By Maureen Bogues, Gay Therapy Center Staff Writer
How do you identify yourself?
Lesbian, dyke, gay, bisexual?
When I came out as a lesbian nearly 30 (gasp!) years ago, labeling was quite simple: In my world, you were gay or straight. (I used “gay” and “lesbian” interchangeably.) I didn’t yet know any bisexual or transgender people.
Such was my limited outlook in the late ‘80s, pre-internet Midwest.
Youth Embrace Fluidity
Thankfully, today’s youth — regardless of where they live — are coming out into a bigger, brighter rainbow full of so many shades beyond LGBT: queer, questioning, genderqueer, pansexual, nonbinary, gender fluid, and intersex, to name a few.
Sexuality is not black and white, nor is identity. Finally, we are adapting language to fit the complexity of our lives.
Tera Beaber, a psychotherapist with the Gay Therapy Center in San Francisco says that her clients in their 20s and 30s tend to use the labels, “queer” or “pansexual.”
“I think it’s because we know that attraction can be fluid, and there’s a huge continuum of attraction,” she said. “I see it as a positive shift. We have more options now, and ways to describe our experience as sexual beings.”
Once people are able to describe their experience, they are able to find others who relate, which is especially critical for queer people who may not always receive a warm welcome within their families of origin. Throughout history, nonbinary people of all types have somehow been able to find their tribe.
“There are people who feel boxed in by labels, but labels can help you to engage in community,” Tera said. “If you identify as bisexual, you can find community with those who identify similarly. Sometimes, expressing yourself with a label is a way of having your full self more represented in the world, a way to convey the fullness of who you are.”
Born This Way: Gaga, Ellen, Miley, Too
Younger people are growing up in a world where, in spite of ongoing struggles for equality, LGBTQ couples can get married, raise families, and are more visible on TV and film, with more and more queer celebrities — including Ellen DeGeneres, Kristen Stewart, Raven-Symone or Lady Gaga — who are out and proud as bi or lesbian. Performer Miley Cyrus has famously identified as “pansexual,” saying. “I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner to relate to boy or girl.”
Sarah Brook, a Gay Therapy Center psychotherapist in New York, says that her female clients these days tend to identify as “dyke,” or “queer,” before calling themselves “lesbians,” noting that some people find the word “lesbian” to be a bit more “clinical.”
“It has something to do with avoiding limiting labels,” she said. “Many of my clients prefer the word, ‘queer.’ It avoids gendering identity or sexual orientation, and it seems to be the label people land on when they’re comfortable with having a non-heterosexual identity, and the preferred term for folks whose gender identities are more fluid.”
Growing Up Outside the ‘Hetero’ Box
Julie, a San Francisco woman in her 40s, knows that issue first-hand. Growing up in a conservative military family, she didn’t know any gay people, and was married twice (to men) before falling in love, at 31, with a woman.
As for labeling herself, that was trickier.
“I never really could embrace the term ‘lesbian,’ when I was coming out,” she said. “Any time I tried to use that label for myself, it didn’t quite fit.”
She is now in a relationship with a transman.
Initially, she was self-conscious about her identity among newer friends, because for the past decade or so, she had been perceived as a lesbian. But ultimately, she realized that “my self-esteem is wrapped up in many more things than who I am dating.”
Comfort in an Inclusive Label
When it comes right down to it, though, one label works better for Julie than any other.
“I’m queer,” she said. “I feel much more comfortable around those who reside farther away from the ‘heteronormative’ view.”
Whether we identify as “queer,” “lesbian,” “dyke,” or “pansexual,” there is room for everyone.
Maybe in the future, there will be even more ways to identify ourselves, Tera predicts.
“What I’m seeing with clients is that labels are constantly changing and expanding. Sometimes people use multiple labels, and some don’t like labels at all.”
The beauty of being in the LGBT, queer, however-you-call-it community is that you can embrace many identities, or none at all, and find acceptance no matter how you choose to define yourself.