To Label or Not to Label

That is the question

In Session 1 of DIFO we explored the concept of sexual identities, and we found that as a group, we use lots of diverse labels to describe our sexuality: lesbian, gay, dyke, bisexual, queer, butch lesbian, and many more. Some of us said that we were uncomfortable with labels and did not use them. Our little community reflects the debates in the larger world of non-heterosexual theorizing. More than a century ago, when the sexologists like Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud were busy labeling people as different types according to their sexual practices, this newfound labeling allowed people to find each other and start creating community. We would not have a lesbian or an LGBT community without labels. We would not have had a Stonewall or a gay rights movement without labels. There would have been no Lavender Menace to shake up the National Organization of Women, or Lesbian Avengers to march in gay pride parades. There would have been no lesbian brunch. But in the 1990s, many academic activists declared that identity politics was dead, because sexual identities are social constructions that change and evolve, not fixed identities on which we should base community building or political organizing. So my question in this blog is, “Is it healthier to label or not label one’s sexuality?” This also begs the question, “Should we label our communities?”

Let’s start with the individual level. How did you feel when other DIFO group members announced the terms that they preferred, or you read the Session 1 box with all the labels? No doubt some women were concerned that the group is so different, and others were overjoyed by the diversity. What accounts for these different reactions? Some research shows that coming out (which implies adopting a label for oneself…no one says, “Mom, Dad, I’m fluid”) results in better mental health and psychological well-being. Also, lots of research shows that belonging to a community or feeling an affiliation to lesbian or LGBT community is good for one’s health. It has been linked to better relationships, better mental health, more social support, and less drinking and smoking. We do not know whether women fare better if they have a lesbian or a lesbian/bisexual women’s community versus an LGBT community. And I don’t know of any research that focuses on the effects of adopting a queer identity. Does saying that one is queer have the same effects as using labels like lesbian or bisexual?

So does the label for the community matter? Can you feel a sense of belonging to a community without a label? Could we organize potlucks and picket City Hall without putting some name to our groups? What would it say on the t-shirts?

I guess I’m arguing for labels. We cannot band together, organize, or feel a strong sense of ourselves without using some labels. But we should not get too hung up on the specifics of the words we use and we should not police the boundaries of the community too fiercely. Sometimes we need the broadest possible community of LGBTs and allies for political campaigning such as marriage equality and ENDA. Other times, we might want more narrow and limited groups, like a butch lesbian support group, a bisexual women’s bowling league, or an older lesbian-feminist discussion group. These are smaller social networks that make up the broader LGBT community. Lesbian communities or lesbian/bisexual women’s communities are also a subset of the LGBT or queer community. DIFO is one narrow group, defined by the regulations imposed on us by the federal funder to limit our services to people who identify as women, lesbian, bisexual, queer, over 40, and of size. If we find that this program is beneficial, we can only say that it works for this narrow subgroup of non-heterosexual women.

So what’s your opinion on labeling of individuals and communities?

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