Self-identifying labels are important to the queer community. Here's what labels mean to kids and why they are important in supporting identity exploration and mental health.

By Irina Gonzalez
June 02, 2021
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An image of a teen at a parade.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong and Jillian Sellers.

My first encounter with an LGBTQ+ peer was at the Homecoming Dance during my freshman year of high school. I hadn't made a ton of friends yet but I felt comfortable sitting with some classmates from a school club. There, I met Sadie* and her girlfriend.

They were out and proud and looked happy and thriving. Sadie, who was my age, explained to me that she's bisexual. Although it was years before I recognized and accepted that I was bisexual as well, I appreciated her explanation and embrace of this label. She didn't shy away from it despite her young age; instead, she embraced it wholeheartedly. This was the year 2000.

My Own Coming Out

Although Will & Grace graced our television sets, being a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community was not yet something that was as widely accepted as it is today. As important as that show was for queer representation on network TV, many might forget that Jack (the show's flamboyant character played by Sean Hayes) didn't come out to his mother until 1999—which demonstrates just how a person can have both pride in their identity and fear about revealing it to their loved ones or the world at large. Still, just a couple of years later, I came out as bisexual.

I remember struggling with that identity—besides Sadie, the only other LGBTQ+ folks I knew were gay teenage men—but I did a lot of exploring and reading on my own, and came to understand it is who I am thanks to books like Am I Blue? (edited by Marion Dane Bauer) and Bi Any Other Name (edited by Loraine Hutchins).

When I came out, like many bisexuals, I faced a lot of stigma and bi-erasure. In particular, people (including my own family) thought that "bisexuality was a layover on the way to Gaytown," as Carrie put it in Sex & the City. But identifying as bisexual—even though I admittedly did not have any sexual experiences up until that point—helped me to feel seen. The label was incredibly important to my sense of self-worth and my growth as a person. Even though I was sometimes mocked for my label, I kept emphasizing its importance and kept labeling myself.

"These labels save lives," Alex Myers wrote in Slate. "These labels create a powerful sense of understanding and self-acceptance. The fact that the acronym has become a target for mockery only indicates the amount of work that still needs to be done around LGBTQIA civil rights."

What Do These Labels Mean Anyway?

If you're confused about all of the labels that exist today, you have the opportunity to learn and expand your vocabulary. While your child may have varying and nuanced definitions for each label, what is most important is that you respect what it means to them. As for the basics, Lambda Legal has a helpful glossary of LGBTQIA terms but here's a short primer with generalizations to use as a launching pad for more learning.

  • L = lesbian (a woman who is sexually or emotionally attracted to other women, though nonbinary folks may identify as lesbians too)
  • G = gay (typically used to describe a man who is attracted to other male identities but can also be used to describe anyone who is attracted to the same gender, nonbinary identities may consider themselves gay)

  • B = bisexual (a person attracted to multiple genders)
  • T = transgender (a person whose gender identity does not align with the gender assigned at birth)
  • Q = queer (an umbrella term used to describe someone in the LGBTQ+ community, though some folks within the community are still hurt by the way it was used against us so unless you are given permission to call someone queer, don't. This is a good rule for all labels.)
  • I = intersex (this term can mean many things to different people; it's a term used to describe a person with variations in hormones, reproductive organs, chromosomes, and/or genitalia that do not fit into the constructs of being "male" or "female")
  • A = asexual (a person who has little or no sexual desire for another person, they still have wonderful connections and intimacy with partners and in some cases, sexual activity is part of that relationship).

These are some of the labels that cover sexuality and gender identity, but so many more cover gender expression, different types of relationships, and genders outside of the binary. It can get a little overwhelming if you are new to the LGBTQ+ community or if you're an ally hoping to learn more, but embracing the learning is part of the process.

Not sure what it means that Demi Lovato just came out as pansexual and also as nonbinary? It's okay to admit that you're not sure, and then do the work to educate yourself. This can mean talking to an LGBTQ+ friend, reading up on the terms, or hearing it from the person's own words. It's important to note that having a queer friend does not mean they are the spokesperson for their community or willing to be your only source of education.

"Today is a day I'm so happy to share more of my life with you all—I am proud to let you know that I identify as non-binary and will officially be changing my pronouns to they/them moving forward," Lovato wrote in an Instagram post. "This has come after a lot of healing and self-reflective work. I'm still learning and coming into myself, and I don't claim to be an expert or a spokesperson. Sharing this with you now opens another level of vulnerability for me. I'm doing this for those out there that haven't been able to share who they truly are with their loved ones."

It's always best to respectively ask the person who is using the label what it means to them since labels can change over time and gender and sexuality are fluid. As travel writer Lola Méndez puts it: "I've learned so much about my sexuality the last nine months that the terms I would have used to describe my sexuality a year ago (sexually fluid), and nine months ago (bisexual), no longer correctly represent who I am. I believe I'm pansexual as I've learned my attraction and desire are not related to someone's gender. However, I am not marrying myself to the term as I want to be open to the way I describe my sexuality changing as I continue to learn more about myself."

Embracing the Labels

When it comes to your child's new-to-you label, it's important to embrace their use of it because they have likely spent a whole lot of time thinking about it before they revealed it to you. Thank your child for sharing that information with you and ask them if they want to talk about it or how they realized that label felt right. Understand that they may embrace other labels as they grow into one they are more comfortable with or that simply fits where they are in that moment of their own growth.

"Before embracing the bisexual label, I tried on a few others: straight(ish), heteroflexible, down for whatever, but they didn't quite fit," says Tawny Lara, a sober sex and relationship writer based in New York, NY. "Educating myself on bisexuality and working on my internalized biphobia gave me access to a community of people like me. This community makes my sexuality feel seen and validated."

It's that being seen and validated that is especially important to those of us in the LGBTQ+ community. Feeling invisible or, worse, hiding who you truly are is one of the things that leads LGBTQ+ teens to be five times as likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to The Trevor Project. That was what precipitated my own suicide attempt at age 15 before I could truly embrace my sexuality and come out. But embracing those labels, whether they are your own or those of a child in your life, can be a crucial part of healing (as Lovato put it), unconditional support, and seeing yourself and your child for their true self, their best self.

For me, the label bisexual is important because it helps me to stay connected to the LGBTQ+ community and allows me to honor the person I was and the person that I am today. Living authentically is an important part of not only my identity but also my mental health. Despite society occasionally telling us that labels are bad, I've found that embracing all of the different labels about myself—bisexual, Latina, sober, mother, writer—is important for my self-worth and also an important part of my outreach to fellow queer folks and how I plan to teach my son about inclusiveness and diversity.

"Having a label and using it publicly allows me to remain feeling connected to the LGBTQIA community," says Priscilla Blossom, a Denver-based writer, Latina, and mom. "I think it's important not only for me now but for my past self—the 13-year-old girl who was still figuring out who she was and just coming out. [Today] more and more folks find the courage to live their lives authentically when they realize just how many of us there are in the queer community, and that queerness can look and feel differently to different people, in different households."

*Last name has been withheld for privacy.