I recognize that the history of labels in the LGBTQ+ community is complicated and important, and I do not intend to overlook the importance that these labels still have for anyone within the community. However, I ask this question: do labels only allow us to feel comfortable and find a community, or do they complicate and confuse the individuals to whom they apply and those to whom they are addressed ?
My freshman year of high school, I identified as a lesbian. I felt sheltered by this label; that’s why society made labels — to eliminate the confusion felt by a heteronormative society. However, over time, I found myself having feelings for someone who identified as a man. This change upended a lot of my identity – it changed a label that I felt so comfortable with and labeled me in society as such.
This led to what could be considered a “second outing”. But this time, I didn’t know what label to give myself; so, I didn’t come out like anything. I did not define a label. All I said was “I like girls, but I like this boy too.” I did not limit myself to a precise term.
Although I most align with the label of bisexuality, I don’t feel comfortable with that label. Difficult to do so in a world where the bisexual community continues to fade. In fact, “bisexual” is regularly treated as an invalid label.
Bisexual women are about 15% more likely to commit suicide than their lesbian counterparts. Both under the queer umbrella, but different labels: Bisexual describes a woman who is sexually attracted to both men and women, while lesbian describes a woman who is only attracted to other women.
The common stigma attributed to bisexual women attacks sexual fluidity – a claim that, due to a shared attraction to both genders, labels those who identify as nothing more than promiscuity, curiosity and opportunity. . Members of the LGBTQ+ community and those outside of it hold stereotypes about bisexual people that view them as “really gay but in denial” or “confused.”
A New York Times article addresses this issue by discussing how those who identify as bisexual may not feel like they fit in with their straight friends or gay friends because of these stereotypes. An LGBTQ+ “wellness” researcher says this lack of acceptance from people inside and outside the community leads bisexual people to feel alienated. They say, “Bisexual people are stigmatized not only by heterosexual communities, but also by the LGBTQ community, even though they are named there.”
It is because of such stereotypes that people who identify as bisexual feel invalidated by their potential partners, friends and families. According to psychologists, this kind of “Discrimination often comes from gays and lesbians, followed by family members and heterosexuals; and can directly impact the mental health of bisexual people, including contributing to depression, stress, and heightened or triggered anxiety (including panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder).
This is not to say that those who use labels such as bisexual, gay, lesbian or any other label (applying to both sexuality and gender) are invalid. Labels can provide security and community to those who align with these identities. Yet despite these positive aspects of labels, they can lead to limitations, reinforce stereotypes, and create difficulties when coming out to loved ones.
Labels have allowed the LGBTQ+ community to be better understood by outsiders. However, with society’s understanding of the spectrum on which gender, sexuality and other categories of identification exist, I wonder if we can begin to accept that people do not wish to put themselves in a box to validate their sexuality for themselves and for others.
In many cases, labels just unnecessarily insist on defining my sexuality instead of allowing me to fall in love and be attracted to people as they come to me. Why not respect those who are fine with and feel comfortable using specific labels for their sexuality (and other important identities such as gender), and those (like me) who don’t feel the need.
When I consider my own sexual identity, I wonder if my discomfort with identifying as bisexual (the label that best fits my sexuality) stems from these negative stereotypes associated with bisexuality. When I had my “second coming out”, I finally understood that just because I don’t fit a specific label that others know and understand doesn’t mean I’m not valid in my sexuality.
The fluidity of sexuality and labels does not make queerness less valid. You don’t have to be confined to be considered part of the LGBTQ+ community. We cannot assume labels about anyone else, whether it be gender, sexuality or any other identifying factor. We should never demand or expect people to label themselves to make others more comfortable. Instead, we should allow people to be with whoever they want without expecting any explanation.
Allison Grant is a political science student at American University.