My New Approach to Labels

Photo of a signpost, missing its front cover, that is in front of brick apartment buildings with wrought-iron staircases. An icy sidewalk and busy street are visible to the right. Light blue sky above.

For most of my life, I’ve struggled with labels. I’ve had a hard time finding the right ones to capture my messy and fluid feelings and experiences. The only labels I’ve managed to stick with are the expansive ones, like queer, that operate as umbrella terms and can have a variety of meanings—giving me room to exist, to breathe. I’ve had a difficult time getting more specific than that. I might find a label that works for a little while but wears out or fails to capture all of me.

However, I’ve started to have an easier time with labels since changing my approach to them. I’ve moved away from viewing my identity as being solely about me as an individual. I’ve stopped requiring labels to capture all of the experiences, feelings, and ideas I have about myself. Instead of trying to use labels to sum up who I am, I’ve started to see them as terms for the communities I feel connected to.

This is how I’ve become more comfortable with using labels that seem to contradict. For example, I identify as sapphic but not as a woman. I’m sapphic because of the connection I feel to the sapphic community. I resonate with the issues, jokes, and experiences other sapphics share. Identifying as sapphic doesn’t mean that I also have to identify as a woman. Instead, it means I have a meaningful relationship with that community.

Labels, I’ve decided, are less about trying to sum myself up, less about trying to capture every nuance with a single word, and more about communicating which communities I am in or feel drawn to. I don’t necessarily have to be an active member of a community for a label to fit, but there has to be some connection there. Labels aren’t just about me, they also describe who I am in relation to other people. I can have multiple labels, and some of these labels can seemingly contradict, because I can be a part of multiple communities. I can be queer and non-binary and sapphic and gay and bisexual. I can drop some labels at times and pick up others. I can explore myself and the communities I feel at home in. These explorations, these labels, can be messy, imperfect, and fluid—just like my orientations, just like me.

Published by Sage Pantony

Sage Pantony is a writer, poet, and zinester. They write about gender, sexuality, mental health, trauma, creativity, and the best ways to cook eggs. They are the author of several zines, including a trilogy about transitioning as a non-binary person. Sage’s work has appeared in publications such as Coven Poetry, Idle Ink, and The Varsity. They currently reside in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal with their pet dinosaur, Peter.

3 thoughts on “My New Approach to Labels

  1. That’s the problem with labels—too often our communities try to pigeonhole ourselves into one or two words, as well as trying to overstuff what these terms’ definitions should encompass. Maybe more of us should adopt a “people-first language” approach, like what the autism community uses; ie instead of saying, “I’m autistic”, they prefer people say, “I’m a person with autism.” In this case, instead of saying, “I’m a trans man”, I often say “I’m a guy who transitioned”. Yes, it gets wordy, and we are a culture that prefers to cut to the chase, but sometimes that extra wordiness helps nuance as we need it to.

    I also realize that labels are not integral to my identity, and often do encompass every aspect of my life. There are issues that affect me simply as a man; there are issues that affect me because I am trans, regardless of sex or gender; and then there are aspects that are specific to me as a trans man. Basically, these two/three aspects are inclusive and exclusive simultaneously.

    But there are times where you will want to claim words, but maybe members of the community at large may object to. Just like how many terfs are still fighting to exclude trans women from their spaces, there are lesbians who object trans lesbians and non-binaries claiming “lesbian” (or maybe even by extension “sapphic”) or involving themselves in lesbic-focused areas. While I still keep in touch with many of butch and tomboy friends (especially as a trans man who’s kept his vagina) because we share a world of similar experiences, there are times where I know to distance myself because for the last decade I have chosen to undergo a different path than them, even if we all did start off in the same butch cornerstone.

    And here’s the other thing. It’s okay to experiment using labels. Labels are only words we use to “describe” ourselves, and they can be temporary. Maybe that’s the problem; we’re using words to “identify” with, instead of “describing” ourselves. Maybe using them as nouns, instead of adjectives; while nouns seem to have a more permanence, adjectives have a more temporal air to them.

    As we are also tribal creatures, we are naturally drawn to others similar to ourselves. It’s important to have something in common—but not everything needs to be the same. Some of us fall into stereotypes or are deep into whatever is popular, and others of us just do our own thing regardless.

    This is what I like about the Spanish language; many phrases, instead of stating “I am…”, are “I have”. They say, “I have hunger”, instead of “I’m hungry.” Instead of saying we’re gay, maybe we should just say we’re attracted to this or that. Lesbians and straight men could bond a whole better, like the popular gay man and straight girl trope.

    It’s definitely a whole lot to think about. Given my tenacity to overthink as a result of my generalized anxiety disorder, I put it to use on stuff like this all the time. I’d publish a few books already; I just don’t have the “credentials”. 😝

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m all for person-first language, but I know there’s a fair amount of contention around it in various communities. In the disability community, for example, some want to be called disabled and some want to be called a person with a disability. I generally like the approach of asking folks how they want to be referred to. I personally wouldn’t want to be called a person of queer experience or a person who’s into a bunch of different genders. Just call me queer! But to each their own.

      Yes! No single label, or handful of labels, is going to encompass all of our experiences. Also, we are going to have experiences in this world that are not captured by any labels or identity markers. We’re all so much more than these things.

      Unfortunately, there can be a fair amount of gatekeeping, yes. My understanding of the term “sapphic” is that it is meant to be more inclusive – making room for non-binary folks and bi women. This is partially why I feel more comfortable with it. I think “lesbian” can also be inclusive! And historically has been, in some cases. But I see more of a push to make it exclusive in certain parts of the community.

      Yeah, it’s definitely okay to try on labels! Most of us have to do that in order to figure ourselves out. That can be a big part of the process of questioning and exploring our orientations.

      French is like that too! “I have 29 years” instead of “I am 29.” Feels more appropriate in some ways. Guess what? I have gay.

      You don’t need the credentials! You can just write about your own experiences. Nothing wrong with that.

      Like

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