We Need Labels, Because the Alternative is Disappearing

Periodically we’re subjected to yet another round of debate about whether we ‘really’ need labels, usually with members of dominant social classes insisting that such a thing isn’t necessary, and arguing that we need to ‘move beyond labels (man),’ ‘like, they’re totally blocking up our ability to build a true and just world.’ The same kind of attitude lies at the root of the so-called ‘colourblind’ approach to life, where people pretend as though acting like race isn’t a fact of life and doesn’t matter will magically erase centuries of complex intergenerational racism.

Here’s the thing about labels: without them, we run the risk of being effectively eaten by the default, quietly subsumed into the masses. Think of immune cells, cruising around the body, pausing to completely digest foreign proteins, the cell quietly closing in around its victim, and then, poof, gone. We are the foreign proteins, you see, the things that stand out in the body politic. We are the Other. We are the thing that must be named because we are unusual, and because if we have no name, we disappear.

People identify as queer, or gay, or lesbian, or asexual, or poly, or any number of other complex sexual orientations and sexualities and relationship orientations, because the norm is monogamy and heterosexuality. Unless someone explicitly labels otherwise, that person is going to be assumed to be part of that norm, which means that a crucial part of her identity is quietly erased. She must explicitly out herself, with a label, in order to assert her humanity and her place in the world.

For example, a bisexual woman in a relationship with a man must either allow people to erase her by assuming (and calling) her heterosexual…or she must repeatedly be outspoken about her bisexuality. She needs a label to describe her sexuality because she’s not conforming to the social norm, because her sexuality is different. If she doesn’t have that label, if that label is taken away from her, if people insist that labels aren’t needed to talk about sexuality because ‘we’re all human beings (man),’ then she becomes smaller. Lesser. She is invisiblised, simply because people don’t want to be confronted with the reality of her sexuality, and they don’t have to be if she has no label to identify with.

We need labels because we do not want to be overridden by the default. And that includes labels for the default, instead of allowing people to insist that they are the norm and thus don’t need a label. Hence all the brouhaha over ‘cis,’ a term used to describe people who have a gender consistent with that assigned to them at birth. It’s perfectly reasonable to label those people, distinguishing them from trans people, who have genders that differ from those assigned to them at birth. Both groups of people need to be identified.

To suggest that one does not is to imply that one group is default and also superior to the other; so unremarkable and so dominant that it doesn’t even need to be explicitly identified, because everyone is a member of that group until proved otherwise. Everyone is cis until proved otherwise. Everyone is white until proved otherwise. Everyone is straight until proved otherwise. Everyone is Christian until proved otherwise. Everyone is a member of a dominant social group, until proved otherwise, and self-identification is an important way of pushing back at this, in addition to questioning the idea of social dominance.

Are there statistically more cis people in the world than trans? Yes, most definitely, but that doesn’t mean one group of people is natural and the other unnatural, or that one group should be unremarkable while the other must be singled out. Both groups need labels because these labels are an important way of describing, both within the group, and by outsiders.

What people seem to miss in the anger over being labeled as, say, cis, is that choosing to self identify and rejecting a forcible label mean different things depending on context. Forcibly labeling people as something they are not is not acceptable; telling a lesbian woman she’s queer when she identifies as lesbian, for example, is not acceptable, and it denies her the right to define her own identity and the world around her. But cis people are cis, even though they’ve never been called upon to explicitly identify themselves before, just as white people are white, even if we’ve never been forced to stop and consider the fact that we carry a specific racial label, that we aren’t just ‘people,’ but people of a specific race.

Members of dominant groups appear to resent being labeled as members of such groups not on the grounds that they are being forcibly labeled with something that doesn’t apply to their identity, but on the grounds that they shouldn’t need to be labeled at all. Because we’re all human beings, man. You know, like, what I’m saying? This attitude leads to the pervasive idea that only ‘special’ people need labels, only deviants require them, only those who differ from the norm and the widely accepted and familiar dominant social group need to be identified, because everyone else knows who they are.

Labels, however, are important. Not just as tools of self-identification for those within marginalised groups who choose to use them, but also as tools of description and discussion for talking about members of dominant social groups. Without labels, it is very difficult to grapple with complex social concepts and structures of power and oppression, because such structures can’t even be accurately described if you can’t talk about the people involved in them.