With the release of his newest album and a stark gender-bending fashion sense, musician Harry Styles became the latest victim of intense questioning and pressure to label “what” he was. We frequently see this labeling game take place when a gay, lesbian or bisexual person marks their “coming out.” But what does a formal statement translate to when it comes to everyday interactions with LGBTQ+ individuals? It seems to be a way for people to compare that person to a stereotype they already have formed in their heads for their own comfort and understanding. The labels we rely on to describe members of the LGBTQ+ community serve to limit them and reflect our need to stick to what we already understand, rather than challenging our preconceived notions of sexual identity and gender expression.
Many of the labels slapped on members of the community dictate the way others perceive a person, rather than relying on personal connections formed. Referring to your friends as your “gay best friend” or “trans friend” limits them and often puts them in an uncomfortable or vulnerable position before they even have a chance to speak. In addition, it reflects a need for straight individuals to prove something of themselves as if having a gay friend is an accessory to wear. With these labels branded on the community’s forehead, individuals feel as though they’re filling a role and satisfying someone’s stereotype of how members of the LGBTQ+ community are supposed to be presenting themselves. This pressure to satisfy stereotypes and be understood is reflected across popular culture.
Recently, Styles was interviewed by The Guardian, where he was pushed to define his sexuality after they accused him of pandering to the LGBTQ+ community. To the question of sexuality, he responded, “Who cares?” The theories spread across social media and the influx of articles pinpointing his sexuality based on clues reflect society’s need to label and place individuals into palatable and comfortable boxes. Styles went on to add that he dresses “not because it makes me look gay, or it makes me look straight or it makes me look bisexual,” but rather without labeled boundaries of feminine or masculine. His general indifference to the question and desire for ambiguity in his identity are reflective of the approach society should strive for.
The societal desire to label someone or something as “gay” or “lesbian” emulates a sense of power over the community by deciding what their identity says about them and how they are to be viewed within the confines of a stereotype. Furthermore, the boxes individuals are placed in allows for society’s perception of that identity to confine someone and steer them towards traditional paths or be deterred from activities, based on the way they’ll be perceived. These labels historically carry negative connotations and can be oppressive, thus leading to a second-class status for the community. Straight people already understand the malice in these labels when they are offended by someone who mistakenly refers to them as LGBTQ+, as seen with Shawn Mendes’ case of feeling pressured to prove that he’s not gay.
“Coming out” is a held practice in which those in the LGBTQ+ community publically define themselves in an effort to distinguish themselves and begin the cycle of labeling. The process ostracizes those who hold these identities because straight individuals feel no pressure to announce their sexuality to others, rather it is presumed. By “coming out” we seemingly make the process of labeling and understanding easier for straight individuals who otherwise would not have known what to refer to us as.
This societal desire to label becomes even more complicated for those who fit multiple categories or fall into a gray area, such as those who are bisexual or pansexual. With less available stereotypes and a need to pin a person down, the idea of “percentages” arises, which is a common practice of determining how gay or straight a bisexual or pansexual person is based on what gender they prefer more or less. With this confinement of sexual expression, people often perpetuate bisexual erasure by limiting their sexuality to a category more comfortable to them instead of embracing their fluidity and actual orientation.
Bisexual erasure and the need for labeling are not limited to the straight community, rather it is perpetuated through the LGBTQ+ community by an added pressure of categorizing yourself within your overarching label. This is especially prevalent in the dating scene as many LGBTQ+-identifying individuals present themselves in “tribes” and express their preferred label, leading to hierarchies and perpetuating the toxic behavior exhibited by oppressors.
The systemic desire to label and limit others reflects society’s discomfort with the LGBTQ+ community because it demonstrates the need for us to fit a stereotype to be understood. This practice of labeling stretches from simple “coming outs” to chart-topping musicians when someone strays from society’s expectation of expression. Instead of using labels for individuals, rely instead on similarities, passions and connections to humanize a person rather than belittling them to a comfortable stereotype. Assigning labels to members of the community perpetuates the less-than-understanding that comes along with stereotypes and limits rather than liberates.
Owen Stecco can be reached at email@example.com.