Under the (Micro)scope

If labels are tools, then what can be done with the label of “microlabel” itself? Not enough to justify it, I’d say — but allow me to explain.

In this post, we’re putting “microlabel” (the term) itself under the microscope, starting with certain “definitions,” then summarizing what background I could unearth about the term’s emergence, followed by some notes on its use in surveys and my own reflections on what this term has been used to do.

Crossposted to Pillowfort. Written for the Carnival of Aces and the Gender Exploration Carnival. Preview image: Science Microscope by Daniel Foster, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Conventionally, “microlabels” have been conceived of as labels which are very “specific” or which are subcategories of another label. For example, some labels under the broad umbrella of “gay” include microlabels such as lesbian, stone butch, and bear.

Except some of you would balk at me saying that, wouldn’t you?

If that’s not what a “microlabel” is, then what is it?

In Search of a Definition

I don’t normally begin this way, but I want to illustrate for you what it’s like to look for a definition of the term “microlabel.”

According to Wikitionary, a “microlabel” is a “very small-scale record label.”

Hold on, wait, no. That’s not what we’re talking about, is it?

Alright… For lack of better options, let’s see what the LGBTQIA wikis have to say. On the Fandom/Wikia LGBTQIA+ Wiki, a microlabel is defined as “a label for some form of gender identity or sexual orientation that falls under, or otherwise overlaps with, a broader term.” On the Miraheze LGBTA+ Wiki, it’s defined as “an identity that falls under the umbrella of a larger identity and cannot stand on its own.” The Miraheze wiki doesn’t cite any sources, but the Wikia one links to some generic thinkpieces from recent years, so let’s turn to those next.

Some of these articles/blogposts are partially sympathetic, and some of them are not so much. On the sympathetic side, you’ve got articles like “Putting a name to the feeling” (2021) [CN: NSFW portraits], which defines microlabels as “hyperspecific labels within the queer community.” There’s a more ambivalent take in “What are micro-sexualities and why are people arguing about them?” (2021), which defines “micro-labels” as those which “seek to articulate often hyper-specific expressions of sexuality.” This article discusses some concerns about microlabels being potentially “fragmentary,” atomizing, and “regressive,” but ultimately the author concludes “we should probably try to avoid being on the same side as anyone mocking and denigrating queer teenagers.”

Less sympathetic (but no less condescending) is “How Many Letters Does LGBT Really Need?” (2021), which uses “micro-label” interchangeably with “boutique label” and calls them “inward-facing labels describing internal experiences.” The author complains that they are too numerous, “unnecessary,” and “specific,” yet also don’t convey the relevant information of “who are you into.” This article was preceded by a few years by “Sexual Egoism: A Critique of Labels” (2018), which refers to “micro-labels” as “labels that describe, compartmentalize, and name every possible variance.” The article frets that these so-called microlabels “dilute queerness” and have “done nothing to stem the tide of murders.”

Yeah. “Microlabels” are being faulted here for failing to stop murder.

Hyperbolic or not, sympathetic or not, these articles have a stale, warmed-over quality to their ideas that comes across as very… late to the table, if you will. We need to increase the magnification and zoom in further.

Background: Honestly What Did You Expect

I do not know of any sources which provide an in-depth look at the actual history of “microlabel” as a term, so I have attempted to scavenge for clues and dig up what I can. Hopefully someday someone will be able to expand on this.

The oldest post I have found to use the term “micro-labelling” is from October 16, 2014. The post laments an “intense pressure” to find a “specific” label and contrasts the intentionally-ludicrous “fishromantic noobsexual” against identifying as “lesbian.” It is reminiscent of an approximately-2015 post which contrasts “grey-homo-romantic, uh, demi-cupio-apothis-sexual” against “lesbian.”

