All About Gender

Everything you need to know about gender, sexuality, and more.

Theory

Why Labels Don’t Matter

(This article is in conversation with its counter-part: Why Labels Are Important. Check it out for *gasp!* differing opinions and viewpoints.)

Jump to what you want:

Demisexual. Allosexual. Transgender. Trigender. There are tons of labels emerging to describe the particular nuances of gender and sexuality, which is great.

For too long, too simple terms described something as complex as human identity and attraction.  

But language is still growing, and some terms haven’t been created to describe exactly how we feel.

So why try to force a word to fit?

If you’re questioning your sexuality or gender, you might be starving for the right label to describe you. Something to put those ambiguous feelings to rest.

But we’re here to say no. You don’t need a label.

Here’s why. 

Labels are restricted by their definition

If you use that label to describe yourself, you are restricted by that definition. This is why people say labels put you in boxes.

So if you’re a gay man, you’ve probably felt pressure against saying a woman is sexually attractive because that goes against the definition of a male homosexual.

And people, loving the confines of labels, love giving you shit for it.

“What?? You can’t think a girl is hot if you’re gay! That’s absurd!!! And I’ve never heard of bisexuality in my life!!!!!!!!”

Gosh, remember back in the day when you could “only” be straight or gay? People were just starting to get that, yeah, you can be gay and not have a mental illness. It makes sense.

But if you like the opposite sex AND the same sex? Whoa. No way. That can’t exist.

When language is limited, so is your worldview.

There was no word for loving two genders at the same time, so people didn’t have the label for it. No label, no definitions to understand, no way to understand bisexuality (if you weren’t already bisexual), because it would butt heads against the already readily accepted definitions within ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual.’  

This is why people thought bi folks were just gay people in denial, or were confused, or scared of commitment or all that other bullsh*t. People could not think past the confines of language.1

Luckily we’ve gotten more open-minded in the past few decades. Most people accept bisexuality. More and more realized that sexuality or gender exists outside what language can currently define.

Speaking of language… 

Language itself is flawed (and exhausting)

We’re about to get deep for a second.

Philosophers Charles Kay Ogden and Ivor Armstrong Richards describe language as a subjective and rather inefficient system of communication.

For example, the original ‘Theory of Meaning’ in the early 1900s said that every word spoken has meaning and that for every word there is one correct meaning.

However, Ogden and Richards say no, words are subjective since different people can read the same word and think it means different things. For example, “hot” can mean both a high temperature or, more colloquially, an attractive individual. In addition, it can mean something popular or fervent.

So one word can mean different things to different people depending on context. Thus, words don’t create meaning, people do.

In another example, when Jenny says she’s transgender to Paulo, Jenny creates her own definition of transgender as an MtF individual. But Paulo might come into the conversation thinking that transgender means FtMs only, or that people cross-dress and do drag and all other things. Two definitions of ‘transgender’ clash, so they both must create new meanings based on what they’re experiencing.

But sometimes it’s hard to create meaning with every single person who doesn’t know your label, or has original ignorant ideas about your label. You, the queer person, must educate people to set their views right.

And that’s tiring. Sometimes you don’t want to do it. So why bother? 

You’re better than labels

According to Ogden and Richards’ “Symbol Theory,” words are just symbols to the definitions humans apply to them. So, for me, a golden retriever tends to be the mental symbol my brain comes up with when I think of a dog.

That’s subjective to me and will probably be different from your mental image, but when I write “dog,” you know what animal I’m talking about. That’s how all words tend to go: different mental symbols for everyone but common enough to allow communication.

This makes words ‘good enough’ for personal speech, like when you casually mention eating an apple for lunch. It’s not a big deal if your interlocutor thinks you ate a Granny Smith when you really at a Golden Delicious. Who cares.

But sexuality or gender labels describe you as a person. And some people don’t want to take this ‘good enough’ attitude with their identity.

They want to be exact, dammit, but when language is limited and even then subjected to differing meanings, it becomes an uphill battle just to make your truth understood. Such a linguistic flaw isn’t worth your time.  

