What You’re Doing When You Take Labels Away

For the people who think labels are unnecessary, who think there are too many, who think the world would be a better place without them, who regard them as an interference or an obstacle to be done away with, or however you want to phrase it: this post is for you.  This post will focus primarily on orientation labels, especially the ones I relate to, but if you can apply this same idea to something else, go for it.

In a hypothetical world where you could wish away the entire use and existence of words like gay, straight, bi, pan, and ace, here is what you would be doing.

1) making it harder to combat oppression

You don’t need a to use the word “gay” to reprimand your employee for mentioning her girlfriend.  You don’t need to use the word “heterosexual” to uphold romantic relationships between men and women as a universal norm — by referring to “the bride” and “the groom” as if there’s always only one of each, or by assuming the gender of someone’s romantic partner based on their own, or by thinking that there’s something wrong with someone who isn’t interested in dating, or by any number of things.  Heteronormativity doesn’t require labels to exist.  On the contrary, labels can be useful to have on hand as tools to deconstruct it.  You can say “it doesn’t matter who you love” until you’re blue in the face, but the fact of the matter is, in the world we live in, it does matter.  It directly affects people’s lives in ways it shouldn’t.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but we don’t live in a magical world free of cruelty and injustice where you can solve all your problems by simply following your heart and doing your best.  Our identities matter because there is bias against the concepts they stand for, not just the words themselves, and there is resistance against them because they challenge unethical cultural norms, a problem we need to talk about in order to find solutions.  Labels act as a quick shorthand to refer to the concept of “the direction of an individual’s general pattern of attraction” and facilitate discussions that point out the difference in how people are treated on that basis — drawing attention to the construction of the norm in order to illuminate how we can take it apart.  You have clearly never been involved in the details of one of these discussions if you don’t understand this so badly that you think labels are unnecessary.  It becomes easier to talk about how a cultural pattern functions when you have terms for the groups of people it affects.  Taking away labels doesn’t take away oppression.  It just takes away the tools for its removal.  Inefficiency is a hindrance, not a blessing.

2) inhibiting communication, in the most basic sense

Let’s say that in our magical hypothetical world, we’ve come a long way, and heteronormativity has mostly been eradicated.  That’s great, but there are still very few people who understand the way I feel or experience the world the same way I do.  Without orientation labels, I can’t browse the asexual tag on WordPress because there wouldn’t be one, I can’t find local asexual meetups because you took that word away and it doesn’t exist — you have made it even harder for me that it already was for me to find other people who bear some similarity to me.  Congratulations, you big douche.  Get your filthy fingers out of my social life; I can make my own decisions without you patronizing me.  It’s hard enough as it is for me to make friends and now you’ve thrown an obstacle in front of one of the few routes I can take, patting yourself on the back as if you’ve done something good for me by cutting me off from other human beings in yet another way.  Wow, that’ll really help me to make friends based on other things like– oh wait, no it won’t, because that just puts me back where I was before I discovered my orientation, and back then, thinking I was straight and not having access to better labels did not give me a better social life.

Allow me to use a quote from tumblr user startrekrenegades to sum up:

if you think that labels don’t matter and nobody should use them, then you’ve probably never experienced the huge, indescribable relief of “oh my god there’s a word for how I feel” and “I’m not the only one”

On that note, you’re also…

3) helping the people who think we don’t exist

Words validate the existence of a concept.  That’s why people who don’t believe in non-monosexual orientations always fight the use of those specific labels.  That’s why you see people saying “You’re not bisexual, you’re just confused”.  That’s why you see people insisting that asexuality is not a valid identity for a human being, with responses that typically look like this.  That’s why people assert that we don’t need a word for demisexuality and will make foolhardy arguments against it.  It’s not that these people necessarily oppose the use of any and all labels; it’s that they believe the concepts that these labels refer to are either something that nobody truly experiences or something that’s no different from what most people experience.  There are people who don’t believe people can be asexual or asexual-spectrum, people who don’t believe people can be bisexual or pansexual, and even people who don’t believe people can be gay.  By telling us not to use labels, that’s who you’re helping in this argument.  Is that really whose side you want to take?

4) contributing to heteronormativity

We live in a culture where people are assumed to be straight until proven otherwise.  In addition to point number one, taking our labels away just means that it’s harder to correct people when they incorrectly assume we’re straight.  Without labels, you can’t succinctly say what you are, you can’t even succinctly say what you’re not — you have to go into a longwinded explanation for what those labels were used to replace.  Why do you think it’s better to always have no choice but to use more words?  Why do you resent concise communication in any and every context?  Words are used because they’re convenient.  Convenience is not the devil.

