The Dangers of Label Stealing

This is a very quick post about the dangers of label stealing, because I’ve written a fair bit about how great/uncomfortable it is but not very much about why it’s uncomfortable and why sometimes you’ve gotta hold it back to just yourself and your own internal life.

1.Diluting the Label

Labels are precious. They mark out often the rare spaces and people who do not belong to the status quo, they give them legitimacy and they protect them from standardised judgements. They mean you can expect certain things, and the most famous example of dilution of the label and a harmful effect is part of rape culture (as is everything really). It’s as follows:

Lesbians are not, by definition, into men. So in theory, telling a man that you are a lesbian should tell him one of two things; first, that you are legitimately not into men ever and therefore are not into him so he should stop, or second, that you are legitimately not into him and are therefore lying about being into men ever in order to get him to stop, in which case, he should stop.

Unfortunately, that went backwards. Instead of making more men stop, it just means more men stop even seeing lesbianism as a legitimate thing, not helped by endless bisexual erasure and fetishistic porn selections.

*End of example*

So don’t borrow labels when they don’t fit, because they ruin it for the people they genuinely do fit.

2. Invading the Label
So now you’ve got everyone’s favourite label problem; the interloper. You’re a faker, a trick, someone dressed as something they’re not. Now this can be a biased or even bigoted fake fear, most notoriously the fear of trans women for not being women, a topic for another day. But it can also be a genuine thing. Who doesn’t remember Rachel Dolezal, infamous black lady impersonator?


You don’t wanna do that. No, you’re not diluting the label, it still means the same thing for everyone else, only you’re on the wrong side of it. In Rachel’s case, it meant having a heritage of white-ness (though she’s adopted), an upbringing free of racism, but the treatment by her adult peers as someone without any of these things. It’s all of the “perks” of belonging to the club, but without any of the membership fees. Relating to me and my feelings of fringe-belonging personally, it’s using the word stimming but being bought up with expectations of sucess suitable to a neurotypical, for example.

3. Ruining the Label

This goes far beyond borrowing it, or slumming in it, this is completely wreaking havoc on the label. This is a dodgy area for a lot of labels we don’t want to get into just yet, often no one can decide how to do it or whether it’s a good thing or not; do we want to destroy the meaning of race and gender already, or do we still need those things in order to look after ourselves; define ourselves in the face of prejudiced society; and ultimately break down these prejudices whilst still maintaining a use for them as constructs and concepts? This can be in the form of slumming in labels and borrowing labels, but it’s a bigger onslaught, it’s what happens when everyone is doing it.

(I was going to stop at 3 but then I ironically remembered the last hazard around labels)
4. Erasing the Label
Not using the label, like bisexuality, means it starts to sound weird and clunky. It coincides with the dilution of other labels, like gay, and it leaves people left largely underdefined. This happens when there’s not enough knowledge around the label, or there’s a lot of stigma around, so essentially an entire community of an identity becomes closeted by language. There’s no way to express it in language, thus the identity doesn’t exist. This could theoretically also happen in a positive way, like the use of the word bastard falling into misuse because there is no need to describe a difference, however people worry about using the wrong labels mainly when there’s still a need for said labels in some form, normally in the form of bigotry.

Thank you for reading, and that concludes my short three part series about labels. Thank you, and please subscribe if you liked what you read! đŸ˜€




My Life As A Potential Label Stealer (Autism)

So I’ve written previously about how I use labels that I don’t necessarily feel fit me because I find them helpful nonetheless. I didn’t get round to talking about autism and me.

My most controversial self-label flirtation is the one with autism*. It’s the one I’ve had the most pushback on, in the form of potentially rather ignorant statements like “everyone is a little bit on the spectrum” and a GP simply shaking her head at the suggestion, despite my 3 siblings being definitively on the spectrum since young ages. Now, I’m not claiming to be the epitomy of autism. Not at all. I’m clearly a very social person, with at least a temporary ability to communicate well and use body language, and I can see this, I’m not surprised when people see this and reject “autism” as a label for me.

But it is so useful for me. It fits so well into the words and the concepts that I need to describe my life and experiences and behaviours. Stimming fits with my pretty-much constant need to be fidgeting, mainly typical behaviours like picking at my hair or nail polish, but even writing it feels like a half-assed excuse and justification. Listing that I flap when I’m excited sounds like I’ve copied it out of a symptoms list, and only remembering that another close friend pointed out that I’m very “flappy” when I’m really happy about something makes me realise that this is actually accurate.

I don’t really need other people to find my labels valid, that is my point as a potential label stealer. I can get use out of the label and the language without needing other people to get it or to understand it, it’s a deeply personal thing. I find it useful to describe my obsessions to myself as “special interests” and to allow myself my physical quirks like clicking my fingers repeatedly or clicking my tongue on the roof of my mouth; I find largely that it helps with my sense of shame for those behaviours, to give them a name and a reason and a legitimate purpose as a neurodivergent person. (And I do believe I’m neurodivergent, as far as anyone who can pass as neurotypical can be, in fact, I often question whether everyone who’s supposedly “neurotypical” is like me, only hides it better, and then I realise how ridiculous that would be.)

