Responses To Claims That LGBT Labels “Shouldn’t Matter”

Lala Stone is a journalism masters degree candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. In response to my fairly widely read post from the summer Why Do We Need Labels Like “Gay”, “Bi”, “Trans”, and “Cis”? she sent me some interview questions for a long form article she’s writing about sexual minorities who refuse to label themselves. I requested (and she gave me) permission to publish my full answers to her questions here on Camels With Hammers in addition to sending them to her.

  • What role did words and labels play in advancing the civil rights of LGBTQ individuals? Or, how do words and labels contribute to the fight for equality for minorities in general?

I’m not expert enough in the history to speak authoritatively about the nuts and bolts of how this worked. So, instead of presuming to give such an account, I reached out to a close friend of mine, Daniel Blue, a former book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle who will soon be publishing a biography on the young Nietzsche. Dan is gay and in his late ’60s now and has been identifying as gay and has been involved with the gay community since the ’60s. I figured he might have a better sense of how the process of adopting labels worked and what their effects were. Here’s what he had to say about the label:

“If you’re asking for an impersonal history of the process, I can’t help you. Speaking only for myself, I feel extremely uneasy about calling myself or anybody else either gay or straight, because I believe these labels are historically constructed and to that extent incapable of having scientific meaning. At the same time, as you know, I call myself gay all the time and believe it’s important to do so. I do this for two reasons.

“First, when I was growing up, it was unthinkable to say of anyone admirable that they had been gay. People would either huff and puff that those who said such things were slurring a sainted figure or they would claim, “So what if he/she’s gay. What does that have to do with that person’s accomplishments?” In either case, whole aspects of a person’s life would be suppressed whereas the marriages and love affairs of straights would be paraded as glamorously as possible.

“Second, I became aware that often people were aware that certain people whom they liked were gay but pretended otherwise as a compliment to them. Surely it was better to be straight than gay, so it was doing someone a favor to assume them straight, regardless of the realities. I started announcing I was gay in order to block this latter strategy; I recognized that by being silent I was tacitly endorsing the view that to be gay was to be bad. I also wanted people who admired me to recognize that being gay was part of my identity (socially constructed, of course, as identity always is), and if they admired me, they would have to admire my gayness as well or give very good reasons why not. Finally, of course, announcing that one was gay — taking ownership of it, so to speak — seized power from those who gossiped behind my back. If I acknowledged it, it couldn’t be secret, and it’s the allure of violating secrecy that lies at the heart of gossip.

“Ultimately, as I said, I don’t believe in gayness or straightness; if I said I was gay, it was not to announce a fact, although that’s how it’s perceived. It was rather like a move in chess. I said I was gay in order to stop other people from saying I was straight. I was not really proffering a truth. I was invalidating a supposed truth stated by others. Notice that in all this I have said nothing about social connection and the achievement of group identity. All that is true, and it’s good; but it had nothing to do with the reason I came out. (I did start joining groups and affiliating but only later and to fight AIDS. [That was] a totally different story.)”

  • Your post was directed at heterosexual, cisgender people. I’m writing about sexual minorities who refuse to label themselves. One 19 year old female I interviewed said that “To me it should not matter to you whether or not I’m attracted to a woman or a man or both or neither. It shouldn’t matter so I don’t really identify with any of it.” However, even if she says it shouldn’t matter, it still does matter in a world where sexual minorities are oppressed. Would you say she is denying the reality of the world we live in? Or is she ahead of her time in a world that will eventually move beyond labels for one’s sexuality?

I think the “it shouldn’t matter” line is dubious. I don’t think that’s the “post-homophobic/biphobic/transphobic” goal that we should all be striving towards. I don’t think people who use it are simply living in the post-bigoted future. No one says things like, “I like to play sports, but I don’t identify as an ‘athlete’ because that shouldn’t matter.” Or, “I don’t eat meat or any products from an animal because of the unjustified harm and suffering that mass factory farming causes animals raised for food, but I don’t identify as a ‘vegan’ because that shouldn’t matter.” Or, “I have three children but I don’t identify as a ‘father’ or ‘mother’ because that shouldn’t matter.”

