Defending the use of labels (aka adjectives)

I really feel like I shouldn’t have to justify this, but since it’s such a common argument that we-who-choose-to-use-labels come across on the internet, I figured it deserved some actual attention. Quick note: the labels that usually come under fire are ones specifically geared to describe gender and/or orientation.

It goes like this: “I don’t get why people are so obsessed with using all these labels. Why can’t you just be, like, a human being? Aren’t you just creating more division by making up all these categories? Blah blah blah, special snowflake, blah.” (I was going to add more to that, but it kinda sounds like that to me after a while. You get the point.)

Well, to start, it shouldn’t matter to you what language people use to describe themselves. If someone asks you to use certain pronouns or something, respect that. Apart from that, your involvement is not needed.

Here’s the main thing. To quote Anita Sarkeesian: “I know it sounds super basic — Comm Studies 101 – but having the language to name things in the world is really powerful.” Sarkeesian is talking about naming certain tropes in media, but it seemed like a statement which perfectly matches this argument.

If you grow up in a culture in which certain attributes are considered “normal,” and you don’t perfectly fit those expectations, it becomes essential to have words to describe your experience. Otherwise, you feel isolated and freakish, like there’s something wrong with you for not being normal. If no words exist to describe how you feel, then obviously no human has ever felt the same way.

For example, if you’re experiencing gender dysphoria and suddenly you discover that trans people exist, you feel validated. You’re no longer just some weirdo who has some neurotic inability to Just Be Yourself. The language exists, so now you understand yourself better, and you can help other people understand you better. You have found commonality and community with others who experience the world in a similar way.

It’s not as though we reach into a hat full of words and pick a few and then conform ourselves to those ideas. We have an individual experience and THEN create language to describe how we feel, relative to others. The inability to understand this concept reminds me a lot of how some people don’t seem to understand that science begins with nothing but observations and then forms conclusions, rather than starting with a conclusion and trying to selectively find evidence to support it.

Humans are extremely varied in their personalities and characteristics. Since no two people are alike, it helps to have terms to describe one person as distinct from another. The existence of people who believe in gods necessitates the existence of a term to describe those who don’t. It’s particularly frustrating to have this argument with atheists, who are choosing to use a label to describe one facet of themselves. It’s hypocritical to distinguish yourself in this way, and then side-eye people who use specific terminology to describe their gender or sexual orientation.

I’m sure atheists are tired of having theists ask them why they would define themselves by what they don’t believe in. I am equally tired of having atheists call into question my decision to use concise terminology to describe my gender and various orientations.

This is (most of) my Twitter bio: Genderqueer, poly-pansexual, atheist+ blogger, activist, Whovian, and gamer living with depression. They/them/their.

That’s much more concise than describing that my gender is something between man and woman but sort of both but neither. Or that I experience affection for many people at once, and with people of any gender. Or that I don’t believe in gods but do believe in social justice. Or that I’m an avid fan of Doctor Who. I can explain those things in detail, but I don’t always have the space to do so, and it’s much easier to have a single term to describe a complicated issue than having to write it out every time. If I say I’m an atheist, you immediately understand what that means.

The real question is: How do you go through life without any distinguishing characteristics? Identifying with a race, a religious group, a gender, an orientation, a political party, are all uses of labels. Some people need to use labels for things that you don’t, and disagreeing with it on principle is a huge blaring sign of privilege. Even identifying as a human being is accepting a label which describes a fact about your existence.

I’m glad that cis people don’t feel bad about their gender, and don’t need separate terminology to describe their life experiences. That doesn’t mean that cis people just get to be “normal” and everyone else has to be an aberration. I’m glad that sexual people like having sex, but asexual people don’t need to feel like aliens because sexual people refuse to acknowledge that some people just don’t want to DO IT.

This whole post was spurred on by my finally being able to describe myself as demisexual. Sometimes, personal experiences are hard to understand and come to terms with, and I’m SO thankful that language exists to describe this part of me. I’m glad that other people don’t have this difficulty, but their lack of a need to describe their sexuality doesn’t change my need to describe mine.

Defending the use of labels (aka adjectives)

23 thoughts on “Defending the use of labels (aka adjectives)

  1. 1

    I am a woman, and I am NOT OK with my gender.
    My gender will NEVER match my body, because I am NOT a being here for use as a dehumanized, sexual object and servant.
    Gender is a social construction that is used to oppress me, to mark me out as less than human, to socialize (aka break) girls into this subordinate sex role, so we are willing victims.
    I will never be OK with my own oppression. I will never accept the means to, and markers of, my oppression.
    Please don’t label me against my will.
    Respect my fight, and I will respect yours.

    1. 1.1

      Gender identity and gender oppression are two different conversations. You don’t have to be okay with the way society treats women in order to be comfortable with your personal identity as a woman, which apparently you are.

      1. Good point.

        I was assigned female at birth, and have pretty much lived a life passing (although not very well) as a cis-woman. I’m really against the gender-roles assigned to women, and was fortunate enough to be able to flout them throughout my life.

