Labels Aren’t Just for Cans, and WTF is Pansexual Anyway???

Note:  this article was originally written for the fabulous website Autostraddle in reaction to an article and the comments that followed about Pro Basketball player Sheryl Swoopes.  They decided not to publish on the site directly, (but rather link to it.)  Given the hot button aura (that apparently) surrounds this issue, they wanted me to list some other sources and opinions.  I declined, given that this was intended to be a lighthearted commentary and not a thesis project.  But as I stated before, I completely love and respect those women over there.  Maybe one day I can finagle my way into writing a once monthly hot button column for them called The Queen Bitch The Devil’s Advocate.  

Strap yourselves in ladies, you’re about to get a lecture from a lesbian big sister.  All youngsters must hear these lectures at some point in their life.  Usually, they come from your grandparents or parents (mostly hetero-centric in scope,) but this time it’s coming from a member of your extended gay family.  It comes baked into a big gay cake with a dose of humor, a few dashes of sarcasm and a whole lotta love.  Take all of this with a grain of salt and a sense of humor, and with the knowledge that you can still disagree and we can simultaneously respect one another (unless you’re Ann Coulter, in which case you can fall off of a high building.)

Let me start with these – my Tweets in reaction to the Sheryl Swoopes article, or more particularly, the comments that followed.  I confess, I got a little carried away, but I was trying to make a point in 140 characters or less, which is difficult to do.






Then this






and lastly






Before going on some rant about my clear bi/pan/omni/cotton/a/fluid-sexualphobia, please hear me out.

First of all, I love Autostraddle.  I love the writers on Autostraddle, I love the content, but mostly, I love the community.  There’s a genuine respect that keeps this place floating above all others – as someone who has been immersed in the online LGBT community for almost 5 years, that’s a rarity.  What I appreciate most is the intellectual discourse.  The trite sarcasm that eventually seems to overtake most forum based sites is delightfully absent here.  AS is gathering place for women I’m certain that I’d love to share a beer with.

Now that I’ve buttered you up with some genuine butter, may I just say one little thing without a visit from the PCP? (politically correct police.)  Some of the “label” discussion really gets on my last gay nerve.  I have two distinct issues, the first is over-extension of the alphabet soup.  While I’m all for accurate identifiers, I also believe we’re getting a little overly inclusive in this quest, and that it perhaps isn’t helping in the overall sense of the community in the world.  The second issue revolves around the rejection of the labeling system as a whole.

The alphabet soup – LGBT.  It started with gay, then we added lesbians, bisexuals and trans folks.  Now we have a seemingly endless list of identifiers, and everyone wants their letter added – asexuals, questioning, genderqueer….Here’s where the age difference will probably rear its ugly head, but I gotta tell you, when I watched a 15-year-old girl proclaim her pansexuality on Dr. Phil, I laughed.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s utterly fantastic that kids can now come out as pansexual at 15.  I laughed because I highly doubt if a 15-year-old can even fully grasp what that means.  My personal experience tells me that a kid can feel all sorts of feelings and attractions, but declaring yourself pansexual at 15???  Mmmmmmk.

So Pam wants to be able to declare her pansexuality and not be teased.  (Insert big sigh here.)  I’ve have seen an incredible change in society’s attitudes towards LGBT folks – partly on the backs of my generation, but mostly on the generations that came before me.  Now we have this new class of kids who were born into a VERY different world than we lived in, and the demand for their modified sexuality to be included in every single discussion is getting annoying.

Am I claiming that pan/bi/omni/fluid/whateverthefuckelseyouwant-sexuality doesn’t exist or that you don’t have the right to claim it?  Not at all.  I, like most of the readers here know that sexuality/gender expression does exist on a continuum.  The difference is, I also happen to have a few more years of life experience that has shown me that most people usually settle into one of the dreaded boxy claustrophobic LGB or T labels at some point in their life.

