labels: a lesbian’s least favourite accessory
Labels, labels, labels. What’s the deal with labels? I call myself a lesbian, but I’m not a ‘gold star’ lesbian (a gay woman who’s never slept with a man). Most people I know identify as gay, straight and sometimes bisexual, but I don’t meet many people who reject the idea of labels. Is it because it’s too hard to fight that urge to identify with something, or because other people are intent on putting us in boxes? Are labels really that important? Claiming your sexual identity is supposedly about freedom, but I think it often has the opposite affect. By identifying as gay or straight, we are saying ‘I will only date people of this gender’ not only to society, but also to ourselves.
One of the things I most dislike about labels are the connotations that accompany them. Just because I’m a lesbian doesn’t mean I fit into a butch or femme stereotype (as a joke I like to call myself a ‘chapstick lesbian’). It also doesn’t mean I only hang out with lesbians or hate men. On the contrary, most of my friends are straight guys and girls, which I realised recently when I invited a new (also straight) friend out to have a drink with my group. She was nervous and told me she didn’t think she’d fit in with my friends. I was completely miffed by her comment for several minutes, until it dawned on me – she thought all my friends were lesbians. Just as I don’t like to be judged by my sexuality, I don’t base my friends on their sexual orientation either. And it gets a bit much hanging out with women all the time… sometimes I need a break from all that estrogen!
I’ve had my own issues with labels in the past. When I was 19, I met a guy I was attracted to. I was already well out of the closet by this stage; however, I really liked him. This could have caused me an existential crisis of some sort, but instead I just went with it and we started dating. I introduced him to my friends, and he was fine with my sexual identity. In fact, neither of us questioned it at all. When people who knew I was gay asked me why I was dating a guy, I told them it was because I liked him, not because I was suddenly straight. When we broke up, it wasn’t because I couldn’t date a guy. It was actually because he was moving away to finish university. Even though I really liked Scott, and we’re still friends, it never made me rethink whether I was gay or not. It just helped me realise that I’m capable of falling in love with someone based on their personality as opposed to their gender. And I think most people are the same, even if they don’t realise it.
LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) is an acronym often used to encompass different identities within the gay community. However, these days even those four labels seem unnecessarily limiting. I was reading an essay recently that included a ‘Q’ to make it ‘LGBTQ’ instead. Initially I assumed this stood for queer – however, the author explained that they had included Q for ‘questioning’. I thought it was great because we all go through a stage of questioning, even if we’re not always aware of it. I know women who dated men for many years until, seemingly out of the blue, they fell in love… with another woman. For some, it was a way to come to terms with feelings they had always had but not understood. However for others, it was simply a matter of meeting someone they really liked, regardless of whatever their sexual preference had been before.
That’s not to say it isn’t scary having those feelings for the first time. I was lucky enough to realise I was gay at a young age – I can’t imagine how different it would be to go through that process now. It can be difficult enough meeting someone you like and going through those emotions, let alone having to deal with that in addition to questioning your sexuality. But would your sexual identity really change completely just because of some feelings you had for one person? For some people it does… but for me it didn’t.
Even so, it almost seems unfair of me to claim a lesbian identity when there are so many different kinds of lesbians. Sexuality, I believe, is more of a sliding scale as opposed to a rigid label. The Kinsey scale is a much more fluid and realistic way of describing sexuality, because almost no one has always been exclusively gay or straight. And how boring would it be if we were?! Yet, when all is said and done, it is simply easier for people to claim the label of gay/straight/bisexual/whatever instead of fighting the status quo and rejecting labels. I’m guilty of it – mostly because when I’m asked about my sexual preference I can imagine the looks I’d get if I said ‘I’m a four on the Kinsey scale! What about you?’
To be honest, most of the time I just call myself a lover of women and leave it at that. It seems more accurate and straightforward than any label I could claim.
By Hannah McIntosh