Naming (and Shaming) Sexual Identities

We’ve all heard the term LGBT, right? Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*. Do you know how many groups consider that acronym redundant? The NYT ran an article recently on what it dubbed “Generation LGBTQIA”. Here’s just a sample of some of the labels you can apply to your sexual identity: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, queer, homosexual, asexual, pansexual, omnisexual, trisexual, agender, bigender, third gender, gender queer, intersex, two-spirit, polyamorous… The list goes on.

Do we really need all these different definitions? Is it really necessary to split our community into smaller and smaller chunks of identity? At what point does an identity become so individual that it ceases to have any relevance to a wider group – and are we damaging our own equality movement by getting bogged down in a plethora of unnecessary labels?

As the political blogger Joe Jervis commented, “Twenty years ago I had thought we’d settled this with ‘queer.’ I was very wrong.”

I personally use the word ‘queer’ as an all-inclusive word applied to anyone who isn’t heteronormative. I do that for a number of reasons: firstly, I don’t want to impose a label on someone that they might not identify with (and judging by the partial list above, that’s more likely than some would think); and secondly, I’ve got a degree in Queer Theory. To me, ‘queer’ is a legitimate expression that has a technical definition and it is in that sense I am using it. I’m not even using it as a reclaimed word – although some certainly do – but as an academic one. Finally, I, personally, self-identify as queer as much as I do as gay or lesbian.

That being said, that doesn’t mean I’ve not been torn a new one by people who dislike the word and certainly do not identify with it. I can fully understand their point – too often that word is used in the most pejorative sense to discriminate against us. More; it bears connotations of abnormality, of dissidence and difference which a lot of people want to disassociate themselves from: there’s nothing queer about being gay. I fully understand their position and when I meet those people I strive to apply their own labels to them instead. We’re all entitled to identify as we see fit (although that’s not to say that I don’t think denouncing a legitimate academic field that is working to better the experience and increase understanding for all the members of our community just because you object to its name is a little short-sighted).

But even if you don’t like queer, what’s wrong with ‘gay’? (Or bi, or trans* – whichever applies, of course!) Why the need to distinguish further and further into the morass of human desire when we all know that desires can never truly be pinned down to any particular label? Why the insistence on trying to map every last twitch of our loins or flutter in our hearts?

But I’m not gay… comes the cry. Why identify with a label if it doesn’t describe who you are or how you feel? Can you imagine someone who was mixed race being told that being described as black was ‘close enough’? So why should that be acceptable when we’re talking gendered or sexual identity either? Why not find the label that comes closest to resembling your own self when it comes to describing who you are?

The ‘problem’ with that – if there is one – is that it fractures our community. We need a banner to rally under if we are to act in large enough numbers to be heard and make a difference. If we can’t find a single unifier under which we can all unite, we’ll just be endless busy fools, each striving for equality for our own particular niche and not really getting anywhere. It’s true when they say that there’s strength in numbers.

Even within the queer community (if I may be allowed the sweeping statement for a moment) this is a contentious issue. As one person put it: Perhaps if you spent a little less time devoted to your own internal landscape you’d find fewer divisions between yourself and others?…Eventually you figure out it really isn’t all about you. Essentially; that this constant ‘splitting of hairs’ (as another termed the phenomena) is rooted in egotism – the need to be defined as something ‘extra’, something a little bit more special and unique and interesting than the next person. That plain old ‘gay’ isn’t enough.

Another simply said, Well fuck it, now I will just refer to myself as NOT straight. Another popular response: because we’re all outsiders as far as the cis gendered heterosexuals are concerned. Except of course they’re not all cis gendered, and there’s as much variety within the het community as within the queer community, if only we’d learn to look (and to embrace it when we find it). Yes, they define us as other – but don’t we do exactly the same right back at them?

The fact is that this argument goes round and round – broad classifications erase minorities // identity politics create identity ghettos… 

This point I think is pertinent:

By identifying as part of a community, you’re acknowledging the fact that you’re part of a larger movement of gendered and sexual minorities who are oppressed for the same basic reasons and in largely the same ways.

