Throughout this series, we’ve talked a lot about labels. Identifying as gay or straight can be complicated enough; for those of us somewhere in the middle, it gets even trickier. Discussions over “bi” versus “queer” versus “pansexual” versus “fluid” get very complicated, very quickly. It makes me wonder: why are we so hung up on labels? Do we even need labels anymore? Spectra, one of my colleagues from Gender Across Borders, addressed this recently on her personal blog:
As with many other solidarity labels—women of color, black, feminist etc.—I support using common labels to reveal ourselves to others who have shared experiences and perspectives; but my primary identity isn’t pivoted around any of these and I wouldn’t take it too well if someone were to tell me that I have problems, or need to be “educated” because I choose to identify (or not identify) the way I do.
I like Spectra’s philosophy. I have particular labels that I use in reference to my own identity, and I like being able to use language to express otherwise intangible facets of my identity. There’s nothing wrong with that. I also like using labels in the way that Spectra describes—as a way of finding other people who may have similar life experiences or beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. The problems start when labels limit self-expression, rather than foster it. And, unfortunately, labels have become far more limiting than expressive. Especially among young people today, traditional labels are no longer cutting it. There are certainly examples reflecting this reality all over the media, but where I’ve noticed it most is in the UK version of Skins.
I started watching Skins recently, and I am blown away by the show’s liberal approach to sexuality. It’s a show in which teenagers have lots of sex, and while it’s not always as sex-positive as I had hoped (one episode I watched, involving a girl engaging in casual sex to get over a break-up, featured a disturbing amount of slut-shaming dialogue), it does have a very flexible and progressive outlook on sexuality and, at least since Franky’s been on the show, gender. Non-monosexuality is fairly commonplace in the Skins universe, and it is rarely labeled as anything at all, let alone “bisexual.” In seasons one and two, a young man named Tony predominantly dates and sleeps with women, but he also enjoys experimenting with men; at one point, a manifestation of his subconscious refers to him as “a little fucked up jumble of misdirected, immature polysexuality” (though he never directly claims the label “polysexual” himself). Season two also features Cassie, a girl primarily involved with men, experimenting with women and, in her words, “discover[ing] the power of the pussy.” She does not, however, claim any specific label to express her sexuality. And then there’s Franky, introduced in season five, who is genderqueer and explains that her sexuality is “into people.” I have some issues with Skins, but I really like these characters and the fact that the show approaches sexuality from this perspective. Because, the fact is, the identities expressed by characters like Tony, Cassie, and Franky are probably much better reflections of teen sexuality today than conventional straight and gay characters are.
So does Skins’ approach indicate that we’re moving past a need for labels—or, at least, traditional labels like straight, gay, and bisexual? Well…not necessarily. At the start of this series, a commenter asked me why I choose to call myself “bisexual” rather than “pansexual.” The reason isn’t because I’m only attracted to two genders, because I’m not. It’s also not because I think “bisexual” is a perfect label, because I don’t. For a while, I preferred to use “queer,” but I started to phase that out and transition to using “bisexual” when I realized that the concept of “queer” can be confusing for a lot of folks. Initially, I liked “queer” specifically for its vagueness, but when I became more invested in finding a word that would convey a consistent meaning when people heard it, the label became more challenging. So I went with “bisexual,” since as of now, it is the most commonly understood expression of non-monosexuality (to the degree that non-monosexuality is commonly understood, of course). And while this may not be important to everyone, it is important to me to use language that easily places myself in the context of a broader movement. Politically, I believe it’s critical to represent non-monosexuality in the LGBT movement. Because we exist, and there are lots of us. Among the self-identified LGB population, more than 50% identify as bisexual. And that’s before factoring in non-monosexual folks who don’t identify as bisexual. Looking at the names and priorities of most LGBT organizations, you wouldn’t realize that bi people make up such a huge percentage of the community. Until that’s recognized, I find it important to speak out about non-monosexuality, using the language of bisexuality.
All that said, it’s very easy to get caught up in labels. Labels shouldn’t be the ultimate point. When they communicate a concept well, they can be useful, but we shouldn’t rely on them so heavily that we miss the indescribable subtleties and nuances of sexuality. We also shouldn’t rely on them to the point of prescriptivism, which silences labels and identities that others may choose. The identities articulated on Skins indicate the direction I believe society is heading in—a place where people are less concerned with what they call themselves and more concerned with who they love and what they enjoy. And that’s the most important thing, anyway.
So are we post-bi? No. I don’t think we’re post-anything, honestly. Earlier this week, I heard someone use the term “post-feminist,” and it made my skin crawl. As long as oppression exists, we aren’t post-anything. And biphobia is alive and well, so, no, we aren’t post-bi. But maybe someday we will be. I’m okay with that. I’m not married to this label. And Skins shows us that none of us ever have to be.