by Tereza Walsbergerová
As most societies still struggle to fully accept gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people, new sexual and gender identities keep entering the discourse, filling the gaps in representation and aiming to secure a niche in the queer community. While on one hand, these “new” identification labels will perhaps in time lead to a wider variety of queer representation in the media, they also undoubtedly contribute to the fragmentation of the community itself. This article serves as both a general introduction to some of the labels that have recently recently started entering the mainstream as well as a focus on particular issues and controversies related to these identifications in the context of the queer community.
The impending death of binary oppositions
One thing is certain – the number of these “new” identification labels show that it is necessary to look at sexuality and gender as spectrums and think about each particular label as flexible and fluid rather than rigid. Therefore, thinking about sexuality, gender, or even biological sex as “binary” is no longer sufficient.
When it comes to sexual orientation, for example, there are many labels you can choose from nowadays, besides gay/lesbian and bisexual. Bisexuality is an identification which has been around since the 19th century and while it is undoubtedly more visible than other labels – e.g. pansexuality and asexuality – there are still many stigmas and stereotypes attached to it, which indicates society’s reluctance to abandon the notion of binary oppositeness in queerness.
Similarly, you may imagine gender as more of a spectrum where masculinity and femininity are in the opposite corners and one may also choose to identify as genderqueer or agender. In addition, it should not be forgotten that biological sex has not been known as binary for a long time – recently, intersex people have even started gaining more visibility (not only) thanks to supermodel Hanne Gaby Odiele, who has been speaking out about being intersex.
Thinking about sexuality, gender, or even biological sex as “binary” is no longer sufficient.
What is more, there are many who claim that sexual orientation is merely one side of the coin when it comes to interpersonal attraction. According to AVENwiki, an offshoot of The Asexual Visibility and Education Network and presently the most comprehensive source on asexuality, “[t]here are many forms of attraction someone may experience”, namely sexual, romantic, sensual, and aesthetic. While the concepts of sensual and aesthetic attraction are more tricky to grasp, sexual and romantic attraction are more straightforward. All you need to know is if, and what gender(s) you are romantically or sexually attracted to. Thus, a single person may identify as e.g. “panromantic asexual” (= asexual person romantically attracted to people of all gender identifications).
Asexuals and aromantics
It should therefore not be surprising that asexuality and aromanticism are not mutually exclusive. In other words, not all asexuals are also aromantic. According to AVENwiki: “[a]n aromantic is a person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to others”. This logically suggests that any sexual person may also identify as aromantic.
On top of this, not all asexuals are celibate, as it is stressed on AVENwiki. There is a difference between sexual attraction and sex drive. The wiki states: “[w]hen asexuals experience a physical desire for sex (a libido), it is not connected to attraction or desire to another person, and thus can be satisfied without a partner”.
Since 2001, The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN for short) has been defending the rights of people identifying as asexual and offering a platform (in a form of a discussion forum) for them to talk to each other across the globe. In that sense, it can be said that the asexual community as a whole (similarly to the trans community) assembled online.
Not even the asexual orientation/identification label lasted long without becoming fragmented, though. Nowadays, you might come across such identities as demisexual (someone who only experiences sexual attraction after creating an emotional bond with another person) or gray-asexual, also known as gray-A (someone who finds themselves somewhere between sexuality and asexuality). In fact, there is an online resource for demisexuals, gray-asexuals, and those who are questioning their asexuality – Demi Gray at demigray.org existing completely separately from AVEN, which indicates a certain need for this community to somehow distinguish itself from the asexual community.
There are many who claim that sexual orientation is merely one side of the coin when it comes to interpersonal attraction.
The question of whether this further fragmentation of the asexual community (and therefore also the queer community) will mean more diversity when it comes to the representation of the community, or whether the community is hurting itself by constantly creating new labels, is in this case even more poignant as the representation is already at its minimum. Furthermore, there is also the issue of whether the asexual community should belong in the queer community at all, which has not yet been definitely answered (and perhaps will never be) and which also does not help the general confusion.
Bisexuality x pansexuality
When it comes to pansexuality, which the Merriam-Webster defines as “of, relating to, or characterized by sexual desire or attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation”, you may ask a question pertaining to the “impending death” of binary oppositeness in relation to bisexuality, which even has “bi” in its name.
Bisexuality is in the same dictionary defined as “of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to members of both sexes”. Some could argue that bisexuality could be regarded as an outdated label as it is still connected with the binary view of gender. In fact, there have been those who argue that identifying as bisexual might be considered “transphobic” as it does not include any gender identifications beyond the feminine/masculine binary.