        I went to an all-girls secondary school in the late sixties – mid seventies, a time when women were fighting for and gaining the right to have careers that had previously been solely available to men. My year-group won the right to the first student council; one of our biggest outward successes was that we managed to change the sexist dress code; the other, was that we gained permission for students to travel to the local boys’ school for lessons that weren’t offered at ours, and vice-versa.

        The thing is, whilst my sisters were protesting the roles they were expected to play solely due to being women, they were quite happy that they were, in fact, women.

        I wasn’t.

        Oh, I’ve had no trouble completely ignoring the societal expectations for my perceived gender. I dressed the way I felt like dressing, I rode motorbikes, hung out with other bikers, drove a taxi for ten years, delivered mail on a motorbike, did most of the DIY around the house. I think that the subtle messages that cis-women get didn’t sink in and I blamed that on being autistic, until I came across autistic transwomen and realised that I couldn’t blame the autism any more and suddenly knew who I really am.

        I think that the problem that some cis-women have with the ‘cis-‘ label is because they interpret it as being a synonym of ‘normal’ instead of ‘not trans-‘, and they do not see themselves as fitting in with the stereotype of the ‘normal’ woman.

        ‘Cis-‘ doesn’t mean ‘normal’; there is no such thing as ‘normal’ in opposition to being ‘trans-‘ because being trans is ‘normal’!

  2. AMM

    I’m somewhat partial to the “don’t label people” point of view. In principle. In an ideal world, the labels wouldn’t be necessary.


    Those of us who don’t count as “normal” are already getting labelled, if only as “abnormal”, “perverts,” or just by dirty looks (and discrimination and worse.) As long as we’re getting treated differently (and treated worse), we need a name for the basis for that mistreatment. Those who share an oppression need a name to gather around.

    If, for instance, nobody treated two men kissing or having sex, or two women doing it, as being significantly different from when a man and a woman do it, maybe we wouldn’t need labels like “straight” and “gay” and “lesbian.” If trans people weren’t getting categorized and stigmatized and ostracized for failing to conform to the cis norm, then maybe the cis people who complain about being labelled “cis” would have a point. If women weren’t being distinguished and defined as defective and for failing to fit the male standard (not to mention the males who fail to meet it), maybe we wouldn’t need the word “feminism” (or MCP.)

    Of course “need” and “like to have” are very different things. For instance, adults who are into “My Little Pony” have a label for themselves. As is their right.

  3. 3

    I note that this is helpful. When you say you are an atheist, I know what it means, and why you call yourself that. When you call yourself poly-pansexual, I don’t know what it means, but I looked it up and now understand it, at least cursorily. These are useful terms.

    Perhaps you’ll share my frustration when a sizable number of the FTB bloggers are puzzlingly opposed to this when it comes to “atheist”, or it is so nuanced that I do not get the huge fuss. There are currently two or three articles chastising “dictionary atheists.” Check them out, and how attempts to discussion are met.

    “Why are you an atheist?” is the question. Perhaps you have heard of it. Perhaps you have understood the nuance and can find a way to justify, “No PZ is right, because {repeat rationalization of PZ here)”

    Or perhaps you can chat with him and get another perspective on this article in light of that.

    1. 3.1

      Thanks for appreciating my adjectives 😀

      I have a lot of thoughts on the “dictionary atheist” thing, so I’m brewing up a post about that. If I remember, I’ll link it, or you can just check back like a loyal minion. XD

      Joking, ofc

  4. 4

    A lot of folks say things like “I don’t care about labels, I don’t see labels.” I think most of them are full of sour owl poop.

    I honestly don’t really care about labels… but since I don’t care, I defer to the people who DO care and I respect the labels they choose. It costs me nothing, and means everything to other people. Well, it does cost me a little. Occasionally I get it wrong, and I need to eat shit and say that I’m sorry and work hard to do better. That’s rough, but I’m pretty sure it is less rough than the harm I’ve done to people who struggle in ways I’ll never understand.

    All I know is that if I’m going to be a remotely decent person I’m going to support the language that other people use that best describes their lived experience.

  5. 5

    I think one of the problems stems from the binary nature of the way we use language. The existence of the label ‘trans’ seems to imply a category ‘cis’ which is effectively used to refer to ‘everyone else’. Even though most of us, when pressed, can acknowledge that’s wrong. And then ‘everyone else’ ends up having their experiences posited for them, as part of the process of defining trans.

    I’m neither trans nor cis, having a sense of gender orientation is outside my experience, and actually, although I was always aware of this, i was getting by just fine without a label until I became aware that people had set up this binary in which I just didn’t fit. Now, I seem to need one of my own and I notice how discussions , being binary, tend to exclude people like me. On the one hand, I can respond to that by thinking, well, it’s just not about me. On the other hand, since these discussions are often, at least implicitly, about everybody, apparently I don’t exist? Whether it’s all for better or for worse in the end remains to be seen.

  6. 8

    Without Labels, defining things would be nigh impossible, as first order predicate logic necessitates a form of labelling, as evidenced by the fact that many of its aspects can be represented by Venn diagrams.