All of us identify as many, many things because doing so expresses our interests, our personalities, our values, our relationships, our commitments. Why shouldn’t it matter to us what our orientations, interests, relationships, commitments, dispositions, and values are? Why shouldn’t communicating these things to others matter when it can make a difference to letting others know what to expect from us or give to us. It’s only because of the stigma surrounding LGBT identities that originally people started saying LGBT behavior or identities “shouldn’t matter”. That was a way of saying, “don’t hold it against this person” or “it’s not a moral issue” or “for God’s sake, just keep your disgusting kinks to yourself”. Transcending that world means reaching the place where it is so destigmatized that people own the labels as casually as they do “athlete”, “vegan”, “mother”, “father”, etc. It’s useful to indicate to people what your basic romantic and sexual orientation is if you want to date, if you want people to not get tripped up when asking about your partner, etc.

Too many bigots try to pass off their requests that gay people return to the closet with an insincere “I don’t care, this shouldn’t matter, I don’t want to see this.” They’re saying it shouldn’t matter as a way of saying they don’t want to see you or know of your existence. And if feigning apathy and getting you to share their “yeah, I guess this is only between you and your lover” mindset is their way of hiding you from their kids, then that’s the strategy they’ll take. They want you to erase yourself, however they can induce you to do it. So, why give them that help? Why endorse their view that labels and identities don’t matter when they’re singling out your label and your identity revolving around your sexual and romantic orientation as the one that should matter so little that conveniently no one talks about it?

Now, so far I have been talking about gays and bisexuals. The situation with trans people is different. I can see why some trans people don’t want to identify as “trans” since they want people to focus on how they are completely the gender they’re owning and not the one assigned to them at birth. I think that’s a legitimate rejection of explicit identifications. In a post-transphobic future, it might even be universally ideal.  In the current age, there’s a struggle where young trans people need role models and the culture needs to familiarize with trans people and their experiences more and more so the stigmas and bigotries will fade. Meanwhile, many trans people are socially invisible, with no one aware of their assigned birth sex. That one’s a catch-22. The last thing I want is for people who have found the relief of fully expressing themselves according to the gender identification that feels best to them, and being so accepted socially in this that no one knows they’re trans or thinks of them as trans, to feel obligated to run around putting an asterisk on themselves “but I was assigned a different gender at birth” knowing that transphobes will hear that as “but I am really a different gender“.

So, yes, while there’s an urgent need for transphobia to be fought with trans people being visible so people only now coming to terms with their gender dysphoria can find role models and so that people who think they know no trans people can discover they do, with all the bigotry melting potential that that has, I nonetheless wouldn’t begrudge any trans person the choice to not identify as trans when all they’re interested in identifying as is the gender they truly are.

But when it comes to gays and bisexuals, this whole idea that one’s romantic-sexual orientation “should be only of interest to the people you want to have sex with” is part and parcel with the old bigotry that reduced someone’s sexual orientation to merely a sexual peccadillo–and a perverse one to be kept behind closed doors as the condition of toleration, at that. The ideal in the future is that we’ll be so readjusted in our attitudes that homosexuality and bisexuality are not seen as “not moral matters” but the morally best and most recommendable options for gays and bisexuals. 

And identifying as gay or bisexual won’t have to be a political statement (in that way, yes, it “shouldn’t have to matter”) but it will serve valuable functions of indicating to people “calibrate your expectations of me in the relevant ways”. Saying you’re single and saying you’re married indicates people should calibrate what they say or not in numerous mundane ways. So does telling people your profession, your interests, your values, your religious affiliation (or conscientious lackthereof), etc. It need not affect the whole of your life to affect basic aspects of how people take you into account or make sense of your life.

The way that I can understand someone who is bisexual saying “it shouldn’t matter” is that I can see them getting frustrated by the choice to identify as either gay or straight. There could be people who take falling in love with a person of the same gender to mean they’re gay and then wind up confused when they fall in love with a person of the opposite gender and saying, “ah the hell with these labels” instead of just identifying as “bisexual”. I can imagine it being exhausting to such bisexuals to deal with everyone around them assuming since they were in a gay relationship they must have been absolutely 100% gay or vice versa if they were in a straight relationship. I can see where they’ll feel like they’re at risk of not being taken seriously if they change their outward identification from lesbian to bisexual. Like this will make ignorant outsiders think they’re fickle. Or, they may even believe that they personally could have legitimate changes in their sexual orientation over time so (a) why fix their identity in advance rather than just going with the flow wherever it leads? and (b) why expose yourself to other people’s demands and expectations because of the label you affixed to yourself?

