Why do I need to be labeled ‘gay?’

Illustration by Kevin Truong
Illustration by Kevin Truong

“Dear the Gay Men Project,

Although I am quite open and out about my homosexuality, I still feel it shouldn’t be an issue and labels shouldn’t be applied. But I still use the ‘gay label’ myself. Is it actually possible to get rid of the ‘gay label’ and just be me? I know it’s quite philosophical, but it would be nice to know how other people handle the ‘gay label’ when identifying oneself.

Many thanks, Stefan from Brussels”

From the Gay Men Project

Dear Stefan,

Many thanks for writing. Great question, and I often get asked this question in some form or another whenever I’m interviewed about the Gay Men Project. People ask me,‘Why are you doing a project telling the stories of only gay and queer men? By labeling your subjects as gay, doesn’t it compartmentalize or overly simplify their stories and voice?’

So before I advise you on your specific question, let me share with you my personal view on how I approach the ‘gay label’ in both my personal life and my work. First off, I always say, being gay doesn’t define me, but it defines many of my experiences. I’m not only a gay man. But to deny the strong influence it has had in shaping many of my experiences, and in turn my perspectives, would be to deny something I hold to be an evident truth.

That said, my experiences and perspectives have also been shaped by being an Asian-American, by being an immigrant, by growing up in Oregon or living in New York City. Being the youngest child, going to art school, being a Leo–I feel all these things have played a role in coloring the person I am today. Some more than others.

So when I started the Gay Men Project, my goal wasn’t to only tell the stories of gay and queer men. My goal was to tell the stories of individuals who shared a common bond. But hopefully, for anyone who has taken the time to really browse through the over seven hundred stories found in this project, hopefully it has become clear that above anything else, the subjects of the Gay Men Project are individuals. Yes, they all may identify as gay or queer, but that is only one facet of their very multi-faceted individual stories. They are so much more than simply being ‘gay,’ and hopefully that is what becomes abundantly clear to those who really take time to explore the project.

With regards to your specific question, is it possible to get rid of the ‘gay label’ and just be you, I can say this. Do whatever the heck you want. And I say that without a hint of trying to state the obvious, but only to emphasize that however you identify really is up to you. And you shouldn’t have to explain it to anyone else. I still choose to identify as gay as a way to take ownership of that identification. When I was a young closeted teenager, so many people who didn’t understand me spent so much time trying to identify me themselves–by calling me a faggot, a queer, or a homo. As an adult, I feel a sense of strength in taking ownership in my identity as a gay man. Because I’m choosing that identity myself, instead of letting others put that identity onto me.

But if you don’t want to identify as gay, you don’t have to. I have friends that only identify as queer, or nonbinary, or simply as their name, Mike, Joe, whatever. You can identify as whatever or whomever you want, but also understand that your identification may not be easily understood by others who may want you to speak a language that they can easily understand. But that’s the beautiful thing about language. A language will never be understood by everyone, but that doesn’t take away from those who speak it. So speak whatever language you want.




  1. Mike W

    Sometimes a simple one word label is useful to enable a solid mass of people to emerge from a population, to give a name to a set of similar circumstances which have allowed discrimination. For young isolated “gay” people who may be in places where there are no resources to understand their difference, having a label, a #hashtag, or whatever can open a door to understanding not just your difference, but the full complexity of your irreducible uniqueness.

  2. jem

    Yes, it’s a label that holds multi-faceted aspects to it, but immediately identifies me as a person of same sex attraction (glad I don’t have to use that as a label! And even the SSA is a bit ambiguous.) Everyone knows what a gay person is immediately and I find it so useful. Saves a lot of explanation to just say “I’m gay”. Another plus is that I personally like the term because in it’s proper English meaning it conveys a happy person (which I am even though my SSA has been a huge struggle and I still go through much depression over accepting myself). But gay reminds me that I should be happy and proud to be gay. I can’t say I feel the same about “queer”, though I know it should identify me as different. It seems to contain a tinge of negativity. Homo is definitely derogatory as are the many other terms thrown at us like “faggot”. So let it be gay and the rainbow! Way to go! Love it!

