Let's Talk Labels #BiWeek #BiVisibility #LGBT #feminism

Let's talk labels.

What are they? Why do we need them? I know there will be those - even amongst my friends - with steam coming out their ears right about now, because I'm calling bullshit on the 'we don't need labels' argument.

You think you don't need them? Good for you. But here's a thing that happened to me that might serve as a helpful example:

A few years ago, when I was teaching in a high school, I called the National Union of Teachers for legal advice about a change to my employment contract.

Receptionist: Are you a member?
Me: No, I—
Receptionist: I'm afraid we can't offer you any advice or support. The ATL might, though. Good luck.

So I called the ATL (The Association of Teachers and Lecturers) and got the same response (I believe they've since changed their policy) other than they suggested I call the NASUWT (National Association of Schoolmasters [and] Union of Women Teachers - archaic, I know).

I called the NASUWT, and FINALLY found a union prepared to offer me advice and support even though I wasn't a member, on the proviso I joined the union right then and there. So I did, and later, I became a rep.

Being a rep was a thankless, awful task. The leadership team was very professional in their dealings with me and the other reps, I've got to admit, and I hadn't expected that; my dad's experiences as a rep in the NHS indicated I was in for a hell of a time. We were at the start of big changes that essentially privatised our state education system, which (of course) all of the teaching unions were fully against, so there were many meetings, all of them futile because central government were pulling the strings. To stop it would have required MASSIVE action at every level from an impenetrable united front - all unions, all members, all teachers (including senior leadership), governors, parents, pupils. Instead, most rolled over for the tummy rub and pretended a kick in the ribs wouldn't follow.

I don't want to go too far along that tangent, as it'll take me away from the point of this post (why we need labels, in case you've forgotten), but what I will say is there are two types of union members (I found): those who are active and passionate, and those who are like walking 'whatever' shrugs. They are busy-busy-busy people and the privatisation of education had no immediate, direct impact on them, so apathy was the order of the day.

In other words, they wore the label but they didn't identify with it...until the day came when the changes DID affect them. THEN they wanted the union's oomph behind them, even though they weren't prepared to add to that oomph when we'd needed it (see above re MASSIVE action).

Then there are those who say they don't need to join a union, because union members are troublemakers, legitimised fire starters spoiling for a fight. Again, most change their tune when the system rises against them and they, tiny teacher, don't stand a chance against the might of The Establishment.

In summary, employment unions protect workers' rights through the power of unification. As individuals, we have very little power, but when we combine that power, we become a force to be reckoned with.

Labels of oppression work exactly the same way, by allowing us to join forces with others to fight against a common foe. Historically, 'the oppressed' (people of colour, underpaid workers, women, Jewish people, disabled people, LGBT+ people, and so on - I could keep going forever) united under a common flag (or label) to fight their oppressors. Those people didn't choose a life as second-class citizens, criminals, slaves, invisible people locked in institutions. It was IMPOSED on them by the powerful to ensure the continuation of their power.

Those labels - black, women, working class, disabled, LGBT+ - are sweeping. They subsume every other facet of a person - everything they've achieved, everything they love, what matters the most to them - because the powerful take away our rights on the basis of that one characteristic.

We don't choose to wear those labels. They are forced on us by those in power.

In fact, 'label' isn't the right word. More like 'tattoo'. We can't just peel it off and everything will be OK. We can pretend everything is OK, which is exactly what someone does when they say 'we don't need labels'.

For as long as power is exercised against us because of that label, tattoo, flag - who we are, WE NEED LABELS! But we need to use them wisely, not as a means of saying 'I am like you but I am nothing like you' but to recognise who else is on our side in the war.

In 1997, when I was preparing for my undergraduate dissertation, I took my first draft proposal to my dissertation tutor. I'd done a lot of preliminary reading, and I was very pleased with what I'd put together. I wanted to deconstruct binary gender (male/female and masculine/feminine) and look at how we could move towards non-binary gender politics: i.e. beyond feminism, which then focused only on women's rights, with a lot of dissent between the different groups of feminists within.

My dissertation tutor said it was 'too post-modern', as in politically impotent, and at the time I was miffed. More than miffed. It really took the wind out of my sails, and the dissertation I produced instead was OK (the politics of transsexuality [sic]), but far from my best work.

I've thought about it a lot since, as I've watched us move towards a non-binary gender politics. No, I'm not bitter...mostly.

My dissertation tutor was right, but not because I was wrong. Where my proposal lacked finesse was in - forgive the cliché - 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater'. I was proposing post-feminism, post-gay rights, post-lesbian rights, post-trans rights when what I should've been doing was looking at how existing organised gender politics could be 'de-polarised'. Because feminism isn't only 'women's rights'; it's the fight against patriarchy.

Patriarchy underpins every single social institution - the family, social services, the armed forces, schools, hospitals, religious organisations, national and international government - at every level. It can be found in arguments against women's ordination, the way meetings are arranged, how voting takes place, the options available to students, unequal pay, maternity leave, assumptions about women and parent-child relationships, arguments for biological imperatives for maternal instinct, the need for children to have a mother, arguments against marriage equality and gay adoption, the murder of women, domestic violence and the way violence against women is dealt with by the authorities (police, international government), and so on.

Everything is geared towards protecting the privileged position of white heterosexual men. And yes, I appreciate many black men and gay men do very well out of patriarchy, but do they achieve it by peeling off the labels 'black' and 'gay' to embrace their male privilege?

My dissertation proposal was naïve and, frankly, as dangerous as assuming that 'feminism' without any refinements has got the political impetus to bring down patriarchy.