For all such reasons, I sympathize with why bi people in particular might want to shake labels. It’s a bigoted culture and it’s easier to evade all the prying and judging, and it’s easier to keep themselves from boxing themselves in with identity commitments that unduly limit their own sense of options in their own minds. And since bi people can often pass for straight or pass for gay if they’re in the same relationship a while (and especially so if they’re married), the option to just avoid identifying as bi must be very appealing.

But in our culture it matters, if we’re to stop erasing the likely sizable phenomenon of bisexuality, that bi people identify explicitly as such. Especially those who have partners and families and circles of friends who they can be honest with and who are not biphobic. They can offer a huge service to innumerable bi people who don’t grasp that this kind of sexual-romantic identity is actually quite common and not anything to feel the need to fight. Too many people are closeted. Too many young people, especially those in repressive religious contexts, don’t know their options. They need role models who dispel myths. No one should feel obligated to come out if it will personally hurt them. But if they can afford to, they can do others a world of good through the effect of ripples they can never even calculate in advance.

And, again, in the future, we should get to the point where no one bats an eye at someone saying, “yeah, I thought I was gay but now I realize I’m bi”. That won’t be a day when we’ve jettisoned labels and identities. It will be a day when bisexuals and gays are so taken for granted as normal that they can give this information about themselves with no fear of being second guessed or judged negatively. But the giving of such information will still have its roles, as does the giving of potentially relevant information about our identities in every other area of life.

  • Similarly, gay rights activist Peter Tatchell wrote that, in the future, “The boundaries between hetero and homo will merge and blur, with a greater incidence of bisexuality. Most people will stop defining themselves as straight or gay, and the gender of a person’s sexual partner will cease to determine the social validity (or illegitimacy) of their carnal and affectional feelings. People will be accepted, whoever they love.”  Are most people bisexual to some degree? Do you agree that eventually we will live in a world where your sexuality will not matter?

Your sexuality will always matter. Even if it turned out that in a drastically transformed social order 85% of people wound up identifying as bisexual and 8% as straight and 7% as gay, it would still be helpful information to identify by your sexual orientation if you wanted to indicate what kind of a romantic/sexual relationship you wanted. And even in a world where there were no stigmas that would matter.

  • Bisexual activist Patrick Richardsfink wrote that “A community cannot exist without a word to call itself. That’s just the pure and simple truth. Show me any community that has no name. You can’t do it. No label is no community. To quote Estraven, a friend of mine who nailed it perfectly: ‘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?’” How would we continue the fight for LGBTQ rights without labels? How would you write a grant to advocate for hate crime legislation without using the word “gay”? How would you try to reason with your homophobic uncle without using the word “lesbian”?

You can’t. Patrick’s right.

  • Chirlane McCray, the wife of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio,  attacked the very notion of labels. “I am more than just a label. Why are people so driven to labeling where we fall on the sexual spectrum? Labels put people in boxes, and those boxes are shaped like coffins,” she told Essence magazine. However, she once proudly identified as lesbian. In my experience, most people who reject labels are attracted to both men and women. Are these people rejecting labels because of internalized biphobia?

To answer McCray’s rhetorical question, we don’t all fall “on the sexual spectrum”. Some of us are so firmly in the straight or gay end of the spectrum that it’s not worth conceptualizing it as a spectrum. In fact, for many homophobic gays it’s harmful to think of things as merely a spectrum of degrees because then they start hoping they can find their “straight side” and not be gay. Just declaring us all bisexuals just more inclined to one sexual orientation than the other doesn’t help people who really do feel most comfortable identifying as simply straight or simply gay. Which isn’t to say that no such straight or no such gay people cannot have anomalous moments or interests or capacities for behavior uncharacteristic of their sexual orientation, etc., that don’t fit their “simply” box. It’s that those just aren’t the identities or orientations that work for those people.

