Labels Versus Identities: Are We Boxed In?

I want to breach a question with all of you.

I was riding backseat on a road trip recently, resting my eyes and combating moderate carsickness, when I overheard two friends carrying on a discussion up front. The driver is a life coach and often helps clients who box themselves in constraining labels like “stupid” and “failure,” or broad labels/neutral assertions such as “aggressive,” “shy,” “academic,” “artistic,” “bad at math,” etc. The passenger is our mutual friend. Both are cis and–to my understanding–straight. These are contextual.

The driver was saying that she didn’t understand “gay” individuals (this was one example of many) that “bring up their gayness” at all intervals, or otherwise “make everything” about their gayness. She went on to say, “Don’t they know they’re complex people and so much more than just their gay identity? It’s great that they embrace being gay, but I have such issue with people limiting themselves with labels.” I’m paraphrasing.

I understand the misunderstanding she made and the leap she attempted to make–more on that in a second.

The passenger agreed. He went on to draw a comparison between gay people (in his example) working their identity into topics of conversation and other aspects of their life, to individuals who incessantly bring up a topic of interest, any interest, at any opportunity. He finished his opinion by expressing that he was aggravated by people who seemed to purely embody “only stereotypes” of one label or another.

Now, I was warding off a migraine at the time and couldn’t chime in vocally, but I had a lot of internal responses to their topic.

First, in my view, they were confusing restrictive labels (a very specific subset of label) with liberating identities. Speaking purely from the asexual perspective, I know that finding the term “asexual,” both as a definable term and a complex way of being, rescued me from feeling othered by society and otherwise deemed by my own outlook as “wrong” or “weird.” The term doesn’t lock me into a state of being, as asexuality–and gayness and other forms of queer identity, for that matter–is a spectrum. Then, if individuals still find me weird? That’s their problem. I’m more myself on the other side of my self-discovery.

Second, I don’t think they realize that, for most queer individuals, being queer and having this identity does permeate every part of their lives. Literally. For example, I’m “straight passing,” but this doesn’t mean I get a “free pass” from being reminded of my queerness or asexuality. If I held hands with my former partner at the grocery store, I would still get double-takes from passerby because, say, she doesn’t “look” queer! As well, I’m that much more unprepared for the random assertions that I am sexually active when asked which guy (I’m only asked about guys) I find hot, as I mention early on here. I don’t ask for my identity to come up in conversation with peers or strangers in these instances, but boom, there it is–as much a part of me as my limbs and no less difficult to ignore.

Here is my question: What is your take on identities versus labels, and do you feel that labels such as these are restrictive or liberating? I don’t think labels/identities must be mandatory, but I don’t believe they should be admonished, either. I would love to know your feelings about this interaction and your thoughts on the choice to call yourself “asexual,” or “queer”…or not.

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20 Responses to Labels Versus Identities: Are We Boxed In?

  1. Sennkestra says:

    For all that they supposedly think labeling is bad, people sure are quick to label other people’s identities as ‘limiting labels’ or ‘boxes’.

  2. Sennkestra says:

    As far as my opinion on labels, I would basically sum it up as “labels are just another word for adjectives and nouns, and if you try to actually have a conversation without any you’ll get nowhere fast”

    I also think it’s interesting what gets called a “label” – for example, “life coach” is technically a label. “driver” is also alabel. Same for things like “professional”, “husband”, “knitter”, “mom”, “right-handed”, “sleepy”, “hungry”, and so many other words. And yet I have never seen anyone called out for labeling themselves when they introduce themselves as “Karen’s dad” or “an engineer at boeing” or anything else like that – it’s only groups that are more typically stigmatized by society that get their labels called bad.

    (For another example, people who say “I’m fat” get told they don’t need to label themselves like that all the time, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone say the same thing about people who say “I’m skinny” – even though they’re literally the exact same kind of label”)

    The thing about “Don’t they know they’re complex people and so much more than just their gay identity?” is telling – I think it hints at the actual problem, which is that many people believe that certain things like being gay at all requires being flat and stereotypical, and just….can’t even imagine the possibility of a person who is both gay and complex at the same time. And it’s often not even about “labels” so much as it is about “stop talking about that aspect of yourself at all”.