So here’s where we can get into all kinds of discussions, similar to what people wrote in the comments.  But what if a lesbian has fantasies about men?  What if a formerly bi-fluid transman suddenly decides he’s now mostly hetero but still craves cock?  What if, what if, what if…  

Many of the people in my LGBT circle (there are many, and most are over the age of 30) label someone based on the reality of their current life, not what is contained in their fantasies or what they want or could be doing.  Once you get to a certain age, (and I can’t believe I just wrote that, but I have after all, been out for almost 2 decades now) your focus shifts from finding your sexual identity to finding the person you want to spend your life with.  Yes, I’m going to say it:  most of these nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs usually start to disappear after the age of 25, and the vast majority of us will land squarely in the common definition of LGBT-land or like Sheryl, Swoope (back) into Hetero-land.  Sorry, couldn’t resist that one!

This isn’t about judgement, it’s about having a language that allows you to effectively communicate with the world about who you are.  We have finally gotten to a place where most people understand the general meaning of LGBT.  Now we have to throw all these other labels into the mix lest someone feel left out or disrespected.

“I’m a lesbian identified bisexual currently in relationship with a man but strongly attracted to trans or non-binary leaning pansexuals.”

I’m sorry, what? 

Really folks, if you boil down the above quote, the woman is bisexual, the rest, I don’t care to know.  Unless I’m directly propositioning you, an in-depth explanation of your sexual desires (that may or may not deviate from your current partner) is both irrelevant and unnecessary.

A word on labels in general.  You (and perhaps I’m only talking to a couple of people here) may personally feel that your own unique sexuality cannot possibly fit into a “label,” a concept which I find just a little bit arrogant btw.  But fine, let’s play along.  You and your special-ness feel contained by those pesky little labels, and so you make it your mission in life to not only live outside of that label, (which you’re really not – everything that you’re feeling and doing has been done a million times since the dawn of humanity,) but to also insinuate, in a plethora of condescending ways, that others who prefer or appreciate the labeling system for whatever reason are somehow less evolved than you.

Learn your gay history.  We started to become liberated as a community precisely because we labeled ourselves.  Without labels there can be no visibility.  Without labels there will always be a heterosexual assumption.  Without labels we are back where we were in the 1950’s – the spinster aunt or the bachelor uncle who lives with their “special friend.”  Without labels, (which are just descriptive words and nothing else,) we wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone, inside or outside of our community, about who we are.

We can all pretty much agree that the walls really started to come down back in 1997 on a societal level when Ellen came out.  She labeled herself a lesbian.  LABELED.  Then one after another, more actors and singers came out and said yes, I too am gay, lesbian, or bisexual.  LABELS.  Then politicians joined in, clergy, people in the middle and southern states started to get bold, and they LABELED themselves…to be counted…to be visible.  This is why things started to change.  This is why over the last decade gay marriage has started to become a reality.  Why DADT has been repealed.  Because we came forward as a people and LABELED ourselves to our family and friends.  “WE’RE HERE, now stop treating us like second class citizens!”  And you know what, it’s working!

But back to you, the undefinable.  So fine, you can’t be labeled.  But some of us can, and rather prefer the labeling system, as it gives us some idea of who we’re dealing with.  Yes, that label may change over time, and perhaps it’s not all-encompassing, but it’s a place to start.  I’m voting for queer to become to the new catch-all descriptive for those who don’t like more specific labels.  Queer works.  It’s descriptive but not defining.  And why exactly are labels so bad?  They just give us a common language and understanding with which to relate to another person.  Just because you create a box around a label doesn’t mean everyone does.  Define your label however you want – own who you are and no label will confine you.

What I don’t want is a further watering down of our current labels.  And yes, that means as far as I’m concerned, you are not a lesbian if you’re in a relationship with a man.  I seriously fell off my chair when I read the comment about how we’re being heterophobic by stripping Swoopes of her lesbian label.

I’m sorry, what?  

I am one of those (proudly, yes, proudly) gold star lesbians who gets HIGHLY annoyed at bisexuals mislabeling themselves.  “Ava” pretty much covered this, brilliantly I might add, in her comments, so go back and read if you’re confused.

