes on that maybe a different word would be more useful for their personal experience and then have to come out all over again to their friends and family.”
Coming out once? Scary. Coming out twice and probably being judged for “getting it wrong” the first time? Terrifying.
Tied in to the “fixed” nature of labels – in terms of them not being able to properly categorize sexually fluid individuals – is another major problem with labeling: the creation of exclusions. After all, you’re either gay – or you’re not. You’re a lesbian – or you’re not. The often black and white world of sexuality can cause people “who are not heterosexual [to feel] pressured into a choosing a label that describes their sexuality,” according to activist Sian Ferguson.
Sometimes, though, adopting a label isn’t enough – you have to “prove” your sexuality, too. “Our community isn’t like race communities, who – for the most part – wear their identities on their skin; nor are we like religious communities, who have symbols and buildings and communities that make them visible,” explains Vipond-Brink. “Probably the most common experience queer people have is that we are told that we aren’t really gay, we aren’t really lesbians, we aren’t really bisexual, we aren’t really queer – it’s just a phase, or a disordered way of thinking, or a perversion.” People can even be told they’re not “gay enough,” as former NFL player Michael Sam reported last year.
READ MORE: The Younger and Gayer Generation
The truth is, labels can help unite people. However, they can also act as measuring sticks of “correct” gay/lesbian/bi/trans behavior used to exclude some people and pressure others.
Perhaps the most important determinant of whether a sexual label is helpful or harmful is who’s doing the labeling. According to Dr. Savin Williams, “The reality is that youth are quite inventive, creating words and concepts that are meaningful to them. I’d like us to be open to these possibilities.” In fact, a 2016 study found that generation Z (those age 13-20) are much more likely than Millennials to self-identify as something other than heterosexual. However, a 2014 study also found that, besides having to hide their sexuality, fear of being labeled by others was the most negative factor associated with the well-being of LGBTQ youths.
These findings support the idea that sexual labels are only as empowering as they are self-determined. A man who is called “gay” because of his stereotypically feminine appearance – regardless of his actual sexual orientation – is obviously not being benefited by that label. However, teenagers walking in a gay pride parade with a sign reading, “Gay and Proud!” could feel empowered by embracing this aspect of their identities.
For Vipond-Brink, the power of labels is tied to the power of truth. “No one should hide their light under a bushel,” she says. “You deserve better than to hide the facts of who you are in your own, full, glorious truth.” And, in many cases, people’s “true” selves can only be revealed through a sexual label of their choosing – not anyone else’s.
Perhaps that is, in fact, the takeaway of all of these “truths” about sexual labels: the sexual labels are individualized and every person may react to them differently. Some may look to labels for belonging or increased public awareness; others may shun labels altogether because of the physical – and emotional – violence that can sometimes accompany them.
One fact that is certain? As long as you follow your heart and stay true to yourself when choosing a sexual label (or choosing to not adopt one), you can never label yourself a liar.
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