Drew Cordes

Troubleshooting your label-maker

Filed By Drew Cordes | December 17, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: labels, queer, sexual orientation, theory

Our culture loves labels. From designer jeans and dresses to sexuality and gender, levi's-jeans.pngit's an obsession. It's supposed to make things a little easier to understand, but lately the more I think about labeling, I only see catch-22s. So I've charged myself with repurposing labels - how to produce a positive from their dissonance.

The first aspect of this discord is always the semantic issues. The definitions of "straight," "gay," "bi," etc., vary from person to person, so we never even begin on stable ground. Then, sometimes changes occur in how we perceive our own sexual and romantic life, so our labels change, too. Even if one claims to have been "gay all along" after identifying as bi or straight in the past, how can we take the current claim to be capital-T True if they just wrote off a past identity? How can anyone know the current identity won't be similarly disposable?

There are some for whom a label fits comfortably enough, but others may not find the right fit. Using myself as an example (shameless exhibitionist that I am), there aren't many labels in the world of sexuality and gender that I haven't felt linked to at some point. At one time or another, I have identified as a straight man, a gay man, a bi man, a queer man, a crossdresser, genderqueer, transgender, a straight woman, a bi woman, a queer woman.

Combining the apparent lack of relationship-worthy men in my area code with my orientation du jour - preferring exclusively to keep things casual with women and serious with men - I'm sure there are some who'd slap a "lesbian" tag on me at present. Saddling myself with these labels is not the problem, however. The problem is the permanence and importance we attach to our labels.

When we take these categories too seriously, we can become segregationist in our relationships and social spaces, and the changes that occur can make us feel deceived or betrayed. We become understood solely within certain confines; our humanity becomes static, denied the chance to adjust or evolve. Backed into such a corner, there is a natural urge to defy categorization, to banish all use of one-word simplifications of identity.

A friend of mine likes to say, "I'm not gay, I'm not bi, I'm not straight. I'm Annie." Certainly, her approach to this issue is just as valid as mine, and I'd never try to take her personal Truth away from her. Expanding her personal policy to grander scale, however, I wouldn't advocate the unrealistic solution of a world without labels. Lumping things into groups for ease of understanding is how the human brain functions. Eons of evolution renders efforts to change it just as futile as abstinence education. Besides, I love labels for the same reason I love rules and structure in the rest of life - because it's fun as hell to push their boundaries.

Artists will tell you they work best when there are restrictions in place to focus the mind and to push up against, so why not apply this principle to our lives? To sexual orientation? For those of us not on the endpoints of the Kinsey scale, we can venture outside our identities, try on a label or two, see how we feel about it, and have some fun with it.

The status quo can be stifling; by straying outside it once in a while we get to enjoy the liberating feeling of breaking taboos. Many of our first queer experiences had the exhilarating rush of crossing a perceived social (or personal) barrier. Why not try to recapture it by creating new boundaries to violate? Who doesn't enjoy playing the rebel? When the novelty wears off, we can return to the comfort of our old spot on the spectrum. A fond refrain of mine is "Sex should be fun." By extension, shouldn't sexual orientation be fun, too?

Some may worry the frequent shifting might alienate friends or the community, but any worthwhile friend or queer community shouldn't change how it treats people based on sexual orientation. Acceptance and inclusiveness was the whole point of forming a queer community. We endure the pain of discrimination in the outside world enough as it is, we mustn't inflict it on our own kind. Fortunately, I think most are welcoming.

Regardless of the sex I'm interested in at any given moment, I'm always secure about my belonging in this community. This is why, if pressed for a serious response to the question of sexual and gender identity, I'll answer "queer." Wonderfully ambiguous, it's the label for people who hate labels. Like I mentioned earlier, one can make the case that I've inhabited every letter in the LGBTQ spectrum at some point, and "queer" functions as an umbrella term for all of it. It satisfies the inquirer's label requirement, but still allows me the wiggle room to have fun with all the variations it encompasses. I can have my cake and eat it, too.

But, of course, that is my definition of "queer." Semantically, yours might be different; and we're back where we started. If you enjoy the ride, though, going back to the start is cause for laughter, not frustration.

