Deconstructing Label Culture

There's a lot of discourse both inside and outside of queer communities about microlabels. To many non-queer people, they represent an epidemic of excessive sensitivity and political correctness, but many queer folks also have misgivings about microlabels. This is my attempt at parsing out the good and bad of label culture.

While most people are familiar with the most common labels queer people use to describe their identities, there are a number of microlabels used by specific subsets of the community that rarely see use outside them. Most people have heard the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, but most people have not heard of terms like demisexual, omnisexual, quoiromantic, or bigender. The purpose of labels like these is to describe specific identities and orientations which aren’t explicitly covered by more common labels, and over the past few decades, especially as online communities have grown, the number of microlabels used by queer communities has exploded. This obsession with forming a comprehensive taxonomy of orientation and identity labels has spawned a sort of label culture, one which has become a source of contention both inside and outside the LGBTQ+ community. Many cishet (cisgender heterosexual) people make fun of the ever-expanding LGBTQ+ initialism and how it represents, in their eyes, an epidemic of excessive sensitivity and political correctness. Many queer people criticize label culture for eroding the credibility of the movement—making people take queers less seriously. Despite these misgivings—many of which are valid criticisms—labels do serve a purpose in the community. The question to be answered is whether label culture does more harm than good.

Identity labels are incredibly useful to queer communities because they provide language with with which to discuss common experiences. The explosion of new identity labels over the past few decades is largely a product of our understanding of queer identities expanding and becoming more nuanced. Over time, we’ve realized that not everyone’s experiences can be categorized neatly into a half dozen or so labels, and identity is a spectrum with many dimensions. It turns out that sexuality is more complicated than “men, women, or both,” sexual and romantic orientations don’t always match, gender is not a binary, sex is not a binary, and identities can be fluid and change over time. Identity is complicated, and we can’t discuss and further our understanding of it without the necessary language.

Having a robust vocabulary with which to discuss queer identities isn’t just useful from an academic standpoint—it’s also beneficial to closeted and questioning people. Labels help those who are questioning their identity to find a community of people like them—a critical step for many queer people in the process in coming out and accepting themselves. Finding a label that describes their experiences even helps a lot of closeted people start the questioning process by showing them that their experiences are not unique. Many people go through life feeling broken because they don’t realize that there are other people out there like them (something that doesn’t just apply to queer communities), and discovering their identity can be an affirming and liberating experience.

Identity labels also serve as a source of pride for many queer people. In the face of systemic oppression, it can be hard for queer people to be proud of their identity. Pride parades aren’t just for visibility; they’re a public celebration of the identities which people have long been made to feel ashamed of. Pride is important to queer people, and identity labels are a part of that. Even if someone describes their identity using microlabels which aren’t likely to be understood outside of a small community, those labels are still meaningful to them.

For all the good identity labels do, they also do harm. For one thing, labels divide communities. What we call “the LGBTQ+ community” is really a collection of many communities, most of which are built around different queer identities. As we continue to subdivide these identities with increasing granularity, the communities become fragmented. There is a tremendous amount of infighting between queer communities—more than most cishet people realize—and while most queer people are campaigning for the same rights, liberties, and freedoms, constant infighting sabotages this effort. Fragmenting communities only exacerbates this issue, creating more boundaries and walls. It’s important that people be able to find groups of people like them to share experiences with, but the LGBTQ+ community needs unity, and fragmentation is antithetical to that goal.

Another problem with label culture is the way it polices identity. While the intention behind more specific labels is to expand our understanding of queer identities, in practice, labels artificially limit how people can identity and are used to gatekeep. Queer people often use the concept of spectrums to explain and understand queer identities; sexual orientation, romantic orientation, gender, and sex all exist on multidimensional spectrums. Labels are incompatible with the concept of spectrums—they are inherently discrete, whereas spectrums are continuous. No matter how many labels are created, people will always exist in the spaces between them. Every queer experience is unique, and trying to force people to choose a label only limits their understanding of themself. Labels are also used by communities, both intentionally and unintentionally, to gatekeep. People who don’t meet a community’s strict definition of a given label are often barred from membership in that community, and people whose identity isn’t neatly described by any existing labels are left without one. The purpose of labels is supposed to be to aid inclusivity, but instead they’re being used to do the opposite.

Cishet people often ask, “Why do you need all these labels? Why can’t people just be people?” This idea of a post-label society in which people can just be themselves and feel comfortable in their identities without the need to label them is attractive for many queer people, and it avoids many of the problems label culture creates. However, in a cisnormative and heteronormative society where people are taught that they are cisgender and heterosexual until proven otherwise, we need a common language to share our experiences so that closeted queer people can find communities, learn to accept themselves, and not have to go through life feeling broken. Still, that doesn’t meant that some of the problems of label culture can’t be addressed. There are identity frameworks, such as relationship anarchy, which seek to obviate the need for labels by taking a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach to identity. The idea is that people can focus on what their identity and orientation mean to them and how they affect their life, and either choose a label which they think fits that or eschew labels entirely. We shouldn’t be too quick to cancel labels, because they are still useful to a lot of people. However, we need to normalize the act of going without labels, because not everyone wants or needs them.