    • AceAdmiral says:

      I think this is a really good analysis of the double-standard applied to marginalized/erased groups, and I would add that this is often also bias on the part of the listener. Any assertion of a different/challenging perspective is intrusive on the privileged listener’s consciousness more than a more neutral label like “right-handed” or “life coach.” I’m reminded of that oft-quoted statistic that groups that are actually only about 20% women seem like they’re half women. A lot of the time a more careful inventory of how often a minority person brings up being a minority reveals they don’t actually talk about it as much as the person thinks…..

    • astarlia says:

      I really like your point about how ‘it’s only a label if other people aren’t comfortable with that identity’

  3. agigabyte says:

    I feel that my identity as Asexual is important. My identity as Queer, less so, but still important. My identity as male is the only one that’s really tertiary (as in, I only barely identify as male over anything else, and this it holds little importance). In my opinion, identity is very important overall, but many portions of one’s identity can often take different priority.

  4. DasTenna says:

    I identify as asexual because my feelings about people are different from what non-asexual people feel. I use the label to explain what asexuality can be. Having a name for my sexual identity feels liberating. Labels are useful devices because they provide people with words to describe themselves. Devices. Nothing more.

    In the german AVEN-community, I experience a very restrictive and narrow use of the label. Also, it´s reduced to the desire-/action-based model and widely ignores the attraction-based model. The combination of both seems closer to reality in my point of view. It´s so restrictive that some rather limit themselves and ask what´s “allowed” for an asexual person in order to fit into the definition instead of trusting their feelings and explore their asexuality. Some don´t know how to identify because they don´t “fit” into the definition completely. Often people don´t have diversity in mind when they define something.
    Another problem is, that the discussion about a better term to put asexuality in contrast to other sexualities (the “birth” of the term “allosexual” in 2011 (?)) didn´t reach german AVEN and people there still talk about “sexual” vs. “asexual” people. Thus, some still define asexuality as “not having a sexuality”. But since some asexuals at least fulfill one of the aspects of a sexuality (desire for bonding – romantic orientation), it can´t be seen as a non-sexuality. On the other hand, I believe that the definition of sexuality itself urgently needs revision because it was originally made for heterosexuality exclusively. It completely ignores the existence of aromantic asexuals.

  5. Ettina says:

    Reminds me of a ‘man with autism’ I met once who was angry at people who described themselves as ‘autistic people’, and said ‘why don’t you just change your name to Autism?’ Meanwhile, he described himself as a father, grandfather and engineer, seeming not to see the contradiction.

  6. Katherine says:

    If anything, it was not having labels that boxed me in.

    Before I had the words asexual and aromantic, my older sister thought that when I said ‘I’m not interested in dating’ that what I meant was that I was a closeted lesbian. Nothing I said could shake that belief once she’d decided that’s what was going on, even when I told her that my disinterest in dating had nothing to do with my potential partner’s gender. While she wasn’t the only one who was trying to box me into an amatanormative relationship, she was the most obnoxious about it and the only one who wouldn’t accept ‘not interested’ as an answer. Even my parents accepted it with what amounted to ‘we don’t really get it, but as long as you’re happy then keep on keeping on.’ So when I finally found my labels, she was the only one I was afraid of coming out to and the only one I felt like I needed to be out to… because everyone else was already fine with me being me except for her.

    Luckily, once I did come out to her as aroace, she dropped the ‘big sis knows best’ thing and backed off. (Well, she backed off after a super uncomfortable Q&A session where she was kind of passive-aggressive, but… whatever. Point stands.) So when people say that coming out isn’t important or that labels aren’t important, I just think of my sister and how she did not respect my identity when I lacked labels to describe that identity. I think of every time she made me feel broken for not living up to her expectations of who I should be and how absolutely freeing it was to finally have her listen when I told her she was wrong.

