Gender/Sexuality Labels - And why you should take caution with them
Do labels help people come together or in fact separate them?
This is an opinion of a young person and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of SpunOut.ie. It is one person's experience and may be different for you. If you'd like to write something for SpunOut.ie please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Many people have been able to find a sense of belonging in labels which they feel describe their gender or sexuality"
The world has never been changing as much from day to day as it is now, and this rate of change is only going to increase as time passes - such is the nature of exponential growth. The world today is arguably unrecognisable from the world 30 years ago, 20 years ago, and even 10 years ago. The advent of the internet and social media has connected us to each other and fostered an uncensored exchange of information between youth the likes of which has never been seen before.
With this connectivity, it is also easier than ever before to find somewhere you belong, or to find people with whom you belong. For the first time ever, we are free to discuss and widely publicise our experiences in life regarding sexuality, gender, relationships, mental health, work, and everything else. Due to this freedom of information, many of us internet-goers have found solace in knowing that we aren't the only ones who experience uncertainty; be it confusion about our gender or sexuality - or insecurity; regarding body image or socio-economic class, etc.
When we have a relationship problem, or a question about how the universe works, we can type it into Google and hope to find that someone has already posted that very question or spoken out about a similar problem of theirs on Yahoo Answers, and hopefully the community will have answered the question or posted useful advice about the problem. When we don't know how to make that delish pastry, or nail that make-up contour, we can search on YouTube, and we'll usually find a video tutorial on how to do anything we could possibly imagine doing.
When we have feelings of gender dysphoria, when we are confused about our sexuality, we can usually find a website which might have a definition for our feelings, a way to describe them, and/or summarise them into a phrase, word, or label. As humans, we love to belong. We strive for belonging in everything we do in life. We choose locations, cliques, friends, crews, that make us feel like we belong in them, because we share something in common. One thing that helps us achieve this sense of belonging is labels, and gosh do we love labels.
Be it race, age, nationality, height, body weight, personality, sexuality, gender, we love to put stamps on things because it helps us divide the people and things in our world into two groups; those that are like us, and those that are not. Those who belong with us, and those who don't. This is a two sided coin however; Labels help unite people by bringing those with similarities together - however they also serve to separate those who do not share those same similarities from those who do. In some cases, labelling has a negative effect on mass numbers of people in society, but in other cases, it has a very positive effect. Many people have been able to find a sense of belonging in labels which they feel describe their gender or sexuality, as these labels unite us with others who feel similarly about gender or sexuality. Labels can validate our feelings by assuring us we are not alone, and they also help us find new communities of friends. They make it easy to describe to others how we feel, especially in cases of those who don't know a lot about gender or sexuality. They can lift a huge emotional burden from our shoulders. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that labels save lives.
Hundreds, thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. Transgender people, bisexual people, asexual people, agender people, and many, many more minority groups have made life saving friends due to the advent of labels and how they make it so easy to find others who think like we do. People who may have felt miserable, depressed, and defeated in isolation have been given a new way to make friends and meet people; to be accepted into new communities which fight for their rights as a minority, but more importantly; their rights as humans.
What if you can't find a label?
What if you're one of the people who can't find a label that describes your gender or sexuality? If that's your situation, let me just tell you right now, that you're not the only one who's been in this situation. Now, I'll share my story of how I encountered and overcame that problem. Many years ago, I first discovered the notion of labels, and learned of genders and sexualities, however I used to be completely ignorant of all of these things. But then, in secondary school, I made my first real friend, and as we got to know each other, she came out to me as being lesbian. I accepted her for what she was, but only after asking a few questions about it, because I literally knew nothing about anything. She confided in me that she used Tumblr as a personal diary of sorts. Being young and naive, and wanting to know more about my first ever friend, I believed that if I made a Tumblr account and ran a successful blog, she would share her blog with me. Sure, my reason for starting a Tumblr account was ridiculous, I know that now, but I came to lose interest in her blog, because I had discovered something else that was far more important to me; a wealth of information on gender and sexuality which opened a new door for me, allowing me to acknowledge and validate feelings inside that I never could see, but always had. To this day I still owe it to her for encouraging me to explore my own gender and sexuality.
For the first time ever, I learned that there was more options available to me than just being "Cisgender" - I learned that gender could be described as a scale, a plane, or a spectrum. The same can be said of sexuality. I learned that homosexuality, asexuality and demisexuality are all parts of a spectrum which I had once thought to be a simple constant of "Heterosexual". My eyes were opened to a new multitude of possibilities. So, naturally, the first thing I did with this new information was rush into a search for a place to belong - and labels with which to describe myself, and thus, I dove into two-year-long life lesson riddled with anxiety, depression, and dysphoria due to my haste. I struggled to force myself into a tickbox and label.
At one point I thought I was transgender, and I became very dysphoric. This was because I was unsure that I really was transgender, but at the time I felt it was the closest thing I could find to describe how I felt inside. The disparity between the fixed label and set of criteria that goes along with it, and my feelings inside made me feel miserable. It was like the floodgates of the information age had been opened and I was ripped away in the current, awash and drowning in information, frantically searching for a place to belong in the new world which I had discovered. I felt caged by the label I had chosen for myself, because it confined me to a set of perceptions that I felt were different to how I perceived myself. I felt as though I was playing a game of musical chairs, and that I had to run like hell to find a seat with my name on it, because if I was left standing when the music stopped, something horrible might happen. I thought that time was against me, and that if I didn't pick a label and find my chair, life would pass me by and it would be too late to act on my feelings. I was afraid that I'd suppress my feelings, or that if I didn't figure it all out right here and right now, I'd be 50 in the blink of an eye, and my bell would go off.
It took me two whole years of changing my mind and choosing new labels before I realised that there was no popularly accepted label which actually fit me. Instead, I learned that labels aren't important, but what is more important is that you recognise that you don't need a label to accept who you are or how you feel inside. You don't need a label to reach out to people and make friends. You don't need a label to love yourself, or to do all of the other things associated with other labels. You don't need to have everything figured out; to systematically categorise and describe every aspect of yourself. It's okay if there are things about you that you don't understand; the important thing is to accept that you don't understand them, to accept that you can't describe everything with a word, but to love yourself regardless.
It is OK if you don't have everything figured out. To this day, I'm not entirely sure how I'd describe my gender, but I've come to terms with that. I know enough to say I'm not Cis, but I've never found a way to be more specific than that - and it doesn't bother me. I know that me telling you this isn't going to change a whole pile. Those of you who are just starting to explore your gender or sexuality will probably do exactly what I did, and that's only natural. Many of you will find a label that fits you completely, and that's wonderful, but in the event that you can't find one that fits you, just remember that you aren't alone.
If any of you are reading this, and are just about to start your journey, I urge you to be cautious, and not to fall into the false comfort of labels. They are fantastic, but they aren't everything. Summarily, I offer you all the following advice:
- Don't let people tell you that you need to find a label.
- You have all the time in the world to learn more about yourself, there is no time limit, the music never stops so don't rush it.
- Don't feel like you have to pick a label and stick to it, feel free to swap them out and experiment to find what's right for you.
- Accept yourself. Finding a label might help but it's not going to fix all of your problems.
- Remember to focus on accepting and acknowledging your feelings even if you don't understand them - don't repress them.
- It's completely okay to change your mind - (e.g. To think that you're transgender one week, only to think you might be genderfluid the next.) This is all part of the learning process!
- You don't have to have all the answers. Nobody does. The best answers are the ones you find for yourself. I sincerely hope this article has helped even one person with gender confusion. I sure wish I was given this advice when I was starting out.