Straight or not, people have a tendency to get frustrated when celebrities refuse to label their sexual identity explicitly. When actress Rebel Wilson recently announced that she was in a relationship with a woman – pushed into doing so by learning that Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald was on the verge of 'outing' her – she did not use words like 'bi' or 'queer' or 'lesbian' but instead wrote on Instagram that she had found her Disney Princess. A power move that, amusingly, forced tabloids to call her girlfriend a Disney Princess thereon out.
The decision sparked several thinkpieces about whether celebrities have a responsibility to name their orientation for the sake of representation, or whether they reserve the right to ambiguity. We’ve heard the same sort of debates around Harry Styles, who – along with younger celebrities like Lily-Rose Depp and Heartstopper’s Kit Connor – has said labels just aren’t for him. "The whole point of where we should be heading, which is toward accepting everybody and being more open, is that it doesn't matter," Styles told Better Homes and Gardens in April 2022, "and it's about not having to label everything, not having to clarify what boxes you're checking."
In seeing labels as potentially outdated, Styles might be speaking to a generation that is more fluid and questioning. The one in five young people worldwide who identify as something other than straight, for example, or the one in 10 American high schoolers who identify as gender-diverse. Vice’s 2030 identity report found that Gen Z seems pretty split on the issue of labels: 55% said that identity labels increase empathy for other people but 47% said that they create unnecessary barriers in conversation. Four out of 10 respondents said that, over the next 10 years, gender and sexuality will become less important.
All of this prompts the question: in 2022, do we need more labels or to think about doing away with them altogether?
Experiencing fluidity might be the precise reason that some people refuse to use a label.
As someone who grew up as queer in the pre-Instagram and TikTok era, when there were very few visible gay and bi women for me to look up to, I can understand why there is a demand for celebrities to self-label. It can be extremely powerful and validating, both for themselves and for the LGBTQ+ community. When Olympic athlete Dame Kelly Holmes recently told the world she was gay, for example, she emphasised how pivotal it was to her personally to say it in those terms, like she was speaking herself into being. When Jake Daniels, the first professional male UK footballer to come out since the '90s, told the media he was gay in May 2022, it made a clear and bold statement: a refusal of the homophobia embedded in football culture. Similarly, when Elliot Page disclosed that he is transgender in 2020, trans communities around the world found a valuable and visible new role model, who would go on to be an outspoken voice for trans rights in an era where they are under attack.
Perhaps this context goes some way to explain why we get frustrated at famous people for not applying labels. In a time when homophobic and transphobic hate crimes are on the rise, having famous vocal role models can feel deeply important; amid the passing of laws like the 'Don’t Say Gay' bill in Florida, which bans teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ identity in schools, saying 'gay' (and 'bi' and 'lesbian' and 'trans' and 'queer' and 'intersex' and 'asexual') is a political act. Writing for iNews, journalist Patrick Strudwick makes the point that if people hadn’t explicitly labelled their sexualities historically, we would have no gay rights movement.
Frustration with those who don’t label their sexuality might exist because it means so much when people do.
However, that frustration could also say more about the people feeling it, suggests Travis Alabanza, performer and author of the forthcoming book None of the Above: Reflections on Life Beyond the Binary, who points out that labels aren’t the only signifier of queerness. "The source of the frustration depends on the context, always. But I think sometimes it may frustrate those who cannot hide, who have no choice but to label – because they are labelled without will daily." In that sense, says Travis, they can see how sometimes the anonymity of a label requires a certain privilege – the privilege of choice – which is often heightened for celebrities. Still, says Travis firmly: "I think that frustration is misplaced."
Outside of the queer community, the frustration at those who do not label might have something to do with how fluidity makes us uneasy more broadly, Travis explains. "It makes us uneasy as it forces us to accept change and complication."
Many things in life are hard to put words to so it shouldn't be a surprise that the same applies for sexuality. Experiencing fluidity might be the precise reason that some people refuse to use a label in the first place: there might be a feeling that once you’ve done it, you can’t change your mind or take it back. You might not know yourself yet, or you may not want to close off your options in the future or dictate how people see you.
Selling Sunset’s Chrishell Stause is yet to label her sexuality after announcing that she’s dating non-binary Australian singer G Flip, for example, and personally, many of my friends identified as a lesbian or as gay until they fell for someone non-binary and their own label no longer fit, becoming too prescriptive in terms of gender. Plus, labels of course come with baggage, associations, stereotypes and preconceptions.
That said, Caspar, a 25-year-old trans man, believes that – to the contrary – using labels can be a way to express fluidity. That experimenting with different labels can help you reach an understanding of who you are, amid a growing acceptance that labels can change, even daily. "I identified as a straight girl but it didn’t fit so then I thought maybe I was bi. Later, letting myself consider that I might be a non-binary person meant I was able to take gender away for a while until I understood that I felt very gendered, as a boy. I ultimately realised that I am a gay trans man and that feels very accurate and solid. It helps other people understand who I am too."
Casper believes that the more labels we have, the more we are forced to consider that sexuality and gender are myriad, and importantly that they can change. He continues: "I think queer people are very good at playfully using the plethora of labels that we have to hand, changing them up and using them to dissect gender. It may seem like we are a generation that takes labels very seriously because we’re talking about them all the time but trans TikTok is so lighthearted and silly – exploring and joking about microgenders is a way of challenging the binary and making the point that social dynamics between men and women that were entrenched before are bullshit." There are "millions" of gender and sexuality dynamics, he concludes, and perhaps, paradoxically, more labels take the weight off labels.
We should be vigilant about policing one another's use of labels, especially when bodily autonomy is under threat, along with LGBTQ+ rights.
Those reclaiming labels and inventing new ones – like xenogender (a gender that cannot be contained by human understandings) and aceflux (someone whose orientation fluctuates but is mostly asexual) and Disney Princess, which may well enter the canon, too – are, in a roundabout way, potentially saying the same thing as those who reject labels: that the labels we have had aren’t nuanced enough to reflect all of our complexities.
This process of trying to categorise sexuality in new ways has been ongoing – in the 1860s, a queer person invented the word 'heterosexual', signalling that it isn’t necessarily the default; in the 60s, 'gay' was often used as a catchall like 'queer' is today; and in the '70s and '80s, words like 'dyke' and 'queer', which had been used as insults, were reclaimed as badges of honour – and it will inevitably keep happening. New terms, like neopronouns (new or repurposed words created to serve as pronouns without expressing gender), may feel tricky to keep up with but are a way of continuously pushing at the edges of what we think we know.
In this sense, yes, we need labels but we also need to keep assessing and refreshing them, creating new terms. That doesn’t mean that the onus is on the individual to actually use them. "I think whatever helps the individual is what helps," says Travis, making the point that we should be vigilant about policing one another’s use of labels, especially when bodily autonomy is under threat, along with LGBTQ+ rights. In this climate, we should be resisting the idea that we can dictate how people self-identify and instead be as vocal as possible about freedom of choice.
"My relationship with labels has changed loads in the last five years," says Travis. "I think at the beginning of finding my identity and queerness, labels were such a helpful way of grounding myself in a history of other people, in feeling less alone and in knowing I was real." They still do that, says Travis, but adds: "Personally, now, it feels more important for me to think about my actions over labels."
As for me, today there are more labels that I can use as a queer woman (and I move between them) as well as more public figures who also use those labels. There are also more who don’t use labels at all. So when it comes to role models, we need both – those who label and those who do not – in order to reflect the breadth of ways in which we see and experience gender and sexuality.