Patriarchy protects such a small minority (numerically) - to properly narrow it down: white, European, middle-class, heterosexual men - but it's had millennia to build a nice, tight bunker for itself.

The problem is, many of us look at feminism (like I did back in 1997) and think 'it's not for me'. We imagine feminists to be this small group of angry, man-hating women who want to harvest sperm and kill all the men (did I mention patriarchy controls the media and publishing?). It's so far removed from who we are that we cannot possibly identify with the cause.

Well, feminism is NOT that.

Contemporary feminism - on the whole - understands that nearly all of humankind is oppressed by patriarchy; in some cases, entire nations. Thus, it's easy to assume that we can throw a blanket over the world, so to speak, and work to protect the rights of all humans, but it's a political shortcut, a catchall, and some of those we're protecting exercise their rights at the expense of others'. Some enjoy the privileges of patriarchy in some areas of their life whilst being oppressed in others (e.g. gay men who wish to marry and raise a family).

We need to be more focused, pinpoint the exact forms oppression takes, so we can fight it on all fronts.

Which is where the labels come in.

The problem with the way we live now is that we've broken away from our wider social groups, our cultures. We're more aware of how we are different than how we are alike, which may well be the reason why some people believe labels are a bad thing. We are all unique, that's true, but we're no less unique if we acknowledge the things that make us who we are.

Now, it's #BiWeek - a week celebrating and raising awareness of bisexuality, and you may or may not have noticed this is the first time in this enormous post that I've mentioned it, despite having mentioned the L, G and T of the LGBT+ acronym. It was intentional.

Yesterday, I read a great interview with a celebrity who talked about the importance of being out as bisexual. You won't have to look far to find plenty of interviews like that this week. And on every last one, you'll find a toxic tirade in the comments section, in most cases from other members of the 'LGBT' community. The one I read yesterday, there was a particularly noxious commenter who talked around the houses about being bi but refusing the wear the label (even coming up with their own label for what they were). Their excuse: the vast majority of people who 'claim' to be bisexual are not. Still others insist bisexuality is not real, or that bisexual people are lesbians/gay men in disguise, or bisexuality is only real for women, or...whatever other nonsense they can come up with for dismissing, denying, hating and/or excluding bisexual people.

It won't stop simply by discarding the 'bisexual' label, which exists because some people are NOT heterosexual, OR gay, OR lesbian.

Now, we could, as these commenters seem to want, break apart the LGBT+ community and political movement. We could all fight our own corners, even if that means doubling (quadrupling+) the work of, say, the campaign for marriage equality, which affects ALL lesbians, gay men, bisexual people and transgender people.

Lest we forget, 'marriage', for millennia, has existed as a patriarchal institution upheld by the state and every major religion - the joining of one man and one woman.

We've achieved a lot in deconstructing that notion of marriage. Marriage equality (in law, at least) now exists in many countries, and still more are progressing towards it. But we've only come this far because those who are excluded from the patriarchal version of marriage came together to fight for a common cause; we are a much more powerful force united than if we fight alone.

That doesn't mean we can do away with the labels that make up the constituent parts of the LGBT+ community. In the fight for equal marriage, we had a common goal. Meanwhile, transgender children are being denied the right to be identified by the correct gender; asexual people are being sent to therapy; bisexual people aren't even a real thing...

We need to use those labels wisely - to unify behind common causes, move together and reform our alliances as necessary. Be politically fluid. Getting rid of the labels doesn't take away oppression. It creates nameless victims and obscures the real cost because some can't or won't stand up to be counted.

So you don't want to wear a label? No problem. It's your prerogative. I still argue those labels only divide us if we allow them to be stuck on us rather than affixing them to ourselves. I nearly got thrown out of the hotel recently because I didn't have an ID badge - and I was a presenter at the conference. Fair enough. How would the hotel know I was meant to be there - friend not foe - without my ID - my label?

How will we know if you're on our side?

Thanks for reading (I welcome respectful discussion),

(p.s. it would be remiss of me not to mention that my bi books are available for half price this week, along with other bi books published by Beaten Track - you can find more details on beatentrackpublishing.com/bivisibility

(LGBT+ Booted Bi graphic © Debbie McGowan. Permission granted for reuse under Creative Commons Share-Alike licence - no attribution required)


  1. We even get the labels argument *within* the bi community. I cannot tell you how extra weary I am this week of "I used to think I was bi, but it's really more pan." Okay, that's fine, but the change is usually based on a faulty assumption of bisexuality (typically that it's inherently transphobic or leaves out us enbys). In reality, identity and labels are somewhat more complex. I think I could easily identify as pansexual, but I don't because bi is my *community* label. It's how I stay visible and how I refuse to be ignored or treated like trash. Also, it's damn hard to explain every last nuance of my identity without a thousand-word essay, so basically "I'm bi because I'm not gay or straight" suffices. I don't care how someone identifies, and sometimes a simple label like pansexual works best because there aren't any added layers. But the in-fighting about what bi "really means" needs to go away.

    (That graphic is marvelous, btw.)

    1. Damn - I forgot to do the bi/pan bit. I was going to cover it in the bit about throwing the baby out and the need to clarify terms. Oh, well - you said it, so we've got it covered.

      Thank you. I had much fun (and spend way too long) making the graphic. :)

    2. Also, you put it far better than I would have done.

      (This is what happens when I reply in a hurry - graciousness fail. Sorry.)

      And...I had something else to say, but it's gone! Urgh.

  2. I agree that labels are sometimes convenient, necessary things for the reasons you state. Labels can also give us a sense of pride when we find and connect with our tribes by adopting/accepting that tribe's label. The important thing about labels is that we must not let labels limit us, or be all that defines us.


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