The term “microlabel” appears to have gained a foothold on Twitter around 2017-2018. For example, I was able to find a post complaining of a double standard, in which queer people are expected to “nickel and dime [sic] our sexuality/gender” with “microlabels.” In contrast, this post complains of the “insistence” that everyone should “microlabel themselves.” You may notice that that user complains of “the split-attraction model,” too, and at this point I can’t put off pointing this out any longer.

Looking into the term “microlabel” will net you a lot of people complaining about things they insist on calling “the split attraction model.” The place where I found that 2014 post? Asleepingwindow, one of the early adopters. The “How Many Letters” post uses the term, too, and it invokes the who-not-how idea in its emphasis on “who you’re into.”

If you want to write that off as a coincidence, you’d have to ignore how often ace & aro labels are supplied as examples of “microlabels.” The preview image for the I-D article features the words abrosexual, demiromantic, and demisexual. The Sexual Egoism post uses “demisexual” as an example. A 2016 post about “micro-identities” points to cupiosexuals. A 2017 post about “micro-identity” by Tumblr user “knownaphobe” incited an argument over the term demisexual. And let’s not forget the template invoked in the 2014 and 2015 complaints, mocking the x-romantic y-sexual format and, in the latter case, highlighting grey- and demi- by name.

So maybe you can understand, then, why its uptake in ace and aro contexts gives me pause.

Survey Data (But Not Like That)

Part of what got me thinking about this term again is a survey. On July 28, I launched a Gray-Ace & Gray-Aro Survey, and I’ve noticed some of the respondents using the term “microlabel” in the free-write boxes. I did not ask any questions using the term “microlabel,” so I won’t be able to provide any worthwhile quantitative data on that. Qualitatively, though, we can still look at how the term is being employed.

The terms which have gotten the “microlabel” treatment from respondents are, so far, consistent with the term’s background. Some of the labels that respondents have referred to as “microlabels” include cupioromantic, aegosexual, demisexual, and fraysexual. Definitions of the term “microlabel” were not provided, except for where it was equated with “sub-identities.” Respondents seem divided on how they apply this framework to gray-asexuality and grayromanticism. Some implicitly called them “microlabels,” while others described them more like overarching umbrella terms, encompassing certain “microlabels” as part of their scope.

In some cases, respondents using the term “microlabel” have echoed the usual concerns. Specificity, overlap, confusion, “splitting hairs,” and so on. Fortunately, no one yet taking the survey has charged them with failing to stop murder. The tenor of these remarks is less alarmist overall, and some have even emphasized that gray identities are very non-specific.

This was not a survey that specifically set out to investigate the term “microlabel,” which raises the question of whether there are any that have. For comparison, I went and checked the Gender Census that’s been run by Cassian since 2013… and it doesn’t look like the reports for that survey use the term “microlabel” at all. I’ve definitely seen the term “microlabel” applied to gender identities before, but it’s tough to say where people draw the line — especially since I’ve seen even “nonbinary” contrasted against the concept.

Bringing It Into Focus: What is “Microlabel” Used to Do?

“Microlabel” is an odd duck as these things go because it is, by definition, a meta-category, not a label that people identify with in and of itself. Based on what I have observed in blogposts, surveys, and pop articles, there seem to be at least three different concepts/ideas that people are using it to get at:

1) varied relationships between labels: subcategories and supracategories, labels nested within labels.

I consider this usage of the term inessential (as in disposable) because the relationships between labels can be complicated — more complicated than “microlabel” allows for, when naturalized as a category (and make no mistake, some people have definitely been treating certain terms as inherently “microlabels”). In this usage, certain labels are described as simply being “microlabels,” in and of themselves.

While this might make for a tidy conceptual taxonomy, in point of fact you’ll find people who do not adhere to it. For example, one label commonly referred to as a “microlabel” is demisexual. Demisexuality might be conceptualized as a subtype of gray-asexuality — but as I’ve been seeing with the survey, there are also demisexuals who refrain from describing themselves that way. Not all of them necessarily identify with a gender-based sexual orientation, either. There is just no one label or system which demisexuality necessarily nests underneath.

