Labels & Language

Labels & Language

Labels can be lifelines, or they can hold us back.

When are they useful and when are they not?

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825 – 1895) was a German lawyer and writer who campaigned for queer equality. He believed that difference was part of nature and therefore LGBT+ identities shouldn’t be legislated against. Ulrichs thought we could give names to different identities just as we do with flowers and animals and so he created a series of categories and labels that people could use to describe their sexuality and/or gender identity.

Meet Ulrichs in part 2 of Adventures in Time and Gender “Cats and Boxes”

Ulrichs called himself an Urning – a person assigned male at birth, but who has a female soul and who is attracted to men. He may have thought of himself as having a female soul because, at that time, sexual attraction was only understood in terms of a male/female binary and he was trying to make sense of his attraction to men within this limited framework. Or maybe he did believe his soul to be female. It’s an example of how people who are not cisgender and/or heterosexual might find there’s no easy way to describe themselves in the times they are living in.

Magnus Hirschfeld later said that categories like “Urning” weren’t useful as they conflated gender and sexual identity.

Exercise – Lines & Labels

Draw a line across the page and imagine that it’s a rough timeline.
Below the line write down the words and labels that people have given or called you (could be about your gender or beyond). 
Above the line write down the words and labels that you used for yourself at those times and now. 

Notice the differences, absences, contrasts, and similarities, notice any changes over time. What does this say about your evolution? What does this say about language?  Notice which labels and language feel roomy, and hopeful. Do any give you a sense of home, of belonging? Circle or highlight any that mean a great deal to you now. Can you explain how they fit or create the right space for you?

If you wish fold the paper down the line and tear off the section that records what you have been called by others. Throw it in the bin or destroy it in some way.

Language and labels are yours for the taking, making and living into…

Some of the interviewees (these were taken from oral histories – older trans and non-binary people were interviewed by younger trans and non-binary people) in Episode 3 talk about labels and language.

One woman recalls how not having the words to describe herself meant she took on words that bullies used:

“Most people referred to gay people with the insulting phrases. So you sort of then start identifying yourself with those phrases. And you’re trying to work out in your head where you fit in to this world. Which is very very difficult.”

Someone else recalls finding the language to describe himself –

“I remember, it would now be about 19 years ago, first starting to Google around gender identity. And there really wasn’t that much on the web. But I came across a website which spoke about female-bodied male-identified individuals, and for the first time in my life, I felt I had found language which helped me understand myself.”

Finding the right label can feel like home.


For many of us, gender doesn’t exist on its own. What else are you besides being trans? How do these experiences and identities intersect and intermingle with your gender?

Language is changing all the time, what language have you moved through or discarded already. What do you wish there was a word for that there possibly isn’t yet?

LABELS THAT SAY YES (and no and maybe)!

Settle yourself in a quiet space, close your eyes for a bit (if that feels comfy for you, if not relax your gaze a bit), take a couple of deep breaths and let yourself feel calm. Relax your shoulders, soften your face, quiet your mind as much as you can.  You are invited to ask yourself some questions about language and labels and then use your senses to help you figure out if the answer is a yes, no or maybe.

First of all, ask yourself a couple of questions that you know are a firm yes for you. You can do this with your inner voice or by speaking out loud.

Am I breathing? Do I like (favourite food)?

After asking the question say YES (this can be out loud or not). When you answer YES notice what your senses do.
How does your body respond?
What does the yes feel like?
Is it in a particular place in the body?
Does it have a sensation?

Now repeat but this time ask yourself questions that you already know are a NO for you.

Do I like (least favourite food) ? Am I 102? (Apologies to any 102 year olds doing this exercise!)

After asking the questions and responding no, again check in with your body.
What do you notice about how the NO shows up for you?
What does your NO feel like?
Where does it land?
Does it have a particular sensation?

Now, ask yourself a couple of questions that you know are BIG NO’s for you and follow them up with a YES (that you know is not true for you).

Now what does it feel like when you answer in a way that isn’t true for you? How does this show up in your body? What senses show you that this isn’t true for you? what’s the feeling of saying something you don’t agree with? Or is outside of what you wish for?

You can use this information to try out some language and labels for yourself. Experiment and play with words, labels and identities by asking yourself questions and noticing how your body responds. Does it feel like a yes, a no or perhaps somewhere in between, a maybe or a might be space.

I am a trans person?

I am non binary?

I enjoy being masculine?

I enjoy being feminine?

I am …

NB: this is not a definitive way figure out what labels work for you, and the way we respond to these questions can change day to day and moment to moment. What can be useful is to get more of a sense of what yes and no feel like for you so you can use your senses to guide you.


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