And as far as “bisexual” actresses go…(insert another big sigh here)

I may decide this next week to declare myself a one-eyed one horned flying purple people eater.  I may, in my heart of hearts, believe that I am a flying purple people eater.  But I feel like you are under no obligation to take this seriously unless you see me flying around and eating people.  I guess I’m in the camp of old jaded people who sees a blatant grab for a die-hard fan base.  Good on you if you’re in the camp that just takes people at their word – I’ll be expecting you to kiss my ring next week when I declare myself The Queen of England.

So while you watch the next bisexual actress du jour stroll down the red carpet with her boyfriend/husband/boytoy of the month while safely declaring her love of women in interviews, I’ll just continue to laugh and wonder how many years it’ll take for everyone else to catch on.

But I digress.  I felt compelled to write this article because I’ve started to notice a little bit of a divide within our community, and I wanted to address it.  I love that the younger generation was born into an age of “It Gets Better” and GSA’s in their public high schools.  What I don’t appreciate is the dismissal of the older generation by said youngsters.  We found our power in coming out and labeling ourselves, and until every single person in this country has full and complete equal rights, we still need to be counted.  That means slapping a big old QUEER label on ourselves so that people know we’re here.  Just don’t get too carried away with your label.  We older gays are too busy getting married and serving openly in the military to look up the definition of pansexual.

And with that, your lesbo big sis gives you a big hug and smack on your ass.  Now go be yourself.

We will be discussing this topic on our live video blog The Gloves Are Off on Thursday at 7 pm PST.  Please join the discussion especially if you disagree!  We welcome the conversation.  Go here to sign up.  


19 Responses to “Labels Aren’t Just for Cans, and WTF is Pansexual Anyway???”

  1. Allie Says:

    Way to go Jill tell those confused SOB’s what’s up!

  2. Alessia Says:

    As a 20-year-old and de facto “youngster” I thought I’d leave a comment largely in agreement with the opinions expressed in this post…

    I feel incredibly lucky to live in Toronto: legally, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to allow same-sex marriage in 2003 which led to the passing of the Civil Marriage Act and the full recognition of same-sex marriages in Canada in 2005 (yahoo). From my perspective, when it comes to issues of identity and sexuality, the problem is not that some iterations of sexual self-expression are inherently incompatible or somehow are at odds with the broader community, it’s that, in my opinion, they are incompatible with political activism.

    For example, in the landmark 2003 case brought before the Ontario Court of Appeal (Halpern v. Canada) the Court found that the common law definition of marriage which defined marriage as between one man and one woman violated section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Without getting too far into the specifics, s. 15 guarantees equality rights and prohibits discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, sex, age, mental or physical disability, or religion (sexual orientation isn’t listed as an enumerated ground in the Charter, but was found to be an analogous ground by the Supreme Court in 1995).

    My point is that it is undeniable that this particular kind of progress and legal advancement which requires the political will of federal lawmakers and significant public support would not have been possible without the proper and consistent use of ‘labels’ as political tools employed to pursue an agenda of equality. Pansexuals can’t enjoy any rights that gays and lesbians don’t have, and though left out of the original 1982 writing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, sexual orientation is not nearly as readily identifiable as race, national or ethnic origin, colour, sex, age, mental or physical disability, or even religion. As members of the LGBT community I think we need to constantly strive for increased visibility and claim our identifiers and labels where we can so that we can also begin/continue to claim the corresponding rights under the law.

    I identify as lesbian and I think labels serve an important purpose more often than not, but I lack the requisite life experience needed to get behind statements like “most people usually settle into one of the dreaded boxy claustrophobic LGB or T labels at some point in their life.” I don’t know if that’s the case–maybe it is–but while I respect everyone’s right to the full expression of their sexual identity, the personal is political and I think it’s important to keep that in mind when it comes to discussing labels. Even in progressive Canada, there has been a noticeable wave of social conservatism lately with conservative parties getting elected at various levels of government. Our newly-elected mayor in Toronto, Rob Ford, skipped out on this year’s pride parade to spend time at his cottage [insert laughter re: irony of mayor skipping pride parade to go cottaging here]. Significant progress has undoubtedly been made on the backs of those who have come before my generation, but there’s no room for complacency or what I’ve termed ‘the identity politics of division’ when there is still so much intolerance in the world and work to be done.

