Artwork featured by Andrea Mongia.
Let’s talk about labels.
We spend our lives learning. Learning about the world, about stars and why they shine, learning about life, animal and human, about flora and fauna, and what helps flowers grow. We spend our lives discovering, and each breath in powers the amazing flow of sparks and electricity that zip through our brains like a battery. But the thing that we spend the most time learning about — is ourselves. We come into this world with the barest template of ourselves, and from that first blink, we begin to grow.
Life is an ever-shifting landscape, and each step dancing between the echoing tick on our clocks leads to a choice or thought that adds the mortar and secures the next brick in the foundation that makes up the platform of who we are.
One of the things that I adore so very much about human beings is that every single one of us is a galaxy of originality, completely different and amazing and unique to each other. We are also deep wells of overlapping interests and micro-personality traits, and when we discover something new about ourselves, our first instinct is to reach out and connect with others who might share our newfound finding.
We, as people, have an innate propensity to create community, and that stands for the most introverted introvert to the most outgoing extrovert. Humanity is synonymous with connection, and I think that is pretty beautiful.
One thing that has gotten easier over the years, is the different avenues that have opened up for us to connect through. Social media, the internet, blogs and tweets, online quizzes and community has helped show us, across countries and cultures and time zones, just how much we all have in common. And how much we can help each other, just with the simple task of taking the time to pay attention to ourselves, be truthful with the ever-growing, shifting foundation of who we are, and then sharing that truth with the world.
When there is enough common shared truth, enough people saying, “Hey! What you’re speaking about sounds so familiar, here’s my truth!” There tends to follow a flurry of discussion and analysis that then corrals this new truth into a shareable soundbite of definition, and that definition is generally referred to as a label.
Labels, in and of themselves, are wonderful. They are a compacted wealth of information crammed into a thumbnail-sized, easy to swallow new discovery template that we can use to add a name and a community to whatever new truth we’ve been brave enough to unearth about ourselves today.
Labels are also dangerous.
Let me tell you a little about myself so that you can understand what my specific, unique foundation is built on.
I am the oldest child, born to a family of ultra-orthodox, Hasidic Jews. As a woman, I was taught that my ultimate goal in life was to grow and mold myself into the perfect wife and mother. I was taught I must learn to cook, to clean, I must keep my body thin and fit, my skin clear and my hair long so that when I was of marrying age, I would have a better chance of a prospective male suitor choosing me from a binder of young, eligible woman.
I was taught that my life only had value in service to fulfilling my womanly duties. By the time I was five years old, I already had a deep understanding of this truth of who I was going to be, who I was going to shape myself into. And I didn’t like it.
Now, I think it goes without saying that with a background like this, there wasn’t much avenue to explore the world outside, to learn and connect with others who had similar simmering feelings to the ones growing inside me.
Before I continue, I do want to be clear that while I do not approve of the things I was taught as a child, I am very proud of my heritage. Judaism as a whole is a beautiful religion and culture, and I am still a very proud modern-orthodox Jew.
I am also a gray-ace, democratic lesbian, who very firmly believes in gender equality, reproduction rights, feminism, and marriage equality.
The journey that I took from the child I was to the woman I am now is a long one, and I will always be grateful to the big bulky computer that my mother very proudly placed in the living room, hooked up to the internet, and then left unmonitored because that computer was the first step in my journey to finding my community.
I found fanfiction, and fanfiction led me to online chatrooms, which led me to talk to other people around my own age from all across the world who were just taking their own first steps in their next stage of self-discovery.
I learned that there were boys who liked to kiss boys and girls who liked to kiss girls and that the way I felt when I saw my best friend wave at me from across the hallway was an okay way to feel. I learned terms like Lesbian and Bisexual and this entirely new world opened up to me.
This thrill of being able to put a name to a feeling, to a way of being was euphoric! What was I? I didn’t know yet, but I knew that I was something, so now it was time to figure out what.
So, I found a label, and I put it on, and I did my best to fill out every corner of that label, in the way I talked and dressed and acted, and when finally, I realized that that label didn’t fit, I tried the next one.
And here is where my problem with labels begin.
As a learning tool, labels are invaluable. But at the end of the day, people are far too complex to fit into a box —we are galaxies, constantly expanding worlds of life that are not meant to be titled and put on a shelf. We are meant to grow and shift and become more every second of every day.
When we subscribe to the notion of a label, we sometimes fall into a trap, one that tells us that now that we have decided what we are, that is what we are forever. And that is very simply, untrue.
I am a lesbian, yes. But I am also more than that.
It took me until I was in my mid-twenties to realize that I was asexual, and when I did, I was so scared. Did that mean that I wasn’t a lesbian anymore? How could I know I liked a woman if I didn’t feel sexual attraction? Didn’t the label say that lesbians feel sexual attraction to women?
Had I been lying to myself all those years?
The joy that I felt at being able to name this truth about myself was so finely blended with the terror of possibly losing such a large part of my identity, and it sent me into a spiral of doubt that I hadn’t felt in years.
What was the truth? Where did I fit? What was my label?
The next few months were spent learning as much as I could about Asexuality—about all the micro-labels that fall under its umbrella, and five years on, I’m still learning.
But here is the number one thing that I learned.
People don’t fit into labels. We are far too vast — too unknown even to ourselves — to be shoehorned into a singular definition.
When faced with my own shifting labels, I learned another truth about myself, one that I thought I had already known, and that is that sexuality is fluid. We are fluid, and we, each and every one of us deserves the right to feel out these new spaces within ourselves free of judgment, especially the judgment that comes from our own selves.
I love labels— without them, I would have spent years trying to add another layer onto the foundation that is me. I love them for the ease that they provide when trying to connect with other people who overlap our own truths.
I love that we, as a species, take the time to create these little steppingstones of inner knowledge solely for the purpose of understanding ourselves and each other, and I cannot wait to see what new labels come into existence as we continue to grow and explore.
So, to the next teenager or adult currently scouring the internet for the space and label they belong to, I ask that you keep in mind that labels are tools, that you are a person first, amazing and wonderful and ever-expanding, and that people are meant to grow.
Here are a couple links to some online communities pertaining to some topics that I touched on today!
For anyone interested in learning more about Asexuality. This website is also a wonderful place to connect with an incredibly kind and supportive online community
The Trevor Project is an incredibly amazing, safe space for LGBTQ+ youth (up to the age of 25), and if you need someone to speak with, about anything, head over to their website.