Label Drag

Aug 3, 2016 | 2016 Summer - Labels, Articles

By Lila Hartelius

The space between feeling and utterance is the chasm we try to weave together with the needle of language towing along the thread of thought. Stitch it too snugly and sentiment is snuffed out by careful words. Bind it too loosely and all feeling is lost in a nebula of self-conscious ambiguity and falls prey to a labyrinth of myriad interpretations. Each garment sewn of heart and breath calls for a fitting needle and stitch that will communicate clearly upon first sight the garment’s intended use and hold together lovingly the fabric of its body through lifetimes of wear and changing of hands.

The needle of language acts as a net, luring in fish that may help clarify the intended thread – or obscure it. The size and shape of the needle chosen may change the way the thread of thought binds together the fabric of identity articulated. Synching or slackening the stitching for specific contexts can sometimes render the fit of the garment more comfortable to wear, sometimes less so. For viewers, such adjustments can also clarify or obscure its contours. Unfortunately, sometimes the needle and stitch one likes best can produce a garment that to a viewer looks nothing like what the seamstress had in mind.

Bisexual or bisexuelle?
As a bilingual woman, I find that the cut of my garment can shift between feminine and unisex depending on which language I use. In English, I am bisexual. In French, I am bisexuelle, never bisexuel. To articulate or hem in the particularities of my gendered experience of bisexuality in English, I have to add the word “woman.” In French, on paper I am automatically a woman and in speech my voice betrays my biology. In the francophone fishnet of my discourse, I can out myself and catch reflections of my own female scales in just one word; yet in this fishnet I am also caught – gender bound.

Bisexual & co.
In either language, I am also caught in a different sort of net. Along with a capacity for attraction to more than one gender, the word “bisexual” (and its French equivalent) can lure in some other, less intended fish: “slut,” “non-committal,” “indecisive,” “confused,” “going through a phase,” “greedy,” “at a higher risk for having or contracting AIDS or other STIs,” or the self-proclaimed more “liberal” one, “open-minded.” Apart from the last one, you would think I had just said, “I’m vice-sexual – with a side of disease.” It looks as though when I invited Robin Hood to dinner he thought I meant all his merry men, too.

In social waters where such lexical fish swim in abundance, if I come out at all I sometimes prefer to cherry-pick my fish and describe their fins and scales in specific detail so as not to let them be confused with other fish. “I’m attracted to both men and women.” “A woman who was my lover at the time…” “Yes, I do have a boyfriend right now; but I don’t have a girlfriend – thanks for asking.” In these dark waters, long-needle phrases become labels where labels get me the wrong contents.

The trouble with bi
For those more versed in the anatomy of queer lingo, a single fin or scale – such as the shorthand “bi” – may suffice to evoke an image of the correct fish. Broad, gestural strokes of the needle, here, will likely be articulate enough for those who are familiar with the shape of the garment. Yet for those potentially less familiar with LGBTQ jargon, a more precise, elaborate stitch – e.g., “bisexual” – may be called for. For such individuals, the statement, “I’m bi,” might arouse befuddled questions – “You’re by what? The sea?” – or invite alternate word endings – “You mean you’re bipolar?”

Putting the x back in bi
While I can breathe a sigh of relief in moments where I can escape the embarrassment of saying the word “sex” and know I will still be understood, there is also in these moments a sense of disappointment in not having to utter that taboo combination of sounds. It feels a bit like putting on a raincoat when I want to dance in the rain. There is something affirmative about saying “bisexual.” Biphobia, and fundamentalist Christian repressive attitudes about sex, have wrapped me in swaths of white, sexuality-less purity and invisibility. Sometimes it feels as though the only way to break out of these suffocating layers is to say exactly what they were designed to hide. In using the word “bisexual,” I am saying, “I have a sexuality! I am a sexual being!” Its dispelling power works like magic.

Bi by elimination
Imagine walking into a traditional business meeting wearing fishnet stockings and a mid-thigh dress. Unless it is a particular type of business meeting (for which such garb might be perfectly appropriate), the first impression might shock a bit. In a milieu where blurting out, “I’m bisexual,” could leave both others and me feeling awkward, it sometimes helps to start by describing the stitching of my identity in terms of what it is not. This may spark a dialogue in which I can elicit from the listener an understanding of my sexual orientation without having to speak its name myself.

“I’m not heterosexual.” “Wait – but I thought you had a boyfriend…?” “I do.” “But, you’re not gay, are you?” “No.” “So…oh – you like both?” “Yep.” While crocheting in high school I often enjoyed having someone guess what I was making. “Will it be a skirt?” “No.” “A shirt?” “Nope.” “Oh – is it a dress?” “Roger that.” Why tell others what they can figure out for themselves?

Queering or disappearing?
On the rare occasion that I have used the word “queer” to refer to myself, I have become a little girl disappearing into one of my dad’s enormous, heavy coats; a mime with a plaster-caked face. In my opinion, too much negativity has come to be associated with the term “bisexual.” I do not want the resulting internalized shame in me to coerce me to shy away from that word because I think it might seem “inappropriate” or “disgusting” to a listener.

When it comes to coming out, I’m a verbal exhibitionist at heart (even if not always in speech). If I want someone to know that my sexual orientation is not heterosexual, I want them to know exactly what it is (even if I do so by round-about means), want to let them (and me) deal with the embarrassment, and want to clear up any confusion or misunderstanding about what that word means to me. Sometimes it feels like that is the only way for me to heal and dispel the shame and embarrassment I often feel about using the “b” word.

The times when I have caved in and used the comparatively less piercing needle of the word “queer” have mostly been in LG(b)TQ circles or around lesbian women whom I think are really hot yet whom I fear may have negative connotations with the term “bisexual.”


When, in the privacy of my sewing room, I construct the garment of my sexual orientation, drawing the thread of my self-understanding through the patterns of stitches that best fit my sentiments, my favorite needle – or the word closest to my heart – is “bisexual.” Yet in social interactions, this is sometimes the last term I would use (especially if I am speaking or writing in French). Unless I feel comfortable with my listeners hearing it, am not bothered by the possibility of them misunderstanding it, or just want to break through the assumptions they may be holding about me, the easiest approach is sometimes to simply sail the world in label drag.

Lila Hartelius, BA ( is a published writer who has written funded grant and business proposals and served as editorial assistant for the International Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Her work has been published in Weird Sisters West and Tendrel (Naropa University’s diversity journal), and she has contributed to the efforts of Bennington College’s Queer Student Union, Naropa University’s GLBTQ student group and Boulder Pride.

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