  3. alberto25lc

    Kevin is right when saying that many different traits define us; therefore, sexuality does not entirely determine the person we are. So, if it is the case, why are people so fixated on sexual orientation? The reason why people are not interested in your zodiac sign, but they are on whom you sleep with, or whom you love, is biosocial. We are animals with sexual needs, but humans who can overcome, guide, and explore those needs, and above all, humans who can love. Relationships and sex are, for most, a core ingredient of life. And because of it, the need to pry; the interest in sexuality, will never vanish. This is why we use labels, because we need to categorize in order to understand what surrounds us. But the categorization became social and political. And people used words for power or empowerment; to suppress or thrive. You can use whatever word best suits you. You can decide not to use any. It all comes down to what we make of words. But, the decision is not only personal; it is also social, because the way we describe ourselves, is the way we present the same idea to the world. And it is our responsibility to make them common, understandable, and proud.

  4. Luiz Claudio

    Why should I have to explain anything to anybody if it is not their business? Why should I have to be defined? I do no challenge your choices, why should you challenge mines? And people who matter to me do not waste their time labelling me…

  5. Ra

    I can’t, for the life of me, understand why many people are so reluctant to use the term “gay” these days. Humans are curious by nature. We want to communicate and know what things are. That’s why we invented language. The fact is, everything that exists has a name, a description, a label. The clothes we wear have labels. The food we eat has labels. And you don’t get to choose these labels any more than a tomato gets to decide whether it’s a fruit or a vegetable, any more than Pluto gets to choose whether it’s a planet or a dwarf planet, any more than the cosmos gets to identify as heliocentric or geocentric. Saying that the sun revolves around the earth does not make it so. You don’t get to “identify” as something while you are not in reality that thing. My God, words have meanings, people. In any other contexts, if you say one thing while you’re not actually that thing, people would call you a liar. If you make clothes in your basement and then sell them under the label Armani, you would be sued for fraud and copyright infringement. Why? Because as humans, we deeply respect the integrity of words, and there’s a word for men who are sexually attracted to men: gay. “Gay man” is a thing that exists objectively. How do we know this? Well, from brain scans, for instance (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/06/080616-gay-brain.html). Can anyone please tell me what a “queer brain” looks like? Or for that matter, a genderqueer brain or a non-binary brain or any of the objectively meaningless terms currently in vogue right now (https://aeon.co/essays/the-idea-that-gender-is-a-spectrum-is-a-new-gender-prison). These things are not a thing. Like the gods of old, they do not exist — the sun is not a living, breathing, personal being named Apollo or Ra or whatever — and to identify something inaccurately when there is in fact an accurate name for that very same thing is the definition of erasure, or worse, superstition. Honestly, this whole identity nonsense is getting out of hand (www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/magazine/when-everyone-can-be-queer-is-anyone.html). It’s almost like a new postmodern religion. The truth is beautiful in its simplicity, Stefan. If you are sexually attracted to men, then you are simply, beautifully gay. The question is, why are you not proudly gay? The word itself is a beautiful word, elegant in its simplicity, and utterly uncontroversial in its history, unlike “queer.” It is easy on the tongue and it sounds good when you say it, unlike “queer.” Why the reluctance, then? What is the point of Pride if so many of us are not proud?

  6. PDdeR

    I too dislike labels and hate to think that anyone would identiy me as ‘the gay’. I am a writer, consultant, former university lecturer and counselor, having greying hair, wear glasses, am six feet tall etc etc should anyone need a list of identifying features. I don’t deliberately seek out gays (sorry, labels again) but I have met several by chance and we may have eventually discussed our joint experiences among many other topics of conversation. I can’t say I am proud to be gay, nor ashamed: it’s like being left-handed or in my case being born with a chest that goes inwards, which was much harder to learn to live with.

    I am now 80 and my three closest friends (age 36/14, 51/35, 67/45 [first figure is current age, second the years we have known each other]) all happen to be married men.

  7. Gino R.

    Unfortunately we weren’t placed here on the planet alone, we are here with other people. Labels have a place in our construct of society and aid in understanding differences and similarities. Of course it’s possible to just be you, but know that in order to relate in any relationship, you must be able to understand others, and understanding of you are a male, a person of a specific ethnicity, gay, a gamer, old or young, aid in relatability.

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