The limitations of labels

Sophia Barretto explores the complicated and sometimes overwhelming obsession with using labels to identify ourselves and our relationships, and whether we even can put ourselves in such small boxes at all

You know the story: a college student in their early twenties, exploring the depths and breadths of who they are, experimenting with the opportunities they come by, and maybe there is a lesson or two to be learned along the way. Sure, the student learns a few new things about themselves, but really, at this stage, they surely know, at least generally, who they are, and they certainly know who they like. The awkward stage and all that icky angst and teenage confusion has been packed away, along with their adolescence.  

That is the story we expect from our lives, but no two stories are the same. Our stories unravel at their own pace, and on their own terms, and this incessant expectation to have conformed to a label totally spoils our coming-of-age vibe! I should be allowed my messy, A24-esque introduction to adulthood, damn it.  

Labelling today goes further than the labels we are accustomed with; the classic titles we know include gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, non-binary, and so forth. However, there are smaller, lesser-known micro-labels that hyper-focus on certain minutiae, labels that are often self-created to describe the exact nuances of one’s sexuality. Labels like these may not inherently make sense to the masses, but if they represent and affirm one’s experience of queerness, I say right on. 

Tiktok micro-labels are a whole other can of worms, though — they seem to be more focused on aesthetics and presentation, ranging from cottage-core lesbians, granola lesbians, chapstick femmes and most bewildering to me, the femme-faced masc! You’re telling me I must go through the rite of passage that is the excruciatingly passionate sapphic first love and decide what subcategory of queer I most resemble? 

Sometimes, it feels even when you do identify with a label, you somehow are doing it wrong. I feel it’s a common experience pertaining to bisexuality and adjacent orientations, where despite the very nature of the orientation in which attraction is not limited to gender, how one “performs” bisexuality is questioned and judged as if the individual in question is on the lineup for the Spanish Inquisition. We roll our eyes at edgy bisexual girls with the soft boyfriends, leer at bisexual boys who may or may not have preferences for men and share knowing looks — “he’s just in denial!” –, jeer at the butch and femme couple and accuse them of perpetuating heterosexuality or trivialise the validity of two feminine women who happen to love each other.  

When we start to categorise gender presentation to such an extreme (I’m pointing fingers at you, the futch scale!), are we then just perpetuating the binary we, and especially our queer elders, have fought so valiantly against?  

The obsession with labels like they are a commodity to collect and show off is certainly overwhelming, and there are tired jokes about infinite genders and attack helicopters that can be made, but I would like to think that we are all better than that. The devil in me rolls my eyes, but the anxious, closeted teenager in me aches too — that was me once. I spend a lot of time in the bubble I have found since coming to Trinity, but I have got to remember that just a few measly years ago I hadn’t a single queer friend to my name. I remember making awkward eye contact with other visibly queer people practically begging for them to notice me and let me into their world, pleading, “I’m one of you guys!”. Sure, we can argue it’s cringy, but I cannot help but feel we have got to be kinder to our baby gays.  

That first time you find a community, no matter how brief, intense, or even horrifically messy it may have been, in retrospect (did anyone else have a messy discord group chat? oof!), you are provided with this feeling that can never truly be replicated. There is that sense of belonging, that unbridled love and excitement, that every queer person deserves to experience. It should never be belittled, that realisation that to be queer is not such a lonely thing, and that it can be something so incredibly beautiful.  

Flagging, and the use of other queer signifiers, and their significance, shouldn’t be forgotten or dismissed. The queer circle in Trinity is large and so commonplace that I feel we can forget our privilege and how lucky we are to have such a normalised community. Our elder queers needed these signifiers to find each other, to actualise and find a family and home amongst one another. There are such rich histories and cultures surrounding subcultures like the Leather Daddies and Dykes on Bikes!  

There is this idea about how self-actualisation for many is a privilege, and that for those who came before us, and far too many people today, especially those outside of the Western World, self-actualisation is a luxury because survival is still on the line. I think it does help, when stuck in the agony that is soul-searching, to remember just how lucky we are to even be able to ask ourselves these questions. What a joy it is to be able to explore the extent and nuances of our queerness in a path that the generations before us macheted down, built bridges, and grew flowers in, for us. 

In a New York Times article, butch lesbian artist and queer figure Alison Bechdel was asked about her experience regarding gender performance and masculinity. Bechdel writes about how there hadn’t been the space to address such intricate nuances outside of the binary when the public sphere could barely tolerate a tomboy. She writes that she likes “being this kind of unusual woman. I like making this new space in the world.”  

What we can take from Bechdel’s philosophy is the embracing of a space that is your own, one that does not have to conform to anything in particular, as long as it is yours. There is love to be found within a community, and love to be found even in the uncertainty, and certainly within ourselves. Being queer can be so hard. Let’s not make it harder for each other. We repeat it like a mantra that no longer has any meaning, but love is love. Why diminish, confine or dismiss something that should be so simple?  

“Being queer can be so hard. Let’s not make it harder for each other”

So, for the college student who doesn’t have it all together and might find themselves lost in the great mess of it all, I pass on a line from a Rilke poem that may bring some comfort — “Let everything happen to you/Beauty and Terror/No Feeling Is Final.”