Always Check the Label

17 February 2016

The other day, a straight friend told me there were too many labels. She told me people should just be what they are. She told me this like she had ever lived a day without a comfortable box to fit in, like she knew what this felt like.

It’s not exactly an unpopular opinion so I don’t blame her. As a society, we’ve barely gotten over the idea that some people like people of the same sex. Trying to explain the full spectrum of sexuality and gender can be difficult. Trying to do away with labels is, for some, an attempt at kindness and acceptance. But in our heteronormative society, all this will do is strip away our identities.

I identify as falling on the spectrum of asexuality. Asexuality – an orientation loosely defined as a lack of sexual attraction – may be one of the least visible groups, and certainly one which people often doubt, given our culture’s preoccupation with sex. It’s hard to realise that you are asexual, not only because it can be hard to accept, but because most people just don’t know it’s a thing. It’s not something you want to bring up, because when everything you know about the world suggests that sexual desire is part of the human experience, the natural conclusion to come to is that someone who doesn’t feel it is wrong or damaged.

I vividly remember tearful nights spent googling various mental illnesses, searching for psychopathy tests – I was trying to put a name on what was wrong with me. Everyone else seemed to have all these feelings, all the time. Surely there had to be something awry. I later found my answer, on a different corner of the internet, under the title of ‘demisexuality’.

But it’s a story I hear over and over again. People think they are broken until someone explains these words to them. It’s always a relief. Roger Fox, an asexual man, was once quoted in the Washington Post saying he “didn’t know it was an actual thing that other people experienced… when [he] realised there were other people, it was really kind of a joyful moment”.

I can’t speak for the other letters of the LGBTQIA+ alphabet, but I imagine it would be the same. Someone who doesn’t fit binary genders discovering all the other things they could be. Someone finding out that pans aren’t only an implement for cooking.

In some ways, the dream of a world without labels is a good one. After all, gender and sexuality tend to be so fluid that it would almost make more sense to lose any and all descriptors, and simply live as people.

But we don’t live in a perfect world – we live in reality, where everyone is assumed to be straight and cisgendered until proven otherwise. And flexibility is rarely seen as proof – bisexuals are ‘just doing it for attention’, or asexuals ‘just have to find the right person’. Usually, the mere suggestion is met with a blank stare. Clinging to our labels allows us to tackle the ignorance that exists in the outside world.

But this ignorance is also internalised: we hear the same things so often that we begin to say them to ourselves. By having both a name for what we are, and the community that comes along with that, we at least have an internal rebuttal. Wanting to erase labels isn’t being accepting of us, and it isn’t trying to make us more accepting of ourselves. It’s this ‘special snowflake’ idea – people think we just want to seem different, interesting or individual. But all we’re doing is giving names to age­old phenomena with an intention that is the opposite of self­-obsessed individualism. We want to know that there are others who are the same.

To do this, we need to give names to our experiences. Humans built our world out of words, more than any other material. Not everyone feels the need for a specific label, but for many people, giving a word and a definition to our identities legitimises them and makes it possible to explain ourselves to other people. It allows a person to understand their own experience. It makes them feel less alone.

Words are important. They can even be lifesaving. So please, stop trying to take them away.

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