6 December 2023

Why gender and sexuality self-identifiers matter and their place within LGBTQIA+ community and history


By Laneikka Denne, a queer writer, actor, youth arts maker and leader.

You can follow them on Instagram at @laneikka 


Content note: Within this article, the terms ‘self identifiers’ or ‘labels’ are discussed in relation to describing gender and or sexuality. Identity labels are intersectional within their nature, therefore cultural and neurodiverse identities are spoken about in relation to gender and sexuality identifiers.  


I feel like it is an inherently queer act to constantly try to understand yourself. In a world where queer people are misunderstood.  


When I found queer self-identifiers like ‘lesbian’ and then later on ‘gender fluidity’ these labels allowed me to fully articulate what I was feeling to others. I am aware that when these terms are taken for their historical meaning, they entirely counteract. The term ‘lesbian’ was originally used to describe the romantic or sexual relationship between two cisgender women. ‘Gender fluidity’ describes a gender identity that changes and shifts over time. As with anything in life, nuance is essential in understanding why a self-identifier is being used, with the knowledge that these labels may change within different contexts. I identify as a lesbian as my way of honouring the experiences of those who had to identify under that term, at a time, where language couldn’t articulate anything more nuanced.  


I also acknowledge the use and place of the term ‘lesbian’ within multiple queer histories; the times when it was used to include everyone and the times when it excluded gender diverse and trans folk. However, as a genderfluid person, using ‘lesbian’ interchangeably with the term queer, is my attempt to represent and redefine what it means to be a lesbian now; with intersectionality and empathy within my own affirmed self. When writing this article, I knew that my perspective alone would not encapsulate the meaning self-identifiers hold for the community. So I asked my Instagram followers a question: ‘Why are gender and sexuality self-identifiers important to you?’ with the option to disclose their name, age, pronouns or to remain anonymous, so that everyone could openly share their perspective.  


One of the reasons I wanted to talk about identity labels was the debate surrounding them within the queer community. I’ve had a few conversations about how, at times, self-identifiers can make others feel less valid in their identity. “I have felt scared to use the term ‘bisexual’ for the longest time. When I say bisexual, I don’t feel it as a gender binary preference, it’s just a word that holds a lot of emotional weight for me… Queer can feel too vague and sometimes it feels entirely right.” – Anonymous (20) Sometimes self-identifiers can contradict and blur, they are not always their literal definition but rather what they represent for a specific person.  


Another perspective is that self-identifiers are being used to make it easier for cisgender, heterosexual people to understand queerness, rather than the queer people who are using these terms. “I have never actually cared what my gender is… With medical transition, I really felt no tie to a specific gender label. I just had a sense of what I wanted my body to look like… It made accessing hormones a little tricky… because the first medical professionals didn’t really understand that I didn’t actually care or think about feeling like a gender… So I think they thought that was me being too flippant or something.” – Anonymous. I don’t think self-identifiers can articulate the identity of a queer person; I can understand why they may feel redundant. For me, being queer is entirely about ‘feeling’ I couldn’t describe how I felt, I just felt ‘it’. So, when I discovered certain terms, I felt a feeling of catharsis; I knew there was other people who were feeling similar sort of feeling to me. I love seeing a generation of queer people who are proudly self-identifying for no one else but their queer selves. “I don’t go out of my way to tell people my pronouns but if I’m genuine enough, people will be curious to ask and I’m happy to let them know. As long as the people closest to me and I acknowledge how I identify, that’s all I care about. A random person on the street calling me a man doesn’t bother me. I can’t expect them to know my whole story.” – Eden, they/them.  


There is also something to be said in the rising prevalence of identity concepts within white, western communities. When this type of language and relationship to self has existed for thousands of years in other cultures. “Culturally, it’s quite bizarre. My Māori culture uses gender neutral language as a default… I am called they/them in Reo Māori/Māori language and these sit well with me. They/Them and inclusive pronouns of we/us are reverted to, as they uphold a person-first language that first honours our Whakapapa/sacred genealogical connection to each other… Yet, in the English language, I don’t feel that the same feeling aligns with me. I prefer she/her in English and feel misrepresented and misaligned when people intentionally use western gender identifiers that I don’t connect with… I am still working through why I feel this way and it points to my ongoing need to decolonise myself from binary terms when, traditionally, we have multiple gender identifiers that are being reclaimed; initially with Takātapui ‘a intimate lover of the same sex and or the umbrella term for queer’, then Tāhine ‘non-binary’, Irawhiti ‘trans’, Whakatane ‘mascand Whakawahinefemme.” – Mal, 33, she/her.

Gender and sexuality self-identifiers are vital ways to articulate self-expression and deal with identity struggles as a queer person. When viewing the LGBTIQA+ community for the beauty in its complexities and contradictions. “The butch identity and label allows me to embrace that inherent masculinity, without feeling like I’m denying my gender identity. I can allow my femininity to co-exist without it feeling like a contradiction… In the future queertopia, we will outgrow our comfortable boxes, until then if it fits it sits.” – Constance  


Whether they are used or not, self-identifiers can make queer people can feel heard and seen in ways they have never experienced. The evolving nature of queer language is only possible because of the hardship the LGBTIQA+SB community has gone through and continues to fight for today. Without queer language we risk the erasure of our community. When labels are used with queer sensitivity, they can single handedly keep a queer person alive without dividing the community. Likewise, when self-identifiers are actively not used by a queer person, that is their own form of self-affirmation 


As with anything in the queer community, there is room for nuance, context and acceptance. I am hopeful that the next generation of queer people are coming into a time where individuals can choose to redefine words that have helped so many queer people before us.  


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