I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identities, and specifically about the process of labelling ourselves or others with particular identity terms. Identity labels can be a touchy subject sometimes. Some people have a strong aversion to using labels at all, whether applying them to themselves or to others. In this post, I’m going to talk about the labels we apply to ourselves, rather than the very different issue of applying labels to other people, and specifically about marginalized identity labels and their implications, meanings, and importance.
The thing is, to some extent, I get people’s reluctance to slap labels on themselves. Sometimes it feels like complete strangers want to know what label they can slap on me so I can be put in a comfortable little box and they don’t have to think about me as person anymore, really.
But at the same time, I find that the uses and benefits of a lot of identity labels outweigh the annoyance at finding myself occasionally reduced to those labels.
For members of marginalized groups, identity labels are vital. In some cases, if we didn’t name marginalized identities, they would remain invisible, and their continued oppression would go unrecognized. A gay rights movement would have been inconceivable prior to the societal creation of the identity categories of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” (as opposed to simply seeing homosexual sex as a behaviour that some people engage in). In other cases, marginalized groups are created by having an identity thrust upon them – racial categories largely work this way, as they function as an artificial hierarchy (of sorts) created by white culture.
The way I like to think about these kinds of labels (the ones where it would be nice if they were largely irrelevant, such as race, and even sexual orientation if we get right down to it), is that identifying as belonging within them functions as a neat shorthand for indicating the ways in which we move through and experience the world, because of particular characteristics we have that are described by a given label.
For instance, LGB people in same-gender or same-sex relationships live in a world where being affectionate with their partners in public carries a certain risk of harassment, or even violence. And I would ague that it is this experience, rather than the particulars of who they happen to be attracted to, that really delineates the difference between straight people and, well, everyone else. To not be able to hold hands with someone you love without it being a political statement, godsdamnit, is just plain exhausting, among many other things.
It would be nice if our sexuality was essentially irrelevant; it would also be great if race actually didn’t matter. But the fact is that no matter how many well-meaning people pretend not to see race, people of colour continue to face barriers to accessing many life experiences that white folks take for granted.
So, many identity labels (around race, class, ability, sexuality, and the like) are useful in terms of framing and understanding other people’s experiences in the world. They can also be reductionist, though (and this seems to me to be the main reason cited when people reject labels, or do not wish to categorize themselves).
Of course, it should go without saying that not everyone who takes ownership of the same identity labels has the same experience. This is partly due to the different ways in which our various identities intersect and interact with one another, and also due to the great degree of variation within particular categories. Identifying as a person with a disability, for instance, is a pretty nebulous categorization, given the vastly different ways in which a person can be disabled. However, I can still see the usefulness of identifying oneself as *not* normatively abled, if only because it reminds normatively abled people that not everyone is like them.
In fact, I am far more liable to identify with umbrella identity terms than with more specific ones. I identify as queer, (rather than the more clearly defined and generally better understood category of bisexual, for instance). I don’t think the specifics of my sexuality are other people’s business, really, but I do understand that identifying myself as “not straight” is very important. It’s deliberate imprecision is in some ways what makes this category valuable to me. For me, identifying as queer works because I really think it shouldn’t matter who I am attracted to, but I also know that in some ways it does, and more importantly, that if I say nothing about the subject, people will tend to assume I am straight (relative to whatever binary gender they think I am). When I say that I am queer, it says that I am accustomed to the experience of having other people politicize my relationship(s), in a way that straight people don’t generally have to deal with.
Genderqueer works the same way: it says that I am not male, and I am not female, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what I *am*, really. It does tell you that I am accustomed to being misgendered and feeling invisible, though, which is important information for understanding the ways in which I respond to the world around me. It’s also something people need to know about me in order to be able to do things like use the correct pronouns for me.
So, labels have their usefulness in framing our experience of the world, and in helping other people understand where we are coming from when we talk about those experiences. And the are useful in establishing patterns around how different people are treated – if we don’t acknowledge people’s racial and cultural backgrounds, it is impossible to make observations regarding things like racially-based job discrimination. And we can’t work to eliminate these forms of discrimination unless we can show that they are occurring.
But I don’t think that pointing out the usefulness of identity labels quite explains my instinctively negative reaction to people who simply reject the idea of applying such labels to themselves. The thing is, in my experience the people most likely to do this are usually speaking from a place of great privilege. You’ll see it a lot with poly people (especially) in heterosexual “primary” relationships or marriages, who engage in non-hetero relationships. These people very often feel like there’s really no need to “define” their sexuality, and think that labels would simply be too limiting.
Of course, by not labeling themselves as some form of queer (or even just accepting a label of “not straight” if none of the existing LGBQ+ labels feel comfy, ok?), these people are really just letting the world continue to assume they are straight, with all of the privileges that implies.
Because that’s really the thing. I think that the real reason why proudly taking ownership of identity labels is so very important is because we don’t live in a world where these categories don’t matter.
I’m not even saying that people who insist that they don’t want to define themselves as one thing or another need to be *out* all the time. And I don’t want to engage in identity policing here, either. I’m not invested in how people identify, or whether their identity matches my perception of them (they know better than me, anyway). And I even understand that sometimes the answer is really just “none of the above” or “I don’t know.” But even those categories are substantively different from taking the stance of “oh, I just don’t believe in labels” or whatever.
My point here is really that we all need to stop pretending that such an anti-label stance is somehow neutral, or even good. Ignoring or minimizing the differences between people and the ways they move through the world, (which is what a person does when they insist that labels aren’t important), is worse than useless. It is damaging.
People who are visibly members of marginalized groups (i.e. most people of colour, for instance) don’t have the option of not identifying with that group – they have that label thrust upon them, and are treated as members of that group regardless of whether they identify with it or not. And it is for their sake that I think that those of us who do have that option, to be able to comfortably sink below the radar of bigotry (and I do very much include myself in this category), to insist on claiming these labels, and to make sure the rest of the world sees us as members of that marginalized community.
We need to make ourselves visible*, because a critical mass of visibility is necessary before society will begin to make the kinds of changes that might one day actually render identity categories irrelevant. Because, ultimately, I do agree with the sentiment that race, gender, age, body size, who we love, or whatever else really shouldn’t matter. These things shouldn’t change fabric of our lives or create barriers for us in the ways that they currently do. But, as long as they are relevant, as long as they do continue to shape the way the world shapes itself around us, and the way other people treat us, we must continue to point out the fact that those differences (in experience) do exist, and they are very important.
* I do understand that it is not always a safe or viable option for everyone to be out all the time, or even at all. I am not out to everyone all the time, nor am I even out to everyone that I interact with on a regular basis. But I also think that it is important to consider the potential positive future ramifications for other people when considering coming out, and not just making it about the pros and cons within one’s own life.