You don’t need a label to still feel the way you do

If you want to put on a dress and paint your nails, go for it. If you want top surgery and hormones, get it. If you want to change your pronouns and name, by all means, do.

It doesn’t matter what body you were born into, a label will not actually make your body look how you want it to, won’t compliment your hips with flower print or dry onto your nails. Labels are just words.

Saying that you’re trans won’t make it anymore or less real. A closeted person, an out-person, and a label-ambivalent person who all feel transgender are still transgender. While labels do help you communicate to yourself how you’re feeling, they won’t change how you feel. 

Labels help everyone except the labeled

Got this point from HeyDamo. Basically, the point of a word is to communicate its definition to someone else.

If Joe says he’s asexual to Jimmy, Jimmy might not know what asexuality is.

So Jimmy googles asexuality and reads, “asexuality involves little or no sexual desires for others.” Jimmy walks away thinking he now knows something more about Joe than they did before.

But what if Joe doesn’t even fit that definition? What if he does experience sexual attraction, it just comes so infrequently that it’s not even worth mentioning at all. There’s no a miscommunication that Joe will have to correct later on.

This is the problem with labels. Unless you fit the standard definition 100%, your personal truth is sacrificed, obscured, or erased by what the definition denotes. So really, while Jimmy learned something about Joe, he didn’t learn the whole truth.

If you’re just going to have to explain yourself anyway, why label yourself in the first place?

But hey, most of the time you don’t want to give them the details, so using a mostly correct label is easier. It’s a case-by-case type of thing.

HeyDamo uses good examples to describe why labels are useful and not useful at the same time. I highly recommend watching it.

Videos to check out:

Jenna from LesbianAnswers

An oldie, but a goodie. Someone not labeling themselves is hard to understand, but it doesn’t mean they’re not valid. “Feelings aren’t something that are black and white, so it makes things a bit more complicated. It’s different from saying, “this is my right hand, this is my left hand.” [Therefore], it’s okay to say I don’t want to label anything.” But Jenna also acknowledges how confusing non-labeling can be for potential partners, but she ultimately supports an individuals right to not label themselves.  (Info ends 4:30, after she goes into plugging her pocket tee)

Stacy Solis

If you want a quick little pep talk on how to be yourself, check out this video by Stacy Solis. She’s basically like, “fuck labels, you don’t need labels, just be yourself.” It’s a nice reminder.

“Love has no labels”

Though it’s definitely an Ad, definitely viral to the end of the century, this is a really cute video describing just how limitless our ability to love is. In the video, you see two skeletons bopping around. Some dance, some kiss, some embrace. The skeletons eventually walk to the front of the screen, revealing people of all races, genders, religions, ages, disabilities, and so forth. All of it is to say love has no labels. It’s somewhat tangential to this article, but dammit I love this video (and I’m not going to label it). 

Other things to check out:

    • Meaning is created. Michel Foucault, a late 20th-century philosopher, theorized that what we have the language for and how we talk about things (eg, bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation) literally creates a cultural understanding of those terms. It’s trippy stuff, but essentially we can talk concepts into existence. I love Foucault, and I recommend checking out his other stuff.
    • What it’s Like To Raise a Gender Neutral Child. An interesting article mainly covering Swedish parents letting their children grow up without gender expectations. In short, the child gets to choose what toys to play with, how to dress and cut their hair, etc. It’s parenting practice growing in not only Sweden but around the world too (slowly, but surely).
  • Intimacy Abundance and Label-Free Relationships. Steve Pavlina talks about his experience freeing himself from the constraints of relationship labels (eg, husband, monogamous, etc) and just “going with the flow” of life. While a bit kitschy and cliche at times, Steve contributes interesting experiences having label-free relationships.

That’s it. If you decide that labels aren’t for you, great! You can do a metaphorical bra burning, but all the bras are labels. Or something metaphorical like that.

Thanks for reading!

– MK

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