Do labels in the gay community hurt or empower people?

We use labels because it is easier to “understand” a group of people who fit that label instead of each individual. Let’s face it; you, me, we all do it. There are billions of people in the world, and we can’t know everybody personally. Instead, we generalise and use labels based on stereotypes and our own experiences. There are plenty of labels in the gay community.

But labels and the stereotypes associated with them can be the cause of hatred, such as homophobia and racism, as the death of George Floyd in the USA has brought this to the forefront.

I used to be a professional portrait photographer, which I now do as a hobby, and that is exactly what you do: You pick an angle, or a look and you focus on that, that way you can keep the message simple so people can understand better what they see.

Using labels in the gay community

There are so many labels in gay community, and most of them to describe somebody’s appearance, behaviour or sexual preferences:

  • Twinks 
  • Twunks (twinks with muscle)
  • Bears
  • Wolfs
  • Scene/ Non Scene
  • Circuit gays
  • Camp
  • Straight acting
  • And let’s not forget top/ bottoms

Men with tattoos holding camera.
Photo by Yasin Hoşgör on Unsplash

We happily use labels in the gay community to attribute specific qualities to people that fall in these categories. And we all seem to be okay with them. In fact, you probably use some of these labels for yourself as well. But is using these labels as innocent as what we think?

We think it is pretty normal to reject somebody because of their labels: The famous “No Asians” on Grindr profiles is a notorious example. But also “I can’t date a bottom because I am,” or “Sydney gays are self-obsessed.” 

“You are human. You love who you love. You fuck who you fuck. That should be enough—no labels. No stigmas. Nothing. Just be to be.”

Krista Ritchie – Kiss the Sky

I can tell you that I have heard people say about me that I come across as standoffish when I go out. Even my friends once said, “You’re like an ice queen” (The Frozen type, not the drug-taking type). At one point somebody said, and I quote, “You come across as really arrogant and unapproachable, but now that I know you, that is completely the opposite.” I get it, in crowds, I stand back, and when I first meet people, I need to see what is happening. However, that makes me human, not a stone-cold bitch. (So feel free to come and say something to me, but please give me the chance to defrost ☀️☃️) The point being, we all make judgments, based on stereotype and labels. Often we are wrong, or we miss out on meeting somebody great.

I am sorry I judged you

I recently came to the realisation how I judge gay men too. Even though I used to go out a lot (being a party gay), I recently realised how judgemental I am when it comes to meeting people in that environment. I ran into “a party gay” on a few nights out recently, who was, “out of it.” Later I saw him in the gym. It was easy to put them in the “party gay box.” And I did.

Circuit gays, scene gays and party gays are all humans. In fact, they may be looking for something more than what the party scene has to offer. And often they are happy to move on when the right person comes along

But maybe not. Who knows, right? The point is unless we know the person, we don’t know every individual. And therein lies the challenge: How do you find out if they want something different? You have to get to know them outside of that environment. But okay, that is a whole other subject. I want to get back to labels.

Why we keep using labels

So why do we keep using labels in the gay community? Are there benefits to using labels and stereotypes? The answer to that is yes. Using labels and stereotypes can be an excellent way to simplify the world. It can give us a sense of belonging (I am okay being labelled as “gay” because it makes me feel part of my community.) The challenge comes when labels are being used to de-humanise others and spread hatred.

We were not supporting his [a character in Fawlty Towers] views, we were making fun of them,” he explained. “If they [people at the BBC] can’t see that if people are too stupid to see that, what can one say?”

John Cleese (after one of his episodes of Fawlty Towers was removed from streaming services

Should we simply accept negative stereotypes?

I have to say, I have seen gay stereotypes appear on TV which made me think “Is this appropriate? Do I want gay people to be portrayed like this?” At times, the response is a definite no, but then I analyse that response with two different questions and look at the context:

“Is the intent to spread hatred or cause division?”


“Is it fun, a comedy based on a stereotype that exists, or is it part of a story?”

If it is the first question is yes, I condemn it, if it is the second question I can accept it (even if I would like to see a different view.)

For all those people that disagree with that, I will tell you this. 

Labels, stereotypes and judging others are never going away, even if we ban them from our screens. We use them to simplify the world, and there will always be people who use those to spread hatred and to cause friction in the community. But love is also part of the community, and so is diversity, and so is acceptance. Stopping people from being funny (even if it makes us uncomfortable) is not making the bad sides of stereotyping go away.

Off course, I am not denying the negative sides of using stereotypes:

The foundation of hatred

Label and stereotypes are being used to incite hatred as we can see over and over again. Homophobia and racism being examples of that. It is easier for people to judge (and hate) others based on stereotypes, rather than getting to know individuals and making up their mind.

It is harder to love yourself

I remember, before coming out, I perceived gay men to be “handbag swirling outlandish and camp.” If you’re offended by that I’m sorry. But that is how I perceived the gay community. There were no role models except for those stereotypes. It made it much harder to come out and connect with the gay community. Fortunately these days things are much better in that respect, but still, stereotypes exist. I know many gay men who want nothing to do with the gay community because “They flaunt themselves during Mardi Gras, dress up and act in a way that is not me.” Yes, the stereotypes are still there. And being subjected to those stereotypes makes it much harder for people to love and accept themselves.

You miss out

The other part of relying on stereotypes is that you miss out. I caught up with the “party gay.” It turns out he is a wonderful human being, with who I managed to have nearly 4 hours of deep and meaningful conversations. And I got to learn more about the “hot crowd” at parties. Apparently, it is all an attitude, and under that veneer of coolness and attitude, you can find guys who are insecure or who want to stay at home and play monopoly or watch Netflix with their boyfriend.

So, do labels in the gay community prevent people to be happy?

I am not sure. But one thing for sure, stereotypes, and labels are here to stay. It makes it harder for people to come out, to accept themselves or to connect with the gay community and its diversity. But it is your loss if you avoid people based on a label you stick on to them. You don’t know what you might be missing out on. So make sure you do your best to break through barriers defined by stereotypes by making an effort to get to know the individuals. That is the only way to break down the barriers between them and you, and it the only way we can create a gay community that loves and supports each other.