I identify as a queer woman. Specifically, I am pansexual. Now, if you have an identity/identities like I do, such as a sexuality that doesn’t conform to heteronormative standards or a gender that isn’t part of the binary, then chances are at some point you have been asked “why label?”
It often comes after you’ve proudly declared something that is a big part of who you are, one of many things you feel makes you you. Your sexuality, your gender identity, even your race*. If the word is something the other person has never heard of, it seems they are even more likely to question your use of labels.
I would define pansexuality as the attraction to someone of any gender, whether cis male, female, gnc or trans. Now if a person doesn’t know what pan is, and then they don’t know what gnc or trans is, I have a whole lot of explaining to do. Often, this lack of understanding is the first thing that puts them off.
But despite the negative connotations sometimes associated with labelling people, I truly believe labels are good things. Let me explain why.
They give us the vocabulary to discuss and embrace our differences, rather than discard them
The desire to scrap labels largely stems from the notion that to consider all types of peoples equal, we have to ignore our differences. I often hear it said that we should ignore what makes us different and embrace the fact that we are all, after all, human. But I don’t believe erasing one’s identity is ever going to be helpful in creating equality; if anything, not talking about our “differences” and not even having the vocabulary to talk about them will lead to continued silence on the issues that affect oppressed people.
By having to ignore what makes another person different to you in order to respect them, only means you don’t truly respect them for who they are. It may even be the case, sometimes, that someone would rather ignore that someone is queer because of their deep-rooted homophobia. After all, “straight” is a label, but when these people ask “why label?” it is always in response to everything but that. Being able to openly talk about your identity, whatever it may be helps to dislodge those deep-seated ideas and the stigmas attached. How do we talk about sexuality or gender if we don’t use labels?
It is very possible for us to recognise, understand and accept the differences between us whilst still respecting one another and creating equality. By sticking a label on myself I’m not making myself unequal compared to hetero people, the people who want to oppress pansexuals do that.
Conversations like these often derail the real issues at hand. It shows that people would rather fixate on removing words they don’t necessarily understand rather than help us to fight oppression. I implore parents to start focusing on why their child feels the need to “come out” to them rather than the word they choose to use. I urge anyone who has a gnc friend to stop fussing over the “complicated” terms and instead join the fight against unjust laws over bathroom use and other nonsensical matters too.
They can help people to understand themselves
Personally, labels helped me find peace with my sexuality and they helped me to understand my own feelings. I remember when I first started to realise I was attracted to women as well as men, I researched bisexuality for months, desperate to find an answer to the questions that rattled around my head. Google search after Google search: Do I have to have had a girlfriend to be bi? Do I actually fancy women or do I just find them beautiful like a lot of hetero women do? Am I confused? Is this a phase? I don’t want a girlfriend but I’m attracted to girls, am I still classed as bi? Does it matter that it’s not a 50:50 split? I’m embarrassed to admit I even took a number of horrible, stereotype perpetuating quizzes, Are You Bisexual??
Eventually accepting that it was okay to label myself as bisexual not only calmed my constant feelings of self-doubt over this issue, it helped me to embrace my sexuality too. By which I mean, I now welcome the idea of having a girlfriend rather than a boyfriend, I don’t worry about ratio splits anymore because I don’t prefer any gender over another (but it’s okay if you do, that doesn’t invalidate your bi/pansexuality!) and I know for sure this is not a phase.
More recently when I again discovered what pansexual meant, as it had perplexed me for a while, I didn’t have the problems I had had before choosing to use this label, and I pretty much immediately felt comfortable again. Now, had I not had the language, answers and discourse at hand when I was figuring myself out, then I’m not sure what I would have done!
Rejection of labels might imply they are something bad
When you offer me a sad smile and say “aw, well you don’t have to label yourself anyway” it begs the question, why not?
Why shouldn’t I be proud to shout it from the rooftops?
The obsession with dropping labels comes with the massive implication that there is something wrong with the labels themselves; that my label is a problem. It tells me that you accept me despite my sexuality; despite the label that is less than ideal. There is a reason these comments are never directed at people who call themselves straight.
They challenge heteronormativity
In a heteronormative society, most people are automatically assumed straight and cis until they say otherwise, hence the need many queer and trans folk feel to “come out”. The exceptions to this rule are usually people who present themselves in a stereotypically gay or lesbian way, or transgender people who openly reject gender conventions.
If a man adopts stereotypically “gay” mannerisms, wears a lot of pink, has a largely female friendship group and loves listening to Kylie Minogue, chances are people are going to label him as gay whether it’s true or not and before he actually says so.
By labelling ourselves we can take back some control over how we are perceived and this is important because, similar to how a hetero person might not be too thrilled if they are wrongly assumed to be gay, a lot of us don’t revel in being assumed straight either! Unfortunately if you don’t “look gay”, as problematic and ridiculous as that whole idea is, it’s hard to take this control unless you walk into every room announcing it through a megaphone, but that’s probably not going to happen.
But what would make it even harder? Taking away the language we need to even be able to discuss it.
*“I don’t see colour” is a part of the labels argument, and is deeply problematic
The “we don’t need labels” argument is reminiscent of the “colourblindness” argument which is often put to people of colour. The arguments differ however, in that racial identities such as black, white, Latin American, Asian etc. aren’t labels per se. They are vast, complex cultures and identities as well as descriptive words for skin tone. “Colourblindness” is also arguably even more harmful and there aren’t even any good reasons for adopting this viewpoint like there can be for “why label”. More on that further down!
I don’t see colour
Why do you have to bring race into it?
I don’t care if you’re black/white/rainbow-coloured
We’re all human, race doesn’t matter
These are all examples of how this shows up in conversation and they all attempt to derail conversation about race. These phrases are problematic and actually only serve to worsen racism. There are a multitude of reasons why saying these things are not okay and you can read more about that here.
On the other hand…
I completely understand and respect the decision someone might make to not label themselves. Whilst I and many others have found comfort in a label, some find them restrictive and would rather not apply one to themselves at all. Words like “queer”, “sexually fluid”, “ gender fluid”, “gender queer” can be used as umbrella terms if one feels their identity is too complex to be pinned down, whilst some people might rather not use any word at all. And that’s fine! Your life, your decision.
It can also be argued that labels perpetuate stereotypes and that can be really harmful. If as soon as you mention the fact you’re bisexual, everyone else’s immediate thoughts are that you like to have threesomes or you’re incapable of fidelity, then that’s deeply problematic. Again, if someone chooses not to label themselves for this reason then that’s cool, you do you! But personally I would rather fight against the stigmas and stereotypes attached to our words than avoid them completely.
Basically, there is a general rule to be applied here. If you are part of a marginalised group then you are completely and totally the only person who has a say in whether you reject or accept labels. If you’re cishet, white, able-bodied and not really applicable to any labels anyway, it’s not really any of your business whether we use them or not. It’s up to each individual to decide what we call ourselves, nobody needs to meddle in another person’s identity!