After a frustrating gatekeeping experience on my favorite LGBTQ forum (to remain unnamed) on Facebook, I’ve decided we need to talk about gatekeeping and labels, good, bad, and ugly, as a greater community. Not just the LGBTQ community, or the geek community, but humanity as a whole. Everyone uses labels to describe themselves and others, whether that’s gay or straight, atheist or believer, geeky or mainstream. It’s a facet of language that we cannot entirely escape, so we should really have an understanding of what labels mean to us, to other people, and the implications of using a label. I can’t possibly cover every label, so this article will be autobiographical, and explore these concepts through the lens of my identity: I’m a nonbinary gay bear married to a woman, and I’m a geek. So let’s talk about what that all means, shall we?
Why Do We Have Labels?
Humans use labels to communicate, distinguish, and discriminate. Thousands of years of history have seen this play out again and again. Labels of wealth, class, race, religion, age, gender, level of technological advancement, and even place in history have been used to apply laws to benefit some while objectifying or oppressing others. Slavery, colonialism, cultural erasure, and religious conversion are all built up on an “us versus them” label structure. Every atrocity from the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites to the modern refusal of healthcare to trans people is built on the idea of an “in-crowd” deserving things that the “out-crowd” doesn’t deserve, relying on labels defining the out-crowd as somehow separate and less worthy than the in-crowd.
So Why Not Get Rid of Labels?
One could make an argument that refusing the use of all labels would somehow be an advancement. After all, how can you be homophobic if there’s no such thing as “gay”? The truth is as painful as it is inconvenient: Once a label is used to denigrate a group, the only way to undo the damage is to permanently affix a “worthy” identity to that group, advocate for their rights, and pass laws ensuring they are treated equally. If we removed all labels related to sex and gender, we’d have no way of ensuring the queer community is cared for, or reporting discrimination against them. I’d point to women’s rights in this. Until women were specifically included in legal protections, they often excluded them by virtue of “otherness.” This applied to housing, employment, voting, and more issues which are all still the topic of modern political debates even though nobody has to be specifically taught that women are people and have rights, too, these days. To this day, a function of government is to review complaints of discrimination against women in the workplace, because (despite extensive legal protections) they are still treated poorly in some workplaces. If employers were no longer required to recognize women as valid employees, this discrimination wouldn’t end overnight. In the same way, protections for LGBTQ people will only exist if we have a better discourse on gender and sexuality, and promote laws which protect LGBTQ people in all walks of life.
How Not To Use Labels:
The first thing you have to remember is that some labels mean a very specific thing, while others are more flexible. Knowing which labels are flexible and which aren’t is part of knowing how to use them properly.
Labels related to race or ethnicity, for example, are usually pretty clear—either you’re born into an ethnic group, or you’re adopted by one or more members of that ethnic group. Other race labels are based on skin color instead of heritage. Black or white, for example, aren’t generally flexible terms, though exceptions exist. Black albinos exist, but aren’t white/caucasian people because of their albinism. A Black person might have a white parent (or a number of white ancestors) which is, to be blunt, surprisingly common to those not versed in the history of Black people in America. But generally, white people are white people, and it’s appropriation to claim to be something else without legal or familial ties to back up your claim.
On the other hand, words describing sex and gender identity feel more specific/limiting than they have to be. Partly, this is because English is woefully under-equipped to deal with the scientific fact that humans don’t come in two exclusive varieties. All of the language around sexuality and gender is binary-based, despite the fact that we are genetically designed to have more than two genders. So, all queer people exist in this strange limbo where most of our labels were created by “straight” culture, usually as a way of making LGBTQ people “others” and denying them rights. I mean, they’re the words we have, but they aren’t perfect by any stretch.
So, at a basic level, labels like gay, lesbian, and bisexual all assume that you are one of two labels, and you’re attracted to one or two of those labels. Other terms, like pansexual, dismiss gender as a factor altogether, but there are no specific words for queer people who aren’t male or female, or are attracted specifically to people who are neither male and female.
