Let There Be Words!

“Why do we need labels? Why can’t we just be people who love people?”

It’s a question I’ll hear or see periodically in discussions on sexual orientation and identity.

Most often, it comes from very privileged places—people who don’t have to deal with erasure and all that goes along with being an invisible minority.

Sometimes it comes from those who belong to said minority and seem to think the prejudice and invisibility are due to the label rather than to bigotry. For them being invisible is preferable to being targeted.

Very rarely it comes from someone who honestly doesn’t feel the need to have a label for themselves or is perhaps unsatisfied with ones that still don’t seem to fit.

Regardless of where it’s coming from, I always encounter it after someone else (sometimes that someone else is myself) asserted a desire for their identity to be named, recognized, and respected. It will pop up in discussions about all the identities under the Queer, Bi, or Trans umbrella. It will creep into any conversation about bi-erasure or biphobia—guaranteed. It will be present in the discussion over how many letters should be in the LGBTQIA+ acronym.

And it will come up whenever and wherever an individual is complaining about social justice issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s one of those insidious questions that sounds like a mere preference of the individual expressing it but ultimately has a silencing, erasing, and oppressive quality to it. It’s not just about that individual’s desire not to use labels for themselves but about controlling the language and the existence of words that others want to use.

Below are some of the reasons why I think that label and identity words should and must exist.

To Express Internal Experience

As a language nut, I recognize that words hold a very special power. It’s not impossible for people to experience something without the language to describe it, but we’re verbal creatures. It’s much harder to acknowledge that experience, and impossible to talk about it in a meaningful way, without language.

I remember the first time I came across the word “bisexual.” In my mind, there was only gay and straight. Finding out that there was something to describe my internal experience of being attracted to multiple genders is on my list of most exciting life moments.

I was twenty-one, though, by the time I found out there was a term that felt like it referred to me.

For those who have never felt invisible, perhaps it is difficult to imagine what that experience is like. If you’ve ever read one of those lists of “untranslatable words” and thought, “damn I’ve experienced that!” when reading about schadenfreude (German word referring to the joy at seeing other’s misfortune) or dépaysement (French word referring to feeling displaced when traveling) then you can imagine a shadow of how I felt.

Generally those untranslatable words refer to things we experience periodically. Living without that word isn’t too problematic, and our happiness at finding that there is something to name that periodical experience is generally within the realm of the happiness of stumbling on five dollars dropped in the street. How lucky!

But when it’s something you experience every day and the language to describe that experience is lacking, the significance of finding your word goes well beyond mere serendipity.  Take that joy at discovering a beautiful, single word to describe an experience for which English doesn’t have a word and multiply it by…basically the sum of your existence.

To Decrease Isolation

Without language to create commonality, people also can’t find each other.

Being invisible can get lonely. Feeling like you’re so outside of the normal range of experience that there isn’t even a word to describe you can be a very isolating thing.

But having a name for that part of your identity means that even if you are the minority in your area, you can look for others who might understand you. You can reach out and find support, whether online or in person.

That’s why survivors of every imaginable disease and life experience have support groups. They recognize that they experience/d something that other people may not be able to understand and that bonding with others who “know what it’s like” is important.

Queer centers and pride centers are a haven for non-heterosexual people—a place where they know they can exist without hatred or judgment. Online forums are a lifeline to isolated and closeted individuals who need to know that there is more outside of their conservative Christian home and close-minded home town.

But it takes having the language of identity to be able to create these spaces where people who share that identity can connect.

To Seek Social Justice

In government and society, if something doesn’t exist as a word, it doesn’t exist. Period.

Oppression, discrimination, and prejudice towards a group of people cannot be addressed without the language to first identify that those people are even there.

Some express trepidation that labels create division—an us vs. other.

In reality, the division already exists. There is already oppression and prejudice. Being able to say “this is homophobia/biphobia/transphobia” doesn’t suddenly bring it into existence. It merely identifies it as already present—again putting a name to the experience of being hated for an aspect of your identity.

Diversity is never at fault for division. People’s intolerance for diversity is what creates the us vs. them mentality.

We never see scientists or doctors asking each other, “Why do we need to name this new discovery?” “Why do we need labels for disease?” “Why do we need to differentiate the elements and chemicals in the lab?”

Within most areas of knowledge, we recognize that the naming process is important. We take great pains to make sure that an appropriate name gets attached to a new discovery.

Hell, for a certain amount of money, you can even name a star after yourself for no other reason than to feed your own vanity.

