Our minds seek clarity, understanding, and compartmentalization. Labels provide us with a sense of comfort and ease. They give our world context and a clear framework. If we associate certain attributes with certain behaviors, and certain demographics with certain roles, our brain doesn’t have to do much else. Not a lot of work is required if we have clear-cut definitions of everything and everyone in our surroundings. This can both be helpful and problematic. As a result, we do not experience as much confusion about the world. Aspects of our daily lives are easier to perceive. However, by making automatic assumptions, we put people in boxes. If we jump to the conclusion that “what you see is what you get,” we miss out on different realities and experiences; we rob ourselves of learning opportunities and human understanding.
In the United States, gender is taught as something that is completely binary. Our culture perpetuates the idea that you are either a man or a woman. Gender identity is so much more complex than this. It can be fluid, it can contradict one’s assigned sex at birth, it can be clearly felt and understood, or it can hold absolutely no meaning to an individual. This applies to masculinity and femininity as well. Most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum. Some individuals that identify as women can feel more masculine while others embrace and exude femininity. The same goes for masculinity. Male identified individuals can strongly identify with masculinity while others may lean more towards embodying femininity. Some people have gender identities that fall outside the binary and they may fall on any end of the masculinity and femininity spectrum. And our own experiences with these identities may shift and change over time, or even on any given day. Gender identities, preferences, sexual orientations, and our relationship with each of these are complicated. By assigning specific labels, we hinder our understanding of the complexity of everyone else’s existences.
On the other hand, labels can give us a sense of identity and community. They can serve as tools to validate our experiences and understand our existence. In the LGBTQIA+ community, we have a growing and shifting list of labels. Identity is complicated, and there is a sense of comfort in knowing and naming different parts of our selves. We deconstruct sexuality, gender, and desire in order to feel at ease and to perhaps find others that have similar experiences.
Personally, my relationship with labels changes constantly. Some days I feel great about assigning myself a clear-cut identity. Some labels give me comfort. Calling myself a lesbian feels right. But I also understand how doing so might give people anxiety. By claiming a label, one might feel trapped into committing to certain preferences for the rest of their lives. And while some identities and preferences may last a lifetime, our experiences and understanding of our selves may shift; putting specific labels on us might create immense pressure to remain constant and to not further explore our identities.
Labels can be empowering. Owning your identity can give you a sense of worth, and a name for what you are fighting for. At the end of the day, you’re fighting for yourself.