Labels; Not Just For Soup Cans

By Michelle Clevett

Note: I have been sick for the past week, so I apologize for the quality of my voice. 

I can’t pinpoint the first time I heard the acronym LGBT, or the first time I learned of the queer community, but I do remember the first time I learned that there was a separation within our society.

I was about twelve or thirteen, and it was during the holidays. With all of my relatives visiting our house, the scene was as typical as ever. My younger cousins shrieking with laughter as they chased each other around the kitchen, the slightly slurred speech of the intoxicated adults, and my two cats nowhere in sight, hidden away presumably somewhere upstairs for fear of the ruckus downstairs.

And, of course, with the whole family together, the stories were inevitable. This time, they were talking about my uncle, and his first wife. Though they were laughing, it was almost with a remorseful tone that they spoke of the driving factor for their divorce. His first wife was a lesbian.

The news was only shocking to me because I had never even known my uncle had a first wife, but at some point in the conversation, I heard the phrase “her kind” thrown around, and that was the first time I realized that there were “kinds” of people.

It’s human nature to differentiate between objects, people, concepts, to divide things into “kinds”. Take whatever environment you’re in right now for example. Take a second to look around and locate some objects. You can probably recall all the names for those objects, the labels we as people have given them, and you could also probably sort them into categories if you needed to. A couch and a TV are part of a house. A tree and a bird are part of nature. A lesbian and her wife are part of the LGBT community. While it may be harmless with objects, it gets a little more complicated when we do it with people.

I’m Michelle Clevett, and in this episode, I’m going to be exploring the sexual stigma that has resulted from the labelling of gender and sexuality. This is something that not only affects the LGBT community, as I’ve come to realize through my research, but also our society as a whole, in both negative and positive ways.

Let’s begin by taking a second to think about why these labels exist, why the distinction even needs to be made in the first place. In the society that we live in, the standard way of thinking is in two’s. When we think of gender, we think male or female. When we think of sexuality, we think gay or straight. And when we think of attraction, we define it in terms of attraction to either male or female. Two categories, two terms, two groups. This is the rather strict dichotomy that has become the norm for how we think about gender and sexuality. But this division poses more problems for us than we think. When we lay out only a certain amount of options, we limit ourselves, and this particular issue is especially prominent when it comes to gender and sexuality.

In today’s age, the way we choose to identity ourselves and those around us is rapidly changing and drastically different from the past. And not only has it changed, it keeps changing, it never stops, much like the busy world of today. The emergence of new terms, new labels, new identities, specifically amongst the younger generations, has completely changed and challenged our options for self expression.

Take the acronym LGBT for starters. As most of you probably know, LGBT is an acronym which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. The term surfaced in the 90’s, as a more inclusive term than “gay community”. Today, the “gay community” has come to be known by some as the “queer community”, and the acronym has expanded to hold 12 letters. LGBTQQIP2SAA is the full thing now. Yup, there are even numbers.

The new additions include two Q’s, one for queer and one for questioning, an I for intersex people—those who have two sets of genitalia or various chromosomal differences, P for pansexual—those who feel attraction to others regardless of their gender or orientation, 2S for Two-Spirit, a First Nations term that refers to a belief that sexual minorities have both male and female spirits, an A for asexual—those who do not experience attraction to others, and a final A for ally—a person who doesn’t associate with any of the above labels, but supports the rights and freedoms of those that do. So all in all, the labels are pretty inclusive, even if they’re widely unknown to the general public.

But that’s where Welcome Friend Association comes in. They’re an organization based in Thessalon, Ontario, a tiny town located between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, and the fact that they’re in the middle of nowhere actually speaks volumes for their cause. Welcome Friend Association seeks to educate people about the queer community, and thus create a society that is inclusive, understanding, and respectful of all identities. As part of their mission, they hold a seminar titled “Queer 101”, a safe and welcoming space for all where people can learn and ask questions about the queer community. Their work is helping to bridge the gap between those who identify as straight and those who identify with the LGBT community by combating the source of homophobia—fear of the unknown. Once you educate people, they are more open-minded and thus, willing to include others.

And it turns out that this organization’s efforts have not been in vain, and that there has, in fact, been an increased awareness of the LGBT community in recent years. I sat down to speak with my grandmother, Ethel Clevett, who is 78 years old and was born in 1938, about the LGBT community, and her knowledge on the topic came as quite the surprise.

Michelle: Have you ever heard of the acronym LGBT?

Ethel: The what?

Michelle: LGBT.

Ethel: LG—oh yeah!

Michelle: Oh you’ve heard of it?

Ethel: Oh yes.

Michelle: Ok, so do you know what it stands for?

Ethel: It’s the people that are different. Lesbians, gays, transgender.

Michelle: Yeah, that’s exactly it. Ok, so when you were younger, did people use this acronym?

Ethel: No, when I was young, it was only the last, maybe … 25 years, something like that, we heard tell of people—homosexual is the technical word, of course.

Michelle: Of course. So that’s what they used—

Ethel: They’re all kinds of slang words.

Michelle: Yeah, definitely. So that’s what they would use when you were younger, right? They would mostly just refer to them as homosexuals, right?

