The glossary of sexual and gender identity labels is extensive and ever-increasing. In just the past few years, we have seen our acronyms lengthen from LGBT to LGBTQIA to LGBTGEQIAP+, etc. in order to be more inclusive. On a group level, we know that representation is vitally important and that labels can provide some of the organization, community, and understanding that is necessary for representation.
On an individual level, when navigating these identity labels for perhaps the first time, some folks may feel overwhelmed by the amount of labels, others may feel liberated by the ability to find just the right term, and others still may feel boxed in by these categories. Labels can certainly be helpful to many people who are navigating self-discovery in the realms of gender and sexuality; and labels can also be unhelpful, or even harmful, for some as this exploration continues.
Labels can be a helpful starting point, like an anchor. An exploration of one’s own sexual or gender identity often starts with a lot of questions, so finding a label can be a comforting or satisfying answer to those questions. “Ah, I’m not abnormal or all alone. What I am and how I feel makes sense.” These labels can also help us feel part of a community and find others who identify similarly. They can help us relate to others who may experience similar challenges and celebrations. They can also guide us toward appropriate resources, allow access to certain information, help us plan for the future, and find satisfying relationships.
Alongside all of these benefits that labels can provide are also some potential drawbacks. Labels can sometimes feel binding, narrowing, like we’re trapped in the confines of a box that society has designated as the “gay box” or the “trans box” or the “poly box.” It can feel like once we have chosen a label, we are stuck with everything society has put in the box, with not much room to float in between, feel unsure, or transition from one box to another. Folks are sometimes shamed by people both in and out of the queer community for shedding one label and taking up another, as though they were pretending before or committing some kind of betrayal. And sometimes, the anxiety of choosing a label or feeling like there is only one right answer can be just as overwhelming as having no answer at all.
Ultimately and most importantly, each individual is entitled to define themselves with whatever labels they identify with. Whether we are searching for a sexual or gender identity label for the first time, discovering a new label that fits us better, or perhaps deciding to shed labels completely, it is our individual right to do so. Identity exploration is a lifelong process. We should treat ourselves with patience, acceptance, and affirmation as we choose our labels, just as we should treat others with the same as they choose theirs.
If you’d like to learn more about navigating identity labels, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.