We find it important enough to spend money on naming processes when the categorization of Pluto as a planet is probably going to have the least real-life effect on people, but somehow honoring a label that helps someone express their inner experience, find others who share that experience, and gain recognition in fighting oppression is…what? A waste of words and energy?

I don’t buy that.

Only you can decide what label, if any, is right for you. Only I can decide which is right for me. But as to the existence of words of identity—that shouldn’t be up for debate.

The Importance of Partner

I’m married, but I insist on referring to my spouse as my partner. I hate the connotations that come with using “husband” or “wife.” My partner is not the “head of the home.” I’m not his trophy. We both work to pay the bills, so he’s not the “breadwinner.” And we both take care of the home, so I’m not the “homemaker.” He doesn’t control me; I don’t henpeck him. And the rings we exchanged have about as much power of keeping us faithfully together as crossing my fingers has to help me win the lottery.

I’ve also come to seriously hate the connotations of marriage. I don’t necessarily regret getting married, but I do regret getting married before I had the chance to explore what marriage means. I regret getting married at a time when I thought that I was supposed to be the submissive, homemaking, child-bearing wife. I regret getting married at a time when I thought marriage was the only legitimate way to be in a relationship with the person that I love. I miss having the opportunity of exploring what love means to us outside of the confines of the ownership that marriage entails, if not to us, at least to everyone else.

Inevitably when people find out we’re married, they seem to think that they know how to define our relationship, and if we don’t fit into their preconceived definition, they take it upon themselves to try to correct us. Our cell phone company refuses to speak to me about the account even though I’m listed on there and am the one who signs the checks. They assume my partner is the decision-maker. People speak to my partner about me using metaphors and analogies that liken me to a house pet that needs to be “loved” but “trained” or “controlled” nonetheless.

Strangers advise us on how to control or manipulate each other. Just the other day, I had a couple come in to where I work and give me an annoying (though slightly endearing) lecture about how my husband will care and provide for me now as I “bear the babies,” but that I would take over as the leader and protector of him when he got old. What’s wrong with just loving and caring for each other, without the dynamics of who owns or controls whom or what roles we play?

Then there are the exclamations—“but you’re so young!”—that come almost every time someone finds out I’m married, as if my age means I can’t possibly be in a meaningful romantic relationship.

And I’m pretty sure that unmarried couples don’t get asked when they’re going to have kids every time they meet a new acquaintance or have a reunion with old friends or family, even if they’ve been living together for thirty years. On the off-chance that a few people are rude enough to ask a question like that,  they probably don’t give dirty looks if the couple replies that they don’t plan on having kids. They don’t chide the couple for not passing on their “gorgeous genes.” They don’t chastise them for being selfish or promise that the baby clock will start ticking in a few years. From what I’ve seen, unmarried couples just simply aren’t harassed about the baby thing. I’m not saying that’s good (though I don’t think it’s bad). I’m not saying they’re free of harassment, because goodness knows they get asked often enough, “When are you getting married?” I’m just saying that, for me, that would be an exchange worth making.

I honestly don’t know if I would have gotten married given different circumstances. I don’t think my partner knows if he would have either. We stay married because we’re happy together, and admittedly, being married is easier as far as a number of legal things go. But I feel like more often than not, I try to hide the fact that I’m married (though not hide the fact that I’m in a relationship) because there is still so much left over from the days when marriage was an exchange of property between a father and a suitor. Marriage doesn’t describe our relationship well because we’re so far from that model.

Marriage rant aside, there’s another reason why I insist on using “partner.”

It makes me feel less invisible.

In our heterosexist society, gay people are pretty invisible. The very fact that they have to “come out” speaks to that. Non-heterosexuality is so invisible that a non-heterosexual individual has to make a big deal about declaring their non-heterosexuality in order to even be noticed. Even then, once they’re noticed, it’s not guaranteed they’ll be acknowledged.

But bisexuality is even less visible. I can never be “out” for good as bisexual. If I’m with a guy, people assume that I’m straight. If I’m with a girl, they assume that I’m lesbian. No one ever thinks to ask if I’m attracted to all gender expressions. If I tell someone I’m bi, when they don’t simply deny it, they assume that means I’m promiscuous. They certainly never consider that I might be faithful to one or *gasp* two partners. And allowing me the space to define my own relationships—forget it!

We’re so stuck in this dichotomous view of gender, relationships, and life that anyone or anything that doesn’t fall clearly on either side gets overlooked or explained away. Saying “partner” at least makes people second-guess whatever assumptions they’ve made about me. To some extent, it forces them to listen to what I say, thus giving me just a little bit more visibility as an “anomaly” (though I really doubt that bisexuality is as much of an anomaly as people think it is).