Labels and why they matter to me as a gay man
“Diversity is being asked to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” – Vernã Myers.
It’s almost the end of PRIDE MONTH, and I wanted to reflect on life for people who identify as LGBTQIA+ in 2021. To compare the experience of someone seeking to figure out their part of the current rainbow, and consider my own struggles as a gay man coming to terms with choosing a label.
I had few role models growing up. I noticed feelings for boys rather than girls at an early age, but in the early 70s, being gay wasn’t talked about in anything but a dismissive way. Poofs found jobs in the entertainment industry. Larry Grayson, Kenneth Williams and Liberace were on the telly, but they were more camp (or effeminate) than explicitly gay.
A big gay drum
By the time I met my first boyfriend, Boy George was banging a big gay drum. It should have been the start of something. And yet, just a year or two later, Margaret Thatcher introduced laws to make it illegal for teachers to talk about homosexuality in schools. Local authorities were banned from aiming AIDS prevention materials at gay men.
The Manchester chief of police went on record to tell Britain that gay men were ‘swirling around in a human cesspit of their own making.’ He advocated the reintroduction of corporal punishment: ‘They should be punished until they repent of their sins. I’d thrash some criminals myself.’
For many years, I stayed in the closet to friends and colleagues, never actually declaring myself gay, but never denying it. I’m sure like any astute parent, everyone guessed.
I discovered the gay scene – and alcohol – the latter is no longer part of my life. The former is on ice. And so on and so on until I married my partner of 21 years in San Francisco two years ago. In that one (not especially political act), I labelled myself a gay man on an official document.
Labels matter. We all feel we want to belong. I grew up in what now looks like a golden age of gay liberation. We had just two letters. L and G. Even if God Hated Fags, it became accepted that sexuality needed to be part of any inclusion and diversity discussion. As the other rainbow stripes became a part of the conversation, I witnessed a rise in hate speech and oppression.
It’s too easy to put this down to the growth of social media and giving every fool a soapbox. Even the more liberal commentators (and comedians) roll their eyes and joke about how many more letters we plan on adding. The more our community includes, the more we exclude. Straight cisgender people no longer feel able to understand us or our struggles.
Even within the LGBTQIA+ community, people disagree about how effective the various labels are and whether anyone wants to use some of them at all.
While labels can help establish a community and promote self-expression, they can also exclude people and inhibit their growth. As a white, cisgender gay man, a lot of privilege is granted to me. I need to acknowledge the battle other groups within my community went through, for the rights I enjoy.
The case against all-inclusive labelling is unpopular amongst those who subscribe to the full LBGTQIA+ initialism. It pays to see there are both positives and negatives in this promotion of an overarching label.
For me, the key message is that labels exist for an individual to identify with. They can’t be put on you. You can’t be forced into a group or a community you don’t relate to.
LGBTQIA+ gives recognition for existing.