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Why Labels Can Be A Good Thing (And When They Aren’t)

I’m fairly certain most LGBTQ+ people have heard the following sentiment in some form before, whether it be from a loved one, a friend, or even a colleague who doesn’t quite understand our identities.

“Why do you have to label yourself at all? Why can’t you just be a _____?”

As someone who’s nonbinary and designated female at birth, usually the last part of that sentence is something along the lines of “tomboy” or “masculine woman.” For people who are new to the world of nonbinary gender identities, the dozens and dozens of rapidly emerging labels used by various members of our community can seem overwhelming and even unnecessary, especially because many of them overlap in some ways or share certain aspects.

I don’t think the aforementioned sentiment is necessarily malicious; I believe it just comes from a place of ignorance, confusion, and perhaps a tiny bit of fear. Paradoxically, terms like “tomboy” and “masculine woman” are also labels; they just happen to be more palatable to non-LGBTQ people. They fit in with the gender binary just enough without rocking the boat too much, so to speak.

Truthfully, I didn’t even know another trans person until I was in my late teens, and despite knowing deep down that I wasn’t cisgender or straight, I had been conditioned to believe there were only two genders and that heterosexuality is the default. For years, I didn’t question it. I didn’t have the vocabulary to fully understand or express my identity yet.

It took me a very long time to come to terms with being nonbinary, and even though it seems like a meaningless, unnecessary label to some, it has brought me an immense amount of freedom and comfort.

The feeling of being able to finally put how you feel into words is exhilarating; the very word, “nonbinary,” helped me find others who were like me who didn’t identify as male or female. It helped me put the complex and nuanced way I viewed myself into one simple word. It made who I was truly make sense for the first time.

I think part of the reason why identifiers like transgender, nonbinary, agender, bisexual, genderfluid, asexual, etc. are so confusing and even upsetting to some straight cis folks is because it, for once, positions them as something other than the default. It opens their eyes to the fact that what they thought they knew, what they were taught about gender and sexuality, isn’t as simple as they initially believed.

Let me explain. Another fairly common sentiment shared by people who haven’t had much education on or exposure to the LGBTQ community is the idea that words like “cisgender” or even “heterosexual” are meaningless...redundant, even. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve referred to someone as cisgender only to have them derisively reply “Cisgender? You mean ‘normal?’”

It can be scary to learn that everything you thought you knew about the gender binary is rapidly changing to something much more inclusive and complex. Being the default, being “normal,” is comforting. It establishes a status quo that renders anyone who even slightly deviates from it as the other.

We use an array of descriptive labels to more accurately define people, places, and things every day in our lives, yet labels that highlight our differences and reject conformity are often viewed with ridicule.

Of course, not all labels are positive; slurs are labels, too, and they are routinely weaponized against marginalized groups. The difference, I think, is that slurs are used specifically to minimize the existence of others and reduce them to a single, negative trait, while identifiers, labels, are typically used to better understand and explain ourselves.

And then there’s the complex relationship between marginalized groups and the reclaiming of slurs that have been historically used against us. The word “queer” is an excellent example; only fairly recently has it been reclaimed on a large scale and molded into something positive, reshaped into something that can truly belong to us and be used for our benefit in a brilliant sort of “take that!” at the people and institutions who have callously denied our humanity.

Today, I proudly call myself “queer,” but perhaps if I grew up 30 years ago, I might have regarded that word with painful embarrassment.

But even slurs can evolve over time with a bit of understanding, activism, and education. More and more labels are emerging and shifting to give us an even deeper, more comprehensive understanding of ourselves and each other.

That’s because defining yourself on your own terms is a powerful thing.

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