I recently had the good fortune to be able to attend a lecture by Professor Ritch Savin-Williams of the Cornell University Human Ecology school. The esteemed professor spoke to an audience of Cornell alumni from the Washington DC area about the fluid nature of the spectrum on which gender and sexuality exist. Somewhat facetiously, he referred to bisexuality and trans* issues as the “big thing” in sexuality research, and asexuality as the “next big thing.” His point, to my understanding, was that as general knowledge and awareness of the diversity of gender and sexual identities continues to grow, so does the need for research, as well as public interest in that research.
Dr. Savin-Williams spoke about his own increasing exposure to identities that fall between and outside of the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy and the male/female binary, even decades after his research, much of which has been groundbreaking, began. He recalled a workshop in which a young woman shared that she identified as “squiggly,” and, in defining the unfamiliar term for the rest of the group, soon found that she wasn’t the only one who identified with the word.
The professor’s experience is certainly not unique. There’s been an explosion in visibility of non-binary identities, and heated debate over the value of these labels. Microblogging website Tumblr has become known for its users’ penchant for defining themselves in very specific terms (a practice that is, of course, not exclusive to the website, but has become especially visible there).
Last week, in an extremely popular discussion thread, members of social media site Reddit asked themselves, “What do you think people need to shut the fuck up about?” In what became an anti-Internet free-for-all, one user commented “Sexuality. I’m looking at you, Tumblr,” to the agreement of over 2,000 participants.
“Tumblr is a place where there is a word for everything and you must always refer to people by those words or you’re homophobic/bigoted/evil/stupid/rude/uneducated/etc,” wrote another. Another accepted the reality of varying identity but questioned the necessity for labels: “I really dislike the unnecessary specificity of names for sexual preferences these days. I like male and female genitals and bodies and I’ll take them in whatever form and in whatever expression.”
The Identity Project is an ongoing photo series that presents images of members of the LGBT community alongside the words they choose to use to self-identify. The discussion there has been rather similar to that on the Reddit post.
The key question becomes: Are labels, no matter how unique, oppressive or empowering? Do they help minority groups celebrate their individuality, or do they fragment and isolate a community already troubled by stigma?