    • Rivers says:

      Yeah, a lot of the time if you have no framework to identify your experience, other people will take that opportunity to jump on you. Especially if they have an agenda to push (wanting you to like the same things they like or be “normal” etc.). I’m glad things got better once you came out.

    • astarlia says:

      yeah i really value labels bc the framework for understanding things is super helpful to me

  7. Cracticus says:

    Sometimes I feel like people don’t want others talking about their identities so they can comfortably continue going around assuming everyone is cis and straight.

    • TreePeony says:

      Exactly what I was about to say! I’m pretty sure this is the real reason most of these people have an issue with other’s ‘labels.’ They’re basically saying “just pretend that you’re a heteroromantic heterosexual cisgender individual, and we’ll do you the courtesy of treating you like a normal human being and ignore that you’re actually a freak. It’s the least you can do in exchange for letting someone like you associate with us!”

      Which is not to say that some people aren’t annoying about their identity, or that some aren’t overly proud of “not being a boring normal person,” but those kinds of people are very rare. The rest of us are just trying to be ourselves, and unfortunately for the peace of mind of the majority, being ourselves entails not behaving like everyone else sometimes.

      I don’t feel that my aro ace identity boxes me in: it actually helps me out a lot. Boxes are only boxes if you make them so, and it’s not like the aforementioned heteroromantic heterosexual cis people aren’t boxed into their own identities. The way they react if they feel even vaguely attracted to someone not of the opposite sex or feel like behaving in a manner ‘not befitting’ of their biological sex is proof enough of that.

  8. Siggy says:

    I’m not too familiar with the philosophy of life coaches, but it reminds me of some Rationalist (ie LW) wisdom, that you should “keep your identity small”. The argument is that we are very biased about things related to our identities, so we should try to identify with fewer things. The person who first made this argument was thinking of political and religious identities, but hardly mentioned other identities, which I think is a sign that the whole philosophy wasn’t very well thought out.

    See, I would question this life coach’s wisdom regarding identities–even as it applies in his own work. If someone believes themselves to be a stupid person, sure that might box them in. But what if we encourage a person to think of themselves as an assertive person, couldn’t that be a useful tool?

    • Sennkestra says:

      Re the stupid vs. assertive thing, I think that goes to the point that sometimes the problem isn’t labeling per se – the problem is that the particular labels they are currently using are ones that are not fitting or helpful. Under that lens, the solution is not to abolish labels, but to make even more so that people have a better chance of finding ones that fit.

  9. Rivers says:

    It’s funny how people will complain about other people being too “queer” or too involved with their identity, when the same people literally drop signs of their own sexuality every single day. It’s just so normalized, they don’t even think about it.

    Labels are words we use to describe ourselves and our experiences. If you don’t find them useful for yourself, that’s perfectly okay, but it doesn’t give you a right to go trampling over how other people choose to identify. My identity tells people who I am, and other people don’t get to decide that for me. Labels also help create a useful frame work for discussing different experiences. Labels are only constricting if they’re forced on you.

  10. Seth says:

    I think it depends on how well the identity fits, and how aware you are of any differences between yourself and the stereotype. I’m totally ace, which clicked immediately for me when I found the article about it on Wikipedia, and it’s never felt less than liberating.

    On the other hand, I have a more complicated relationship with my gender identity, for a number of reasons: realizing that I’m trans was scary, I’m NB and have been comfortably cis-passing my whole life, and also because I’m NB, I don’t have a well-established roadmap for transitioning. I’ve been labeling myself neutrois, which fits well enough, but I feel like it’s simplifying and omitting too much, and that I probably don’t have sufficient understand of myself to come up with anything more accurate. (I read Nevada recently, by the way, and relate so heavily to it that it kinda felt like the author was yelling “YOU ARE A TRANSWOMAN” at me.) What felt liberating there was not taking on an identity, but taking on the uncertainty and starting to medically transition despite it.

