Thoughts on Label Discourse
I spend a lot of time on the internet, as I’m sure you can, tell, and as a result of this I have a front row seat to lots and lots of discourse. Something that comes back around every few years is the heated debate about labels in the queer community. Who is allowed to use what, which labels are “real” and which aren’t, and so forth. I saw this go down on Tumblr years ago, and I’m watching it go down on Tiktok and Twitter right now. But don’t worry, I’m here to settle this once and for all. Brace yourselves now when I tell you: it does not matter.
Let me expand on that before you come at me with torches. (Please.) Language is very powerful, and while it can have a hugely positive impact, it can also have a hugely negative impact. Words have power, and the way and context in which we use them has the ability the change the world and shape society. This being said, we are the ones who give words their power. Language is imbued with life by speakers, not the other way around, and a lot of label discourse seems to give words an innate power that they just don’t have.
A word’s definition is not something that’s inherent to the word. It’s something that changes over time with use. For example, “queer” was, for a very long time, only a synonym for “strange” or “odd.” It’s only in the relatively recent past that it’s become a synonym for “homosexual,” and then expanded to an umbrella term that can encompass the entire LGBTQ+ community.
While specific labels can be helpful for some people, they also aren’t for a lot a of people. I know people who use the split attraction model to identify themselves, which differentiates between romantic and sexual attraction, and it brings them peace and helps them navigate the world. They might identify themselves as “biromantic and homosexual,” or “panromantic and asexual,” or any other combination. The split attraction model gets down into the minutiae of attraction, which is great for some people. I personally identify as queer, and that’s all you’re getting. It’s not helpful for me personally to label myself more specifically than that, and that’s just as valid as if I chose to use microlabels.
Queerness, at its heart, is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The whole point is that our community welcomes people who don’t fit into standard or binary labels. We need to welcome and support people, not create our own set of labels that everyone must adhere to. Labels are a personal choice and nothing more. There is no morality inherent to words, and especially not to the way one chooses to identify oneself. There is so much more to queerness than can be encompassed in language, and it’s not our job to conform to anything or anyone.
Something I’ve seen a lot of opinions about online is neopronouns. If you aren’t familiar with them, neopronouns are essentially new pronouns that people have invented and use for themselves. Some more well known ones are ze/zir, xi/xir, and ae/aer, but neopronouns can be anything. I know people who use star/starself pronouns or sun/sunself. Neopronouns are a way to escape the binary implications of standard she/he/they pronouns by creating a different part of our language where people feel at home. However, I’ve seen a lot of people in the queer community making fun of neopronouns or dismissing them, which I think is totally absurd.
Just because something works for you doesn’t mean it works for everyone, and the more diverse our community and world become, the better. I personally don’t use neopronouns, but I think it’s awesome that other people have found a home in them. The idea of not fitting into any words we already have and – instead of settling for what there is – creating a whole new set of words with its own grammar and format is maybe the coolest, most badass thing I’ve ever heard. I love watching this develop in real time and I can’t wait to see the impact this has on linguistics in the future. Queer people are literally rewriting the English language to make room for ourselves, and it’s awesome.
At the end of the day, online discourse is just that – online. But it’s easy to get caught up in, especially in the extremely digital world we live in, and it can spill over into real life, too. The internet is very powerful, and a lot of people don’t have the ability to find community in the places where they live. Their only queer support is from the internet, and the fact that people are trying to legislate that within our own community is so sad. Everyone is welcome! That’s the whole point! If your gender or sexuality doesn’t make sense to me, it’s not your job to change it to fit my ideals. It’s my job to love and support you whether I understand or not.
Queerness is so much more fluid and malleable and weird and ineffable than anyone can ever say. There is freedom in being queer. If the internet has been getting you down, too – chin up. Real-life queer spaces are so much broader and more loving and wonderful than you can imagine. Yes, label discourse is dumb for the obvious reason that “divided we fall, united we stand.” No homophobe is going to ask your exact pronouns and then spare you from their hatred if you’re a she/her lesbian instead of a they/them lesbian. To the people who hate us, we’re all dirty freaks. We have plenty of hate to fight against from outside the community without starting meaningless infighting.
But our lives and love are so much more than just a reaction to hatred. Fear is a poor motivator, and I don’t want to end this article on the note of “accept people or we all go down together!” I’m trying to make a positive point, not negative. Yeah, homophobes don’t care about the minutiae of your labels. But neither do queer people! In real life, I’ve never been in a queer space where anyone cared about the fine points of your pronouns. People care that you are here, queer, and loved, and for the most part, if they don’t understand or aren’t familiar with something, they aren’t mad. They don’t try to fit you into their own boxes. They want to learn about the boxes they didn’t even know existed, or the space you choose to occupy outside of boxes. I’m a woman, and my pronouns change when I feel like it. Most of the time it’s when I think it would be funny! I use different pronouns with different sets of people, and they’re just fine with it.
Queerness is messy and beautiful, and if I’m a woman who uses he/him pronouns for a night, the world doesn’t explode. The world gets brighter and more interesting, and we all have fun. Labels don’t matter. What matters is how you treat people. I am a human being, and God put me on this earth to love. And He made me queer, and put me on this earth to love other queer people, too. No one cares if I’m a stargender demiboy who uses the split attraction model, or if I’m a girl who just knows (s)he isn’t straight. They care if I brought the soup I signed up for at the potluck, and whether I have a dongle for the aux cord.