A common problem I have is that, as a nonbinary person, I am neither male nor female. Gendered words just don’t apply to me. And, since sexuality labels are binary-referring, there are no words that specifically describe my sexuality. Can I be straight if I’m not a man or a woman? Can I be gay? The answers aren’t easy, and prompt some serious soul-searching. But what I don’t want is for someone to choose those labels for me. That completely invalidates the struggle I face, and is not acceptable—especially when any given label places me on the gender binary despite my identity as nonbinary.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I see the binary gender construct in language all day every day. (And we don’t even have a gender-based language like German or Spanish!) Words like “actor” and “actress” are stressful for me because they distinguish gender, as are “policeman” or “fireman” because they indicate gender and imply that the indicated gender is the default. Understandably, many nonbinary people are hurt by casual gendering like “sir” or “ma’am” which are usually meant well, but ignore the existence of nonbinary people.
So I Can’t Call You Bro?
I’m the odd man out. (See, there’s that gender thing again!) I don’t mind casual gendering. I use he/him/his pronouns, because they’re comfortable and don’t cause me dysphoria to use, but that’s as far as I go with intentional gendering. I avoid the words “man/woman,” “boy/girl,” and “guy/gal,” to refer to myself, because they make my skin crawl. Using those words feels like I’m describing myself as a lemur or rattlesnake—it’s just incorrect and dehumanizing. But casual gendering doesn’t bother me. Being called “dude,” “bro,” “chica,” “sis,” “sir,” or “ma’am” doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Partly, this has roots in gay culture’s tendency to bend gender rules. I’d been called “sister” by gay men for a decade before coming out as nonbinary, and it was surprisingly validating then, and remains so, now.
Feel Like This is a Trick?
There’s no trick, but there’s a rule: Be respectful, endearing, and/or kind. If you call me “ma’am” as a sign of respect or out of recognition that male-assuming terms might be hurtful, that’s always fair game. But if a stranger sees that I have my nails painted, or thinks my haircut isn’t “manly” enough and calls me “ma’am” to be disrespectful, I’m gonna be hurt by that, and that’s not acceptable behavior. I have a friend who has called me “bro” since about the time we killed Arthas together in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. I have changed my gender and sexuality labels since then, but he still calls me “bro,” which feels like kinship and being comfortable together.
Other trans people have this experience sometimes, especially trans parents. Trans men might still be “Mom” to their kids, and nonbinary people might still be “Mom” or “Dad” to their kids. My kids still refer to me as “stepdad” as often as they do “stepparent.” Trans people who were in fraternities/sororities might still consider themselves a “brother” to their frat brothers or a “sister” of their sorority sisters, despite the change in their gender identity. None of these labels are “wrong,” even if they’re directly contrasting the person’s usual expression of what is hurtful to them. More importantly, nobody has the right to decide they’re using the wrong labels, or tell them which words they’re allowed to use.
So When Is It Appropriate to Mix Up Gender Words?
It’s never really cool to misgender people. However, sometimes it’s acceptable when it doesn’t hurt the person you’re gendering, regardless of their gender identity. A gay man might call another male-presenting person “Queen,” “girl,” or “sister” and everyone knows they mean to indicate kinship and respect, and that male-presenting person knows they’re not being called feminine in particular, so they aren’t usually hurt by the gendered language used. In the same way, if you say “bro” or “dude” and don’t mean it to indicate gender, feel free to use it so long as the person you’re misgendering isn’t hurt by you doing so. If someone tells you that a gendered word hurts them, regardless of whether that’s a dysphoria problem, a trauma association, or just a particular dislike of a word being used for them, then you should never use that word in reference to them again.
For example, I call my best friend Dad, and have for years. He has called me his son for quite some time. It never feels wrong when he does so, though he tries to remember not to, out of respect for my identity. But when he slips, I don’t mind. He’s not policing my identity, he’s reveling in our kinship. So many LGBTQ people only have “found” family because our birth families are jerks, and we wouldn’t give up what we have for anything. But if my transphobic relatives call me nephew, son, or brother? Oh, there’s rage in my eyes at those times. I have cut people off for the simple insistence that I have to be a boy or a girl. It’s about respect, see?
Do LGBTQ People Need To Work On This?
Lord, yes. Inside the LGBTQ community, we regularly deal with the concept of “gatekeeping” and it’s particularly problematic for nonbinary people trying to describe their sexuality, at least in my experience. I was recently told (by a gay guy) that I shouldn’t use the word “gay” to describe myself because I’m married to a woman. Then, without asking for more information, they informed me that the correct word to use would be bisexual. After I got over the initial pain and shock of a fellow gay person gatekeeping my identity, I reminded them of a basic truth: “You don’t get to police my identity.” The conversation went on from there, of course, and I explained my identity, but the harm was already done: This guy had decided my identity and was rude enough to tell me who I was.
