Going Through the Waves of Loving (and Hating) Labels
“Label wars,” as I’ve heard it so eloquently put, existed way before all the new sexual/gender identity labels entered mainstream society over the past decade. For example, we’ve long fought over the reclamation of the word queer. Many older gay men still cringe at the utterance of the word; given that so many of them were bullied with that word, it makes sense that they’d be reticent to accept the queer label with open arms. For many, the word is chock-full of negative connotations. Imagine being bullied or beaten up by people yelling the world queer at you and now being told that “queer” is the word future generations want to use to define themselves?
Pansexuality is yet a newer example that has (albeit accidentally) contributed to some infighting among members of the LGBTQ community. While some praise the word for being more inclusive, others dislike the word for splintering our community over semantics and creating yet another need to justify bi identity.
I’ve struggled with labels my whole life, which is partly why I love writing about them as much as I do. I’m fascinated by them, and I think they hold an incredible power to both unite but also further divide us.
I also believe there’s an immense pressure on which labels we use to describe ourselves and others. I understand where this pressure comes from. For the majority of queers, our sexual identity is one of the, if not the most important thing about us. And while a person is defined by more than their sexuality, sexuality is undoubtedly a huge component of our personal identities.
The moment I embraced the term bisexual, I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. Prior to claiming the label, I felt so incredibly alone. So confused. I thought there was no one in the world like me. That I was this mythical unicorn. It’s crazy for me to reflect back and remember how confused and alone I felt. But I knew no openly bi men, and hardly any bi women. Few people were having the conversations that we have now about sexual fluidity.
Claiming the bi label — one that is prominently a part of the original LGBT acronym — made me feel less alone. I knew there was a community out there of people who were like me and would support me. I made it my mission to find them, and boy, did I succeed.
Now though, I’m struggling more with the label. Not my attractions. My attractions to all genders have been consistent since I came out (and before I came out – I was just in denial).
I recently wrote an in-depth piece about the differences between bi and pansexuality for Rolling Stone. In it, I attempted to remain as objective as possible, offering opinions similar and different to my own.
In conducting interviews with various sexually fluid people who prefer different identity labels, there was one comment that smacked me dead in the face.
The comment came from a 23 year-old artist and student. They said, “For some time I felt compelled to cling to the ‘bisexual’ label in a pseudo-noble effort to protect the identity from a perceived diaspora of individuals turning to the term ‘pansexual’. At first, it felt important to continue defending bisexuality, as I had always done when members of the straight or gay communities attempted to invalidate or exclude it (almost like a captain going down with his ship). Over time, this came to be less important than accurately portraying the full spectrum of my sexuality.”
This notion of clinging to an old label is something I’ve discussed time and time again, because it’s something I repeatedly struggle with. It’s a question that’s often asked to me, and by people whose opinions I respect greatly.
The new man I’m dating even told me, “Zach, you’re obsessed with labels.” He didn’t say this negatively; it was more of an observation. One that is clearly true if you’ve spoken to me for more than two minutes.
With all of these questions and valid critiques being thrown at me, I’ve had to question whether I too, am fighting in “a pseudo-noble effort to protect the identity.” (God, their quote really was so well put, wasn’t it?)
Last week, I saw queer actor and activist Sara Ramirez hosting the VH1 Trailblazer Honors. While hosting, she called herself a bisexual, pansexual woman. I loved that. There was no “and” in there either. I like that even more. I think the “and” separates the two words more. Without using the “and,” she made it seem as if those labels meant the same things, and to me, because I’m attracted to all genders, they do functionally have the same meaning.
While there’s undoubtedly a part of me that finds it somewhat ridiculous to call myself a bisexual, pansexual queer. (It feels somewhat redundant to me given that all three labels denote the same meaning of “attracted to all genders”) I think I need to be more open to using labels differently – that may mean using less or more of them.
I’ve constantly preached about how labels can come and go, and to only use them if they are adding positive aspects to your life. If they bring a sense of clarity to your identity, relieve some anxiety, and make you feel part of a community, then definitely use them. If not, get rid of them.
Right now, I think I would benefit from claiming I’m a bisexual, pansexual queer. So that’s what I’m going to do!