My name is Julie (she/her/hers) and I’m an intern here at SHONA. Today, I’m going to share my story.
I was around 14 when I first began questioning my sexuality. Maybe this story sounds familiar: I’d grown up in a community that assumed people were straight and treated anyone different as weird at best and shameful at worst. Being called “gay” or “lesbian” was not only an insult but a dirty word that you didn’t want people to even hear you say. The tone changed slightly as I grew up and found new communities (like Tumblr), and that environment allowed me to start the process of questioning and exploring.
Like I said, a familiar story. So, I’m not going to talk about that process, other than to say that I have, after almost 7 years, found my own identity.
Instead, I’m going to focus on something that took turns helping and hindering my exploration: the label system.
You know, the vocab list of terms that introduce various sexualities and gender identities, like asexual, demisexual, cisgender, queer, etc. These lists are often used as a crash course, a way to deliver key terms used in the queer community to curious minds.
We need these lists. Without them, people looking to learn more (whether it is for their own identity exploration or to be an ally) have to learn by trial and error what terms are currently in use and what they mean (sometimes difficult when there is disagreement over what certain terms mean).
The lists can be misused, however, as with many sources of information. That’s what I’m going to talk about. How, in my personal experience, the lists (and terms themselves) were sometimes useful, sometimes not, and how you can make sure they are helpful. Hopefully, these tips and observations will help make your experience of finding your identity or being an ally easier.
Let’s talk about how the lists can be tricky:
- Overly restrictive: human sexuality is really complicated, and definitions are meant to simplify complex things so more people can understand them. This means that some people find labels to be too narrow for themselves like I did.
- “Queer-spotting”: these labels tend to arise from a list of specific behaviours, and this can lead some people to think that you can identify someone’s orientation without asking them by observing their behaviours. Your guess might not be right, though. I tried to queer-spot myself and ended up using a label that didn’t quite fit for years before I switched to something that felt right for me.
Now let’s talk about the benefits of the lists:
- Finding community: labels can help people find other people who identify like them by having one word to look for instead of a set of feelings. I can’t tell you how many quizzes and articles I read as I learned about and explored various labels that I only found because I had a word I could search for.
- Validating your own identity: knowing that there are other people out there and that there is a word to describe how you feel can help people accept that their feelings are valid. I’ve found some truly great stories from people who identify similarly to me and it has been an emotionally fulfilling experience every time.
- Expanding the nuance of identity: the more labels we have, the more flexible our understanding of sexuality can be. 12-year-old me thought the options were straight or gay, but by the time I was 14 I knew there were way more options, and now I see sexuality as a 3D blob of infinite possibilities.
- Social code: using labels in a positive way (like personality identifying with them, having signed on public spaces affirming that it is a safe space, or even stating your pronouns when you introduce yourself) can let other people know that you are a safe person to talk to and that you are either part of the queer community or are an ally.
Finally, here are some tips on using lists and labels:
- Never assume: let people identify the way they want to, and never assume what someone’s identity is; labelling should always happen with the person’s consent
- Respect what people say, even if it contradicts your own prior knowledge: some people have different understandings of the labels or their own orientation, so even if you understand a label differently than they do, use their label when talking to and about them. Some people, like me, don’t even like specific labels and prefer something general or even nothing at all.
- Understand that identities can change: my identity changed three or four times from when I was 14 to now, and I know I might change it again in the future as I learn more about myself. Someone changing their labels doesn’t mean they are making things up, or that sexuality is a choice, it just means that they are working to find a label and understanding that works for them.
- Vocab lists should be used to provide context: vocab lists can be really helpful in providing a short explanation of labels and an introduction into the queer community but shouldn’t be used for queer-spotting or assumptions.
Finally, for all the people out there who are trying to find their identity, know that while it may take some time, there are tons of awesome people who can support you throughout your exploration. I promise you aren’t alone.
If you would like more info on the amazing LGTBQ+ community, please visit Dublinpride.ie
alternatively, if you are looking for some support, please visit BELONGTO: Support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in Ireland.
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