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I know there are a lot of labels out there for LGBT people. How do I avoid mislabeling someone?
Well, there are many places to start with labeling in the LGBT community. Identities here are often not black and white, but instead can be found in the grey space in between. Sexual and gender identity is different for each and every person. Labeling isn’t as vital, because how one presents themselves or their sexual history does not define their identity — people are how they define themselves.
To start off, we should break down LGBT itself. This name came from activists in the ’90s who were trying to unite the community under one name. It started out as LGB, and the T was added on later to include the trans communities.
In truth, the acronym does not stop at trans — the full-length version, as far as I am aware, is LGBTQQISGLAA, which looks like alphabet soup. It’s not important to know each and every group within the acronym, but it is good to know broad spectrum categories. The first four letters are the well known identities: lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans. The others are less familiar: queer, questioning, intersex, same gender loving, asexual and ally. There’s debate as to whether some of these should be in the acronym or not.
A majority of these newer additions have come about through promotion from the individual communities who identify as such. They slowly gain traction through word of mouth until they are well enough known to get added on. These more niche identities arise from the previously undefined spaces between L, G, B and T.
Identities can be broken down further. Bisexual can be dissected into pansexual (someone who doesn’t care what is in someone’s pants), omnisexual (similar to pansexual, but more broad) and many more. Trans can be transgender (gender in your head does not match your body) or transexual (someone whose gender doesn’t match their body and tries to change their body to more match their mind); there are more within this umbrella, too.
The most important thing to know is that sexuality and gender exist on a spectrum, and sometimes labels can only go so far. Here, the identity of queer comes in handy, at least for me.
This is where labels can be misconstrued as offensive. While many people regard “queer” as a bad word, it is being reclaimed as a positive one. This, along with other words in the LGBT acronym, can be seen as offensive, but it depends on the tone with which the word is said. Childhood games like “smear the queer” or phrases like “that’s so gay” often make people — especially us in the LGBT community — feel that their identities are bad and should be kept out of sight. Saying “gay” or “queer” offensively also leads people outside of the community to think that saying these words to people who identify as such is hurtful.
Yet, generally speaking, it’s not! Some people may have had bad experiences as kids with these words, but not everyone finds getting called gay, lesbian or queer a bad thing.
Many people, including myself, choose to use the word “queer” because it allows fluidity in what our sexuality and gender is. It labels the grey spaces between rigid identities without forcing people to choose what they are.
In truth, I say I’m gay most often. Going into detail loses people in the conversation, and I don’t see a need to make things more complicated. Labels are great for some people, but they can also confine people to little boxes with hard definitions.
Because we need labels in our society for personal identification, this idea comes off as foreign and difficult to grasp. Ambiguity is sometimes a helpful place to exist in, because it allows you to be free in what you like to do.
There’s also difference between sexual identity and what a person actually does sexually, so it is important to not assume how a person identifies based on their history. This applies to the homo and heteroflexible people out there. Your sexcapades don’t necessarily define your sexuality.
The bottom line of all of this is — when in doubt, ask. People will be happy to know that you want to talk to and address them properly.