Why I Don’t “Not Do Labels”

12/7/2016

Zach Zane“Not doing labels” is a form of bi erasure accidentally perpetuated by well-meaning members of the bi+ community.

When I first heard someone tell me, “I don’t do labels,” my head exploded. I was in college at the time, and didn’t have the understanding of identity politics that I have today. In fact, I was still closeted. I identified as straight despite hooking up with a guy almost every month.

I didn’t realize “no label” was an option. Of course, no label is itself a label, but undoubtedly, it’s one that differs from the rest of traditional sexual identity labels.

At the time, I liked the sound of no label. I even tried it out a few times when people asked me if I was gay or straight. After proudly saying “I don’t do labels,” I would then smile, thinking I was progressive, existing outside both the hetero- and homonormative realms.

But now, being “no label” has lost its appeal. I identify very strongly as bi. And while not doing labels may seem like a solid alternative to various bi+ identities (i.e., pansexual, omnisexual, fluid, polysexual), it’s not the same. I’d argue it’s actually hurting all of us as a community.

While the notion of having no labels would work in an ideal world — one of free love — that’s not even close to the world we live in. And if you would like to take a stance in the world we live in and be an active member of the LGBTQ+ movement, then you need to be a part of this world.

The thing about “no labels,” is that you don’t hear of people who only sleep with the opposite-sex (AKA straight people) not doing labels. Similarly, you don’t hear of men who only sleep with other men (AKA gay men) not doing labels either. You only hear bi+ people not doing labels. That’s a problem. The reason why we say “no label” is not because we feel as if bisexuality doesn’t accurately define us, but rather, because we don’t like the word bisexual — perhaps because of some of the negative stereotypes that accompany the label. But the answer isn’t to avoid the label. The answer is to dispel those stereotypes and speak out. The answer is to PROUDLY identify as bi.

“No labels” is a form of bi erasure that’s accidentally perpetuated by well meaning members of the bi+ community. It’s also a tactic that TV shows use in order to avoid saying the word “bisexual” because of the negative connotations.

TV shows want the LGBTQ viewers, but also don’t want to turn away straight viewers, so they have a character do a non-committal “don’t do labels” deal.  That way they can keep both straight and LGBTQ viewers.

Moreover, no label means no community. As Patrick RichardsFink said in a piece in the Huffington Post,

“If you are unlabeled, how do you defend yourself? Whose rights are you fighting for? Why should you fight for the rights of a ________, when _________ are not oppressed?”

In essence, what he’s trying to say here is that without having a label, we don’t have a community, and if we don’t have a community, we can’t fight for our rights.

And we need to be fighting for our rights. Bi people face severe health disparities. We’re more likely to experience depression and anxiety. We’re less likely to have graduated from high school. Bi women are almost twice as likely as straight women to experience abuse. We’re more likely to stay closeted. And the list goes on and on.

We need resources. We need a community. We need a label — and identity — that we can rally behind, and that label is here.

The most popular and inclusive definition of bisexual comes from renowned bi activist Robyn Ochs. As she says, “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

This definition allows for sexual fluidity and for your sexuality to evolve. It allows for multiple identity labels. (For example, I identify as bi and queer.) It confirms that bisexuality doesn’t perpetuate a gender binary. You can be attracted to genderqueer, transgender, and agender folks and still be bi. You also don’t have to be attracted to various genders to the same degree.

The sad truth is that because of the health disparities and the imperfect world we live in, we need to have a community and we need to have a label, and “no label” simply doesn’t work.

That label we need is “bi.” It’s a word that we can rally around; a word that has a history and can grant us political mobility; a word that happens to be the name of this website. I think it’s time we worked together, as a community to claim this label. To claim bisexuality. So we can have a community and identity we can all rally behind.

Zachary Zane

Zachary Zane a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, speaker, YouTuber, and activist whose work focuses on (bi)sexuality, gender, identity politics, relationships, and culture. He’s a contributing editor at The Advocate Magazine, a columnist at Bi.org, and currently writes for The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Out Magazine, and PRIDE.