Ever since the academic appearance of the concept of homosexuality in 1869 homosexuals and others with non-normative sexual orientations and non-normative genders have been studied and attempted to be defined (Faderman, 41). Many different definitions and labels have been produced to appeal to different factions of non-normative sexual identities, some of which have been taken from slurs and taunts as a means to empower them that reclaim it. Identities and labels of those who claim non-normative sexual orientations help people fit in within society as well as within groups. It is nearly impossible to escape a label in this society.

Some claim, however, that labels based on gender and sexual orientation are imprisoning, and reduce people into one state of being instead of recognizing the complexities of individuals. Through exploration of labels of the past, and examining the current evolution of labels, I shall show the importance of labels within the queer rights movement. Labels, while potentially restrictive, are a necessary catalyst for the advancing of queer rights, because by defining and choosing our labels we are then able to deconstruct and, later, abolish those labels.

When the term “homosexual” was first defined it was labeled both as a gender deviance or a sexual partner preference deviance, depending on the sexologist doing the labeling. In 1897 the label of sexual inversion was given to homosexuals by Havlock Ellis, with which he categorized homosexuals into several different and distinct categories. Ellis was ahead of his time in several ways: he was the first to attempt to categorize homosexuals into distinct classifications, and the first to talk of homosexuality as a permanent identity, which was not widely accepted until the 1920s (Ellis, 122).

“Homosexual” is seen as a clinical term, first used by scientists and psychologists, and while it has been used widely since its inception, the term was put onto those who were deemed homosexuals, not chosen by homosexuals for themselves. Pejorative terms such as fairy, fag, queer, and dyke also have questionable beginnings and lineage. Though, often the people on whom those terms were being applied chose to turn around and embrace them, disempowering their impact by wearing them proudly like a badge.

Before 1973 homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder by the American Psychological Association (APA) and was included in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (DSM) (D’Emilio 13). In 1973 it was removed from the DSM but was replaced by ego-dystonic homosexuality in 1980. Ego-dystonic homosexuality was not simply characterized by having homosexual desires, but by having unwanted homosexual desires, which were interfering with the normal heterosexual desires you were “supposed” to be having. This newer disorder of ego-dystonic homosexuality was later taken out of the DSM in 1986, and no disorders regarding homosexuality remain in the DSM today (Herek). The terms gay and lesbian have more personal resonance within the queer movement than the term homosexual because they were not developed within an academic rhetoric and are not associated with the “pathological” disorder of homosexuality.

‘Gay’ and ‘lesbian’ have no specific date of origin, but did not come into common mainstream usage until around the 1970s and the beginning of the queer rights movement (then the gay rights movement), though they had been around for many years before that. The labels for deviant sexual orientations throughout the years since the beginning of the modern gay movement have changed significantly. Starting out simply gay and lesbian, becoming broader and more inclusive with lesbian, gay, and bisexual, then gender was added into the mix with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, and then come the micro labels which are in common usage today: lesbian, gay, bisexual, omnisexual, pansexual, sapiosexual, transgender, transsexual, transvestite, cross-dresser, cisgender, genderqueer, gender bender, asexual, ally, queer, intersexed, intergendered, questioning, unsure, same gender loving, men who have sex with men, women who have sex with women, two-spirited, etc. The semantics of the movement are slowly moving toward using a catch-all umbrella term—queer—to encompass all of these terms and more. This progression is extremely important, in relationship to the progression of the queer movement.

Micro-identities, for the purpose of this paper, are more defined and specific, and relate to a larger, more well-known or mainstream identity. Dyke, butch, and femme are all micro-identities of lesbian identity just as fag, queen, and macho are all micro-identities of gay identity. Micro-identities have been a part of queer identities since the early 20th century when identities regarding sexual orientation became commonplace. There have always been different terms (Ellis, 22; Faderman, 59). Today individuals within the queer movement are choosing and creating micro-identities which define their own distinctive selves. People are coming up with relatively new terms such as “sapiosexual” or simply stringing a number of micro-identities together to create one identity such as “bio-female omnisexual genderqueer femme drag queen,” instead of simply choosing broad identities such as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

While identifying with a term can help to claim a part of the self, such terms can also become stifling and limiting in their definitions. The more defined and specific the label is the more restricting and imposing the label becomes. Once one claims an identity they are then often seen as only having that identity, and not given room to maneuver within or outside of it. Should someone claim a micro-identity which is slightly difficult to outwardly express, such as the example above, they are often put into categories by those who observe them which do not fit their own self-identity. By only being seen as one of potentially multiple identities a person is only seen as a fraction of themselves, or by not having their identity recognized by others, that person may be seen as someone they are not. In this society and many others there are very strict ideas of how a person is supposed to look or behave depending on their culturally perceived identity, which is extremely limiting both for people who do and do not fit into their perceived identity (Third World Gay Revolution and Gay Liberation Front 297).

