Labels and labeling aren’t helpful, at all, with one exception: to find yourself

“What are you, little one?”, “why can’t you be like everyone else?”, “it’s just a phase…”, “we need to see a doctor!” In this progression, many a conversation has been held around kitchen or dining room tables around the world, in many different languages. At some point, labels were used: “how can you know you’re [label]?” or “mom, dad, I’m [label]” etc. Over the years, I’ve had neverending discussions with people about our labels, who we are, what we are, and most importantly, why we are (or why we aren’t like the rest…)

Clara, my short story for the upcoming Beaten Track Anthology. Clara defies labels.

Clara, my short story for the upcoming Beaten Track Anthology “Never Too Late“, is about someone who defies labels, too. Clara is, quite simply, “a Clara”…

Labels, I find, tend to get in the way of progress, of true equality. This isn’t primarily about being LGBT, or SAGA (sexual and gender acceptance), or about “masculine” and “feminine”, although the two are closely linked, particularly when it comes to our society, and our value system. Here’s why, and I’ll give you a couple of examples to show why labels are great if you need them to find yourself, but really, really suck, when it comes to shoehorning others.

When we fall in love, or when we’re horny (or sexually attracted to someone if you prefer), a great many things are in play, procreation rarely being the focal point, no matter what they say. We are lucky to be one of the many species on this planet to actually be able to have sex and relationships for pure joy. We should make the most of it. Whether the person we are together with is procreationally compatible with us is irrelevant in nine out of ten cases. We are also lucky to live in a day and age where procreation is no longer necessarily needed to keep our societies growing (a conservative mantra usually) since there are enough kids being born as it is.

I have several friends in my circles who at some point in their lives came to the realization (although this is a lengthy – life-long (?) – process rather than a one-time revelation) they weren’t as clear-cut “male” or “female” as everyone thought, least themselves. A few of them are married, and there are plenty of cases out there which have been dragged around the media. Most people would say that two men who are married are “gay”, right? You might stretch yourself to a compromise that it is entirely possible that one, or both, might be bi-sexual, but with the lingering doubt about “why didn’t they just marry a nice girl then?” (but let’s not be bi-phobic, shall we?) But would you consider it possible that two men are married where at least one of them is straight? Both even? Yet consider this:

Adam marries Eve, Eve realizes she’s really more Steve and transitions, with all the “bells and whistles”. Since Adam really loves Steve, they stay married. So, does that mean that Adam is now gay since clearly he’s married to a guy? Or, as those awful romance books will trope it, is he merely “gay 4U”? Or is Adam still straight? Was he ever straight? Is he pansexual? Here’s the thing: labeling Adam is none of our goddamn business. We shouldn’t even ask him. We should just be happy that there’s one marriage, one relationship, that pasts the test of time and doesn’t break over something as fundamental as a trans/queer coming out.

In the case of Steve, you might say it’s clear-cut since Steve goes from being a “woman” (although was he ever?) to being a “man”, but what about Josie, who considers themselves queer, floating freely between genders, one day feeling all male and butch, the next donning make-up and a nice girly dress. They aren’t “agender”, since clearly, they embrace sometimes very stereotypical gender representations, unlike Sasha, who absolutely hate everything about their born sex and thus assigned gender and consider themselves “agender”, meaning they are neither male nor female, although, to the naked eye of the observer, the way they dress and act, may at times appear very similar to Josie. And yes, there’s the mess with pronouns which gives more people headaches than necessary. Remember this with your “they/them” friends: in 99 out of 100 times when you’d have to use the “they/them”, they will not actually be in the room to hear it – and be offended – as you’d otherwise be using the pronoun “you” in addressing them. Therefore, no need to really worry. You’ll be fine. Just try to get it right. It’s intentionally getting it wrong which is the offensive gesture. What about Josie’s and Sasha’s spouses? What would you label them?

So why do we use labels in the first place? Quite simple: we are so used to the binary system or “male” & “female” and them being straight, that everything that falls outside those categories is confusing to most. Our brain has a built-in need to understand, to categorize, to box things neatly, and that’s where labels come in handy. Problem is that labels can cause offense and be hurtful. Just imagine how Donald Trump would react to being addressed as “Mrs. Trump”, or if you’d call the Queen of England “Mr. Windsor” or “His Majesty”… Imagine yourself, if you’re cis-gendered, being labeled the opposite by a complete stranger. It would certainly sting, and you’d ask yourself “why would they say that?”, “what’s wrong with my masculinity/femininity?”, “what clue could they have misinterpreted?” and depending on who you are, you might ponder for a long time about what signals to avoid sending henceforth. It’s how we tick. Not having a label makes us uncomfortable, and we’d rather shift then discomfort on the other, rather than dealing with it ourselves. Quite egotistical really!

Alok Vaid-Menon is an example of what I'm talking about. Alok defies labels, with the exception of their beautiful name.

Alok Vaid-Menon is an example of what I’m talking about. Alok defies labels, with the exception of their beautiful name. To learn more about them, their art and their views, listen to this great podcast. Photo: Alok Vaid-Menon

The “rest” of us are quite the same. As a father, I often get to hear that “well, you’re not a mother, you couldn’t know how this feels…” to which I could say a whole bunch of things, but it just exemplifies that we attribute so much content to a specific label, regardless of whether it is true, or not, or to what extent something holds true.

I’m not saying all women are as physically strong as men, but there are a significant number of women who are significantly stronger than a significant number of men. I’m not saying that all men are better at raising kids than women, but there are a significant number of men who are significantly better at raising kids than a significant number of women.

Now replace “physically strong” & “raising kids” with anything, and you’ll get my point. Labels just aren’t helpful. They just cement our prejudice. Labels are necessary though, for ourselves, as we try to learn who we are, ourselves. The minute you realize that you’re different, “abnormal”, a “freakosaurus”, that’s when labels can help you. Whether you’re a gay boy or girl slowly walking the path from straight to gay via bi (it happens kids) or whether they stay put at bi, whether you wake up one day to realize that the body bag you’re in doesn’t quite suit who you are, and you need help to find out where on the spectrum between the poles “male” and “female” you are at home, or whether you’re an eternal wanderer. If a label helps you to find yourself, and – more importantly – others like you, then great.

I’ve used labels to describe things here, too. If you go back over the text though, you’ll realize that the only label which really fits each of the individuals above, is the one we learn when we first meet them, their name: Adam, Steve, Josie, and Sasha. And they’re beautiful labels, individually tailored to fit each and every one of those amazing human beings. The rest? None of our business really, as long as they are kind, gentle members of society.

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Hans

 

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