For most of my life, I was a user and an addict. I stand before you today, happy to report, I’ve been a recovering labeler for six years and counting.
“Bisexual” was my label of choice. I found it in a medical dictionary when I was 10 alongside “hetero” and “homo.” I read the definitions of all three and decided “bisexual” fit me perfectly. “Curves are curves,” I remember thinking even then, “and skin is skin.” More to the point, there were boys and girls in my neighborhood I thought were cute. From that day forward, I had my label and was sticking to it even though no one else seemed to have ever heard of it. For a long time, I figured bisexuality was something known about only by the doctor who wrote the dictionary and me. It wasn’t until college that I met someone else who claimed to be bisexual. Yet even after that, the label remained so elusive that when, prior to marriage, I told my first wife, and years later my second, that I was bisexual, they both said, “What’s that?”
Years later, I used the B-word to describe myself at a local LGBT support group, only to be scolded by a regular who declared, “No you’re not. There’s no such thing as bisexuality. You’re either gay and too closeted to admit it, or straight and you’re spying on us.” Gays didn’t like or trust bi’s at the time. But as awareness of bisexuality increased, cultural views evolved. He and I are friends today. We occasionally recall his earlier views and laugh at his denial of my very existence.
I attended a PFLAG meeting (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) some years after that, during which attendees were asked to raise their hands to identify their preferences. “Ls!” the moderator called out. A dozen lesbians raised their hands. “Gs!” she barked. Two dozen gays responded. “Bs,” she whispered perfunctorily, since Bs—if they existed at all—had never shown up at any of her meetings. When I unhesitatingly raised my hand, she shouted, “OMG. We finally have a “B!”
It was my girlfriend who eventually convinced me to confront my demons and change my ways. “I love you exactly as you are,” she told me. “I just wish you’d simply be without having to call it something.” She got my attention, and I started to wonder what it would be like to go label-free. By coincidence—or due to the alignment of the stars—I attended a sexuality forum in Sedona weeks later during which a panel of previously gay-identified guys talked about the importance of ending sexual preference labeling. “Historically, labels have been important to our community for counting heads to show political strength. When we combined all categories of queer-identified people, our numbers were far greater than anyone had imagined. But with recent Supreme Court victories, labeling for political reasons is less necessary and at times counterproductive. Labels paint us into corners, suggesting we’re alike in dress, mannerisms, professions, and lifestyles. Why promote and prolong unhelpful stereotypes when each of us is more dissimilar than we are alike? The alternative is to celebrate who we are as unique individuals and simply love whomever we please.” I was convinced that somehow, they’d talked to my girlfriend.
Their comments made me recall my study of ancient tribes in which boys learned about sex in sex play with boys and girls learned about sex in sex play with girls. At the onset of puberty, boys and girls began having sex with each other to create new life, ensuring the viability of the tribe. But even afterward and for the rest of their lives, boys and girls continued to play sexually with their same-sex friends. Such behavior wasn’t labeled “gay,” “straight,” or “bi.” It was culturally sanctioned, approved, and expected. If they could be label-free, I wondered, why can’t we?
Another problem I have with sexual preference labels is how down-right bad most of them are. I reluctantly use the term “LGBTQA+” when necessary to communicate with the world at large, but I’d much prefer if I didn’t have to. Like a 1950s post-atomic monster that grows new appendages in every other scene, the LGBT alphabet keeps attaching letters as one sexually disenfranchised subgroup after another seeks its own political awareness, correctness, and power. If this continues, we should expect soon to be adding “I” for intersex, “S” for sex workers, “W” for swingers, and “P” for polyamorous. Try saying LGBTQAISWP+ fast 3 times. Why not simply “Queer” or “UGC” (United Gay Community) or “Us” if we really need a label for everyone involved?
Then there’s “they,” “them,” and “theirs,” causing kids raised in gender-neutral homes to sound like they’re referring simultaneously to themselves and their imaginary friends. Or worse, that they’re suffering from multiple personality disorders. Learning proper English is difficult enough. The last thing we should be doing is blurring singular and plural pronouns. Why is it so difficult to come up with a few new words? I’d much prefer eliminating altogether “he,” “she,” “his,” and “hers,” substituting instead new, singular, gender-free pronouns that refer to all of us.
I might be a recovering labeler, but I admit that dropping labels entirely is a near human impossibility. In fact, dropping some can bring on others. Now, when someone asks about my sexual preference, I offer up a new label: “Label-free!” Nothing’s more human than categorizing experience, and labeling merely names each of the categories. Dividing things into categories is useful in explaining ourselves to others and in getting a fix on who others are. Yet, while labels and categories help us define our world, they can also be traps that prescribe our behavior, co-opt our individuality, make our worlds smaller, and limit our freedom.
If I could do away with labels and still communicate clearly and compassionately, I would. One label, however, encompasses the entirety of my existence, defines me perfectly, and sets me free. It’s the label I use when I’m truly me and when I’m in the act of loving whomever I wish to love. I will continue to cherish “Craig” and keep it around forever.