So, it’s fantastic that McCray is bisexual and feels comfortable rejecting the straight and gay labels because those would represent a “coffin”, an unnecessary death to some portion of her sexual attractions. But fortunately there are terms that identities that accommodate her fluid experience, like bisexual or pansexual or, I’m pretty sure, others that I’m less familiar with. There’s no need for her to unilaterally declare everyone should view their own sexual orientations as blurry lined. For some people the labels aren’t coffins, they’re life-giving. Owning them is an act of self-acceptance. Owning them is an act of political defiance and assertion of their place in the polis. Owning them is an act of solidarity with persecuted people who share the label with them. In particular, for many gay people it must be extremely helpful to explicitly affirm an identity that slams the door unequivocally on any hopes that others who want them to change perceive that maybe they can develop their straight side or are “truly” straight and just tempted by sin, etc.

I can imagine that McCray felt like people’s expectations of her (maybe even her expectations of herself) were restricting when she identified as a lesbian. But the solution to that is not eschewing all labels but to embrace, for her, that bisexual suits her better if that’s simply the case.

 

  • Simply eliminating categories doesn’t challenge the prevailing hierarchy–a political system that currently discriminates against LGBTQ people. By rejecting labels for their sexuality and becoming invisible politically, are these young people hurting the fight for LGBTQ civil rights?

I think they are not helping the cause as much as they could in this one respect, which is distinguishable from “hurting” the cause. And they can help the cause in other ways, including by just being themselves. I don’t think anyone should come out of a closet if it would harm themselves. Neither should they label themselves out of pressure, against what makes them feel comfortable. I am making arguments about what I think is the most rational and productive way to deal with identities. But ultimately, people have to put their own thriving and their own safety and living by their own consciences first in these matters. So I hope to be persuasive but not pressuring. I hope to point out the good for the cause that can be done by adopting an identity that expresses who they are in a particular way and binds them to others who are similar and allows them to be visible and role models and part of a community and understood clearly by those around them. But pressure is the wrong way to go. Implications that the whole cause depends on them identifying a certain way are excessive.

Ultimately, one of the goals of the LGBTQ movement is that LGBTQ people can express who they are without being criminalized or morally or politically stigmatized or abused. I don’t begrudge the many gay people who manage to live basically apolitical lives their ability to escape politics defining their lives or their experience of their sexuality. While the cause needs activists and it needs LGBTQ people who do the things that are socially, politically, and morally necessary for some LGBTQ people to do in order for all LGBTQ people to prosper that burden shouldn’t have to fall onto those uncomfortable with it.

  • What if an African-American person said she was challenging racism by refusing to identify as black? Is that a similar situation?

Skin color really shouldn’t matter at all. And the constructs of “white” and “black” are racist creations in the first place. Who has counted as “white” and who as “not-white” has changed over time with bigoted perceptions about class. I can’t see a single thing of importance that skin color should make in how we think of others in a utopian ideal future. I can see wanting to know whether someone is into men or into women for a variety of practical purposes as just part of being their friend or family member or potential partner, etc. That kind of information should be mundane to find out but it still has practical relevance to my expectations and what I say to them, etc. But skin color shouldn’t matter in any way in a utopian future.

And I can see the potential merits of a black person saying that she wanted to highlight and protest the invidious and genetically baseless discrimination of people into “races” by refusing the label of “black”. And, in that context, since she’d presumably be visibly perceived of as “black” on the basis of her color, that that would be a provocative kind of statement. It’s for black people amongst themselves to figure out whether that kind of statement would help the cause of racial justice or hurt it. There are dangers of it backfiring and being harmfully perceived as an attempt to disown association with being black as though black people were inferior. That would be an ugly connotation to avoid.

It’s also potentially damaging if it’s a gesture that tries to pretend we live in a post-racial society when we clearly don’t. Insofar as it masks the reality of racism or the ongoing perpetuation of injustices from the slavery and reconstruction eras for all of us to pretend we “don’t see skin color”, it’s a very dangerous move. While race is a racist construct, the heirs to that oppression, who inherit many of its unconscionable drawbacks, have to be careful of falling into the trap of denying the existence or importance of race in ways that can encourage those who want to deny the oppressive continued existence of racism in America today.

Ultimately, again, that’s an issue for black people to figure out for themselves. These are just the pitfalls I would worry about.

  • Will the world ever be completely free from homophobia?

I have no idea.

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