Classifying our sexual and gender identities has won LGBT human rights, but are the labels we’ve given ourselves still needed, asks Alex Hopkins.


“Do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days”, sings David Bowie in his 1995 song Hallo Spaceboy. Bowie was a master when it came to blurring the lines of sexuality and gender; more so than any other music artist before or since, he defied categorisation, making labels redundant. This song comes from his very aptly named concept album Outside and is set in a dystopian version of 1999. The tone is overwhelmingly dark, sinister even, and fraught with anxiety: How, Bowie seems to be asking, should individuals express themselves in the last five years of the millennium? This question of self-definition never goes away; every generation faces it – and it is certainly pertinent now as Europe faces unsettling times. It's interesting that Bowie chose to frame it with a specific reference to sexuality, however; LGBT people have always had a complicated relationship with labels.

Being a sexual or gender outlaw is tough. It’s seen us vilified, legislated against and massacred in the fight for equal rights. A bold declaration of dissident sexuality or gender signifies risk, but it has also allowed us to come together to form communities of mutual support and resistance. Anything that confuses people – as Bowie suggests – is seen as a threat; yet only from a threat can we hasten change. LGBT people throughout history have had two choices: either to hide their difference – thereby accepting the status quo – or to expose it. Naming our orientation has been the ground zero, of which we’ve found one another, become politicized and dared to strive for better lives. And it’s here that we see the function of labels. Without them, the political movements of gay liberation, which have won us the rights we have today, would never have existed.

Over 15 years on from Bowie’s Outside, the world is a very different place for LGBT people. The march for equal rights continues, but enormous ground has been covered, mostly with equal marriage. Given this, have labels served their purpose? Where are we now? (to use the title of another Bowie song). Things look pretty good: more LGBT youths are coming out and being accepted by their families; laws exist against homophobia and transphobia; discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace is tackled head on – we even have multi-national companies actively reaching out and recruiting us. These developments would have been hard to imagine some 20 years ago.

image_2272.jpg.jpgCrucially, however, these changes are predominantly in the west. In other swathes of the globe, we’re still being persecuted, tortured and killed. Millions of us continue to live in fear, only daring to dream of the day that we will be able to reveal our true selves. All of us in more progressive countries who enjoy the privilege of freedom have a responsibility towards those who do not have the fundamental human rights that we increasingly take for granted. Our visibility – a visibility which is strengthened by our continual use of labels – sends a message of hope to those who do not have those advantages. How easy it is to become blasé about the rights of other people far away, when we have won those rights ourselves. Silencing our identities means that we lose solidarity with those whom we have the power to inspire and help.

Some years ago, when I first came out, my parents – who accepted my sexuality – told me that being gay was not all there was about me; I was so much more than that. And, yes, they were right. Defining ourselves solely by our sexuality and gender limits our world view; it cuts us off from the experiences of others from different backgrounds and cultures. Yet the sexual or gender labels we ascribe to ourselves are also a vital part of who we are. The weight that LGBT people carry when they have to hide is destructive. Being able to vocalize this – to flush it out into the open and thereby provoke and defy structures of authority – is a transformative experience which bolsters our collective sense of self-worth. Yes, since I came out two decades ago it has become less essential to proclaim that I am a gay man – and I am, thankfully, less fearful of the response I will get, but I am also acutely aware that there is a fine balance between not being “militant” about my sexuality (my parents’ worst fear) and becoming invisible and consumed by mainstream society through not exhibiting pride in the way I classify myself.

As the human rights activist Peter Tatchell has said, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance” – and only by marking ourselves out as different can we ensure that we hold on to all we have gained. Indeed, it’s the difference that our disparate sexualities and gender identities give us that we can perhaps best harness a potent form of power. Each one of us, of course, has a choice of the categories we use – and that will, naturally, evolve over time – but surely only by distinguishing ourselves can we assert that there are alternatives to the things that we disagree with in this world – the injustices which we long to eradicate, not just in our own lives, but for everyone.




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