Navigating the Land of LGBTQ Labels
Defining who you are has never been so easy and, equally, so difficult
BY ROBYN ROHDE
Kari Barnick never had a traditional coming-out story. Originally from a small town, the Minnesota State University Moorhead student secretly explored her same-sex attraction in high school and, during her college years, announced her commitment to another woman by bringing her girlfriend home for the weekend.
It took more than a year for Barnick’s conservative parents to accept her sexual orientation, a year in which she says fear and confusion reigned supreme. Eventually, the family settled on an uneasy truce based on tolerance. However, the experience has fueled Barnick to advocate for other people developing sexual or gender identity as MSUM’s Spectrum president, a social club to help support students in the LGBTQ community.
“By the way, we are just normal people, who have different preferences than you,” Barnick said. “If you see me on the street holding my girlfriend’s hand, don’t come and shank me. Really, that is the basics of what I ask of people.”
Recently Time Magazine reported that according to a Gallup Poll, nearly 10 million Americans identify as LGBT, which translates to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. The self-identification findings show an increase of 1.75 million people since 2012.
The difficulty in quantifying those numbers comes in the expanse of much more broad group of people than those who identify within the four poster labels. With acronyms such as LGBTQQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, intersex, asexual, etc.) one can find sexual orientation lingo as confusing as ever. It almost seems more letters and more terms get attached to the + and fall under the umbrella of queer every day.
For the first half of the 20th century, queer was used mostly as a derogatory term to describe someone outside of traditional male and female relationships. However, in recent years there has been a campaign to take back the powerful word and use it as an all-inclusive term of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression concisely.
There are a lot of words for essentially the same identity, but subtle nuances and interpretations can make them all different. These slight differences can be very significant for some people. Some people might choose to identify with all of them and use the labels interchangeably.
On the flip side, some people choose to defy any and all labels and instead disregard the limitations of the label system.
CONNECTION MATTERS MORE THAN WORDS
Barnick identifies with the term pansexual. “I usually like to describe it as, ‘it’s about a vibe I get with someone and not about gender at all,’ ” she said. “It’s just about how I connect with someone. That is the first thing that catches my attention and then from there it’s like ‘oh,’ they are X, Y, Z.”
Most members of the LGBTQ community agree it’s a process to get to the label they now identify with. Barnick started as bisexual, then in college questioned if she was actually a lesbian. Once the term pansexual came into her life, she finally felt a sense of peace with her identity “because I know what’s happening and other people are feeling the same way.”
There is also confusion even within the community when similar words have similar meanings, such as pansexual and omnisexual.
“I get it’s a lot and the acronym is already long, but I think it’s important that if people want a label that they have it and have a plethora of them to choose from because everybody’s sexuality is different,” Barnick said. “Everyone is going to express it in different ways. Sometimes having multiple definitions helps get to that point at least.”
DECLASSIFYING THE FUZZY RAINBOW
The topic of LGBTQ labels came up at the Rainbow Prom event held at the Pride Collective and Community Center, on First Avenue South in Fargo. Maggie Larson says she goes by the label gay woman because she feels it is less intense than saying lesbian.
“As a gay woman, to me, it just means liking women and people who are woman-aligned,” she said. “As a whole, I like labels. I like knowing I fit into a category.”
For most of Larson’s formative years she assumed she was straight, until her late teens when she realized she just didn’t want to date men. “It was a learning experience and being in an actual relationship with a woman was very helpful,” she added.
Larson credits several of her friends in the LGBTQ community for helping her find her place. Now she emulates their example by being an advocate on the Concordia College campus, where recent statistics stated 20 percent of the students say they don’t follow traditional heteronormative designations. In response to the growing number of students in that category, Concordia even launched a gender-inclusive floor in one of the dorms.
Another Concordia student, Erik Anderson identifies as a gay transsexual man, although he clarified that he responds more as a gay man at this point because he said his physical transformation is complete.
“I think I’m still working through some transphobia internally but it’s something I like people to know and it’s something that is important to who I am,” he said. “It’s not the only thing about me though.”
LABELS CAN BE TRANSITIONAL – BUT NOT ALWAYS
In the LGBTQ community, a subset of people argue bisexuality is a transition label for a person exploring his or her sexuality, but bisexual NDSU student Patrick Pochant doesn’t agree.
