I was originally going to write about recent online discussions about what to call our community, and why I like the recently suggested GSD – Gender and Sexually Diverse – or, as I’d like to write it, DiGS – Diverse in Gender and Sexuality. But a recent discussion has brought up that old chestnut: “Why do we even need labels? I don’t want or need to be defined or categorised. Why can’t we all just be people?” A good question! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to “just be people”?! I think it’s an admirable goal, for all that I fear it is not a terribly realistic one. Here is why I think that we do need labels, and we do need a brand. I am, in this particular sense, an out-and-proud unashamed label queen.
I have *never* worn labels – well, not brand labels, anyway. I’ve never been the guy in Nike shoes or designer jeans. I’m turned off by paying money to walk around advertising the brand whose product I’ve just bought. I’m talking about the labels people give other people. Labels are words with power. Some labels have the power to unite, to empower, to include. Others have the power to demonise, to tear down, and divide. Labels are how most humans cope with other humans. I think we often see each other as a conglomerate of labels with a bit of a story to bind them all together.
I used to hate labels back in high school – labels like “Gay”, “Homo”, “Religious”, “Brain”, “Nerd”, “Weird”, “Teacher’s Pet”. These labels were (almost) all true, but I hated them. I hated them because they were used by other people to demote me, to bring me to their level or lower – I hated them because at the time, some of them were truths I denied. They became a prison, fashioned by others, built from my own being.
Now? Some of those same words are labels I have chosen. Those labels have become armour. I wear “gay, ‘mo, queer” every day, along with “Geek”, “Rounder-figured”, “Activist”, “Man”, and a host of others. Why? Because I acknowledge that these words are true representations of parts of myself. Because long ago I decided that I would never again allow the truth to become a weapon. Because others sometimes need to see someone else who they can identify with to see that they are not alone. That other people like them do exist and they are happy, normal people (Well, maybe I’m not a shining example of “normal” but pfft to that! I still wear “Weird” too).
I wear my labels with pride and with dignity. The mere act of choosing to put them on means that my opponents can no longer get mileage out of them. To me, this is what Jesus meant when he said “The truth will set you free”. It’s not about believing the right thing, or learning some secret. For me, it’s the idea that living truthfully and honestly allows you to live freely. No secrets and no lies means that you are free to live without fear that someone will expose the label you didn’t want seen.
But I wax philosophical…
Politically, I think labels are necessary. They identify us to politicians in a way they’re used to thinking – demographics and voting blocs. Labels imply plurality. The concept that there are “gay”, “lesbian”, “intersex” etc people tells our leaders that we exist and we have numbers! Labels are rallying points in a political and public landscape for the oppressed and their allies. Recently One Billion Rising targeted an issue affecting a different label – “Woman” (OBR is a campaign about violence against women). It’s a powerful label, since it applies to about 50% of the population.
It is hard to get traction when all you have is “these people” and “those people” or when your first sentence includes a 16-25 word sentence explaining who “these people” are – your audience’s eyes probably already glazed over.
Labels are what have created concepts like “The Pink Dollar” (However cynically that might be viewed) which has shown businesses time and again to treat homos and the wider rainbow community decently or their share of our fabulous finances will go to their more compassionate competitors. Labels like “homophobe” and “transphobe” allow us to identify individuals and organisations whose ideals are in direct conflict with our very existence.
Labels give rise to communities, communities give rise to action, and actions in turn can redefine labels. Labels like LGBTIQQA (both separately and as a conglomerate) have grown a vibrant, disparate, diverse wonderful community with events like Big Gay Day, Pride, Mardis Gras, Midsumma, and more. Labels have given rise to support groups, to statistics and to studies, to funding for LGBTIQQA Organisations. They have given rise to bars and pubs and clubs. In the queer community, labels have sprung up for subcultures, and we have busily reclaimed the labels that have been used to hurt us.
Until there is no need for that sort of community, for support groups, for legislative change, for targeted organisations, for specific events, until there is no need for any function that labels fulfil, I don’t think we can ditch them entirely. I think we still need labels, as much as I might wish that we didn’t.
The questions that come out of all this seem to be:
- Are our current labels serving us well?
- Are we at a point where our community has taken actions that are causing us to redefine our labels? and if so,
- What labels do we as a community want to wear from here on in?
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I would LOVE for you to post them here on the blog so that everyone can join in the conversation, whether they’re from a Facebook group or Twitter or Google Plus or elsewhere…