Society likes labels. It likes to put us into boxes. Sometimes those boxes overlap like a rectangular Venn diagram. Sometimes they’re similar to someone else’s array of boxes.
A lot of us have complicated relationships with our labels, and I think a lot of that has to do with where the labels come from. I was working on a project recently where someone asked, “I have ____. Does that count as a chronic illness?” I was horrified. Why should anyone else define your condition? If you feel you have a chronic illness, isn’t that enough? And yet, I have seen it happen over and over again. Someone is told they don’t really “belong” in a group.
But labels can also be empowering. They can help us quickly convey something about ourselves to others. They can help us learn about the group that we belong to. And one of the things I find most important: they help us find community.
You’re a queer bisexual woman with a chronic illness too!?! Awesome!!
Yes, I’ve heard myself utter those words. It’s so great to talk to someone I can relate to in multiple ways. I love using certain labels because it helps me find my peeps. Totally cool.
What’s not so cool is when other people choose to label me or anyone else. It’s also not cool when they choose to redefine my labels. I’ve heard people say, “Bisexuals are only interested in threesomes.” When I say that’s not true, they disagree. Um, wouldn’t I, as a bisexual, know that better than you, a monosexual?
I’ve heard people say that if you’re not in a wheelchair then you don’t need to use a ramp. When I try to explain why that’s not true, they don’t want to hear it. They’d rather hold on to their preconceived notions than actually learn they might not be 100% correct about something.
It can be infuriating, that’s for sure. And as someone who has a chronic illness and is bi, I’ve been amazed at how much overlap I have seen in these two communities. Both chronic illnesses and bisexuality are often (though not always) invisible to the casual observer. Often, people pretend we don’t exist, either individually (“you’re dating a man so you must be straight now”) or as a group (“there’s no such thing as fibromyalgia, it’s just a made up condition so the pharmaceutical companies can sell more drugs.”)
People like to throw their labels onto us. As if I don’t know if I have chronic illnesses or not. As if I shouldn’t be allowed to define my own sexual orientation.
We both have our labels misunderstood often. Who hasn’t heard some version of “it’s not like that will kill you” when it really could, or “bisexuals aren’t capable of monogamy because when you’re with someone of one gender you’ll always be missing the other gender”? (This last one has the added bonus of marginalizing anyone who doesn’t fit into the gender binary.)
And let’s not forget the joy of having someone condescendingly explain who we are to us. I won’t even bother with a sample quote because it’s just so heinous.
There’s discrimination, and sometimes it’s based on labels that don’t apply to us but that someone assumes describe us.
Then there’s the joy of having someone argue that the label we choose isn’t “right” in some way. Like being told your condition isn’t really a chronic illness. Or the ever-popular, “I don’t think you’re really bisexual, you’re pansexual.”
But wait! Don’t despair! Because having these labels is also truly awesome!
If I didn’t use the term “chronic illness” how would I have found all of you? We all have such different diagnoses, symptoms, and life situations. I could write a blog about having Hashimoto’s Disease, but I wouldn’t get to talk about Celiac. I could write about Celiac, but what about PCOS? Anyone with a different diagnoses probably wouldn’t bother to read or comment. Using “chronic illness” allows us to all connect, and that’s magical.
I feel the same way about calling myself bi. Sure, it means that sometimes I’m shunned in lesbian spaces. But it also helps me to find other bi folks. It means people don’t look at me askance when I mention that cute girl over there, even though they knew I was dating a guy last year. We can share stories and music and movies and books. We can simply find each other.
And don’t forget the research. The health research around chronic illnesses is probably somewhat familiar to you. But did you know about Bisexual Health Awareness Month? The research around health disparities for bisexual folks is super important, but how could anyone conduct that research unless people self-labeled as bi?
I could go on for days about the similarities in the way labels affect both the CI and bi communities so for now I’ll just say, thank goodness for our labels. Despite all of the problems with them, they’ve help me to find some incredible people, and I’m so grateful for that.
Now, it’s time to go fight some more of those damn stereotypes!
How do you feel about labels? What are some of the labels you apply to yourself? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!