Why is this important? Why hold LGBTQ people accountable when so many straight people are hurting us? Simple. We have to build the world we want to live in by living it ourselves. We can’t expect straight people to treat us better than we treat each other. We start making it happen by being the best version of the world ourselves.
Is This a Geek Issue?
Absolutely, y’all! The Geek/Nerd/Fandom communities are rife with toxic gatekeeping of people who are told they can’t be “real” geeks/nerds/fans if they don’t meet certain criteria. I’ve seen international celebrities told they can’t be “real” fans of work they’ve influenced or acted in because they haven’t read every comic, own every book, or because they aren’t a man. Sometimes, these are people who have had huge influence on geek culture, or helped define who their character would be for an entire generation simply because they weren’t hardcore uber-fans who had absorbed every problematic trope of a genre or a character’s poorly-done previous incarnations.
What is Gatekeeping, Exactly?
Gatekeeping is when we arbitrarily define any term, and tell people they don’t match that definition enough to be part of the community. So, telling a man who identifies as “gay” that he can’t be gay unless he “only likes men” is gatekeeping. Telling someone they can’t be a true Trekkie unless they’ve seen every bad episode of every bad season of Star Trek: Enterprise is also gatekeeping. The truth is, there are many people in the world, and they are all different. All humans need to work on any form of exclusion, as that is the basis of every hate crime and discrimination in history. We will be better people when we get rid of gatekeeping.
For example, adding any kind of qualifications to gayness is pointless and harmfully exclusive. In the recent exchange I mentioned above, one gatekeeper claimed that I have to be at least 90% gay to use the word “gay” for myself. But how do you measure that? What does 90% gay mean? I sure as heck don’t know, and they couldn’t explain it to me. What they wanted to feel was that I didn’t like girls enough for that to make them uncomfortable. As if I somehow enjoy sex acts with men less because I also enjoy sex acts with women, or that by not identifying as male-enough, I don’t qualify as a male in order to qualify as “gay” or “bear.”
Let me be clear: Gender and sexuality are not an elite specialization in a videogame. I do not have limited points to assign to gender and sexuality. I can like women however much I do, and like men however much I do, and I don’t have to compare them in some sort of mathematical representation in order to be most comfortable describing myself as gay.
I use gay because there’s no equivalent for “gay man” or “lesbian” meant for nonbinary people. If I’m nonbinary and attracted to women, I’m neither straight nor a lesbian. If I’m attracted to men, I’m not inherently “gay” or “straight,” either. So, which label feels most comfortable? My options are gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or straight, right? Or do I make up my own word? (Side note: it’s almost always mocked when a queer person, especially a nonbinary person, makes up a new word.)
I go with gay for a few reasons:
Bisexual is a term horribly subject to discrimination by queer people claiming you’re pretending to be gay or not willing to “come out all the way,” and straight people often accuse bisexual people of being “slutty” or “indiscriminate.” I dealt with this discrimination for far too long to be comfortable using this term. Besides, I’m attracted to a non-two number of genders, so the word isn’t all that comfortable anyway. (I would note, though, that the bisexual community is moving toward recognizing bisexuality as being attracted to any number of genders greater than one, so the common usage of this term is changing.)
Pansexual: This label indicates a sense of gender-blindness, or being attracted to people regardless of gender. My sexuality is informed by gender, no argument, so pansexual isn’t a good fit for me, either.
Lesbian: I’ve never been a woman, and I don’t ever feel like a woman, so lesbian does not feel like a word that applies to me. Besides, to be blunt, I like guys far too much for this to be right. (And no, being married to a woman is not a point in favor of “lesbian.”)
Straight: Can you be straight if you’re nonbinary? No. No, you cannot. There’s no room for you in a “straight” relationship, since you cannot be a man dating a woman or a woman dating a man.
Gay: This is what feels like home. I was raised as a “boy,” and most of my sexual relationships have been with men, so I was most comfortable with this label when I came out. That hasn’t changed now that I’m in my first (and only) serious relationship with a woman. I might be married, but every relationship before this one was with men, and that isn’t invalidated by my current relationship, nor is my ongoing attraction to people of any number of genders. So “gay” isn’t a perfect label, but it’s my label, dammit, and nobody gets to take that away or decide on a different one for me.