Giving myself a label allows me to legitimately occupy a space I’m already living in; it makes my quirky weirdness and constant struggle to fit in a fact of my life, instead of aseries of challenges that I’m failing at simply because I’m inadequate. It makes my awkward responses to schoolmates/bullies logical, my gravitation to autistic peers more inevitable, my incessant fidgeting and fight to stop it more sympathetic (I don’t stop myself from clicking my mouth anymore, like I did when I was very little and in infant school, and can remember myself doing).  It means I can be kinder to myself and believe that I am in fact, doing alright as I am. I can give myself permission to be me with all my “flaws” because they’ve in fact got a name, and they are a valid form of existance.

*Actually, my more recent aquisition of the label dyspraxia is more controversial, having had a direct rejection from someone who has been tested for dyspraxia, because “her mother apparently also felt she had it once hearing that her daughter did, but her mother is just a very over-exuberant person and thus does not have it”. Yes, that story doesn’t make sense, because it’s possible to be over-exuberant and also dyspraxic, but nonetheless, it’s the seed of doubt that means I’m going to continue blaming myself for having my movement volume too loud instead of getting myself tested, at least for another few months. But this label is newer, so I’ve had less feedback. And with this kind of feedback, that trend isn’t likely to change.

On “Stealing” labels

Labels are bad, labels are useful, labels are divisive, labels are fair. There’s a lot of fuss around labels, around who can use them, around whether people should use them at all, around whether they are helpful. A lot of this centres around a belief that labels are something that should be accurate to some kind of truth about one’s identity, and a lot of fuss is made particularly around difficult to determine labels, like white-passing people of colour, or the rarer sexualities like demi-sexual and grey-sexual (attraction only after a platonic bond has formed, and falling between allosexual/”typical” sexual attraction and none, respectively.)

However, that’s a bit of a misleading descriptor; what’s hard to define by an outsider with limited knowledge, is massively easier for the person who is living that identity and experience. We’re limited in that these labels are social constructs and thus have to be communicated to each other accurately and somewhat homogeneously in order to have a social meaning (if we can’t agree what “of colour” means then it’s useless as a construct or as a descriptor), but as far as interpreting these constructs and attempting to apply them to our own experiences, we’re always going to be best suited to applying them to ourselves.

On this note, I’ve been experimenting with some labels, as I think most of us with a willingness to explore ourselves do. I currently flirt with the labels of autism, chronically ill, victim of emotional abuse, and polyamory. I’ve got a more committed relationship with bisexuality, but it’s taken me a long long time to get to this point, and the more (arguably) umbrella and more commonly used “gay” is seriously threatening to encroach on even this. For example, when I’m checking out a girl (or am I just objectifying her? that’s a struggle for another day), it feels a lot more comfortable to myself to revel in my “gayness” than it does to revel in my “bisexualness”; probably just because it’s shorter and more commonly used, it feels fun and liberating, as opposed to clinical and dissectingly accurate. As someone who loves to check people out though, I often have days where I’m checking out dudes, and on those days, nothing fits. “I’m so straight” feels invalidating and obnoxious, and again, “I’m so bi” feels just a little uncomfortable still. We’re working on this glitch.

Point is, the labels I’m still experimenting with. I hold them at arms length at the moment, some more than others, because I’m very scared of encroaching on forbidden territory, on territory that isn’t mine and that I have no right too. There’s a very fine line around this area, depending on the Schroedinger’s label: do I fit? If I fit, it’s my land, and I should trample all over it and declare my presence and revel in its existance and my comfort in it. If I don’t, I’m ruining it for everyone who does belong, I’m contributing to the perpetual erasure of the border by people who claim it doesn’t matter in order to only push in on marginalised people’s spaces. I’m cautiously flirting with them because I don’t yet know whether I fit there or not.

My main rationale for this shameless label-flirting instead of staying in what has already been decided to be “my lane” i.e the mainstream lane that everyone is forced into by default and thus marginalises the other lanes is because it’s HELPFUL. It’s overwhelmingly easier to sometimes think of my chronic and oftentimes dehabilitating tension headaches as a lack-of-spoons induced punishment, instead of “thing that just happens sometimes” because it fits better. They come when I change my sleeping pattern or don’t get enough sleep or don’t get enough food or don’t rest enough to make up for the lack of sleep; it’s not really a chronic illness, and if it is then it’s one with a heck-tonne of spoons that would make Real Spoonies jealous, presumably.

It’s helpful to think of my relationship with my mother as one with an emotional abuser, even if she doesn’t quite tick all of the boxes for name-calling and thinking that she is the best, because the posts that come up in the “emotional abuse” tags and in the counselling blogs about abuse and abusers are relatable to me, they help describe my feelings and my situation and thus I feel like this label belongs with me. But at the same time, the label is Very Big and Scary and Important and so I should leave it alone for the people who’ve REALLY earned it. Being on the fringes of these “Other” terrorities is an awkward place in itself, but it fits better than being in the middle or not being there at all.

I’m scared that people won’t understand my fringing position in relation to labels, that they’ll think I’m an imposter, that they’ll judge. It would be nice to say that I wouldn’t do this to people, but it’s an important thing to remember that social problems exist all through society and how we interact, and being honest about it, I would have this impulse too. The most important thing is that this helps me, and if someone else is using a label that I don’t think fits them right, then they are the best judge of what helps them and what therefore fits them best, even if it’s not “perfect”.