A demisexual flag, a pansexual flag and a graysexual flag.
Design by Emily Schwartz.

As much as conservatives love to pooh-pooh the gender and sexual identities that come into awareness every so often, they sure seem to love coming up with new names for the LGBTQ+ community such as “skittles” or the “alphabet mafia.” Though made in bad faith, I find these labels to be emblematic of the fact that identities outside of the cisgender and heterosexual norm are increasingly recognized and understood. Others can mock it all they want, but this shift in how we understand identity has been a long time coming.

While the LGBTQ+ community has taken to ironically adopting the “alphabet mafia” name, more serious discussions have arisen over labels. That little plus tacked on at the end of the acronym encompasses a whole lot of identities, from specific microlabels to broader terms like “Queer,” all of which have come under recent fire.

“Queer,” which has been increasingly used as catch-all term to refer to the LGBTQ+ community, has undergone scrutiny for taking the place of words like “gay” or “lesbian.” In a New York Times Opinion column from last year, Pamela Paul writes that, in an effort to be more inclusive, terms like “queer” can “sometimes wind up making others feel excluded.”

The apprehension that comes with a word like “queer” is understandable. It’s a loaded term, not only in its current meaning but also in its history. For older members of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s a painful reminder of bullying and harassment. For others, it dilutes and ignores distinct identities in its all-inclusive nature — but is that not the point of the LGBTQ+ community in the first place?

Since the Stonewall Riots and the early days of queer activism, a whole new vocabulary has been developed and adopted in the Queer community. Now, people of any age have a variety of terms at their disposal to identify parts of themselves in ways both big and small. “Queer” acknowledges the teen just now discovering their identity, just as it acknowledges the 70-something-year-old lesbian who has known her sexuality since she was young. Perhaps most importantly, it acknowledges the integral role that trans women of Color played in furthering a movement that was often portrayed as being headed by white, cisgender gay men.

Paul’s analysis also lacks depth in terms of the political connotations to the term “queer.” For Paul’s lesbian and gay friends, it “wasn’t their choice” that “academic and institutional language” (and Gen Z, of course), thrust this term on the rest of the community. But, nowhere does she acknowledge “queer” as a political term used during and after the height of HIV/AIDS activism.

The adoption of “queer” was not some immediate change made by confused TikTok-addicted teens, but a slow and deliberate alteration to language made by queer activists. Communities change, as does language. The LGBTQ+ community has grown to include people who are bisexual, pansexual, asexual, intersex and so much more. Where “queer” was once a pejorative, it’s now a short and simple word with the power to bring together this whole rainbow of people who fall outside the established norm. 

Microlabels, or terminology used by a smaller group of people that fall under umbrella terms, have come under similar scrutiny that “queer” has faced. These are labels that can come in the form of identities such as demisexuality or graysexuality, which fall under the asexual umbrella, or something like pansexual or polysexual, which fall under bisexuality.

While catch-all terms like “queer” have come under fire for being too all-encompassing, microlabels face the criticism of being too specific. Both are equally valid, but the advent of various microlabels signifies, to some, an appropriation of queerness. Suddenly, everyone wants to be a special snowflake, which means creating new identities that don’t really mean anything or are “completely TMI.” The “alphabet mafia” grows, and the LGBTQ+ once again struggles to be taken seriously.

This criticism leveled against microlabels often focuses only on the surface level. A label is more often than not understood as a means of identifying oneself to others, and thus the practice itself is seen as a way of announcing oneself to the world at unwarranted length. Unfortunately, there’s rarely a discussion of the personal significance of microlabels, which is perhaps where they matter most. 

I don’t feel the need to get into which microlabels I identify myself with, because that’s not the point here. Asexuality as a label on its own never felt precise enough to describe me; after all, asexuality is an incredibly broad and varied experience. It was through online forums that I was able to find asexual microlabels and pages where others all commented thoughts similar to my own: I thought I was the only one! and I can’t believe there’s a word for this! 

The precise language inherent to microlabels inspires more precise discussions, which means empowering people with language to better understand themselves and providing them with connections to a community. Figuring out labels, or using them at all, is a very personal matter, and whether someone chooses to paint themselves with broad strokes or precise detail is up to their own discretion. From Queer to demi to pan and whatever else, the LGBTQ+ community is an accepting and inclusive space for people to be comfortable in discovering, accepting and celebrating themselves.

Audra M. Woehle is an Opinion Columnist who writes about gender and sexuality in popular culture. She can be reached at awoehle@umich.edu.