Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Spark of Wisdom: I am gay, this is me. This is who I am, this is what I am


This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.
 One of the perennial musings I have rolling around the slightly quirky organ that is my brain is thinking of labels, their need and which ones to use - and who gets to use them. There are a whole lot of people who love their labels, a whole lot more who hate all labels, and an inordinate amount of people who like some labels but not others and, sadly, rather a lot of people who do a great deal of label thrusting.

Confused? You will be.

Personally, while seeing the point of most of those groups (except the thrusters - a label I am now choosing to use because it lends itself to innuendo and it's good for the soul, it is) I generally fall into the group of loving labels - my labels anyway. But also knowing the boundaries of them.

Labels are, I think vitally important things, especially for many marginalized people. Labels can be an important part of self-definition and self-identity. They can be a powerful way of declaring yourself, who and what you are, claiming yourself and naming yourself. To many, that is important, that is powerful.

We live in a word where people will label us, negatively, insultingly and demeaningly (hmmm that sentence is a flagrant abuse of adverbs) with slurs and to dehumanize us, other us and reduce us. Many will decide they know who and what we are regardless of our own thoughts and feelings - they will define us, box us in and make judgments about us. They will decide who we are. To claim our own labels in response, to say "I'm not that - I'm this. THIS is me. This is who I am. This is what it means." is an act of empowerment.

And we live in a world where we are often rendered invisible, that denies our existence, forgets about us and generally shoves us under the rug and in the closet at every opportunity, then shouting our identity, clearly stating our identity and having a labeled identity is a great way to counter the erasure. I think this is especially important for GBLT people where our existence is not only denied, but the very possibility of our existence is often fought - with us being labeled as sick or deluded, with homosexuality being considered something we do rather than what we are and the huge denial of a trans person's gender identity.
I like being able to say, "I am gay, this is me. This is who I am, this is what I am. Not what you say I am, what I say I am." I like my label, it's important to me and a matter of power to me.

But here's another point - it's my label. I label myself.

I think one of the main problems with labelling is that we have a desire to label others - and not with the labels they choose. A related problem is applying our definitions to their labels. Different labels mean different things to different people. And that can be frustrating, especially when they reject our labels in terms we find insulting and embrace labels we find problematic.

I get edgy when men who exclusively love other men don't identify as gay, especially if they say "because gay means X, Y and Z" even though X, Y and Z have nothing to do with me. But that doesn't matter, because it's he who is being labelled, not me, and he has a right to choose his own label and to reject mine. Now, if he tries to apply his definitions to my labels I will object - because I define myself not him.

I don't like the label "same-sex attracted" because I feel that it reduces being gay to sex alone. I find it diminishing. But, again, while I will reject that label for me, I have no right to force my disapproval of that label on someone else. Someone else may find that label empowering and powerful and accurate. Whose definition is correct? The person it is being applied to - their label, their life, their choice, their definition.

I have don't like the word "queer." I've had it used as a slur in so many severe situations that I am repelled and triggered by it being used to label me. And I reject that label when people use it to label me, it has too much pain attached to it. So I refuse it as an identifier, for me. But, at the same time I use it to label people who claim it for themselves - it is their identity, their choice and their definitions apply. The pain i have associated with that word are irrelevant - because it's not my label or my identity.

I think the endless battles over labels - as well as a great deal of offense and hurt would be much better if people respected each other's labels and reasons more. I have spoken here of the musing on labels that have touched me, but I have seen debates on labels rage in many marginalized groups and among many marginalized people and I always find it quite sad to see.

I do not think we can ever truly know what a label - or lack of a label or rejection of a label - can really mean to someone, both the negative and the positive. And I don't think we can easily dismiss those personal meanings.

I deeply feel that it is wrong - and highly disrespectful - to define another person's identity, to assume, arrogantly, that you know them better than they know themselves, that you speak for them better than they can speak for themselves and that you can label them, define them better than they can do for their own lives and beings.