    Thanks for the blog post, Jill 🙂

  3. Born to Rune Says:

    I had this discussion recently with various online people, and I used pretty much the same arguments you have written here. I also had to explain this to my twin sister some time ago when she queried, as my straight twin who doesn’t have to use labels, why should I *sigh* She now understands, we need some labels to be visible, but its sadly all to common a debate that seems to be raging.

  4. hm Says:

    After reading your post I understand why AS didn’t want to post it directly. From everything I’ve read on the site, I honestly don’t get the feeling that they are a site that would stand by rigid, excluding labels.

    I’m going to compare this to race “labels” or categorisations. There was a time where on application forms and such, the only race labels were things like White / African American / Hispanic / Asian / Other. Let’s set aside the fact that it ignores people of mixed descent. Look at that catch-all phrase “Asian.” If you know any Asians, you will probably have heard them complain that “Asian” doesn’t properly point to who they are. “Sure,” you may say – I’m assuming from your name you’re not Asian – “but you LOOK Asian, to me, so I’m going to label you as Asian. I don’t care what YOU think you are (ignoring the fact that, say, Indians and Chinese don’t even have the same skin colour, and the differences inherent in you) the fact is, I, a non-Asian, perceive you as Asian, and it’s more practical to group you as such and to give you a name so that you can fight for rights and representation as one group.”

    Recently, I’ve seen a lot of forms with much more finely-tuned categorising. Instead of a mere “Asian” category, the Asian category now accounts for more Asian descents. Hispanic is also split up. It got more COMPLICATED, to account for those NOT BEING COUNTED.

    Just because “too many labels = omgwtfbbq CONFUSING TO GRASP” doesn’t mean we do away with extra labels. Just because those extra labels don’t apply to YOU PERSONALLY doesn’t mean you can dismiss them, either, or dismiss those that believe in, or subscribe to those extra labels. It just means we need to evolve, and learn to incorporate all of the differences in us.

  5. Emkresge Says:

    15 year olds can label themselves and can label their sexuality and it can be real and true. Maybe they’ll fall into something else later as you suggested, but maybe they won’t. Laughing at someone’s label isn’t a solution.

  6. JC Says:

    Women like Swoops need to grow-up. Her big media splash about about being a new found lesbian was a crock from the start. I don’t care who she sleeps with but why do women like her insist on using the label lesbian to describe themselves? Leave lesbian to the full time pros. Part timers, tourists, drama queens and garden variety attention seekers need not apply.

  7. Evelyne Says:

    Too much labels tend to confuse everyone and I think that our community as a whole has more to lose than gain from this confusion. To me straight, lesbian or bi are still the best labels and work perfectly (even if I’m still struggling with the bi notion). Queer could be added to define all the people who don’t feel represented by any of the 3 labels mentioned above. I’m not talking about dismissing any sexuality or gender expression but by choosing a concise word to define ourselves we’re going to gain power. Words are power. If there is no words to define ourselves we’re invisible but if there are too many words we’re going to be weakened by too many confusing words or labels for the matter.

  8. Alicia Says:

    All I would like to say is, THANK YOU! This is exactly how I feel, and you put the perfect words to it.

  9. JustAnnie Says:

    After reading the Autostraddle comments, I kind of resent the notion that if I’ve ever slept with a man or find men even remotely attractive, I can’t claim to be a lesbian. That rules out just about every lesbian I personally know.

    The first time I fell in love, it was with a woman. After that, I fell in love with a man. Then another man. Then a woman. And so on. I’m currently in love with a woman. When I’m asked about my sexual orientation, I identify as lesbian. Why? Partly because I’ve never connected with men on a deep level. Even the two men I loved, there was something missing – some place in the emotional spectrum where there was a cutoff point and I couldn’t get across that line with either of them, even though I cared for them and was physically attracted to them. My deepest connections have always been with women.

