Anytime I or another, usually queer, writer, tries to explain a topic or term that is lumped in and under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, someone, usually not queer, likes to chime in with these sentiments: Why do you have to label everything? Just be who you are! Or the comments are defensive and flippant: Stop making such a big deal out of everything. No one cares!
Some people claim to be too tired or confused to be respectful of others’ identities, so instead of trying, or actually reading the educational article I or someone else provided, they plead ignorance and ask for forgiveness when they make mistakes. That’s not how this works. I respect your name, pronouns, identity, and whatever you call yourself in connection with whatever sports team gets you horny on game day; you can do the same for me. I don’t understand what it’s like to be straight or a Yankees fan, but I’m still comfortable with one’s use of those words to describe themselves because it doesn’t change who I am. For all of the identities and labels you don’t understand, here’s why they exist and are necessary.
Folks with identities outside of heteronormative boxes often look for words that help them see themselves in the world. I don’t identify as straight or cisgender, but that is the default setting society places on people when they are born (tragic gender reveal party anyone?) so those are the terms I got. But the setting was incorrect for me and many others so it’s up to us to “fix” the wrong. That’s why people need to come out of the closet. That’s why people embrace labels. Yes, I’m a human being, but I’m not an assumption; I describe myself using words that give me a sense of pride and self-acceptance. I’m queer and nonbinary and my labels invite solidarity and community. My labels are an act of rebellion and a declaration of independence from rules and expectations.
I wear pronoun pins and rainbow flags because I’m proudly providing representation, but I’m also trying to explain myself because that seems to be the role of those of us who are “othered.” This is really exhausting though. If you are a true ally, take that label you aren’t sure about and put it into a Google search instead of playing the ignorance card. Or read the article before deciding someone else’s identity isn’t valid.
Labels are personal and can be fluid and change frequently, and that’s amazing too. No one owes you an explanation for the words they use to describe themselves. My labels allow me to find other folks who also identify as nonbinary so we can share our experiences, support one another, and give and get advice on how to navigate a world that tells us we aren’t allowed to have an accurate box to check. Labels allow me and others to feel seen. Because language is evolving, new words emerge that allow people to live with a better understanding of themselves. Finding the word nonbinary was the label I needed to feel like I had a home; I needed it to feel less lonely.
Those of us who live in the margins with LGBTQIA+ labels are up against more than just clueless commenters on social media. We face real and terrifying discrimination, hate, and abuse. When we look for safety and opportunities, we look for institutions, organizations, and businesses that are actively looking to support us by declaring their commitment to protecting LGBTQIA+ people. Equity and social justice work exists to benefit those of us who have dared label ourselves something that doesn’t fit neatly into society’s ideas about gender, gender expression, and sexuality.
I have been a part of the queer community since I was a closeted elementary school child. I am an activist and an educator and I have a solid understanding of terms that fall outside of the straight, cisgender heteronormative narrative. However, I don’t speak for all queer people or all nonbinary people. Nor would I ever claim that I know what each term and label means for each person who claims it to be theirs. I can tell you the general definition of what it means to be asexual, but that is not my lived experience, so if an asexual person tells me that the word means something different to them than the meaning I understand, I listen. That’s the bare minimum I and anyone can do. Shut up and listen.
When you are quick to say people are just people and we should just live and let live, you are showing your privilege and ignorance. Your explicit and implicit biases may not seem hurtful, but to deny someone their ability to speak freely and comfortably about their labels is to deny them the right to live comfortably too. It’s not lost on me that many of the people who claim there are too many labels these days are the same ones who get very offended if they are assumed to be gay or if someone misgenders them. If we’re all people, then what does it matter? Why do you care that someone repeatedly called you ma’am at the grocery store, Chad? You should really relax and stop focusing so much on labels.
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