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Once upon a time, just a few years ago, in fact, it seemed we were entering a “post-gay” era: Celebrities, some finding themselves in same-gender relationships for the first time, played it down, declaring they don’t "do labels,” inspiring many to follow their lead.
My, how times have changed — at least for the new generation.
Queer Gen Z, by all accounts, is doubling down on labels — trans, bi, ace, nonromantic, pansexual — and especially “microlabels,” or specific terms that fall under the umbrella of larger labels. They include: demigirl (born female but not fully identifying with being a woman), graysexual (experiencing limited sexual attraction), aceflux (fluctuated sexuality but generally asexual), demiromantic (developing romantic feelings for others only when there's a strong emotional connection), nonbinary (not identifying with any gender), baregender (following the minimum requirements of being nonbinary), panromantic (romantic attraction, but not sexual, to people regardless of gender), aromantic (having little or no romantic attraction to others), trixic (nonbinary individuals attracted to women) and xenogender (nonbinary in a way that cannot be contained by human understanding), just for starters.
Some queer youth embrace three, four, five or more labels at a time, especially on social media, where ever-evolving identity terminology — and corresponding flags, to boot — offers a new (to many) term on what can feel like a daily basis.
“Some of the teens I work with have brought terms, when they came out, where I was like, ‘What is that?’” Dr. Katelyn Baker, an Indiana-based psychologist and self-love influencer, tells Yahoo Life of her young clients who embrace microlabels. “There’s definitely a swing towards that direction.”
Teens and young adults who use them can often be seen taking to social media to defend these precise terms which — contrary to what some critics may say about them putting people in boxes — are seen as a route to freedom.
“While they can be limiting or restricting to some people, to others they serve as a way to understand the feelings and experiences they’ve had in a new way,” Amanda Conover, 23, who addresses the topic on TikTok and identifies as "bi" and "ace," tells Yahoo Life. “It’s almost like these labels allow you to really embrace who you are and feel pride about things that you might not have felt pride about before. In that way, I’d say it’s really freeing to embrace them.”
Another TikToker who likes to tackle topic and goes by Fay the Gay, 20, agrees. “I know I find comfort and community in labeling my identity … I think it can be both freeing and limiting. It depends on the person. Your label is for you, no one else,” Fay, who identifies as gay, queer and genderqueer, tells Yahoo Life. “I’ve heard people say there are too many labels already. There are ‘too many’ Fast and Furious movies. People still watch them, though. If you don’t want to use them, they may not be for you, that’s OK.”
While there’s not much research on Gen Z and labels, a Vice "Guide to 2030" survey (conducted in 2019 with 500 respondents in the U.S. and U.K.) concluded that many see them as a “double-edged sword,” with respondents generally split on the issue: While 55 percent of Gen Z respondents said that labels increase empathy for others, the same percentage said labels do not help them define who they truly are.
Meanwhile, 67 percent of Gen Z respondents said they believe that identity labels are too limiting. The survey also found that 62 percent believed people should be able to use any label they are comfortable with, compared to only 52 percent of millennials and 36 percent of Gen X respondents — while 1 in 3 said their online identity (and where many use a collection of labels) is their most authentic self, compared to 1 in 5 millennials and 1 in 10 Gen Xers.
“These labels make it easier for a lot of people to communicate who they are and live authentically,” says Conover, “and also to find community among others who experience the same thing.”
What makes labels appealing to Gen Z?
“It really comes from a new understanding of wanting to communicate a number of different things about themselves — a lot more than previous generations,” says University of California Santa Cruz professor of psychology Phil Hammack, who has conducted research on sexual and gender identities of queer youth.
“What I’ve noticed with young people who are using additional terms, like ‘demiromantic’ or ‘demisexual,’ they’re wanting to convey more than just the gender they’re attracted to, and something about the degree of desire, the conditions of desire … or, in some cases, the kinds of more expansive genders they might be attracted to, with ‘queer’ or ‘pansexual,’ so to then also say something about themselves” and how they are possibly “suspicious of binary thinking.”
Hammack points to two moments in recent LGBTQ history that may have given rise to the embrace of hyper-labeling, including the albeit brief “post-gay” era — something described by University of British Columbia professor of sociology Amin Ghaziani back in 2011 as “a period of time in which people feel less compelled to define themselves principally in terms of their sexuality. It doesn’t necessarily mean un-gay, or anti-gay, or ex-gay. It simply means that people no longer feel the need to define themselves solely based on that struggle.”
