As humans, we label everything. We have this pesky need to categorize ourselves and others — it helps us make sense of the world and our place in it.
We use labels to denote our place in our families, like a mother or a son. We use them to share our occupations or professions. Labels help us indicate our cultural backgrounds and ethnicities.
But for those who fall outside of the heteronormative, cisgender demographic, labels pertaining to sexuality and gender can be tricky — they can be as helpful as they are harmful.
Global News spoke with several people across Canada who identify as belonging to the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community to discuss how labels help them feel empowered and give them a sense of belonging. We also uncovered how those same labels can make people feel boxed into an identity that feels restrictive and problematic.
When labels are helpful
For Matt Packman, 40, being able to pick a label when he first came out to family and friends two decades ago was helpful.
“It was easier to initially come out as gay,” he says, acknowledging that the way he identifies has shifted over time, and he now leans toward identifying as pansexual.
However, he notes, when he first came out, the vocabulary was much more limited; people within the queer community identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual because discourse at the time was mostly restricted to those domains.
“Now, within the queer community, we have so many more labels to choose from, and those labels are increasingly becoming more familiar to those outside the community, too, so there’s progress happening.”
Paige Mpeletzikas, 23, says that for a lot of young people, having a list of labels to select from is helpful when first exploring how they fit into the queer community.
“The labels can be really formative when you’re younger and trying to find something that hits right,” she said, adding that she never really had a “coming out” moment, but, rather, was able to explore her identity within a safe circle of other friends who also identified as queer.
Mpeletzikas likens the 2SLGBTQQIA+ acronym to a life raft for those who are first exploring their identity within the queer community.
“When you’re lost in this sea of heteronormativity, finding that life raft, something to cling to that’s going to help pull you through this, I think it’s so powerful to have these things in place,” she explained, adding that a lot of young people struggling to place their gender identity and sexual preference first come across the bevy of labels in online communities.
The increasing definitions added to the sexuality and gender acronym can help many people narrow down what might otherwise be confusing feelings about who they are, says Mpeletzikas, both in recognizing how they would like to be labelled and, perhaps more importantly, she says, how they don’t identify.
When labels are harmful
On the other hand, that growing list of labels can often result in people in the queer community feeling pigeonholed into a certain identity, or feeling as though they have to adhere to a certain set of “rules” in order to fit in with their peers.
For K Kealey, who identifies as trans and non-binary and has been taking testosterone hormone therapy over the past year, the “trans” label is extremely important to them, as it’s a word that offers an instant camaraderie and understanding with other trans people.
That same label, however, can also come with its fair share of identity politics.
“People expect trans people to be a certain way or look or act a certain way, but there’s all kinds of ways to be trans. Just like there’s all kinds of ways to be a lesbian or gay or straight,” they said.
Packman agrees with that sentiment, and adds that there’s often policing of queer communities, as people from both inside and outside the community expect people who identify under a specific label to act or look a certain way.
“I do see a lot of gay men placing this value on their gayness by bragging that they’ve never had sex with a woman,” he said.
“At times, it feels like to be strictly gay you have to reject femininity and women, in general,” he said, adding that there have been times where he’s felt like an outsider in the gay community for embracing his femininity.
Mpeletzikas notes that labels can be restrictive, especially considering one’s sexuality and preferences can change multiple times over the course of their lives.
She recalls a friend from a small town who had to fight very hard to be accepted as a lesbian by her friends and family. When she eventually moved to Toronto, she found herself attracted to a man and became worried about reclaiming her identity as bisexual.
“She was afraid that she would go home and those who had criticized her (when she first came out) would have ammunition to do it again. She was worried that people wouldn’t believe her or would invalidate her identity, because she was still figuring out who she was.”
Labels can change
The three people Global spoke with for this story all agreed that while a label can be important to varying degrees, labels are not static and people’s sexuality and gender identity can and do change.
In fact, each of them identifies differently than they did several years ago.
Both Kealey and Packman said downtime imposed by the pandemic gave them more time to consider who they are and they both used the luxury of deep introspection to examine how they identify.
“For the first time in so long I was able to sit with myself and really discover some things about myself that I hadn’t had much time to think about,” said Kealey, adding that both self-reflection and ongoing conversations with their partner helped them realize they were trans.
For Packman, it was conversations with his husband that lead to the realization that perhaps a pansexual label was more fitting — although he notes that being married may not offer many opportunities to explore this side of his sexuality.
“I mean, sexuality and exploration of sexuality can be so circumstantial. Sometimes you won’t know what you like until you get to try it, but maybe you’re never presented with that opportunity. Sometimes it’s all about how the stars align.”
From the outside looking in
As important or unimportant labels can be for people inside the community, the expanding queer acronym plays an important role for people outside the queer community, says Mpeletzikas.
“I do think that the acronym and the words behind them are the foundation for initial acceptance and tolerance from outside the community,” she said. “You have to teach people how to use the language and the meanings behind it before they can use it.”
In her experience, she says the acronym is especially helpful for older generations, who didn’t grow up with the levels of queer tolerance and acceptance that are seen today.
She also notes that the acronym lends legitimacy to the queer community, as it’s becoming more prominent in books, online and within pop culture.
“It’s hard to deny our existence or refute that the labels are real, when they’re being discussed on television or showing up in academic papers.”
Kealey agrees, saying the acronym is a great visual reminder that the queer community is diverse and that there are many ways to define gender and sexuality.
“It’s definitely a walk-before-you-run tool. For straight or cisgender people to have a lexicon available to them in the form of the acronym gives them this really handy way to learn more about each of the letters and to introduce themselves to these concepts,” they said.
As a founder of Canmore Pride in Southern Alberta, Kealey says they will be calling on the acronym as one way to help educate and introduce concepts of queer identity and community.
“To be able to go through all those individual letters and really break it down and be able to research each one is invaluable.”
Packman agrees, likening the acronym to a kind of Coles Notes, a mini-course on everything that “lies outside the status quo.”
That same helpful acronym, interestingly, can be a “huge wall” to others, he says, adding that it doesn’t help when comedians like Dave Chappelle use terms like “alphabet people” to dismiss, ridicule and disparage those within the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community.
“For those who are closed off or unaccepting of the queer community, that string of letters has becoming something of a punchline. They get defensive when presented with it, because they feel like they’re being scolded for not knowing all the letters.”
He says that some people within the queer community mock the acronym, too, because they “don’t feel as though it applies to them or they don’t have the perspective of what it offers.”
Will society outgrow the 2SLGBTQQIA+ acronym?
Mpeletzikas argues that as it becomes increasingly understood that gender and sexuality are fluid, there might come a day when society can rid itself of the acronym altogether, replacing it with an all-encompassing word or phrase.
However, she says, “right now we’re still too close to the time that we fought for the acronym and the inclusion of a wide range of letters in the acronym.”
For now, Mpeletzikas, Kealey and Packman all say that “queer” is an acceptable umbrella term, as it reflects a wide range of identities and lived experiences — so long as it’s not used as the slur it once was.
“As long as you’re not angrily shouting ‘queer’ at people from a moving vehicle, I would love it if more people embraced that term,” said Packman.
In the month of June, Global News is exploring deeper issues related to the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community in our series, Inside Pride, which looks at the importance of the acronym and the labels it represents.