Please tick one box only

5 February 2018
Image Credit: Max Pixel

Labels are ingrained into our lives. Our society is programmed to categorise and classify, to press and push individuals into boxes that they can understand and contain. I identify as a bisexual woman, but these are not labels I feel comfortable with. I do not adopt these labels to reinforce my own sense of identity, but rather use them as coping mechanisms in a society that groups and categorises even those label-adverse individuals under the term ‘non-binary’ or often, ‘other’. ‘Female’ and ‘bisexual’ are merely boxes to tick on my next job application.

Society treats gender as a culmination of our tendencies, but I fervently believe that gender, beyond its existence as a social construct, is a destructive illusion. I identify as female, because that is my biological sex and I’m unsure if I deviate enough from archetypal ‘feminine’ tendencies to challenge this perception of myself. Viewed objectively, looking simply at the clothes in my wardrobe, my hobbies and mannerisms, society would likely be unsure which box to place me in.

My reality is that I am too ashamed to face the quizzical stare of the inevitably male shop assistant to cross the threshold into the men’s section, merely for a loose fitting t-shirt. I cannot fathom what it is about being born as a particular biological sex that should mean I must dress a certain way, and conform to certain standards. Yet I do not challenge it. I stay quiet, I shop online, my identity hidden behind the safety of my laptop screen. And all because society has told me that this is easier. Society has told me that if I choose to challenge my label, I will merely move from the ‘female’ box to the ‘other’ box: just another category to contain me.

The concept of categorising and classifying individuals into boxes implies an element of permanency and certainty. The reality of sexuality, in particular, is far less rigid. Any questionnaire about sexuality will typically provide for both extremes of a scale — heterosexuality and homosexuality — and then will allow one to opt for ‘bisexuality’ in reference to literally any other point on the continuum. It is absurd that one term could be used to cover such a wide spectrum of sexualities. And on top of this, the terms heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality inherently reinforce the perception that there exists only two categories of ‘gender’.

Labelling sexualities implies that individuals have one distinct sexuality, with no prospect of fluidity. Labels put pressure on individuals to ‘declare’ their sexuality at a young age, with a view to remaining firmly and perpetually contained inside their chosen box. Any attempt to change labels will render the previous label a mere phase.

In my ideal world, gender and sexuality labels would cease to exist. Individuals would be free to live according to their preferences, without being forced into a box. But it appears unrealistic, even undesirable, to expect such a state of affairs to come about in the current social climate. With sexism and inequality still so prevalent within society, it would be naïve to assume that a legal declaration dissolving the concept of ‘gender’ or ‘sexuality’ would automatically place everyone on a level playing field. Labels are necessary to the extent that they provide support and unity in the ongoing fight against the patriarchy and oppression, but ironically the very existence of such categories reinforces the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic. Thus the presence of labels must be considered a destructive, yet necessary aspect of our current society, particularly in the quest for acceptance and equality.