The individuals who form the queer community have a shared history of being denied rights that are afforded to the het population as a matter of course: the right to marry; the right to adopt; the right to pensions and benefits and tax breaks and the right in some instances to freedom; to be able to go about their everyday lives without fear – not only of censure, but of being arrested; imprisoned; being experimented on in a lab or even executed. Too often we forget the price that has historically been paid – and is still being paid over and over in some countries even today – for being born queer. While we’re busy fighting for equal marriage rights, some people are fighting for their very lives.

So what’s the solution? I think there will always exist a ‘community’ of those of us who are sexually other – at least for as long as it takes for us to gain equal rights across the globe. Right now we need those communities; whether to rally for marriage in California or to protest executions and imprisonments in countries even less enlightened than our own.

Personally, I think there will always be some kind of queer community out there, in some form. It’s very popular to say that once discrimination ends, so too does the need for labels. We will reach the mythic point where we will all be human beings and nothing else. I’m not holding my breath that we will ever see that day, even if we do (ha!) finally see a day when discrimination ends. As a species we love drawing distinctions between ourselves; we love to conform but the tool we employ to find those who are like us is to distinguish ourselves from those who are not like us.

That is the function – a perfectly normal, natural one – in which discrimination and prejudice have their origins. It is one thing to observe that as a white person you are not the same as a black person – and the acknowledgement of that difference does not for a second imply prejudice – but it is entirely another matter to decide that because someone is not like you, that they don’t deserve to be treated equally. Unfortunately, once you make those distinctions – which we all make, every single day – some people will take them too far. They will read more into them than the fact that they just are, that human life is diverse and wonderful in its diversity, and they will start trying to draw lines in the sand. Between men and women; black and white; gay and straight.

So I think we’ll always need a community, because we will always – as human beings – want to find the people with whom we most belong. It’s a tool of conformity. But what will our little community be called? Because there must be a generic name for it. This alphabet soup of labels – while laudable on an individual level – does nothing to unify or galvanise the masses.

If people don’t like LGBT (too narrow), they don’t like ‘queer’ (too negative) and they don’t like the strings of acronyms either, what are we to do? One term that is being used increasingly in social justice circles is GSM (Gender/Sexual Minorities). Some wags have suggested we pronounce it ‘jism’, tee hee. I quite like that one, I must admit, although I’m sure that – as with everything – it won’t be universally accepted. Nothing ever is.

And that’s why we need a community to begin with.
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Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
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4 replies on “Naming (and Shaming) Sexual Identities”

  1. Anonymous says:

    According to The Free Dictionary, “queer” originally may have meant ‘oblique’ or ‘off-center’. To me (as a straight person), it works quite well, although “queer” still has lots of negative connotations – try looking it up in a thesaurus, for example. With that in mind, I think I would prefer the GSM option, but instead of using another abbreviation, why not coin a Latinate word, like genosexual, and refer to this community as genosexual minorities. I like these Latinate compounds because they are precise and clear, useful for academics and lay people, and not loaded with other possible meanings, like many Germanic words. I think heteronormative is a great example of this. Genosexual is a bit less clear, since the geno- prefix is usually used for genetics (genome), so a different compound may need to be coined.

    • Kate Aaron says:

      Sadly I don’t think outside academic circles there’s any collective imperative to come up with a generic term – while individuals recognise that one is needed, there’s a distinct lack of co-operation sometimes: everyone wants their niche to be represented as something unique (hence the alphabet soup…).

      Whatever term we do decide on will only ever be temporary, and no doubt there will always be people who find it objectionable 🙂

  2. It does get rather spread apart. I’ve had people tell me what they are and I don’t have any clue what it means. Though I do kind of find it strange when someone shares with me their sexual identity when we just met. I usually just smile and nod. I don’t really identify with any group, though I suppose asexual would be close enough, unless there’s a title for someone that mostly enjoys literary porn 😛

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