Gay men have perfected the art of labeling themselves in ways that are creative, yet at times, constraining to our identity. After fighting to move beyond stereotypes imposed by straight culture, there is something slightly disquieting about self-imposed categories typically based only on external characteristics and sexual behavior. This is a logical outgrowth of life online, especially social (well, sexual) networking sites where we package ourselves as commodities for quick review by the outside world.
The list of gay labels is long and ever-changing, but provides us with a common lexicon by which to classify ourselves and each other: bears, daddies, boys, twinks, tops, bottoms, barebackers, clubkids…even labels related to drug culture such as PNPers and slammers. Some categories are broad and general, and some are more obsessively developed such as the bear codes, which cleverly quantify characteristics such as furriness, the grope factor, and even the slut factor.
Are these useful? They certainly make finding a compatible sex partner as easy as finding a great shirt on the sale rack at Macy’s. But such labels are also valuable helping gay men forge an identity in the relatively hostile environment that we call gay life. Labels provide guidelines for many men both during the coming out process and beyond, laying out a rich menu of sub-cultures which provide both identity and a sense of belonging.
While labels provide a level of comfort in a homophobic world, I wonder if they don’t confine us as well. I sometimes get concerned that people too often define themselves by externals alone and don’t push themselves to completely discover who they might be as individuals, daring to express that to the world. Labels too often provide cover for ignoring the internal thoughts and feelings that make us unique and, ironically for someone seeking to fit in, for what makes us both likeable and lovable as individuals.
I don’t mean to imply that people are simply slaves to whatever category they have adopted, or that they are confined to just one label, or even that what we call ourselves doesn’t change as we age. I do feel, however, that too often we are complicit in oversimplifying the identity we express to the world which reinforces the stereotypes about our community such as hypersexuality and superficiality.
Another downside of labels is their power to polarize. Too often they reinforce what keeps us separate instead of allowing us to experience what we all share in common. It is as if we have created our own little ghettos by which we limit ourselves from recognizing our strength as a gay community. We can find unity, however, as evidenced recently by the turnout at rallies against Proposition 2. It was truly moving to see a diverse group of gay men and woman as well as our allies coming together as one community to express our unified voice.
Do labels reflect who you want to be? Next time you consider how you fit in or how you are perceived by others, don’t be limited by pre-packaged descriptions. Customize your identity and express yourself in a way that reflects who you really are, inside and out.
Interested in finding out more about this topic and others related to how we connect with other gay men both socially and sexually? Check out my “Connections” group as well as two other groups, “Becoming Mr. Right” and “Finding your Inner Artist,” beginning in January at Fusion Wilton Manors).