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I often admit to being "weird"
weird: from the old English 'wyrd' def; to be in charge of ones own destiny

Well Drew don't be too concerned about it. I'm sure you'll get over it in a few years.

Does "queer" for you include gender or is it just about sexuality? I'm wondering because I've been hearing "queer and trans" more and more when even a few years ago people would use "queer" to include "trans."

@Alex: the same applies for queer anyway: it is being used more and more as the equivalent for gay, no regard to whether normative or non-normative gay(LGBT). It's gay usurpation if the queer! ;o)
For me queer can include trans, although I prefer to call myself gender-queer. Since also in the Netherlands (where I live) queer is becoming more and more 'just gay'. And I'm not *just* gay :o)


I consider "queer" to cover my transness, yes. During periods when I identify as a straight girl, I will say "I'm straight, but queer." Regardless of my sexuality, I'll always be "queer" because of my past and because of my transness. My definition probably isn't a common one, but it's fun to hear all the different meanings it has. Interesting that it means "just gay" in the Netherlands. Some other people I know use "queer" to mean they're open to dating trans people. They say "bisexual" implies the gender binary, meaning one is attracted to men, women and nothing in between. They use "queer" to signify that they're open to men, women, trans, etc. Again, this is just one definition though. If I'm interested in someone who identifies as queer, I'll still ask if they're attracted to trans people. I never assume.

Using queer to cover trans is, for me, a serious no-no. There are many trans people who don't consider themselves queer (like me, but I don't have a big issue if someone refers to me as queer). More to the point, a lot of people who talk about "queer sexuality" and "queer porn" are really referring to cis-bodied women with transmasculine or FTM people (because, let's face it, gay porn is still... gay porn). It very specifically marginalizes or even excludes trans feminine spectrum people. Also, I've increasingly noticed how "queer" expression includes women expressing masculinity, trans masculine, trans guys, drag in either direction, gender variance... but, surprise, NOT trans women unless they drag it up. Like it or not, queer is still not a term of trans feminine inclusion.

Queer and trans... much better, although I understand there are many men who still prefer gay to being called queer and I'm going to respect that.

Odd that your experience is that "queer" isn't trans-feminine-inclusive, because I'm trans feminine. I pass, I'm queer; and I haven't experienced much blowback. But that's just me. I'm well aware there is some femme-phobia and femme-invisibility in our community. I participated in a queer forum discussion with a dozen or two people that spent a lot of time on this subject. Ivan Coyote's "Femme Piece" captures the issue so well -- "I have no idea what that must feel like, to walk right by your people and not be recognized."

There will always be assholes. We can pretty much add that to Death and Taxes on the list of life's certainties. But I've found great success in being warm and polite, but assertive of my place in queer spaces. In the beginning there might be a few odd looks, but after a friendly chat they correct their affectations and become welcoming.

I'm currently having a discussion with a friend about whether being of transsexual history automatically makes you queer. She thinks so. I think not. For me, the label might fit various flavours of transgender (gender variance), but not someone post-op unless the person is gay. I know a woman who transitioned and had SRS 40 years ago and whose partners ever since have been men. I can't see applying the label "queer" to her.

Labels are a personal thing. If your post-op friend doesn't want the "queer" label, don't apply it to her. I'll be post-op in five months and I can only see myself in a long-term relationship with a man. But as far as I'm concerned, I'll always be trans, and I'll always be queer.

gregorybrown | December 18, 2010 9:45 AM

I like to use Queer as a self-identifier because I've been told too many times that I present as "too straight" to be a proper gay man. That's not a matter of subterfuge or camouflage. It's just the way I am: not butch enough for some, nor fem enough for others, not this or that in sufficient degree for yet others. My transgressions have been naturally and easily outside many norms without staying to close to any one. Friends tell me that they thought, on first meeting, that I was a father with 3 daughters and a divorced wife. I also used to hear that folks had seen me driving taxis in cities where I'd never been. labels are handy but not useful.Queer is an umbrella I use to avoid being drenched with the specific notions people have about any other possible names that might be pinned on me.

Eons of evolution renders efforts to change it just as futile as abstinence education.

I am completely in love with that sentence. I can't think of a more apt description.