When Labels Don’t Fit

Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, former ACLS Public Fellow, HRC Senior Content Manager

Even as the use of LGBT-inclusive language increases in the media and among our national leaders, there are many who find themselves identifying outside of more common labels. Two articles this weekend show how some are claiming new identities beyond lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

In an excerpt of his new book featured in Sunday’s New York Times, Charles Blow, one of the newspaper’s regular opinion columnists, describes his attraction to women and men while also underscoring the stigma associated with bisexuality. He writes that bisexuals are referred to as “The hated ones. The bastard breed. The ‘tragic mulattos’ of sexual identity. Dishonest and dishonorable. Scandal-prone and disease-ridden. Nothing nice.” Blow’s descriptions echo biphobic stereotypes that persist both within and outside of the LGBT community, and complicate the decision of whether or not to claim the label “bisexual.”

Like so many people who find themselves attracted to more than one gender, Blow’s path toward understanding his sexual identity involved resisting “bisexual” and all of the baggage that he says comes with claiming that label.

“While the word ‘bisexual’ was technically correct,” Blow explains, “I would only slowly come to use it to refer to myself, in part because of the derisive connotations. […] Whenever someone got up the gumption to ask me outright, ‘What are you?’ I’d reply with something coy: ‘Complicated.’ It would take many years before the word ‘bisexual’ would roll off my tongue and not get stuck in my throat. I would have to learn that the designation wasn’t only about sexual histories or current practice, but capacity.”

Blow’s account reveals the problematic nature of using familiar labels to describe a person’s sexual identity. A new Human Rights Campaign Foundation report on bisexual youth reveals that younger LGBTQ people are increasingly rejecting familiar labels in favor of terms that they feel more accurately describe their identities, including “queer” and “pansexual.”

In a Washington Post article that was also published this weekend, 18-year-old Kelsey Beckham, is described as, “Not a he. Not a she. Not a male transitioning to a female, or a female transitioning to a male,” because Kelsey, “doesn’t identify with any gender at all.”

Despite the pressure to choose either male or female identity, like many gender-expansive youth of their generation, Kelsey is rejecting labels that align with binary identities – in favor of gender-neutral pronouns and terms like “agender.”

“I don’t want to be a girl wearing boy’s clothes, nor do I want to be a girl who presents as a boy,” Kelsey explains. “I just want to be a person who is recognized as a person. That’s how I’m most comfortable. I’m just a person wearing people clothes, who likes to look like myself and have others see me how I see me.”

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s report on gender-expansive youth and our new report on bisexual youth demonstrate the challenges youth confront when facing stigma around their identities. But as both Charles’ and Kelsey’s stories show, many are forging new ways of defining their identities and attractions, and it is incumbent upon the LGBT community to support them.

Filed under: Bisexual, Coming Out

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