Since a very young age, Shippensburg University student Rachael knew she was not straight. She was not strictly attracted to females either. Bisexual did not quite fit because it limited her to a binary gender system. She felt those of the “other” gender such as transgender, gender fluid and androgynous people needed to be included as well.
This year’s National Day of Silence brings attention to various issues in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) community, including whether labeling sexual orientations is harmful or beneficial. The National Day of Silence involves students taking a vow of silence to show the harmful effects of anti-LGBT bullying, according to www.dayofsilence.org.
The traditional acronym for the queer community, LGBT, has grown as more labels crop up to better describe and define sexual orientations that are unique to the individual.
Sometimes the words questioning, intersex and asexual are included, changing the acronym to LGBTQIA.
There is sapiosexual, which is attraction to intelligence, and lithsexual, which means not wanting or needing feelings of attraction to be reciprocated. The additional inclusion of recent labels that still receive word check’s squiggly red line status, such as androsexual, gynesexual, skoliosexual, demisexual and polysexual, would create a lengthy LGBTQIASLAGSDP.
Different schools of thought reside within the LGBT community itself when it comes to labeling sexual orientations. There exists the belief that labels cram people into boxes, while it is also argued that labels can initiate understanding.
During Rachael’s teenage years she searched for the perfect word to describe her gender blindness and discovered pansexual. It clicked.
“I don’t think anyone’s physical makeup has any impact on my ability/possibility of developing romantic feelings for them,” she said.
“I think it [the pansexual movement] is the same as the early version of bisexuality — a world without any kind of categories whether it’s labels or identity categories like gay, lesbian and bisexual,” said William Harris, SU English professor who teaches queer theory.
American literary critic Eve Sedgwick discussed the possibility of labels limiting people’s thinking in her prominent book “Epistemology of the Closet.”
“She talks about, in one point in the book, that sexuality obviously goes beyond,” Harris said. “I mean there are all kinds of categories and dimensions to sexualities than just the gender of one’s choice.”
The heterosexual/homosexual binary split of sexual orientation can be destructive in the sense that gender is only one factor in attraction among many, according to Sedgwick.
“I think that labels can actually be harmful,” Rachael said, “Because in much the same way that we ask a bunch of 17-year-old Americans to decide what career they’re going to go into for the rest of their lives, I feel like that’s kind of like what labeling can do in regards to sexuality.”
Harris appreciates the idea of identity categories being unable to capture a person in his or her entirety, but he believes they are necessary for social and political reasons.
“What would it be like to navigate a world where there are not any kind of marks that you can navigate social space with?” Harris said. “How do you affiliate with people? It would be something like Facebook without pages or groups. How do you form alliances especially if there’s history of discrimination?”
Labels are also needed to place people in what the Supreme Court calls a suspect class, Harris said. Suspect class means groups of people who have had a history of discrimination defined by race, religion or country of origin.
“Its hard to argue for equal rights, for example same sex marriage, if in the same breath you say, well you know there’s not really anything such as straight or gay,” Harris said. “It’s like, well, then what are you arguing?”
Sexual orientation has not yet been officially considered a suspect class. If it does, then cases regarding people in the LGBT community would be held under what is considered strict scrutiny. This would make it much harder to discriminate.
“This is how the game is played,” Harris said. “This is how we fight for rights. This is how we bond socially. This is how social justice movements work.”
As more labels pop up, debate will continue on whether they should exist, but both Rachael and Harris agree that a label cannot replace the many complex facets of any one person.
“You can’t just compartmentalize everything,” Rachael said. “I think in a way that’s part of how I realized I would identify myself as pansexual, because I don’t need a box. I just want to spend time with people who make me happy.”
The name of the student in this article has been changed to prevent discrimination.