  11. luvtheheaven says:

    Well I wrote a post back when there was a Carnival of Aces month themed all around this topic:

    And I like a lot of what people are getting at in the comments here.

    The idea that a gay person is limiting themselves by calling themselves gay is actually pretty foreign to me. Would anyone accuse a bisexual person of limiting themselves with that label? Probably not, as the negative stereotypes, harmful though they are, lean towards the opposite concept, that a person has no boundaries or limits at all, they’re having too much sex or are attracted to everyone they see or don’t engage in monogamy the way they should be (aka aren’t “limiting” themselves to one partner)… Which is the context where the more common misconception that asexuality *is* limiting seems a little more understandable, that we aren’t open enough to partners at all (maybe) or at least have limited ourselves to a life that would be unhappy for them, missing out on the joys of sex or something. This only half-makes any sense at all if you’re assuming or knowing that a person is nonamorous or sex-averse/sex-repulsed, obviously if the ace in question turns out to be a sex-favorable, very alloromantic ace, even more of the premises about limiting oneself are just wrong.

    But the limiting yourself narrative assumes choice rather than description of what already is? It assumes it’s limiting to say a person is disabled because what, they would be abled *if just not for the label*???

    It reminds me a bit of the problems with Pascal’s Wager, to be honest.
    (Specifically if you scroll down to the “Does this even count as “belief”?” section. Please know I’m basically just talking about that.)
    Like… What are people even thinking, that if you didn’t label yourself as gay or (aromantic) asexual you would just be attracted to the “opposite” gender and enjoying heterosexual romance and sex? That’s not how it works. We pick the identity label that fits what already is true. We need labels so we’re not perverts, or broken, or confused, or sick because clearly we’re something different and some label is gonna be cast on us eventually, even if it’s just bachelor or spinster. Because life doesn’t actually work where a person avoids the label gay and suddenly all their feelings for the same gender go away plus they conveniently gain heteronormative attractions and desires. (I don’t exactly *choose* atheism/nonbelief either. I realize wait, the truth is I already don’t believe in any gods and then start calling myself the appropriate label.)

    Talking about a label being a bad thing mainly makes sense in the context of label having a connotation of something put on an inanimate object. It can be dehumanizing when other people put derogatory labels on someone. If you call someone a virgin and mean it as loser, as less fully realized adult human than “me”, and hear asexual as a synonym for all that regardless of how wrong all of this is on so many levels, then yeah maybe you don’t want a person you care about to be “so negative” in attitude towards their own self. But. That’s not what’s happening AT ALL.

    The other thing I see in this post here though is:
    “He went on to draw a comparison between gay people (in his example) working their identity into topics of conversation and other aspects of their life, to individuals who incessantly bring up a topic of interest, any interest, at any opportunity. He finished his opinion by expressing that he was aggravated by people who seemed to purely embody “only stereotypes” of one label or another.”
    This is something else, touched upon by good points in the comments but *also*… I find myself thinking…

    It *is* different to have a marginalized identity with its own separate subculture or jargon etc and to someone outside of that subculture or who doesn’t understand what they’re talking about, it can feel confusing. It can feel tempting to try to relate to other people and if you just can’t relate, that can even be frustrating. You don’t know what it feels like to embrace your liberating sexual orientation identity complete with wearing your flag colors. But a little sympathy and acknowledging that they have a different life experience and journey might go a long way. A little acceptance that them being excited makes sense or that pride is still hard and is a way to fight shame, talking about this stuff can be a way to spread awareness and understanding and share that they’re happy in their new subculture. Like. Learn to maybe not judge so harshly? Gosh.

  12. Zack Sinex says:

    I’ve actually recently discovered my own asexuality and I would agree that the label has been helpful to me. These types of things serve less as a box to put oneself in than as a way to map your own sexuality and say “this is around where I fall on this spectrum.” It’s a helpful means of understanding yourself and finding others with similar experiences.

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