Lesbians and labels: dealing with identity issues in the LGBTQ+ community

Lesbians and labels: dealing with identity issues in the LGBTQ+ community

Members of the LGBTQ+ community face a lot of issues – and identity is at the hub of them. Here’s how to rise above.

Identity is a common and important theme within the LGBTQ+ community. Depending on how you look at it, your identity can either provide you with a united front by which to make new comrades and develop a sense of belonging, or it can put you in a box. In other words, your identity has a lot of power, and it’s important to know how to deal with it.

Without the proper resources and support, many people can – and do – lose themselves on the quest to find their identities. The pressure that gets placed on them by society and their peers to “define who they are” by way of pronouns and labels can become so overwhelming that it’s not uncommon for many people to settle for identities that don’t fit them. Add to that the rejection and discrimination they face after finally coming to terms with and acknowledging their identities, and you’ve got the very circumstances that foster mental health issues and a sense of isolation, two widespread issues among LGBTQ+ people.

Dealing with mislabeling and misgendering

So what’s the solution? First of all, it’s important to address that assumptions are the problem. Geographical location and background aside, most of us live in a society where diversity is valued. But despite this norm, familiarity and complacency still feel safe. We think we’re being inclusive and open-minded, but we’re not acting that way.

For instance, we assume that people are straight. We infer this because most of the population is straight, but it’s an assumption nonetheless.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. But for the most part, we’re all guilty of making assumptions. We stereotype without realizing it. We gravitate toward what we know instead of allowing ourselves to grow and challenging our own engrained ways of thinking. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. As humans, it’s our nature to seek safety. It’s a form of protection – we want to avoid saying the wrong things for fear of offending; we want to avoid looking stupid and increase our odds of success.

But in doing so, we assume. We refer to strangers as “him” and “her” based on quick assessments of appearance. We expect that someone must like certain clothes or certain hairstyles or certain genders. We idealize based on what we’ve been taught rather than taking the time and making ourselves vulnerable enough to seek the truth. All of what we do and say is based on what we think we know. It’s what we presume to be a safe speculation. But these words – think, expect, presume, speculation… they’re not the solution. Education is.

Educating yourself and others

Ignorance is the lack of education. Schooling is one piece of the puzzle, but what’s much more crucial to overcoming the issues surrounding identity is experience and respectful inquisitiveness. In order to avoid mislabeling, asking questions is crucial. Step out of your comfort zone and open yourself up to what other people have to offer. Remove the guesswork and understand that no one can define someone else’s identity. If you find yourself in a position where it’s necessary to know someone’s pronoun, gender, sexuality or other such defining factor, ask them. If you can’t ask them, don’t assume. These assumptions lead to mislabeling which results in a host of additional problems that affect the self-esteem and mental well-being of those you wrongly identify – and that’s a burden you don’t want to carry.

Finding your identity

Everything discussed up to this point is imperative to preventing you from mistaking someone’s identity, and to prevent them from mistaking yours. But what if you aren’t sure of your own identity?

When you live in a society like the one described above, met by expectations and prejudice at every turn, it can be extremely difficult to recognize who you are. To gain a clear enough insight into your preferences, desires and values to slap a label on yourself can be impossible. Often, the way to overcome this is to accept it.

If you’re struggling to nail down your identity, it’s okay to accept that it isn’t within your reach. If defining yourself is an important step in your pursuit of happiness and self-acceptance, there’s no need to stop searching for that label or category. When and if you do find it, there’s a good chance it’ll come with a great deal of relief. But identifying yourself isn’t, by any stretch of the term, necessary. Contrary to what you might hold true, you don’t need to know who you are in order to be who you are. That’s the beauty of identity – it doesn’t need to be said or defined or acknowledged. It just is.

The problem with language

Not everyone fits under the terms and designations at our disposal. For many people, this is part of the difficulty that surrounds identity. All 7 billion of us are unique and we should be celebrating that, but instead we’re forced by language to squeeze ourselves into boxes.

Until 1892 when the term “bi-sexual” was coined, a person who was attracted to both men and women wouldn’t have had a way to define their sexuality. Breaking it down even further, if a lesbian possesses both butch and femme traits, she likely struggles to grasp and/or voice her identity. Aside from using these contradictory terms in conjunction (ie. I’m “butch” and “femme”), she has no way of expressing accurately who she is. This is problematic, and has the potential to result in an identity crisis brought on by imprecise terminology.

Again, the solution is acceptance. Short of creating new terms – which is always happening, though the process is slow – the way to finding one’s identity is through accepting that we’ll never have the language to unambiguously identify every individual on the planet. At the end of the day, if labels is what we want, boxes is what we’re going to get. But you can come and go from those boxes as you please, and that’s the way identity should be. It should foster community without marginalizing. It should liberate without smothering fluidity. It should create safety without creating oppression.

Accepting yourself

The world will always have haters. It will never be void of the ignorant or the discriminators, but you have the power to shut them out. Despite the unfitting labels and expectations being hurled at you, you are the only one who can decide who you are. If who you are hasn’t become clear to you, give yourself permission to be okay with that – and extend all those courtesies to the people around you. Together, we can make identity a non-issue.

Emily WatsonComment