The sexual orientation identities of gay and lesbian are often tangled with a gender stereotype, and there is no way to untangle them (Third World Gay Revolution and Gay Liberation Front 297). The gender identification which is stereotypically related to gays or lesbians is often that of the culturally “wrong” or “incorrect” gender, that is, masculine females for lesbians and feminine males for gay men. With the assumption of the socially correct gender comes the assumption of the socially correct sexual orientation, that is, a “real” masculine male must only be attracted to a “real” feminine female, and visa versa. When the sexual orientation is non-normative, the gender assumption is as well. However, “gender identity, being entirely artificial, has little to do with sexual orientation, this is another way gay oppression is used to keep people in line” (297). While gender deviance and non-normative sexual orientations can be linked in many people, there are also many people who have the socially correct gender presentation while still having a non-normative sexual orientation.

Foucault and other post-modernists claim that through the construction of these identities we are taught ways in which to not only police others to see if they fit into these categories, but also to police ourselves. We must consider, at every moment, what sort of presentation we are giving, if our body and mannerisms are aligning with our supposed gender or not. Because of this self-policing and the sense of permanent visibility of our selves to ourselves, to others, and to society, conformity, and specifically in this case gender conformity, is possible and also encouraged (Wilchins, 69).

Through this idea of self policing we are also able to see how gender roles and identities are socially constructed. Without the constant pressure of society to conform into these gender roles, we would all simply do as we chose. According to Foucault, there was a shift around the historical period of the Enlightenment which moved the ideas of purity and decency from simply decency of acts to decency of thoughts and desires as well, even if they were never acted upon. Since then this has permeated society, we are taught that even our thoughts must be controlled and proper, and this includes our ideas about hetero- and homosexuality as well as what gender we must express and when and where it is acceptable to act in certain ways. This idea of self-policing extends identities which are non-normative, any identity which has a stereotype associated with it, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and so on, is subject to self-policing. This is another reason for the expansion into micro identities, especially those which are not widely known or not stereotyped. Without a stereotype that we must fall into we are free to act as we choose.

What the queer rights movement is expanding toward currently is back to a generalizing term that can encompass all gender deviance and sexual orientations while still encouraging individualistic micro identities. It is the youth within the movement who are embracing the term “queer” and working toward the very post-modern idea of abolishing labels. The ideas behind the queer rights movement are becoming more post-modern in theory and activist practice. Breaking down of all the micro-labels into one overarching label of “queer” or simply saying “don’t label me,” which is another strong movement within queer youth, are both ways which the youth of today are deconstructing the idea of labels, and getting to a point of potential abolishment.

When either sexual orientation or gender identity are non-normative, the expression of these non-normative identities works on breaking down the assumed gender roles and assumed heteronormativity of our society. This is accomplished through simply the ability to have a gender identity or sexual orientation which is out of the norm and thus subversive. This confronts other’s mainstream ideas about sexuality and sexual orientation. In this way, the production of micro-identities and labeling down to a fine very specific and individualistic detail allows for not only a wider array of people to consider themselves part of this deviant sexual culture but also for a broader idea of those within the queer culture and queer rights movement. Getting down to these almost nit picky identities and dividing the community into these micro-identities allows for the community to solidify across identities and to form a major movement in which everyone is represented.

Just as in order for someone to come up with the idea of post-modernism society first had to have modernism, in order to work toward abolishing labels in the context of gender and sexual orientation identities we have to define those labels within the queer community. “As Judy Grahn said, “If anyone were allowed to fall in love with anyone, the word ‘homosexual’ wouldn’t be needed”” (Third World Gay Revolution and Gay Liberation Front 289). And so, to work towards that ideal future where these labels and terms for “alternative” and “deviant” sexual orientations are not needed, we first had to go through the process of finding those labels and painstakingly dividing ourselves into neat little categories before we are able to tear down those ideas and live without inequalities. There is a long road to go before all deviant sexual orientations and gender identities find themselves accepted by the mainstream, but labeling and deconstruction are both working toward that, just as the queer rights movement is as a whole.

Works Cited
D’emilio, John. “After Stonewall.” Queer Cultures. Ed. Deborah Carlin and Jennifer Digrazia. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2004. 3-37.
Ellis, Havelock. “A More or Less Distinct Trace of Masculinity.” Engendering America: a Documentary History, 1865 to the Present. Comp. Muncy Robin and Michel Sonya. McGraw-Hill College, 1999. 122-125.
Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: a History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Third World Gay Revolution and Gay Liberation Front. “The Imprisoning and Artificial Labels of Gay, Straight, and Bi.” Engendering America: a Documentary History, 1865 to the Present. Comp. Muncy Robin and Michel Sonya. McGraw-Hill College, 1999. 296-298.
Wilchins, Riki. Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2004.