Do LGBTQ Labels Matter?
A few weeks ago when running a training for counsellors someone asked “do we really need all these labels, can we not just call everyone people?”
This inspired me to write a blog about labels in the LGBTQ community.
Labels such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, non-binary, pansexual, asexual, intersex are the kind of words we were exploring the meaning of in this workshop.
Many counsellors get very confused about words and what they mean and desperately don’t want to offend. They are so scared of getting it wrong and not knowing enough. However, I often reassure people it is not about swallowing a dictionary of vocabulary, instead we need to take the time to consider what labels mean and if they are helpful or harmful. Learn more here.
Simply put, in my experience, in my queer circles of friends and with LGBTQ clients in my counselling practice ...
labels can help people understand who they are, what they are experiencing and to connect with LGBTQ communities.
I often ask fellow counsellors who join my workshops to think about what words they might use to describe their own gender and sexuality. Sometimes counsellors tell me that they don’t need a label as we should all be treated the same.
It is common for counsellors who are straight and cisgender (not trans) to tell me that they have never thought about exploring their own sexuality or gender in their personal therapy as they are certain of who they are.
The thing is LGBTQ people I see can also be pretty sure of who they are, but because our society is heteronormative and cisnormative this can make identifying as LGBTQ and using these labels much more difficult. This is because in society we are often assumed to be straight or cisgender (not trans) unless we say otherwise. And this is why for LGBTQ folks labels can often be more important.
Have you thought about what labels you would use to describe your gender and sexuality?
What do you think about the labels that your clients use?
As counsellors we need to think about privilege.
If you are privileged in terms of having a sexual and/or gender identity that fits what’s expected in our society you may never have had to think about labels. And so it makes sense to me when comments such as, why can’t we all just be called people are said, as labels perhaps labels feel less necessary if you fit what society expects.
However as an LGBTQ person myself I feel labels can give us so much, and many people agree with me.
I think what is important to remember is that some of our clients will reject labels and not want to fit into a definition. This is so important to be aware of and to remember that exploring sexuality and gender in the counselling room does not need to have the aim of finding a label, unless that is what the client wants.
Labels give us the vocabulary to discuss oppression, they help us to discuss power structures which is what enables inequality to exist.
Labels can also help us make sense of ourselves when growing up in a world that does not accept gender and sexual diversity.
I have worked with so many trans, non-binary, pansexual and asexual clients who have stayed in the closet for decades because they didn’t have the language to understand who they are. This was perhaps because these identities can be stigmatised, misunderstood and erased.
With the rise of the internet and social media so many people have been able to find words and labels that resonate with how they identify.
These labels have helped so many people feel less invisible and have helped them to connect with others and find support and community.
However with all this in mind, we should never assume that a client should have a label and certainly never force a label on others. We must remember the limits of language and that many people reject labels.
Remember each person can choose their own labels, no one else can do that for them. There is no criteria to have to earn an LGBTQ label, and gender and sexuality labels can and do change for many people.
If you are a counsellor and you’d like to learn more about labels, I'm running an online workshop on LGBTQ terminology and pronouns in June 2021. Find out more here.