Conceptualizing “microlabels” as labels-nested-within-labels is also inadequate when the supposed “microlabel” in question doesn’t have a definite supracategory. For example, I have reluctantly described my relationship to “romance” and “gender” as quoi, which is one of those labels that gets definitively branded as a hokey “microlabel,” in and of itself. But in my case, it’s not necessarily nested underneath anything else. It just is what it is. There is nothing else to scale up to.

2a) orientation labels which generally sideline the matter of gender and focus on other factors.

This isn’t an absolute, but it does seem to be a point of contention in the way that “microlabel” has been conceptualized. For example, the 2014 Tumblr post contrasts “micro-labelling” against identifying as a lesbian (somehow not a microlabel); the circa-2016 Tumblr post contrasts “micro-identities” against “the L, G, B, and T;” the 2021 Medium post contrasts “micro-labels” against “gay, lesbian, and bisexual,” and so on and so on. This last one (with its weird fixation on holiday parties) places a heavy emphasis on “who are you into,” where “who” is code for “which gender.”

This explanation is getting there, but it’s still incomplete. The terms “microlabel” and “micro-identity” have definitely been applied to gender identities and to other labels which do attend to gender — see previous examples, plus related discussion on the term “MOGAI,” which brings me to a revised version of this point:

2b) non-canonized labels: those other than straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and cisgender.

At long last, here is an explanation for how come I’ve never seen anyone refer to lesbian as a microlabel. Whenever people contrast “microlabels” against L, G, B, or T, that’s generally a sign that “microlabel” refers to the overflow that exceeds (and threatens, somehow) “LGBT.” Additional subcategories are sometimes welcome; some speakers make space for nonbinary, various types of lesbian, and so on, but this concern about the taxonomic preeminence of L, G, B, and T is a recurring feature in shaping the use of “microlabel” as a term.

With that said, looking at just that facet alone would present an unfair picture of the situation. Not everyone who expresses a reluctance or aversion to “microlabels” is necessarily concerned with contrasting them against “LGBT.” In fact, that’s part of why I’m all the more annoyed at the LGBT-focused complaints, which get in the way of unpacking about what’s actually annoying about the so-called “microlabel” phenomenon.

3) an environment with a multiplicity of labels, to the point of being overwhelming.

People reach for words like “microlabel” to talk about a kind of psychological pressure that emerges from a dizzying array of options. This is not the fault of any one label itself, but rather the discursive terrain that prioritizes generating terms over cultivating them. An over-saturation of identity labels can contribute to what I have called identity stress, or the product of internalized psychological pressure over getting your identity “right.” I have described some of my own experiences with identity stress in Vacant Rooms & Stagnation in the Process of Assembly. Additionally, labels which duplicate the semantic space of preexisting labels may contribute to the reinvention treadmill.

These problems have already been described in many “microlabel” critiques, but generally I find the arguments uncompelling because of their tendency to fall back on the who-not-how/LGBT focus. For example, earlier I linked to a Twitter post in which someone describes having cycled through many different labels under a sense of pressure to find a precise, specific, eternal “fit.” At the same time, this person frowns on “quoiromantic” and positions “I realized I liked girls” as a solution. In these critiques I see a lack of consideration for those of us who find the straight/gay/bi triad to be the system that’s too specific and comes with too much pressure to get it “right.”

Back to the Big Picture

Like I indicated at the start of this post: I’m not a fan of “microlabel” as a term. While it does not necessarily entail defensiveness over the LGBT taxonomy, that’s what I associate it with — and for good reason, because people have consistently used it that way. Even when people use “microlabel” in a more value-neutral way, that frame of reference is the only explanation I have for why none of the more traditional LGBT labels get described as “microlabels” too.

I do think there’s something to the complaints about generating “too many” highly “specific” labels and fostering identity stress. I’m just unsatisfied with how those arguments tend to play out.

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