Teaching The Difference

Creating Engagement Around Bisexuality

Caution: May Contain Bisexual

Sometimes when I give a talk or workshop about bisexuality, but especially when I’m a part of a panel discussion, someone will ask “But why do we need labels? Wouldn’t it be better if we just stopped putting people in boxes?”


Often this question is asked by someone who isn’t bisexual, but I have heard bi people suggest this too.


The old t-shirt slogan was “label jars not people” and I have some agreement with that. But actually I see the strength of labels.


Being in a minority, especially one as erased as bisexuality, can be very very lonely. When I first started to come to terms with my bisexuality I knew no bisexual people, saw no bisexual role models on television, had no idea there was a bisexual community out there. But I did know what to look for, because the dictionary had given me a word to use – bisexual.


I ‘labelled myself’ as bisexual. I used the label like the key on a map, to find directions. Like a signpost.


We don’t think of some things as labels. If I tell you I’m Marcus and that I’m male – am I labelling myself or identifying myself? Perhaps we think of the LGBT terms as labels because jars don’t label themselves. “Label jars not people” sounds different to “Label jars not yourself”.


And a warning label is something we add to alert people of dangerous contents. Caution – may contain Bisexuals. We “suspect” someone is bi or gay – because anything away from the norm is an “allegation”.


Am I labelled bisexual, or do I identify as bisexual, or do I call myself bisexual, or am I bisexual? The other thing about labels is that they’re superficial – the tag that’s not a functional part of the shirt or the paper stuck to the jar. Being bisexual isn’t an incidental part of my construction, it’s integral.


The other thing about labelling is that it’s vital for analysis. If we did away with all labels then the crime report would be “a person assaulted a person” and the clinic report would be “200 people attended in March” – no way to see how well a segment of the community is being catered too or discriminated against. No way to see where we need to improve.


I think we should stop insisting that people obey box-walls. I think we shouldn’t force labels on each other. But just as we don’t say “who currently identifies as straight” I think we need to stop using the word ‘label’ to relegate such an important part of many people’s lives down to just a tag sewn on as a warning to others.


What do you think?

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