This is why we have a word for, say, airplanes, instead of describing them each time as “the vehicle for the mode of transportation that involves flight” or some such verbose monstrosity each and every time we want to refer to airplanes in a sentence.  Things that exist have words so we can talk about them.  Sexual orientation is not unique in this right.  And identity labels are hardly the most outlandish or overspecific set of words you could target in the English language, if you wanted to kick up a fuss about labels.  We have words for aglets, for the penultimate, for a susurrus, for the philtrum, for defenestration, for seconds cousins, for a yarborough, for specific hues, for types of cars — that’s a thing a language does.  It has words for things.

However, I don’t see people complaining about those kinds of words quite so often as I see cishets griping over sexual orientation labels.

By fixating on one specific set of labels, while neglecting to remember that every word is a label in some sense, you are demonstrating your personal biases in a most insidious fashion and contributing to a culture in which straightness is the be-all end-all and no other perspective has a right to speak.

5) telling us that we don’t deserve things that make us feel good

I’m not going to sit here and explain to you all the reasons that people like to use labels.  What you need to know is this: that taking away labels from people, in many instances, would be taking away their happiness and peace of mind.  Labels make people feel good.  Taking labels away for the flimsy reasons you provide only tells people they don’t deserve that feeling.

This sentiment as expressed by effaced-ace, for example, is not unique:

It’s super refreshing having friends who know I’m asexual. I can show physical affection for people and be more touchy-feely without them thinking I’m sexually attracted to them. I can worry less that my ways of showing affection will give people the wrong idea, and spend more time enjoying myself.

Here’s redbeardace’s explanation of what finding a label did for him, taken from the post Who Cares About Asexuality?

I care because of all the time I spent lost in the wilderness, thinking something was missing.   I care because of all the time I spent looking at other people and seeing that I was fundamentally different than them, thinking something must be broken inside me.  I care because of all the time I spent not knowing where I fit in the world, thinking that I must not fit anywhere.

I care because I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through.

I have a place now.  I have a name for me.

I’m not broken anymore.

I can’t make you understand what it’s like to go through that, but I can tell you that it brings tears to my eyes when I think about how many questioning people in the asexual tag I’ve helped to realize that yes, actually, they are asexual, and no, that’s not a bad thing, and yes, that’s a real orientation and yes, it’s okay to describe yourself that way.  People are confused and hurting, and they need to hear that their experiences are legitimate.  If a simple label can help, then so be it.

If you have a problem with people affixing words to themselves as a means of reassurance and consolation, then you can shove it.  Your opinion is irrelevant.  Asexual people — and bi people, and pan people, and gay people, and every other set of people who uses some not-straight label — don’t need to justify their choices to you.  They owe you no explanation.  And yet the internet is littered with explanations if you know how to find them, because people like you are so numerous that they’re compelled to write everything from snippets to essays to articulate what you failed to figure out on your own.

Why is it even necessary for them to explain to you, hm?  Why do you need to hear it in the first place?  Why do you want to stop us from making ourselves feel a little better after being ground under the heel of heteronormativity?  Here’s an idea: instead of asking why they think it’s “necessary” to label themselves, ask yourself why you object to it.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t give me that “limiting yourself” crap.

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19 responses to “What You’re Doing When You Take Labels Away

  • Calum P Cameron

    Also, in addition to being a really fecking stupid idea, trying to discourage the use of labels is an utterly futile one. Referring to definable concepts using words is human nature. Centuries of biological and cultural evolution has created a species that NAMES things. It is among our most fundamental psychological drives. We are the species of science and of literature; of identification and expression. We are Pan narrans, the Storytelling Chimpanzee. Verbal communication is OURS, as a field, like hardiness belongs to the cockroaches and swimming belongs to the fish. Our species is too intimately tied to the concept to back out now. When one encounters a concept that has no name, it is hard-to-impossible for a human being to avoid naming it, if only in the privacy of their own head. Labels are not only part of how we communicate, they are part of how we think. I see a chair, my brain says “chair”. I see that someone is upset, my brain says “upset”. It is difficult to efficiently think about something that does not have a name, and even more difficult to do so without resorting to making one up. Have you ever actually sat down and tried to find and list lexical gaps in your own language? It is nigh-impossible to do so without noticing two things: firstly, that there is very little that we don’t yet have a word for, and secondly, that our instinctive reaction upon identifying such a lacuna is to think “This thing totally SHOULD have a name.” So it has been since not long after we first developed what would later be labelled “sapience”. To oppose the use of verbal labels is to declare oneself to be a glitch in human development; an evolutionary throwback to those wordless days when Homo sapiens wasn’t yet capable of living up to its own name.