“There are still some women I am (attracted to) but it’s such a skewed percentage for me that it’s easiest just to call myself gay as opposed to going through it every time the topic comes up,” he said.
Pochant views labels as a password to the rest of the community, who use the word to define themselves.
“I know some people would say they don’t like labels because they find them too restricting or (don’t) completely fit them,” Pochant said, “but for me I think they are helpful to explain the world around us and be able to relate to other people.”
WHERE THE PLUS COMES IN
Sexuality and gender are complicated, and there are more variations than there are shades in the rainbow. Zoe Garrison jokingly uses the label “nesting doll,” meaning no matter how many labels a person uses there is not one encompassing word good enough. Generally, the Concordia student identifies as bisexual but the gender category is unclear.
“I use the trans label, I use the non-binary label, I use the gender fluid label, I use a-gender as an umbrella term, I gender flux between a-gender and demigirl … that’s a lot of labels,” Garrison said.
Demigirl can be used to describe someone assigned female at birth who feels barely connected or disconnected to that identification, but does not experience a significant enough dissociation to create real physical discomfort.
“If you are navigating the world without a language for yourself, then there is very little room for self-reflection,” Garrison said. “When you have the ability to see yourself that gives you the opportunity to know that you exist. It’s almost like providing myself a mirror through which I can notice I have a reflection. I’m not ‘other,’ I’m not some sort of wacky vampire that doesn’t actually have an image in the physical realm.”
Depending on the situation, Garrison doesn’t always use trans labels simply due to personal safety. In those instances, bisexual is more accepted by the general populous.
“I don’t want to do any disservice to the label but it almost comforts people a bit more because it reassures people that I am not this scary, amorphous vocabulary lesson that some people assume I am,” Garrison said. “It’s a matter of gauging the audience and a majority of the time I keep my identity more private.”
ASE DOESN’T TRANSLATE TO BROKEN
LGBTQ labels don’t just cover with whom a person is attracted to but also who they are not. Kat Schwartz identifies as an asexual and aromantic woman, meaning she doesn’t experience romantic attraction. Personally, she plans to never seek out a romantic or sexual partnership.
“When I look at my future it’s not going to be in the same type of romantic marriage as most other people choose,” she explained. “I plan to eventually get married but basically just so that I will have an easier time adopting kids with a friend.”
In a hyper-sexualized society, where a person’s value is at times determined by who they are with, Schwartz’s label often leaves her on the outside looking in.
“The fact that I don’t experience romance or sex really affects how I interact with the world,” she said. “My labels allow me to realize I’m not broken and that there are other people who experience the same things as me.”
Despite her feelings of being ostracized at times, Schwartz said the community is extremely important to her and she actively defends other people’s rights to search for a romantic and/or sexual partner, even though she feels no personal desire to do so.
“I consider myself part of the LGBT+ community to a large extent because it is a place where people can understand heteronormativity,” Schwartz said. “I think the LGBT+ community is about collecting a group of people that have wildly different experiences that are all negatively impacted by heteronormativity. Sometimes it can be hurtful, especially recently, because there has been a lot of discourse online about whether ase and aro people belong in the community at all.”
OPENING THE DOOR TO SELF-DISCOVERY
And yes, straight allies are included in the LGBT+ acronym, such as Andrea Wagner, graduate assistant for the Office of Gender and Sexual Diversity at NDSU. Wagner identifies as straight but admits she finds some females attractive. Wagner added that is not to say that she would ever physically be with a woman as she is in a committed heterosexual relationship with a male, so she feels like the label doesn’t fully encompass her situation.
Wagner explained her connection to labels through a story of a friend. During undergrad, the female roommates both identified as straight women seeking dates with men. After college, her friend began identifying as possibly bisexual.
“The last time I talked to her a couple weeks ago she said she decided to identify as queer because it sounds better than questioning. She said she knows she’s something other than straight so she chooses queer,” Wagner said.
Learning about the dynamics of sexual identity and developing an appreciation of the differences and diversity in that field will help to deepen understanding of others, to change attitudes and, eventually, to make life better for people of all sexual preferences.