Ethel: Yeah.

Michelle: Ok. So, have you heard of any of the new labels? Do you know about the word pansexual and genderfluid? Have you heard of any of those?

Ethel: Uh, some new ones, you say?

Michelle: Yeah, so there are a bunch of new terms now. There are things coming about, there’s the term “pansexual”—

Ethel: Pans—yeah! That was the one I was trying to think about.

Michelle: Oh, ok, so you’ve heard of that one?

Ethel: Yes, only very recently. The newspaper, there was a girl from Port-aux-Basques who had an article there and she said that she was “pansexual” and my dear, I was wondering to myself, ‘what does she mean by that?’, ‘cause I know the little girl, uh, the woman now, she’s into adulthood now, but she explained it in the article, that she’s more, that her partner is male, and she’s more interested in his personality than his sexuality.

Michelle: Mhm, exactly.

Ethel: That’s what it means

Michelle: Ok, that’s cool.

Ethel: Now that’s the only new term I’ve learned.

Michelle: [laughs] That’s the only new one.

Channel-Port aux Basques is the town where my grandmother lives. Like Thessalon, it’s a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. You can hear my surprise at how far the information about the LGBT community has reached.

But while Welcome Friend Association is working towards and succeeding in educating the public, we are still a long ways off from a perfect community, or a perfect acronym. Doubt has been surfacing regarding the validity and effectiveness of the acronym LGBT, and many criticism have been made against it in recent years.

One of these criticisms is that the acronym is too “Western”. Many communities around the world have their own terms for sexual minorities that just cannot be translated into any of the LGBT letters, like the Kothis of India and the Two-Spirited people of the First Nations.

Another criticism of the acronym is that it is too individualized, and thus, too exclusive. Since the letters and their subsequent meanings are already established, the acronym does not allow for people to create their own identities, and instead simply assigns them a generic label which may not fully encompass their identity. There is little room for variation with the existing acronym.

An alternate term, SOGI, has been proposed, which stands for sexual orientation and gender identity, but so far, it has not been put into widespread practice like LGBT. It’s important to have a universal term to refer to the community, in order to establish laws and for NGO’s to operate and other things of that nature, but there is ongoing debate about just what that term should be.

An even deeper criticism goes beyond just the technicalities of the label, but criticizes the existence of the label itself. Many people resent being marked solely by their sexual orientation or gender identity, as they feel it takes away from their roles as siblings, business-owners, people of faith and so on.

Regardless of the name, having a separation of the straight and queer community poses some problems. For one, it more easily fosters homophobia and exclusion. By lumping all sexual minorities together, it allows for the marginalization of a large group of people, and a separation between our community.

Dr. Gregory M. Herek, in his article “Confronting Sexual Stigma and Prejudice: Theory and Practice” defines sexual stigma as “the negative regard, inferior status, and relative powerlessness that society collectively accords to any nonheterosexual behaviour, identity, relationship, or community. Sexual stigma is socially shared knowledge about homosexuality’s devalued status in society”. With this definition, it’s clear to see that sexual stigma is still rampant in our society. And we all know the ridiculous and extreme lengths that homophobia can go to in places like Nigeria, for example, where homosexuality is punishable by death.  

In 2013, the country introduced the misleadingly titled, “Same-Sex Marriage Act”, which not only punishes those in same-sex marriages by up to 14 years in prison, but also punishes those belonging to any sort of LGBT organization, those supporting same-sex marriages, and those displaying same-sex affection by up to 10 years in prison. Twelve states within Nigeria have also adopted Sharia Law, and for homosexual activity, the law dictates capital punishment for men, and lashing or imprisonment for women.

Those within the LGBT community undoubtedly lead much more difficult lives than those not associated with the community. It is no secret that LGBT individuals are discriminated against, often for the entirety of their lives, and are also the victims of hate crimes. Both of these occurrences can be detrimental to one’s mental health, as the information compiled by the Canadian Mental Health Association and Rainbow Health Ontario show.  

LGBT people are subject to “higher rates of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and phobic disorders, suicidality, [and] self-harm” as well as “double the risk for post-traumatic stress disorder ... than heterosexual people”. Substance abuse is also a concern for LGBT individuals, and “research suggests that use of alcohol, tobacco and other substances may be 2 to 4 times higher among LGBT people than heterosexual people”. The numbers are even more alarming when we look at LGBT youth specifically, as they face “approximately 14 times the risk of suicide … than [their] heterosexual peers”.

Due to the increased discrimination against the LGBT community, LGBT identities are now being included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), which is “a classification of mental health conditions … published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA)”. This is not something to be taken lightly. How many queer individuals had to have been diagnosed as mentally ill for there to be an entire category established for them? This addition shows the prevalence of homophobia in our society, and the devastating effects it has on the queer community. Obviously many factors play into mental health, but there is no denying the link between those who identify with the LGBT community, and mental health issues.