This is where I see gatekeeping at its strongest. And I can’t ignore toxic geek culture in a discussion about gatekeeping. The first time I noticed this was when I was training a new coworker, and she called me “Master Rory” followed by a Star Wars reference. “Okay,” I think, “she might be my people.” After some return references, I realized she’d never seen Return of the Jedi! It hadn’t been available on the streaming service she had (Hulu) and she’d had to borrow the others from friends to see them. A coworker was horrified and said she couldn’t be a “true” Star Wars fan if she’d never seen Return of the Jedi. I stopped the conversation, reminded both of them that you can be a fan even if you’ve only see the original movie, or even just Episode 1 (since we were all kids when 1 was released). Then we set up a watch party for Return of the Jedi.
The cool part of this? I got to be there when she saw some of the best scenes in the franchise. I handed her the remote right at the beginning and told her to pause if she needed to. She paused it several times to just geek the hell out, and it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had re-watching a movie. I can’t count the number of times I said, “Just wait. There’s more.” It was GREAT.
But here’s the thing. If I’d let that gatekeeping moment stand, I’d have missed that, and that coworker might have never gotten into the books on my subsequent recommendation. If people feel like they’re part of a fandom, the LGBTQ community, or any other community, your first response should be to welcome them, not gatekeep. Let people call themselves Potterheads even if they (understandably) don’t like JK Rowling. Let people call themselves gay even if they aren’t a man married to a man. If you want to understand why, ask them! But don’t tell them they don’t belong and expect them to educate you about the place they deserve, ’cause that’s not their job.
So, Are Labels Meaningless?
Labels are not meaningless, but many labels don’t have to be exclusive, and sometimes there’s no word which matches exactly with some people’s identity. If someone feels like they’re “mostly gay” and chooses the “gay” label for themselves, we should respect that and not assume that they have zero interest in women unless they tell us that. If someone is nonbinary, but uses masculine pronouns, we can respect that he doesn’t identify as a man or a woman, even if he chooses to use gendered pronouns. And finally, we can recognize that we have insufficient words in our language to describe all of humanity, and we can let nonbinary people, and other folks who don’t fit into neat categories, use the words that feel least hurtful to themselves. And, yes, we can let people who have never read the books be huge Dune fans, if they’ve only seen the movie(s).
Gatekeeping Versus Stopping Appropriation
I was going to be done with this article, but feel compelled to add a couple of thoughts. Namely, there are some labels which are inappropriate to give yourself or claim for yourself. These have to do with appropriation, which is when someone steals from a marginalized group or uses their traditions inappropriately. For example, a white person with some distant or contested ancestor who might have been Native American should not claim that heritage as their own, particularly if they were not raised among the families and traditions of the tribes they’re claiming. It’s one (completely fine) thing to be adopted by a tribe and raised as a member of the tribe, but it’s a completely different (and bad) thing to say you might be white (and were raised in white suburbia) but have a great-great-grandmother who was a Cherokee princess, so it’s fine for you to make and sell dreamcatchers on Etsy. (In case you don’t know, the Cherokee tribe doesn’t have princesses, and never has. Also, the dreamcatcher is a tradition of the Ojibway (Chippewa) tribe, so this theoretical person’s claims are as irrelevant as they are wrong-minded. Oh, and these tribes still exist, and aren’t historical, so this harm is being done to a modern culture.) You should always back a member of a marginalized community who says they’re being hurt by appropriation, even if that means telling people they can’t use names or labels for themselves that don’t belong to them.
Of course, cultural appropriation happens in/to geek culture, too. The early days of The Big Bang Theory were rife with criticism for appropriating geeky passions and life choices to be a comedic backdrop for a primetime sitcom. In other places, traditionally geeky subjects, characters, or fantasy worlds have become the subject of pop culture, effectively separating it from “geek” culture. This is often a double-edged knife, though. After all, how cool is it that our kids could wear superhero clothes to school and not get bullied? How awesome is it that my non-geek friends understand my references and jokes? It’s great! But it hurts to think that I suffered for liking these things that other people take for granted, too. I think it’s often a win, but it doesn’t take the sting away when someone abuses a good character or does a crappy re-imagining of a beloved fandom. That’s something I channel when I see outrage over racist sports team names, or someone using traditional African carvings in a hurtful way. It hurts to have your treasured things mistreated, especially when they are sacred, and it makes you a good person to recognize that hurt and take steps to prevent it from happening again.