First Person

Are labels boxes that trap us or tools to set us free?

Jacob Gelman

Discovering my sexuality was not an awakening per say, because I had never identified with being straight in the first place. It was instead an addition. It was an identity added to the list of things I call myself. It served as a line of demarcation by which I could now describe my attractions (or perversions depending on who you ask). To me, ascribing the label gay was similar to the labels Jewish or white; they describe certain characteristics about me.

But one month after coming out, my father sat next to me on the beach and began asking questions. Questions most queer people eventually get. Questions like how I
knew or why I told everyone or if it was a phase.

But one question stuck with me: “Why put yourself in a box?”

“Why not just date who you date,” he continued, “sleep with who you sleep with, and live a life undefined by the cardboard faces of a box you built for yourself?”

I had to ask myself: what are boxes?

Boxes are tools to define ourselves, often built on stereotypical associations to make the act of connecting easier. Boxes can be very useful. When someone describes themself as a jock, it can be inferred that they are interested in physical activity. Boxes can also be claustrophobic. If someone is a churchie, they may avoid activities dictated to be abnormal for their box; no matter how desirable. Boxes can be oppressive. Boxes can be ticky. Boxes can be tacky. Boxes dictate normality.

So, why do I choose to call myself gay? Is it because I exclusively like men? What happens when the concept of man itself is a fallacy? Is it because I am attracted to masculinity?

And what happens when the concept of masculinity itself is a fallacy? What then?

I choose to associate myself with that label not out of a recognition of its validity, but its necessity. The word has one major value: it makes me a part of a community.

Are you gay? Translation: can I trust you?

Queer people in America are hurting. Hurting from institutions and societal arrangements that dictate their humanity as an abnormality instead of a different way of being. They use these words as tools of community association to integrate themselves into queer spaces deemed safe.

But If being gay means I only like men, but I find myself attracted to a nonbinary person, am I excluding their experience as a nonbinary person? How do I use these labels as a tool for community healing, and not one for the propagation of systems that exclude people?

Firstly, it is important to recognize a difference between labeling and identifying. The reason being gay should be seen as an identity instead of a label is because of the option for
fluidity it allows. If I label myself as gay, I am saying I am that label. In essence, I would trap myself in the cardboard walls of a box I built. In identifying instead, I say that I currently feel closest to that label.

The second step becomes not only accepting the abstract nature of these labels, but actively working for liberation. What does this look like? It means that we as a community of queer people work towards political equality. It means advocating for workplace protections, banning conversion therapy, and extending the civil rights amendment to everyone. It means accepting the fact that homophobia is rooted in patriarchy, and that there is intersectionality between race and gender/sexuality. It means calling out people associated with hateful religious ideologies. It means valuing our own lives above the economy in the voting booth.

The main thing is remembering how language is a living form that is fundamentally abstract. It is a progression that changes as time does also. The use of labels defining sexuality reflects living during a time in which those very labels still hold value. Liberation comes by using these words in conjunction with laughter at the inherently absurd nature of their very existence. By recognizing these words as abstract, it becomes possible to evaluate their very lack of concrete existence in the real world and accept them as an identity instead of a label. By identifying, we break down the walls holding us in and walk out to see the freedom we yearn for.