    And partly I identify as lesbian because that’s who I am right now. I am not, in the middle of a lesbian social gathering with my girlfriend on my arm, going to proclaim to be bisexual just because I slept with men 20 years ago or find Hugh Jackman to be hot. Unless someone is sleeping with me, my sexual history and even my sexual orientation really is none of their business unless I choose to share it with them. What they’re dealing with first and foremost, is a human being.

    I’m not dissing the gold stars – it must be nice to have known all your life exactly where you fit in. All I knew at a young age is that I was different, but it took me many more years to figure out why I felt that way. I wish I’d been more enlightened earlier in life, as it would have saved me a whole lot of misery; however, for many of us, it wasn’t that clear. For multiple reasons – cultural, religious, lack of opportunity, sexual curiosity, or whatever – our path meandered. It didn’t go directly to lesbian without a few detours along the way.

    What has been true is that the most discrimination I have ever felt came from within the lesbian community. I attempted to be “PC” in my self-labeling when I first came out in a big way, in a message sent to nearly all my family and friends. In that message I told them I was bi-sexual. This was long after the two men – both of them were in my teens and early 20’s, and I hadn’t been with a man in a long time. Yet I knew that I found (and still find) some men to be physically attractive. I was pleasantly surprised when one of my more conservative uncles wrote me a letter of complete support. I was even more (and not pleasantly) surprised when one of my closest lesbian friends came shrieking at me for “sitting on the fence,” demanding that I “pick a side.” Really? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess.

    When I was first exploring my sexual orientation, I learned that many lesbians didn’t want bisexual women hanging out at their gatherings – claiming to be bisexual seems to be the lesbian social life kiss of death, even if you know in your heart you find women way more attractive than men. For whatever reason, if they believed I was bi-sexual, they suddenly became uncomfortable being around me. It was their issue, not mine, and it was simply easier to claim “lesbian” for their sake. It gets tiring being the odd girl out when you feel like you’re just like everyone else in the room – a woman who loves women. Now, after all this time, I feel like a lesbian, not bisexual.

    Then there’s the whole butch/femme thing, yet another label lesbians seem to want to slap on me. The butches all wanted to label me femme because I wear make-up sometimes. I also wear men’s cargo shorts, don’t wear dresses, have really short hair, and know my way around power tools, but none of that mattered. If I had on one swipe of mascara, I was required to climb into the femme box even if it’s a place I feel completely uncomfortable. One woman who was pursuing me even told me to embrace the femme label because strong vulnerable women like her needed soft understanding women like me to support them. Still makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. Once again, not dissing butch/femme. If that’s your thing, that’s cool, but please don’t make me jump into the pool with you if I don’t feel like swimming. If I feel androgynous (I prefer “power dyke”), can’t we just let that be?

    In my personal close circle of friends there is a Southern Baptist lesbian, a lesbian who also identifies as a gay man, a few bisexual women, a straight woman who writes lesbian fiction, a self-identified bisexual woman who was with a woman for over ten years and is now married to a man, and many self-identified lesbians. If I were to reject all their self-identified labels based upon some strict rules, my world would be much less rich in friendship. I can’t imagine telling my married-to-a-man bisexual friend that she must claim to be straight now. Or my lesbian friend who lusts after Brad Pitt that she must call herself bisexual. It would really hurt their feelings – they’re my friends and I love them and accept them, however they see themselves to be.

    My point? Be who you are and let others be who they are. Let’s celebrate the lesbians, pansexuals, gold stars, butches, femmes, trans, man-loving lesbians, sexually fluid, queer, bisexual, and all the other women of the spectrum. The world would be a very dull place without all the colors of the rainbow. If someone feels green and you believe they should be orange, screaming at them to turn orange isn’t going to make it happen, and you’re only going to make yourself very unhappy worrying about all the people out there who refuse to conform to your labeling system.

