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Sexuality is more than a word

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JULY 08, 2022

I acknowledge that the history of labels in the LGBTQ+ community is complicated and important, and I don’t intend to discount the significance that these labels still have to anyone within the community. However, I pose this question: Do the labels solely allow us to feel comfortable and find community, or do they complicate and confuse the individuals they are applied to and those who they come out to?

My freshman year of high school, I identified as lesbian. I felt sheltered by this label; this is what society has made labels for — to eliminate the confusion felt by a heteronormative society. However, with time, I found myself having feelings for someone who identified as male. This change upended a huge part of my identity — it shifted a label that I had felt so comfortable with, and had labeled myself to society as such. 

This led to what could be considered a “second coming out.” But this time, I didn’t know what label to assign myself; so, I didn’t come out as anything. I did not define a label for myself. All I said was that “I like girls, but I also like this boy.” I did not limit myself to a specific term.

Although I most closely align with the label of bisexuality, I don’t feel at home with this label. It is hard to do so in a world where the bisexual community continues to be erased. In fact, “bisexual” is regularly treated as an invalid label.

Bisexual women are about 15% more likely to commit suicide than their lesbian counterparts. Both under the queer umbrella, but different labels: Bisexual describes a woman who is sexually attracted to both men and women, while lesbian describes a woman solely attracted to other women.

The common stigma assigned to bisexual women attacks sexual fluidity — a claim that, because of a shared attraction to both genders, labels those that identify with the term as nothing more than promiscuous, curious, and opportune. Members within the LGBTQ+ community and those outside of it maintain stereotypes about bisexual individuals that consider them as “really gay but in denial” or “confused.”

A New York Times article discusses this issue by explaining how those who identify as bisexual may not feel that they fit in with their straight friends or their gay friends due to these stereotypes. An LGBTQ+ “well-being” researcher says that this lack of acceptance from people within and outside of the community leads bisexual individuals to feel alienated. They say: “Bisexual folks experience stigma not only from heterosexual communities, but also from — even though they’re named in it — the L.G.B.T.Q. community.”

It is because of stereotypes such as these that individuals who identify as bisexual feel invalidated by their potential partners, friends, and families. According to psychologists, this kind of “discrimination often comes from gay and lesbian people, followed by family members and straight people; and can directly impact bisexual people’s mental health, including contributing to depression, stress and exacerbated or triggered anxiety (including panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder).”

This isn’t to say that those who use labels such as bisexual, gay, lesbian or any other label (applying to both sexuality and gender) aren’t valid. Labels can provide safety and community for those who align with those identities. Still, despite these positive aspects of labels, they can lead to limitations, enforce stereotypes and create difficulties when coming out to loved ones. 

Labels have allowed the LGBTQ+ community to be further understood by outsiders. However, with society’s understanding of the spectrum that gender, sexuality and other identifying categories exist on, I wonder whether we can begin to accept that people may not desire to put themselves in a box to validate their sexuality to themselves and others. 

In many instances, labels only place an unnecessary stress on defining my sexuality instead of allowing myself to fall in love with and be attracted to people as they come my way. Why not respect those that fall neatly under and feel comfortable using specific labels for their sexuality (and other important identities such as gender), and those (like myself) that don’t feel the need to do so.

When I consider my own sexual identity, I wonder whether my uncomfortability with identifying as bisexual (the label that fits closest with my sexuality) stems from these negative stereotypes associated with bisexuality. When I had my “second coming out,” I finally understood that just because I don’t fit comfortably under a specific label that other people know and understand, it does not mean that I am not valid in my sexuality. 

The fluidity of sexuality and labels does not make queerness any less valid. There is no need to be confined in order to be considered part of the LGBTQ+ community. We cannot assume labels about anyone else, whether it relates to gender, sexuality or any other identifying factor. We must never require or expect people to label themselves in order to make other people more comfortable. Instead, we should allow people to be with whoever they want to without expecting any explanation. 

Allison Grant is a junior majoring in political science at American University.

JULY 08, 2022