It went hand-in-hand with the defining queer struggle of the same era: the marriage equality movement, he says.
“The post-label stuff was kind of prematurely articulated, mainly because we were wanting to get this legal recognition and achievement, and then maybe we could all just be ‘normal,” he says, though it “was kind of this fetishizing of assimilation and normativity.”
Once marriage equality was achieved, he says, “then all these younger people, Gen Z, could say, ‘Actually, what’s mattered to us has always been identity … and a more expansive view of identity than your generation.’ It’s when trans and nonbinary visibility could really come to the surface … and opened the floodgates for young people to be authentic.”
Dorcas Adedoja, 25, a public health specialist and New York–based national student council member for GLSEN, a national nonprofit championing LGBTQ issues in schools, has certainly welcomed that opportunity.
“I enjoy being able to label myself,” Adedoja, who identifies as nonbinary and "transmasculine" and is attracted to “femme people,” tells Yahoo Life. “I do think a lot of people, especially those who come from backgrounds that might be more conservative, find it exciting to finally name themselves and label who they are because they were told what they could and could not be very early in life. So, when they get access to more options, it gives them an outlet to be who they are.”
Why do some people have a problem with microlabeling?
As for those concerned that young people checking so many boxes will keep them in those boxes, Adedoja can understand that — as can Jaiden Blancaflor, 19, a Midwest-region GLSEN student council representative, activist and Ohio State University freshman, who identifies as “bisexual, transgender FTM, disabled, neurodivergent, Filipino and hard of hearing.”
“I identified as nonbinary at age 13 and built an entire social media advocacy platform around it,” Blancaflor tells Yahoo Life. And because of feeling hemmed in by that public declaration, he says, “I stuck with it until 18, even though I knew it didn’t feel right.” Finally, he announced that he was identifying as trans, and says, “It was kind of a big deal.” Still, Blancaflor has learned from that experience — and still embraces the instinct to label.
“At the end of the day, the same support systems you develop with the identities you had before are not going to change if you change your identity,” he says. “If people are mad because you changed your label, then they weren’t there for you anyway.”
Adedoja also believes that labels needn’t be constricting.
“It’s just about giving people the choice,” they say. “People can change. Gender and sexuality are fluid things, and they allow people to put their fluidity on display — if they’d like to.”
Even further, says Esmée Silverman, a GLSEN student council member serving the west region from her base as a student at Reed College in Oregon, labels can be vital for the wellbeing of queer youth. “Freedom of expression is the quintessential way of attaining happiness and reaching full potential. And the freedom to self-identify is the first step to true happiness,” she tells Yahoo Life.
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t also get why older generations might take issue with all the labels. “I’ve met exclusionists in the community who try … to restrict the letters of LGBT. They believe, [without] doing so, we’re never going to look like we have our stuff together, and that the outside community is never going to understand it.”
That often comes from a place of feeling threatened, Hammack explains. “There’s conflict because people who have grown up with certain concepts say, ‘We had to fight to be accepted to be equal, we had to fight to be recognized as not disordered people, and now you’re trying to say these identities [gay, lesbian] don’t even exist? It’s a threatening experience,” he says.
But Silverman sees it more as a reckoning — not excluding, but simply being more inclusive, and says the too-many-identities viewpoint actually “takes away from the discovery that folks at Stonewall fought for [as] a group of trans Black people who were still a fringe identity in that space," adding, "This was during ‘gay or straight’ only… We like to group things as a society… but those people at Stonewall fought for the identities that weren’t as visible.”
Now, labels have many uses, especially on social media, as being able “to categorize ourselves” makes it easier to explain one’s identity to others, and having such specific language makes it easier for people to understand themselves, Silverman says. There is also the benefit it can have in the dating world, notes Silverman, a queer activist and educator who identifies as “a panromantic, polyamorous transgender female” and is “on the autism spectrum.” She adds: “It makes dating much simpler when you know someone is ‘panromantic’ or ‘lesbian’ rather than a ‘member of queer community.’”
The young activist says she’s witnessed the power of labeling, beyond what it means to her. “I grew up in the age of microidentitites … and facilitated hundreds of [support group] discussions around it,” Silverman says. Even she learned a new label recently — “stargender,” apparently a star-based, beyond-comprehension gender identity — and says she found it poignant, noting, “To see someone brave enough to share their authentic self to a crowd of people who have never heard that word before? It’s remarkable.”
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