Labels Don’t Matter… Do They?
Do labels really matter? Why do we need to talk about sexual orientation at all? Why categorize people in this way? Can’t people just love people? Shouldn’t we just live in a post-label world?
As an advocate for LGBT rights, I encounter a lot of well-intentioned, but ultimately ignorant, questions along these lines.
As champions of equality, we all agree that the practice of treating people differently based upon their sexual orientation is terrible – and must stop. Yet, it doesn’t do any good to go around acting as if our sexual orientation is the most important thing about us. Our orientation is just one part of us, and no single aspect of our person defines who we are as individuals. That said, I do think labels matter. In fact, I’m sure they do.
All words are of course arbitrary, but the things to which words refer are not necessarily arbitrary. Shakespeare might have summed it up best in Romeo and Juliet when he wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Regardless of what we call a thing, the thing still exists. Sexual orientation labels are of course as arbitrary as all language is, but the concepts to which sexual orientation labels refer matter very much. It is useful to talk about such things. The label “bisexual” refers to the very real and measurable potential to be attracted to more than one sex or gender. This propensity is possessed by some significant percentage of the population.
Why do we need to label this phenomenon?
For the same reason that we have words for anything; we want to talk about them. In this case, we want to talk about bisexuality. Conversations about sexuality would be impossible without labels like these. All language (and indeed all complex thought) is impossible without labels (whether the labels be language or symbols). The word “bisexual” makes it possible for us to discuss issues that matter on a practical level to millions of real people every day. As much as we may want to live in a world where everyone is equal, we do not live in that world. The only way to get there is by encouraging social progress, which means discussion, which means using labels. And even when we DO get there, it will always remain necessary to use labels to talk about sexuality from time to time (if only to ensure that social equality remains properly valued in our society).
In the case of bisexuality, not only is there pervasive stigma against bi people (just as there is against gay people), but bi people often face discrimination even within the LGBT community. Myths and harmful stereotypes about bi people are very common in our society. Many people claim not to believe that bisexuality even exists (this is absolutely false; bisexuality exists, and we have proven so scientifically). It’s difficult to persuade people to care about the rights and dignity of a group of people whom they don’t even know exist. Awareness and visibility are an essential step (a first step even) toward genuine acceptance and real equality.
Why is bisexuality so invisible right now?
Well, the simple answer is that not enough of us are out of the closet as bi – which means not enough of us are identifying as bi. Whether we like it or not, most people we meet will assume that we are straight or gay unless we say otherwise. Unless we are walking down the street wearing a shirt that says “I am bisexual” on it, how would anyone know that we are bi (especially if we are in a monogamous relationship with one person – as many of us are)? Proudly embracing the label when asked, is a simple way to solve that problem.
Why should we care whether or not people know that we are bi?
Well, maybe you care and maybe you don’t – personally. That’s fine. However, some of us do care. In order to encourage awareness and acceptance within society at large, it is very important that some significant percentage of us DO choose to come out and embrace the label bi. Otherwise, nobody knows we exist, nobody cares about our rights, and no real social progress can be made.
I don’t use labels to describe myself, why should you? Aren’t you just using these exotic labels to attract attention?
You may think you don’t use labels, but I suspect you probably do. A lot of people think of themselves as “labeless,” because they are part of the dominant culture. It’s often taken for granted that you are heterosexual, that you are monogamous, that you are the natural child of the people raising you. This doesn’t mean that you are not labeled; it means you don’t have to help people understand who you are. Those of us who fight to be understood and accepted are forced to talk about the labels that describe us – not to stand out, but so that we are not made to lie about ourselves by omission.
Does this mean everyone must embrace a certain label (or even any label at all)?
Of course not. Nobody has the right to tell anyone else how to identify, nor should we want to. That would be ridiculous. However, it’s also ridiculous for people to tell those of us who do identify as bisexual that labels don’t matter. Labels do matter. And if you still doubt that, try to comment on this post without using any words. After all, every word is just an arbitrary label, right? 😉
Thank you for supporting equality, whatever words you use – or don’t use – to describe it.