According to Bisexual.org, an American-based project dedicated to the promotion of the bisexual community in the world: “[b]y replacing the prefix bi – (two, both) with pan- (all), poly- (many), omni- (all), ambi- (both, and implying ambiguity in this case), people who adopt these self-identities seek to clearly express the fact that gender does not factor into their own sexuality, or that they are specifically attracted to trans, genderqueer, and other people who may or may not fit into the mainstream gender categories of male and female”. In other words, people who identify as bisexual might have chosen this label in order to express that while gender does factor into their sexuality, they do not limit it to the feminine and masculine gender, which means that they do not necessarily have to be transphobic.
Additionally, some may choose this label rather than any of the more obscure ones simply because it is better known amongst the general public and therefore guarantees wider acceptance and stronger representation in the media.
Ambiguity within ambiguity
Ambiguity and general unclarity are common features of most queer identities and the queer community as a whole. This is why any questioning heterosexual people and those who are experimenting with their sexuality (e.g. people often labeled as “bi-curious”) will probably not be included under the queer umbrella as it would perhaps contribute to the further fragmentation of the community, although the “Q” in LGBTQIA (one of the most inclusive versions of the queer community initialism) is often interpreted as “questioning” rather than “queer” or as both.
Ultimately, everyone’s identity and identification label as well as their “membership” in the queer community is a matter of personal choice. Additionally, not everyone is one hundred percent confident in their identity and romantic/sexual/gender identification and due to its “fuzzy edges” as well as the “perviousness” (or fluidity) of the labels it is not likely that the trend of fragmentation will end any time soon.
Consequently, people outside the community may perceive it as incomprehensible and unstable, especially based on the influx of newly-emerging labels, which is not likely to stop anytime soon.
Advantages of queer liminality
Despite this pessimistic scenario, there are still some positives to the continual emergence of new labels if one looks at it from insider’s point of view. The obvious one is the option of an individual to carve their own niche within the queer community and to become secure in their identity, which certainly helps maintain mental stability.
Moreover, this kind of hyper-diversity can be understood as antidote to the use of generalizations and general labels while referring to sub-communities (e.g. the use of “gay” as a general adjective describing any member of the queer community, which de facto erases everyone in the community besides gay men).
Of course, most of these labels are still not frequently used outside the “queer social bubble”, so it might take a long time for them to integrate themselves within the subconscious of the general public. For now, they are mostly used internally amongst the members of the queer community online (e.g. on Twitter, Tumblr, individual queer platforms, and in selected podcasts, such as Dylan Marron’s Conversations with People Who Hate Me).
Furthermore, while some of these labels have recently gained more visibility in the mainstream media – e.g. Bojack Horseman’s Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) came out as asexual in the latest season on Netflix – it is still not enough to satisfy the demand of the community.
Thanks to the role of new technologies including the internet and especially social networks, members of the queer community have easier access to more information and can more easily communicate with each other in order to compare their experiences.
As compensation, they traditionally appear in fanfiction next to the better-known identification labels. For example, Archive of Our Own – also known as AO3 (currently the best-developed archive of fanfiction online) hosts no less than 9,243 works tagged with “asexuality”, 1,651 works tagged with “pansexuality”, 1,097 works tagged with “intersex”, and 1,402 works tagged with “agender” (1).
Based on all this, you might ask what are the features of this kind of hyper-diversity within the queer community in relation to time. While taking on particular queer identification label (or more) is certainly nothing new, it is possible to claim that with the increasing relaxedness, not to say freedom, regarding one’s sexual and gender identification, younger generations today (i.e. millennials and gen Z) have considerably more space to think about their identity on a much deeper level. This would help explain the growing numbers of queer labels.
Additionally, thanks to the role of new technologies including the internet and especially social networks, members of the queer community have easier access to more information and can more easily communicate with each other in order to compare their experiences.
Ultimately, the numbers of these labels will, based on the trend, probably continue growing. Therefore, the only possible vision when it comes to the future is continual tolerance and acceptance of each individual’s chosen identity as well as a persisting pressure on the media to represent these identities in order to bring them to the general public.
The question, whether the further fragmentation of the queer community ends up hurting the community in the end is therefore still up in the air, as it hangs on the reaction of the general public.
1 Note: These numbers were retrieved from AO3 at the time of writing this article and may continue growing in the future. Additionally, they do not indicate the final/highest number of such works, as some authors may have tagged their works incorrectly or differently.