Label Evolution, Label Revolution

  • Category: Opinion
  • Published: Tuesday, 19 July 2011 08:23
  • Written by Kaylia M. Metcalfe

Labels: necessary, but sometimes annoying.

What’s the point of a label? Isn’t it to provide some sort of description, some sort of understanding or explanation? As in, “How can I explain why all these things on the table should go together… I can classify them as all being products from the garden, all with seeds in the middle, thus: fruit!”

Of course, labels get more complicated when it comes to people. We want to label ourselves in ways that we appreciate or support. We shy away from other people labeling us, especially if we doubt their motives or don’t agree with their classifications.

When I was young there was Gay. There was Lesbian. Then, there was Bi. Bi was relatively new, at least in my experience. It wasn’t really mainstream, and there were a lot of notions of what it meant. Namely that it was a label for fence sitters who were afraid to go all the way to Gay-dom “Bi now, Gay later” etc. It also had the reputation of being shifty, slutty, and untrustworthy.

One of the things labels do is attach or confirm stigma or stenotypes, which is why we are so careful when allowing ourselves to be labeled. I resisted the label of “bi” for years because I didn’t see myself as a fence sitter, a slut, or a shifty spy. I saw myself as able to fall in love (and sometimes lust) with a person despite their gender, not because of it.  I was, and still am, attracted to people based on their personalities, their senses of humor, their ability to converse intelligently, etc. What does or doesn’t dangle between their legs is beside the point. When pressed, I usually would say that I was into people, not gender.

I became more comfortable being bi partly from exposure to more understanding and less judgmental people, and partly from a desire to change the stereotype.

And then I was introduced to the concept of Pansexual.  “What does that mean?” I asked innocently enough.

“It means that I am attracted to people based on their personalities and not limited by genitals. I‘m gender blind.”

“In my day, we called that bisexual.”

“No, bisexuality is limited. You only love two genders. I have the capacity to love them all.”

Let me stop right here and add that due to the fact that I am typing this, you might not be getting the smugness and slight condescending tone of this particular pansexual person.

This definition, and the way it was delivered, bothered me. A lot. While it is true that the strict dictionary definition of bisexuality does indeed refer to two, I would argue that most bi people would use almost the exact definition. Why, then didn’t we chose the term pansexual?

Because language is fluid. Because it wasn’t an option back then. Because the choice had been Straight, Gay (subset Lesbian) and the Bi community needed a third option.

Not because we are all drones who only think in binary terms.

Upon more polite conversations with members of the pansexual community, I have been given a more specific definition: Pansexuality is sexual attraction to people of all genders and non genders. It grew up out of a lack of language revolving around the trans community.

For example, Bob is in process of becoming Betty. Bob/Betty is not currently portraying him/herself as either gender. And you fall in love with him/her during that transition. Or, a young person named Pri has decided to be genderless and wants us to use the gender neutral pronoun Ze. And you fall in love with Zir. Are you bi, or is it more complicated than that? Enter the phrasing of pansexual.

This, I can understand and to a small extent support.

While I think it is nice to see a group of people determine that no current label works for them and thus introduce a new label into our community and society at large, I do think that in a community that prides itself on looking beyond the base level, we might have tried to expand the definition of bisexuality to move beyond the literal and into this realm. (But they didn’t ask me, and it seems that pansexuality as a label, as the new version of bi, as Bi-Plus if you will, has already been voted on, ratified and put into place.)

I don’t think this is the last time that our community will need to re-label itself or create language that will better serve our needs. I do think that when we do that, we need to be cognoscente of the real and implied definitions of the words we are updating and replacing. We need to consider the motivations, the limitation, and the context of the original definitions.

We also need to be cautious. In a community that is already disenfranchised, already set apart and looked down upon, already fringe… we need to chose our moments of dissention so as not to further fracture ourselves. By creating categories and sub categories of labels within our own group, we run the risk of not being able to provide a united front to the outside world which is ready and willing to use any perceived crack in our facade as a breaking point.

And let’s not forget, labels are political not just personal. They matter. They are what is going to be used by our enemies as well as our friends. Now, I am not saying that we need to let the outside world determine our inner processes, but I am saying that we must be careful where we draw the lines and how.

Again, labels are useful. They help us categorize, define, and understand who we are. But because language and social norms are continually evolving, labels can also be fraught with misunderstanding, unfair judgments, and confusion.