  7. 9

    I get the feeling that opposition to labels is actually a stealthy way to try to oppose the existence of things people dont agree with.

    I’ve come across some arguments like this, that by claiming that a person is ‘labelling’ themselves that they are trying to make themselves special- the subtext is obviously that that person should shake off their label and just dang well conform.

    At least, that’s from my limited experience.

    1. 9.1

      Me too. By denying us a label, they can tell us that we don’t exist as a separate category, and will jolly well have to be exactly like them*.

      Human beings label things – that’s what we do first, before we have developed the brain power to do anything else, and it is mostly dichotomies.

      “Me – not-me”

      “Food – not food”

      “Safe – not safe”

      We do find it very hard to describe something that exists but for which there isn’t a label, and yet once we have a label we can describe something even when it doesn’t exist.

      *It’s the same phenomenon as the one where a white person says “I don’t see colour” – at a stroke, they are denying themselves the obligation to notice that POC have very different life experiences to people who are labelled white. We all have labels – some are just implicit, and their owners think that it is because they are the default human.

  8. 10

    CONTENT WARNING! MASSIVE CONTENT WARNING! (I’m about to talk about my own experiences and internalised transphobia, stop reading here if such discussions are painful for you)

    In my experience, people who say “do we really need all those /labels/ have been both straight and cisgender, and seemed to have some discomfort with the idea of queer and trans people existing, while really trying to present an accepting facade. For a more specific example, when I came out as trans to my own mother, she immediately started with “but do labels have to be so important? Does your gender have to be that important to you? Can’t you just be a human?”

    Weel, adjectives are important, my gender is important to me, as it is important to every cis person, and it would become something that I thought about much less if being trans was not seen as a “big deal” or something “drastic” in our society, or if my gender wasn’t seen as something I had to prove. Finally, I am pretty sure that I am still a human. Being trans does not revoke my human status.

    Anyways, labels, aka adjectives, are fantastic. Before I knew that there was a word for approximately how I felt, I thought of myself as a broken cis person. Through my teen years, I thought I was a girl with something very wrong, or serious psychological issues, possibly with body dysmorphic disorder, and that maybe if I tried really hard, I could force myself to like my own body, and my own gender.

    It gets even worse. I’ve been told (by mother dearest, again), that it is wrong for me to want other people to change the way they refer to me or think of me – I shouldn’t ask anyone else to stretch themselves, and it is selfish to ask them to undergo any discomfort. But then there’s the other question, which is “is it right for other people to ask me to be in constant, significant discomfort in order to spare other people fleeting inconvenience?”

    As it is right now, I’m a festering pile of internalised transphobia, misogyny, and isolation, and I think an awful lot of this stems from the desire that a lot of people (who would think themselves “normal”) have to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that people different from them don’t exist.

    1. 10.1

      *Hugs*, if you want them (I like internet hugs, they don’t hurt and come with no obligation to reciprocate).

      I came out very young, got quashed very thoroughly, and forgot all about it (apart from hoping that puberty would bring about a sex change, followed by massive internalised transphobia and self-loathing when it didn’t) until I came out again in middle age.

      My husband and most of my kids know, as do some of my friends, and have accepted me. One of my sisters knows, and on my behalf tried to broach the subject in a generalised way (a “what if someone you were related to…” sort of way) with my parents. Their response was so discouraging (Father: “I’d disown them”, Mother: “I wouldn’t disown them, but I’d tell them they were wrong”) that I won’t come out to them explicitly. They are in their eighties, and so I doubt there’s any chance for them to change.

      Will I ever be able to present fully as a gay man? I don’t know. Probably not. I’ve had a lot of surgeries over the years for various reasons, and invariably there were complications, which were finally explained last year when my GP diagnosed a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (this year confirmed by a rheumatologist). No-one wants to operate on EDSers without very, very good reason, so top surgery is probably out of the question unless I get breast cancer.

      Boy was I disappointed a few years ago when a breast lump turned out to be benign. Isn’t that messed up? Being disappointed not to have cancer? When my mother had her first lump nearly twenty years ago, she was terrified in case it was cancer – not because of the Big C, but because the thought of losing her breast was devastating. I knew then that I would never be a ‘real’ woman, because my immediate thought was that it would be a great opportunity to get rid of the useless lumps!

      That is what gender dysphoria is like for me. As you say, if being trans was unremarkable (as unremarkable, say, as having blue eyes), there would be no problem. Children would be believed when they consistently identified as a different gender to the one assigned at birth, and would not have to live a lie for a lifetime just so that other people can pretend that everyone fits into one of two boxes.

      1. Oh god the cancer feels. I’ve considered that before, though I’m too young to have any lumps, benign or otherwise, to make a scare/disappointment. I have mixed feelings about actually getting them removed, it’s just like getting cancer would be a solid decision-maker.

    2. 10.2

      That really sucks. Ugh. Sorry you have to deal with that. I empathize.

      I was lucky to learn about trans people at a relatively young age, when someone I went to school with came out. 8th grade I think? Maybe 9th. It didn’t take very long for me to recognize the truth of it within myself.

      Hope things end up awesome for you. <3

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