“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
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.