But it’s not just the members of the LGBT community that are at stake when it comes to homophobia, it’s our society as a whole. From a specifically Canadian aspect, homophobia has the power to affect all of us. In an article titled “LGBT hockey players open up about homophobia in youth sports” from Daily Xtra Magazine, Colin MacPhail details his childhood experiences of playing hockey in a league that made his life a “living breathing nightmare”. As a member of the Toronto Gay Hockey Association, MacPhail has rekindled his love of the game, but his past still bears the scars of all the slurs and discrimination aimed at him.

Hockey is part of the Canadian identity, and we in Canada pride ourselves on being open-minded, diverse and inclusive. Yet, how can we call ourselves any one of those things when we do not allow certain people to feel welcome in our most treasured pastime, the sport that brings us all together? As the article illustrates, “being excluded from hockey can … take on the added meaning of being excluded from the national community [itself]”.

By this point, I’d read a lot about instances of prejudice and their effects on the LGBT community, but I figured I should try to understand it from a more individual level. I sat down with a friend of mine who identifies as gay, and is a member of the LGBT community. For the purposes of this podcast, their name is Mia. That’s not their real name, and I’ll be referring to them only by gender neutral pronouns, but they agreed to answer some of my questions about gender and sexuality labels and the effects of them.

Michelle: Do you think that by putting a label on yourself, you are excluding yourself from certain social groups?

Mia: Definitely, but honestly speaking, I don't mind that. I guess I value my individuality and diversity more than "fitting in". I'm proud to be who I am. But more so, I fiercely identify with the difficulties that my community and I have faced due to our chosen labels. And some labels are not chosen and simply given to us by social constructs of gender and sexuality, or very real and physical constructs that rely on race and ethnicity.

Michelle: Do you think labels for sexuality and gender automatically hinder those attached from entering certain social groups?

Mia: Due to the discrimination that still exists against the queer community, there is definitely exclusion and negligence. The entire act of "coming out" exists due to the fear of possible rejection that unfortunately often happens to those who are a part of the queer community. We are essentially hindered not only from certain social groups, but society itself.

Michelle: Do you think a world without labels is possible? What do you think it would be like?

Mia: I'm not sure if that's possible, because that's just how humans are. We are driven to sort and label things to better understand them. However, a step in the right direction would be to normalize some labels, and not see them as taboo. But such a practice can take years, much similar to the notion of women's rights, a notion that was not given attention until the 19th-21st centuries. It is hard to suddenly filter problematic ideologies that have existed within the roots of civilization.

Michelle: How do you feel about the acronym LGBT?

Mia: As a member of the community, I do feel proud. There is a sense of unity as opposed to the taboo that is attached to even the words "gay" or "queer", a type of passive repulsion, in my opinion, that I have been surrounded for the majority of my life. But I do feel that we might need to move to a more inclusive term that encompasses different sexualities and genders, rather than adding an "A" and a + to the end of the acronym.

Michelle: How do you feel about your own label and your connection to the queer community?

Mia: I like to identify with my label. Being gay has helped me see good and bad things in life. Though it isn't the entirety of who I am, it is a vital part of my identity. The only issue I see in terms of labeling is the notion of normalization. How the terms "straight" and "gay" had to be invented in their sexual context to differentiate from a dominating norm against a kind of pseudo-abnormality. The queer community has existed from the dawn of time, but we just simply found ourselves to have slowly conformed to a constructed social norm that eventually silenced these communities of gender and sexually queer individuals.

While there are definite problems associated with labelling people's genders and sexual orientations, ultimately it allows us to create a community where those who are in the minority can feel safe and supported, united by a common trait. The LGBT community offers a sense of family for those who may not have those connections elsewhere within their lives. There is no denying the benefits of having a community such as that. At the end of the day, we all deserve the right to identify ourselves as whatever we feel fits us best, and to associate with those who make us feel welcome. If we just let each other be, and not infringe on this right, there is no reason why we can’t all live together in harmony.

Works Cited 

Hulshof-Schmidt, Michael. (July 11). What’s in an acronym? Parsing the LGBTQQIP2SAA community. Social Justice For All. Retrieved from https://hulshofschmidt.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/whats-in-an-acronym-parsing-the-lgbtqqip2saa-community/

Herek, M., Gregory. (2007, November 28). Confronting Sexual Stigma and Prejudice: Theory and Practice. Journal of Social Issues, 63 (4). Retrieved from http://lgbpsychology.com/html/Herek_2007_JSI_preprint.pdf

(2014). Welcome Friend Association. Retrieved from http://www.welcomefriend.ca/

(N.d). What’s wrong with labels?. Institute of Development Studies. Retrieved from http://spl.ids.ac.uk/sexuality-and-social-justice-toolkit/1-issues-and-debates/whats-wrong-labels

(2013, December 17). Nigeria: Same sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. Retrieved from http://www.refworld.org/docid/52f4d9cc4.html

Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario, Rainbow Health Ontario. (2016). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Queer Identified People and Mental Health. Retrieved from http://ontario.cmha.ca/mental-health/lesbian-gay-bisexual-trans-people-and-mental-health/

(2016, October 6th). LGBT hockey players open up about homophobia in youth sports. Daily Xtra. Retrieved from http://www.dailyxtra.com/toronto/arts-and-entertainment/lgbt-hockey-players-open-homophobia-in-youth-sports-207881