Labels are a thing. And the number and specificity of labels is constantly increasing and changing. I’ve written lots about my thoughts on gender and some about being gay but not so much about the labels that we give ourselves.
Inside my idealistic head, we will one day live in a world without labels. I have said before that everyone should be able to be who they are and love who they love without having to define what that means because of their anatomy, their appearance, or their society’s expectations. But, that isn’t realistic for the world that we live in so let’s talk about labels anyway.
First of all, I am not an expert. I am just a person, a person with positive intentions and some amount of knowledge and opinions.
I am involved in a project at my job to make some changes on how we label individuals coming into our system. There is evidence to support that individuals of certain gender identities and/or sexual orientations are at higher risk in the system. Therefore, we are required to identify those individuals and take it into consideration. We are audited on a yearly basis and must provide a list to the auditor of individuals that have been labeled or have labeled themselves as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and/or Gender non-conforming.” We have spent (so far) upwards of seven hours (per person) discussing how we will ask individuals questions that will cover these labels. Seven hours!
Obviously, labels have value in our society. It is important, for example, in this case for us to label people in order to protect them. BUT, labels are also complicating factors and can be limiting.
The first step was to evaluate what we currently ask individuals. Basically, we give the following options for gender:
- Transgender Male
- Transgender Female
Currently, there is not an “Other” (i.e. non-binary, non-conforming, genderqueer, etc.) and we are not asking about sexual orientation at all. So, initially the group wanted to opt for “something easy” and one question. Something like… “Do you identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community?” But there are some problems with this. For one, we are already asking questions about gender and preferences around name, pronoun, etc. so it doesn’t make sense to ask this question after that. There were a number of other issues with this question including the fact that we would not be able to give our auditor the list of people that they need.
From there we decided to break out the gender questions from the sexual orientation questions. Since we are already asking gender (excluding the “other” option), we decided to just add an “other” option. What? That seemed easy. Except that this really took several hours in real life. Then came the sexual orientation. Do we just ask “Are you lesbian, gay, or bisexual?” Spoiler alert, nope. Five hours later (and after calling in additional people to discuss), we settled on a list of labels including but not limited to heterosexual/straight (the group of straight people left that one out during the first draft) and “other” as a catch all.
I was fascinated by this process, not only by how little my cis-gendered straight co-workers knew about labels and gender identity and sexual orientation, but also by the fact that we were trying to strike the perfect balance when it comes to labeling people. We also had to take into consideration the individual’s privacy, the limitations of our IT systems (though we will be making changes to fit the change we made), and the blooming world of labels.
Basically, my message today is this… Labels serve a purpose in our society, they are a band-aid to some of the negative symptoms like prejudice and discrimination. They can be empowering in figuring out your identity. But, they are also limiting. Not just to us individually, but to our society and our future.