    Basically, if you actually used words, made out of letters, to type a statement of opposition towards the concept of labels, then your argument is invalid and you have already lost.

  • kdaddy23

    Ah, man, so many people have so many issues with labels and it doesn’t make sense that they do. Most of the time, I feel that people have angst with labels because they don’t want to admit that the shoe fits, like people who dislike the word “bisexual” but prefer to be “heteroflexible” which is just another label to describe being bisexual but with some sort of difference (which is really no difference).

    I ‘preach’ to people that without labels, we would be unable to identify the world around us – and it’s necessary and vital to our existence that we do this – we can’t function without labels and, as such, all we need to do is know what they are, how they’re applied, stuff like that, and just get on with our lives. But, we also know that words have power and that some words can be used as weapons and to attack each other at the most personal of levels… and all because of the ages-old mentality of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” and that habit we have of wanting to destroy that which is not like us.

    Labels don’t upset me because they can only have that kind of power if I allow it – I choose not to allow it and I can’t really understand why other people choose to give them this kind of negative power.

    • acetheist

      Exactly — language is tied to perception and understanding, and that’s not a bad thing. Thanks for commenting.

    • Calum P Cameron

      I’d automatically be wary of anyone declaring another person’s self-identification label to be “not really any different” to someone else’s – that happens to ME often enough, from people who don’t understand the difference between asexual and celibate (I’m both, for reference). Otherwise, I agree with you.

  • Linkspam: March 14th, 2014 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] The Ace Theist has some points on why labels are important. […]

  • Shokubutsujin

    Great post! You sure made some good points there.

  • Persephone Zielkie Hagen

    Very much agree. While I don’t exactly identify as demisexual, learning about demisexuality and other things in the gray area of the spectrum lead me to discover that I was a grey ace and not some freak. Also it seems to me that label is a label for a descriptive adjective or noun.

  • BLake

    What the hell is this? I never knew such a logical piece was floating around the internet.

    Sadly I think the “I don’t believe in labels” thing is only going to get more popular to the point where those of us who do will be called bigots.

  • Ben

    It’s not about the existence of labels – it’s about the things that society associates with them. Being a man is no different than being tall. If I don’t associate with being tall it doesn’t mean I’m not tall. I may not like playing basketball or reaching high things, but I’m still tall. Same with being a man – it SHOULDN’T (and of course this is where the argument is) mean I’m sexually attracted to women or only women or to either women or men. The fact that I’m a man doesn’t have anything to do with who I’m attracted to. To describe that, I need to add another word. I’m a bisexual man. No different than saying a tall man. No different than saying I’m a black man. It’s the association with the word “man” that is wrong – just like how society views the word “black”. I don’t like rap, I don’t like bling. The same way I don’t like only women. But I’m still a black man. Especially with race and gender – they’re physically descriptive adjectives just like tall or fat. Just like I can’t change the fact that I’m tall, I can’t change the fact I’m black and I can’t change the fact I’m a man*. Doesn’t mean I like basketball, rap, and women.

    *Unless I have surgical procedures done, then I can change all of those things. It’s still just my body, not my personality.

    • Spade

      “*Unless I have surgical procedures done, then I can change all of those things.”

      A surgical procedure can’t change your gender, just genitalia and “secondary sex characteristics”.

      But anyway, yes, I think I get what you’re saying — that the associations folks attach to labels are frequently a problem, and we should attack that practice instead of the labels themselves — and I agree.

  • Michael Crosby

    i expected this to be about functioning labels, as that`s the most relevant to autistics and there`s quite a big debate about having or removing those labels. i`m now trying to understand why this was posted because i don`t know anyone who is against sexuality labels. although they sometimes try to avoid using certain ones because they may be offensive or inaccurate.

    • Coyote

      Hi. I’m not sure how you got here. Most of my readers are from the ace community, and those that aren’t & get directed to this post are usually in the midst of one such argument about whether labels are “necessary.” I myself have seen people claiming we should stop using labels so many times that it was what inspired me to make this post. Glad to hear you somehow haven’t run into any of those folk.

  • toafan

    Fuckin’ thank you for this. I read an item titled “spellchecking cisgender” (it was by Breakpoint, I caught the tail end on the radio and wanted to know why they were talking about fascist propaganda) and it really riled my jets. Reading this has helped me understand, and more importantly articulate, why.

    (Ironically, one of their “complaints” was that cisgender is in MS Word spellcheck, but it’s not in my Windows Phone 8 spellcheck. Yeah, it was that kind of article.)

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