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Are labels like gay, straight, bisexual more harm than good?

Labels have helped us explain ourselves, our desires, and our relationship with our own bodies. But has it all now reached a point of disservice?

A scene from the trailer of Cobalt Blue, with Neelay Mehendale as Tanay and Prateik Babbar as the paying guest 
A scene from the trailer of Cobalt Blue, with Neelay Mehendale as Tanay and Prateik Babbar as the paying guest  (Screenshot from the trailer)

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In April, Cobalt Blue starring Neelay Mehendale, Anjali Sivaraman, and Prateik Babbar, came to Netflix. The film, based on a novel of the same name written by its director Sachin Kundalkar, traces the trajectory of Tanay and Anuja, a brother and a sister falling in and out of love with an opaque guy who is a paying guest in their house.

Layered characters with unconventional arcs, aesthetically appealing scenes, sparse yet powerful dialogues, and a closeted gay professor who doubles as a symbol of repression in yesteryears, add to the texture of the film.

However, in popular discourse, the film is only being lauded for its 'homosexual' themes.

A friend, after watching the film, wondered on Facebook why Tanay couldn't understand that the paying guest was bisexual.

It would've been easy for the filmmaker to define the sexual orientation of the character and not allow this confusion to linger on in viewers' minds. However, I think this to be a deliberate choice: one that allows our messy, irrational desires to take centre stage. And it’s a choice I particularly enjoyed.

The brief case for labels and definitions

Gender and genres are under a lot of entropy these days. The present-day marketing of films or books or any other form of art requires labels. Segregating art into genres or sub-genres creates better visibility for the target audiences, which leads to better engagement and sales. It also saves the consumers hard-pressed for time, from the hassle of sifting through torrents of new releases. It allows the easy access to availability of thematically similar titles with just one click or tap.

My major problem here is with the clickbait-oriented parameters employed for such labelling, which can also get reductive. More often than not, they focus on flashy, click-bait elements while compromising on the actual theme. For example, with Cobalt Blue, a love story is being reduced to being either a homosexual or heterosexual narrative. Love stories that have stood the test of time have been about a whole lot more — they are potent reminders of larger, prevalent social and political discourse, too.

On the flip side however, for those who have been pushed to the periphery, such as LGBT folks, labels become badges of honour. They also ensure easier navigation through society, building a strong sense of community, and forging friendships with people of similar traits or concerns.

“If such a word [gay] hadn't existed, I would have never realized that my feelings are not abnormal,” Shiv Kumar, 25, a resident of a village in Haryana, told me. “I would go to cybercafe every Sunday, put it in the search bar, and pictures of people like me would pop up. Looking at them in skirts and shining jewellery would make me smile.”

The coining of newer terms—intersex, dyke, butch, trans—has helped to explain our relationships with our bodies, which has dismantled our assumption of a stable binary world. We no longer want to be called 'diverse', but ‘complex.’ We don't want to be pigeonholed into a homogenous, hetero-normative society. We want society to deviate and debate. A society that is individualistic yet intact. A society that respects our boundaries yet assures happiness and cohesion.

Use edging into abuse

However, with newer terms coming up, the older ones are assuming a certain degree of concreteness. One needs to tick and stay in checkboxes as if identity were a definitive diagnosis; and then cross them all, if one’s desires evolve with the passing years.

For Sonali Kakkar, an IT engineer, working in a multinational company in Bengaluru, coming out as bisexual messed up her life. “When we were about to marry, I told my (then-fiancé) the truth. Our marriage was fine in the beginning, but friends kept telling him that I will leave him for another woman.” Kakkar’s husband demanded a divorce after two years of marriage. “People think bisexuals aren't capable of long-term relationships,” she notes.

These stark, contradicting expectations have complicated our relationship with labels. Devised initially to redeem us, they have trapped us into newer expectations.

Close your eyes and speak the word gay. It is a rare chance that you won't see a bubbly boy with makeup, flashy feminine clothes, walking in a pride parade with a placard, shouting some rhetoric. Now look around and see how far these ‘brain images’ are from reality. We have animated labels with our imagination. They are no longer just adjectives — they have become projections of our biases.

Their reductive nature is the inherent problem with labels—the way they shrink one's complex, intricate character into something trivial, like a sex position.

Strict labels also leave no room for nuance. A gay friend told me, “I am no longer gay. I am a top bear, horned up, BB. All that my Grindr profile mentions.”

Research shows that a man having sex with a man is not automatically gay. Tony Silva, in his 2021 book, Still Straight: Sexual Flexibility Among White Men in Rural America, notes that a lot of married men enjoy sex with other men despite being strongly attracted to women. He argues that multiple factors can account for such behaviour including the need for more active sex lives, experimenting with anal sex, and easier availability of men as compared to women. It becomes important that we consider these factors before hastening to stamp somebody as 'closeted.'

At a larger level, labels could also pervert our understanding of national issues. Take, for example, the concept of pinkwashing. Countries like Israel label themselves as queer-friendly or LGBT-friendly to deflect attention away from the rampant violation of human rights. Some also argue that the popularity of the umbrella term LGBTQ has meant that for instance, the intersex communities haven't been able to mobilise and find proper support from NGOs.

By themselves, labels are benign. Their rampant use, edging towards abuse, has caused them to inflict such varying degrees of harm. We have thrust upon them the responsibility of defining us. Their wide proliferation—there is now also demisexual, allosexual, bisexual, androsexual, autosexual—has also now made them confusing to the point that despite their intention of reducing chaos, they in fact supplement it.

If all of this wasn’t enough, a new label, No Label, is now getting famous. How many more labels would we require to un-label ourselves?. The day is not far when these harmless labels will assume an authoritative position and try to define the legitimacy of our desires—contrary to the very reason for their existence.

Kinshuk Gupta is an award-winning poet and writer from New Delhi

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