    People can privately call me a bisexual/femme all they want if that makes them feel better, but they’d best think twice about trying to force me to wear those labels – they’re not going to stick when applied. I identify as a mostly female-attracted (but occasionally male-attracted) lesbian. If someone feels that damages the lesbian community, that’s their problem, not mine. I’m not going to re-arrange my personal self-identity just because it upsets someone else’s political agenda. As I said, I’m a human being first and foremost. Also, I’m not a youngster, I’m pushing 50. Young at heart maybe, but I’ve been around the block a time or two. Peace out to all.


    this is a hilarious and needed article. keep writing. as a “lesbian big sis” haha. it’s actually quite refreshing.

  11. Cathy DeBuono Says:

    Hi Everyone,

    Jill and I are going to be discussing this topic

    Tonight on “The Gloves Are Off”

    LIVE online TONIGHT Thurs, 8/11 at 7pm PST.

    There is a chat room for participation as well as call in via voice only or video chat.

    We’d love to engage in this discussion tonight, we’d love for those with strong opinions to call in and join us.

  12. Valentina Says:

    “So while you watch the next bisexual actress du jour stroll down the red carpet with her boyfriend/husband/boytoy of the month while safely declaring her love of women in interviews, I’ll just continue to laugh and wonder how many years it’ll take for everyone else to catch on.”

    Lmao! Nice insert! If you’re going where I think you’re going, your next article should be the bisexual actresses and their best-friend-girlfrrriends who their husbands don’t mind them spending time with.

    But overall, good article. I’m a baby dyke myself and this whole no-label-generation that we live in does get irritating sometimes. I like the idea of living in the moment, and focusing on being attracted to someone now, and not tomorrow. Good job!

  13. blueball Says:

    wow JustAnnie do you have any idea how homophobic and misogynistic it is to label yourself as lesbian when you’re clearly a bisexual?

    I guess some people will never learn. You’re not only making yourself look bad but your entire gender.

    well done.

  14. carol2010 Says:

    I love my label, capital L lesbian, it took a lot of work for me to get it, divorcing my husband, keeping the kids, finding a career, finding a wife. And now one of my daughters says she is fluid, that a woman broke her heart. I guess she is lucky to not have to “decide” right now and do the “work” involved with coming out. But I know that in the end that work still has to be done, because I don’t think there are any short cuts to happiness.

  15. whatisthis Says:

    Thank you for positing this. You are a voice of reason.

  16. whatisthis Says:

    Oh and I want to add, this isn’t to do with youngsters or older-folks. I think i qualify as a ‘youngster’ and I dislike the obfuscation of labels as much as the next person. I think a majority of true lesbians would agree with you on that, it is the “sexually-fluid, heterosexual pan-romantic whateverthefucks” that are creating the controversy here.

    I’m a lesbian because I like women, and am uninterested in men and that is it. Simple.

  17. Noelle Messier Says:

    Whatever you call yourself in your personal life is up to you but whether you lean towards men or women or smack in the middle you still will fit into the LGBT label until the aliens land. A lot of thought was put into creating this label in the first place and politically it has done wonders for our community and I am grateful for that.

  18. whiteknight Says:

    As much as I find your article very interesting, and the discussion of labels a corrosive topic, I didn’t think laughing at that girl’s declaration of her pansexuality at 15 was right at all to do. I have felt in my bones who I am since before I even knew about sexuality and labels. When I was only fourteen, I did some googling, just curious to look around, and I found something that completely feels right. It’s like I never had a word for it until then. I liked people. That’s what I always said, growing up. I love people. Age doesn’t determine the validity of someone’s statement. I found that rather offensive.

  19. Les In The City Says:

    Love this! I agree that labels are important in order to build visibility.

    I’ve always gotten annoyed at the “ohh, I don’t want to label myself” shit that I hear from a random at the bar making out with a girl before she goes back to her boyfriend. But just because she doesn’t want to label herself, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a label! In this case, it would be ‘experimenting bicurious’. It’s not that difficult.

    Also, you might be interested in this:
    There is a part there about bisexuals that I totally agree with. Not to say bisexuals do not exist – I’m sure they do – but the fact that MOST people who say they are bisexuals are in reality interested in only one gender to date mirrors my experience, as well.

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