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The Importance of Emerging Gender and Sexual Identity Labels

Why you should embrace labels beyond the traditional binary.

Key points

  • Not everyone fits neatly into traditional, binary gender and sexual orientation categories.
  • Emerging labels of gender and sexual orientation serve to more accurately represent individuals.
  • There are a variety of purposes for labels, including enabling self-concept and providing authentic self-expression.
  • Emerging gender and sexual labels serve to promote diversity and challenge intolerance.

When I write a piece on a particular gender or sexual identity, I am invariably met with emails and comments about how we need to stop putting labels on everything. Yet I only really note this in matters of gender or sexual orientations. I have yet to hear how we need to stop naming models of cars or diseases. Really, can’t everything just be a Corvette or not, cancer or not cancer? Aren’t all cars the same? Isn’t one cancer identical to another? Don’t even get me started on religion as a binary. Enough with the labels already. Examples of such comments I’ve received (at least those that can be printed in a civil setting) include:

“How about we stop putting a label on everything?”

“Sorry, can’t get past sapiosexual. Like WTF. Really?!. I didn’t even read the article. I’ll tell you what turns me off….your newly acquired terminology for everything so that you seem “politically” correct and inclusive in your identification of sexuality. Blah! Boring.”

We need these labels when it comes to an individual’s self-identity as a particular gender or sexual orientation. These labels are identities. With emerging identities come new vocabularies for those who do not identify with traditional, binary labels and do not wish to be identified as a plus-sign. A label does not make someone pansexual, for example. Pansexuality existed long before anyone used the term pansexual as a sexual orientation. But, the term pansexual does provide meaning in the self-awareness of some individuals.

I’ve had emails asking why we need the term “cis.” “Why can’t it just be male or female? Why does it have to be “cis-male” or “cis-female?” Why? Because no one gets to be the default. The same applies to sexual orientation. Heterosexuality is not the default. It is not a matter of being heterosexual or other. Such attitudes set up an environment of intolerance and hinder expressions of diversity. For instance, when a politician in a workplace hung a sign up in front of her office that read:

Kaitlyn Jade/Pexels
Source: Kaitlyn Jade/Pexels

There are two genders: Male and Female…Trust the Science! Male and female are sexes, not genders — gender refers to a cultural, not biological, expression or social expectation. This sign was put up across the hall from a co-worker who has a daughter who identifies as transgender.

There are many labels, yes, but there are many identities. And existing identity categories may not accurately represent all people. To disregard an individual’s choice of gender identity or sexual orientation is an act of intolerance instead of a necessary support for gender and sexual expressions.

All these labels serve a variety of purposes including, but not limited to:

  • Countering ambiguity.
  • Enabling self-concept.
  • Supporting community building. As our social world evolves, change is inevitable. Communities are founded and developed based on identity. Bonds within those communities are also formed through identity adherence. Identity labels within each community are essential to establish the community itself.
  • Providing accurate representation and authentic self-expression.
  • Saving explanations. Learning clearly defined terms and broad dissemination of those terms requires less time to understand someone's gender or sexual identity once expressed.
  • Providing a starting point in communication, relationships, and self-awareness.
  • Reducing marginalization by focusing on one’s gender/sexual orientation in the public sphere.
  • Offering self-comfort and psychological well-being.
  • Aiding in sexual and self-development.

In a recent study, Hammack et al. (2021) noted that “The 21st century has been a time of change in our understanding of sexuality and gender.” Using a mixed-methods approach with a convenience sample of 175 LGBTQ adolescents (under 25 years of age), the researchers concluded that their findings,

Revealed the expansive vocabulary contemporary adolescents of this generation cohort use to describe gender and sexual identity. This vocabulary challenges binary conceptions of both gender and sexual attraction, with many youth identifying as nonbinary and with a plurisexual identity label to signify attraction to multiple genders.

This vocabulary also challenges normative ideas about sexual and romantic attraction itself, with youth using labels that signify variability in sexual desire, romantic attraction, or the conditions in which desire or attraction occur (e.g., asexual, demisexual).

It’s not as if these genders or sexual orientations do not already exist. Identity labels are vital for self-concept. Those labels are established through meanings negotiated and renegotiated through social interaction. Labels can emerge or transform as individuals change throughout their life course. None of this is necessarily static.

Labels denoting one’s sexual and gender identity provide a meaningful sense of identity in an individual’s self-awareness and self-development. Sometimes for that self-development to be truly meaningful, gender and sexuality labels need to emerge beyond the labels that are currently accessible.

So, yes, we need to make room for emerging labels. I am confident those who write me adhere to their identity labels. This “newly acquired terminology for everything” allows for authentic self-expression and promotes diversity. It is only fair to permit others to express their authentic selves too.


Hammack, P.L., Hughes, S.D., Atwood, J.M., Cohen, E.M., & Clark, R.C. (2021). Gender and sexuality in adolescence: A mixed-methods study of labeling in diverse community settings. Journal of Adolescent Research,

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