Opinion | Labels, like most things, are fluid

By Alex Dolinger, Staff Columnist

As a longtime member of the LGBTQ+ community, I often find myself overwhelmed with the number of words that make up that acronym. “LGBTQ” encompasses numerous sexualities and gender identities and all the ways in which we label them. But even with all that choice, all those letters, it can be hard to know exactly where you fit in.

I came out as bisexual to my family when I was in middle school, after lots of ruminating and studying of the Kinsey scale. It wasn’t a big issue until I got outed as gay to my entire high school, and I started struggling with labels and what they meant. I couldn’t get people to stop calling me a lesbian — or gay slurs — but I didn’t know if that was the truth. I knew for a fact that I liked girls, but had been taught from a very young age that when I did get married, a man would be waiting for me at the end of the aisle. I couldn’t get the image of this imaginary man out of my head, even though I seemed to get further from that future with every passing day.

I started letting people call me what they wanted, but I still didn’t know what to call myself. I agonized over this for an unreasonable amount of time. It wasn’t until I got to college that I felt confident in declaring myself a lesbian, cutting ties with that imaginary man and changing my preferences on Tinder — because that’s how you know it’s real.

Now that I’m three years removed from the discovery, I wonder why it stressed me out so much. I was trying so hard to figure out “what” I am, and I wanted the “what” so badly that the “who” started to matter less and less. I was lost in the sea of myself, desperate to apply one magic word to something that was vast and undefinable.

The tough thing about labels is that they’re not just the way that other people perceive you. They can pull a lot of weight in how to perceive yourself. If I could go back in time, I’d let people call me what they wanted while being sure of who I was inside. But being sure of yourself is hard and complicated, which makes labels hard and complicated, too.

At the moment, I am struggling through the beginnings of a gender identity mix-up, because it turns out I’m not the 100% woman that I thought I was. If I had to give an estimate, I’d say I’m about 60% woman, but that’s not really a thing, and you shouldn’t ask people about it. Nonetheless, I’m confused.

But I’m trying to learn from past mistakes and let this journey be a long and winding one instead of branding myself with my favorite letter from the acronym at the first sign of trouble. I’m currently telling people that I’m just not a woman, I like they/them pronouns and I’m still really cool and pretty. That’s all that matters, right?

Wrong. This brings up another problem with labels — other people want to put you in a box so you make sense. Most kindhearted, well-meaning friends and family members aren’t going to slap their preferred label on you, so they want you to give them one so that they can understand and be there for you. I like to believe it’s coming from a place of love, but it can totally ruin the chill, label-less vibe you were going for.

Now, while I may not be eager to find out “what” I am, my friends and family are desperate to know. Again, it feels like there’s a lot of focus on the “what” when the “who” is still the same as they always were, just a little confused and wearing a lot more collared shirts. I’m mostly content in my confusion, but I feel like I owe other people answers.

The moral of the story is that I don’t owe anybody answers, even myself. I can continue to drift in a label-less ocean, correcting people when they inevitably mess up my pronouns and nervously sweating through my binder whenever someone asks, “So what are you?” I can also work up to a label that feels right for me and change it a couple months or years down the line.

If you’re feeling the pressure to be out and proud this Pride Month but you’re not sure which flag to fly, I feel for you. It’s hard to take the complexities of human sexuality and gender and find one word that shows people who you are. There are so many different ways to express  yourself, and it’s okay to take the time to figure out which way works for you.

Labels aren’t easy, even if they seem so simple to the people around you. Labels are messy and ever-changing, just like most things that have to do with the human condition. It is hard to put your heart into a category, and it’s sometimes even harder to really listen to that heart. I encourage you to keep your ears and your mind open and remember that you’re not a “what,” you’re a fantastically complicated “who,” and that’s what matters. You will always be the same cool, pretty person you are, whether or not you have figured out your spot in the acronym.

Alex writes primarily satire. You can contact them at [email protected].