Gender and sexual orientation labels don’t define Robyn Ochs.

“I am not a bisexual,” she said. “I am a person, and I identify as bisexual.”

Ochs is a travelling activist, writer and speaker who visits college campuses around the country to get students thinking about how sexual orientation and gender labels affect the way they or others view them.

About 45 people gathered in the Festival Allegheny Room for Ochs’ workshop on Tuesday night, which was sponsored by Madison Equality. Ochs began by asking the group to brainstorm as many different terms to describe sexual orientation as well as gender identity labels.

Some of the sexual orientation labels included “gay,” “pansexual,” “hetero-flexible,” as well as words like “fag” and “dyke,” while some gender identity terms included “transexual,” “butch” “cisgendered.”

“These are not words that you probably learned in high school,” Ochs said. “These are words that you may not have even heard in college, even if you’ve been here for awhile.”

The group was then split up into two teams — “kiwis” and “oranges.” Ochs had each person choose and explore the disadvantages and advantages of one sexual orientation or gender identity label and then participate in a discussion with a member of the other team.

Freshman biology major Logan Wasser chose to explore the word “gay.” Wasser said he likes how the word is synonymous with the word “happy,” but he thinks people often use it in a negative way.

“People will say things like, ‘Oh, that’s so gay,’ and that’s not what they mean. Back in the day, in high school, I used to just let it slide, because you don’t really want to stand up against what people do,” Wasser said. “Now I usually just give people a look like, ‘are you serious?’”

After the exchange, Ochs asked each pair to join with three other pairs and form a larger group. Each group was given a piece of paper to collectively write down all the disadvantages and advantages of the labels they discussed.

Each group then presented their list to the rest of the crowd.

Disadvantages were shared first. Many of the groups had overlapping ideas, describing labels as “confusing” and prone to negative stereotypes and judgment by those who don’t identify with the same label.

Sarah Hogg, the educational coordinator for Madison Equality, said people often make inaccurate assumptions about her because of her sexuality.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, so you’re like, sexually promiscuous because you’re attracted to more than one gender — you must sleep with them all,’” said Hogg, a junior anthropology major.

Hogg said people also make incorrect assumptions about her sexuality based on her appearance.

“One thing I don’t like is that people always just assume that I’m straight,” Hogg said. “People look and because I have long hair, or because I dress or act feminine, they just assume that I’m straight.”

Mia Wenzel, a sophomore philosophy and religion and anthropology double major, said she’s even experienced discrimination from other members of the LGBT community. Wenzel said since she thinks everyone’s experience and definition of their own sexual orientation is different, it’s disheartening when people try to push their own definitions and labels onto others.

“I had a gay friend, before I came out to him, he said that bisexual people just needed to pick a side, which is something that a lot of bisexual people tend to come across,” Wenzel said. “There’s such a prevalent idea of there’s gay and there’s straight, so middle identities confuse them. It’s frustrating — it becomes really hard.”

Ochs has identified as bisexual for 38 years and has now been married to her wife, Peg, for 16 years. But she said in the beginning when she came out to herself as bisexual, even she had absorbed some of the negative stigmas associated with LGBT people.

“I had a lot of internalized homophobia,” Ochs said. “My fear was worse than reality turned out to be … I really believed that there was something to be ashamed of, and now I’ve learned that love is love, and anyone who has the fortune to fall in love should be very happy.”

Despite the negativity, Wenzel said she’s found some major advantages to using labels. She was able to find a “safe place,” for herself in the bisexual community as an active blogger. She also said labels can be both liberating and empowering.

“Sometimes people think that the term ‘bisexuality’ is constricting, but I actually think it’s very freeing,” Wenzel said. “Instead of pansexual where I’m attracted to all, or queer, I’m attracted to one gender, I’m bisexual, so I’m attracted to both similar and different genders.”

Ochs shared a similar viewpoint she called “intersectionality,” or the idea that each person defines themselves according to many different identities, not just their sexual orientations. Rather, she said, a person’s sexual orientation is just one of many other identities such as race, location, upbringing and religion.

These identities, Ochs said, all interact with each other and create an individualized experience.

“We assume that everyone that shares one of those layers of identity, all have the same experience,” Ochs said. “You’ve heard statements like that — ‘All us lesbians, we all —’ or ‘All us Christians, we all —.’ I think ‘We all’ is very dangerous. That’s one thing that I’m clear on, that I can’t universalize my experience.”

Although society still holds a sense of homophobia and hetero-supremacy, Ochs said the situation is improving. She encourages members of the LGBT community to share their own stories.

“It takes a lot of work to embrace yourself — that who you are is a gift,” Ochs said. “More and more people need to tell who they love who they are.”

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