If you spend any time online these days, especially in LGBTQ+ communities, I'm sure you'll run across a new term or label. And in any discussion of such labels, invariably there will be somebody who asks, "why do we need all these labels?"
I saw a post the other morning: Understanding Asexual Microlabels by @the.patchwork.ace, shared by my good friend Justin Grays. On the last slide, it said something that I think needs a serious signal boost beyond the labels discussed in that post.
"These labels exist to help define you, not put you into a box. ... The label you use is nobody else's choice. Likewise, even if you think the label is pointless personally, other people may find it helpful in understanding themselves."
This spoke to me and got me thinking about recent conversations I've had about labels. Here are my two key takeaways:
- Nobody should label you but you, and that includes being free to choose no label
- Nobody should get to invalidate a label you apply to yourself
Now, unfortunately, I feel compelled to stop here and say anybody who wants to interject into this conversation any sort of bad-faith "but does that mean I can label myself as a dog and blah blah blah" or other such bullshit can fuck right off now.
On point #1: We, as a society, looooooove to label shit. Maybe it's even innately human. IDK. It can be hella helpful (something I'll get to in point #2). Yet if you require people to label themselves, especially with limited multiple-choice options, there's a considerable margin for fucking it up. Making people pick who they are from a set list designed by somebody who knows nothing about them is a recipe for over-simplification and invalidation.
Here's an example: We were signing up for those Greenlight credit cards for our tween/teens. They seem great because they're designed to help young people figure out money, yadda, yadda, yadda. The kids were stoked. But then they had to pick a gender. Male or female. They use they/them pronouns. It was uncomfortable and upsetting. Although in the end they selected their assigned-at-birth gender and moved on, it's kind of the tip of the iceberg on these sorts of things. If you're going to ask for people to choose their race/gender/sexuality/etc/andsoforth from a multiple-choice list, I think it would be an improvement if those lists included "prefer not to say" or "my identity is not on this list" (I pick that over the simple "other" because othering is a whole... other can of worms.)
Forcing labels on people can and does cause harm. Mislabeling somebody or forcing them to pick between options that don't fit can cause serious mental trauma. Let's try to cut that out. As a society. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here and say nobody should ever use labels! Let's instead move on to...
Point #2: Labels can help people. Finding a label that fits you is validating and can help you understand yourself better. A label can be a way of realizing you're not alone. That "there's a word for people like me?" moment can be life-changing, soul-soothing. It can help you navigate the world.
My example: This is a bit less heavy than gender or sexuality (you can read about my struggles accepting my bisexuality in the post "Come out, come out, wherever I am), but it's a personal example that meant something to me. "Are you an extrovert or an introvert?" I grew up tagged as an introvert. I was a shy kid. I liked to read and would easily get lost in my own imagination. But I always wanted friends. I never wanted to be a loner. Yeah, sometimes I wanted to be left alone, but I didn't want to be left out. I got less and less shy as I got older. Still socially awkward but no longer hiding-under-my-desk-with-a-book shy. And the older I got, the less and less the introvert label spoke to me. I like going out with friends. I like parties and crowds and meeting new people... If I'm in the right mood. But the label of extrovert never was one that felt like it truly fit right with me either. Bits of the introvert label still applied. It was very frustrating when introvert vs extrovert was used as a get-to-know-you question at conferences or even in stupid online quizzes like "which type of fish would you be" or whatever. Then a few years ago I learned the word ambivert (somebody between introvert and extrovert). I finally found my label! It was like a breath of fresh air. Yeah, the quizzes are still annoying (see point #1) but when people ask me—when I can talk about it rather than just checking a box—I have something to say that fits me. And that's nice.
Now, I can see the argument (my brain is *excellent* at finding arguments) that if there were no labels for extrovert and introvert in the first place I wouldn't have had that struggle to begin with. Fair enough. There may even be some fancy Latin term for that or something. But like I said before, humans love to label shit, including ourselves. The feeling of being seen and finding community can have an incredibly positive impact, I see it every day in my online queer communities. And labels can help facilitate that. But only really when people can explore them and assign them to themselves.