I like to label things. I find that having a word for something, a way to describe it, helps me understand it better. There are many people out there who find this tendency foolish. Just the other day I saw a Facebook comment who derided the labels “asexual” and “questioning” as pointless and a waste of time, bullshit as he said, because they weren’t oppressed in the same way as LGBT individuals. Others don’t like labels because they see them as limiting and don’t want to be boxed in by a word or a phrase.
I understand both of these impulses. I have been known to laugh in derision when I hear labels like “otherkin”, and I have certainly felt constrained by certain labels placed on me (as I’m sure nearly everyone has). But what many of these people fail to understand is the power in labeling yourself, as well as the way that identities build communities. They also forget that self-understanding is incredibly important to self-acceptance, and that having a word to describe yourself can facilitate understanding and acceptance.
I posted recently about a TED talk that described how certain labels can change from an illness to an identity. These include things like homosexuality, autism, and deafness. In describing the change, the speaker focuses on how these communities created a culture under the umbrella of their label, and how that label has come to signify something good to them. These communities are built because people are brought together through a common label. The labels we are given by society point to a certain constellation of traits. We can choose to focus on the negative aspects of those traits, or we can build something positive and different out of them. When we create a culture, a different way of being, out of our labels, we have created identity.
As someone who struggles to find an identity, labels are very helpful. When I can pinpoint a label for myself, I can add it to my conception of my identity. I’m a learner, I’m gray ace, I have depression and anorexia, I’m a writer…each of these helps me to pin myself down and feel more certain of who I am and where I’m coming from. They can create a grounding of self. Additionally, they can help someone see their identity in a positive light. Especially when a label illustrates that there are others out there who are the same or similar to you, it can provide a sense of safety.
Labels can also help to normalize something that feels or appears deviant and unwanted. They can put you in touch with others who have had similar experiences and may be able to provide insight. They give a shorthand to explain yourself to others. And in many ways they can be liberating because they can provide a framework for understanding. Oftentimes a label will focus someone’s attention in a new way on different elements of their self. My therapist recently gave me a new label to try out: explorer. Looking at how this maps onto my personality makes me feel free to explore new things, free to move away from things that scare me, free to see myself positively. While many labels may not appear to be liberating in that way (something like depression for example), they can still provide a path forward.
An important part of this liberation is the fact that a label does not have to keep you from gaining other labels, or even from changing. Many people look at labels as either/or propositions: you are either straight or you are gay. Labels are to me a both/and proposition. I am both gray ace and heteroromantic. I am both depressed and exploring. I was allosexual and now I’m questioning. Giving a name to one facet of your personality does not negate all the others, nor does the label necessitate that you fit exactly every element of the definition. Some people think that if you identify in one way and you behave out of the “bounds” of that label, you’re lying or wrong or betraying the group. If a woman who identifies as lesbian has sex with a man once, that does not negate who she is or how she has felt attraction in the past. A label is a way to name behavior, not force it in particular directions.
More than anything I find that a label gives me a sense of safety, a way to protect myself from endless explanations or defenses of who I am and how I am. A label allows someone to stake out a territory: this is mine. This is my space. This is my self. For some, this is less important than others, but for those who feel pushed around by the world it can be incredibly important. It gives you access to others who will help defend you and show solidarity.
An example of all of this would be my experience with the term asexual. An identity like asexual might seem utterly superfluous to some. However when I discovered the term, many of the traits that I had suddenly made sense to me. I saw that others had experienced similar things, people confirming to me that I wasn’t broken or wrong. I saw that people had jokes and bonds over shared experiences that had come out of discovering this label. I saw all the ways that individuals had chosen to express the same shared trait: some people were in relationships, others married, others poly, others kinky, others single and solely interested in friendships. It opened up new possibilities of what I could do in my life, of what I might want in my life, and of how I could be happy.
Labels can help many people feel better about themselves and their experiences. They can help build community and identity. Some people don’t have these experiences of labels, but it seems unnecessarily cruel to deride others for having those feelings or for wanting labels to help them gain these experiences. For those who find labels helpful, it would be great if everyone else could just back off and choose not to label themselves.