“As if in order to gain mastery over it in reality, it had first been necessary to subjugate it at the level of language, control its free circulation in speech, expunge it from the things that were said and extinguish the words that rendered it too visibly present.”
- Michel Foucault The History of Sex: An Introduction Volume I
As human creatures we like to label things. The word ‘word’ is a label just as the world ‘label’ is a label. Even now as I write this, I focus so hard on the things themselves that I see past what they’re supposed to be, and by that I mean that ‘label’ ceases to look like a word – and of course to anyone who doesn’t read English, ‘label’ may very well not be a word – nor word – but that does not mean that the concept does not exist. Anyone in the world can understand as well as I do the concepts behind ‘word’ and ‘label.’ Those concepts being hard enough to explain that I’m tempted to reach for a dictionary as I write this – what is a word?
I don’t want to say it is the simplest form of speech, but even that would require a visit with the dictionary – does one have to speak a word for it to be speech? Then in what category are sounds, screams, grunts, groans, moans and the like placed in?
Labels are a necessary part of the human experience – we communicate visually and audibly, using labels – we have labels for the things we taste, touch and smell – and yet some will argue that labels are unnecessary. A doctor, carrying the labels of doctor, will speak against labels, labels I hold dear to my person, labels such as ‘Transgender’ and ‘Lesbian’. The question is asked, why would I want to define myself by these labels? Why would I want to limit myself by them, and this causes me to be confused. I would hope the doctor would not feel limited by their label of doctor – for surely such a title, such a label, is so grandly achieved.
Therein may lay the counter arguments I face – that ‘doctor’ is no mere label, but a title, earned and bestowed, not some identity or orientation you’re born with. I would have to agree that ‘doctor’ is a title and with respect agree that it is in fact earned and bestowed, yet, as a writer, I’d also have to suggest that titles are labels that are used to communicate with an audience a broader meaning in a succinct manner – but in doing so I realize, and thusly argue, that ‘title’ and ‘label’ are the same thing.
It is because our words and labels are thusly clattered with such similarities that we as a species can end up with such confusion. We are left defining word after endless word as we try to grasp for an understanding of this abstract cosmos we live in. Labels are necessary, I argue, but not as an end, no, not even as a means to an end – for communication is not the end, not so much as expression, ideas and sense of self are not included in this definition of communication.
This is why I find it perplexing when it is suggested to me that I am defining or limiting myself by embracing labels, especially ones which pertain to me. Let us look at some of the ways it is so supposed that I am defining or limiting myself:
The fault of other’s perceptions: It has been suggested that I will hinder myself if I affix to myself such labels as ‘lesbian’ or ‘transgender’. This argument rests on an odd idea that I have often seen prevalent in society – one that society has often used to oppress me – that I am to kowtow to others and only express myself in ways that are comfortable for others to perceive.
If one were to argue that if it were easier for me to change my expression then to correct and address others perceptions – then I’d have to agree – but I will not sit by watching the casualties of ‘majority opinion’ pile up, silently. No one should be punished or repressed because of the perceptions or opinions of others. Education is my first argument equality in the form of toleration is my second, but never will I agree that anyone should be hindered because the perceptions of others could cause them harm.
We need to change society for the better – why pull up and dispose of the sunflowers for the betterment of so many dandelions? (Author’s Note: The use of the dandelion is for imagery purposes – as dandelions and sunflowers hold certain similarities. Never is it my intention to suggest anyone is a ‘weed’ especially with the negative connotation attributed to weeds, even visually pleasing ones such as dandelions. In fact I wasn’t even sure a dandelion was a weed until I did a web search for verification.)
Now on to the second argument people sometimes make, called the ‘human’ argument. Which is as follows, “Why put labels on yourself? Why label yourself? I see you simply as human.” Without alluding to any of my other writings involving my level of spirituality and my opinions on the greatness of an individual, I’ll simply point out that ‘human’ is another label and one that feels personally, simultaneously limiting and also rather overwhelming, when you consider the entirety of human history and current socialization. But is is with the label of human that we tend to do what I’m suggesting we do with all labels – use it not as a finishing line, but as a launch pad – use it not to limit ourselves, but to communicate ourselves. Behind the label ‘human’ is an idea – or rather countless ideas – an entire history accompanied with philosophical ponderings and scientific discoveries. Two people do not have to agree on what a human is, was, or should be – and both could be correct.
This is all true for labels such as ‘Transgender’ and ‘Lesbian’. One individual may feel that ‘lesbian’ is a label that connotates sexual relationships between two women. Another individual may believe that ‘lesbian’ is a label that connotates romantic relationships between two women. Both are and could be correct. A woman could be a homosexual or a homoromantic, or both, but any one perception of the label ‘lesbian’ does not limit or hinder an individual except in the way that others attempt to oppress that individual based on their perceptions.
Anyone who would blame the oppressed for taking on the label, instead of the oppressor, for having faulty perceptions and forcing them upon people, may very well be considered a majoritarian apologist.
Similarly one may feel that ‘Transgender’ is a label that connotates hormone therapy while another feels that ‘Transgender’ is a label that connotates sexual reassignment surgery – still further more one may perceive ‘Transgender’ to be a label that suggests androgyny – or that the label of ‘Transgender’ has nothing at all to do with hormone therapy or sexual reassignment surgery – and all would be absolutely correct.
I imagine that by this point those who have so far agreed with me are curious now, how to apply all of this to personal relationships – without forcing our perceptions of certain labels onto our friends and colleagues, how do we better understand how they mean the labels they put upon themselves? Sometimes all one needs to do is simply ask, but in the case that asking makes the asker or the askee uncomfortable, the asker may have to deal with the uncomfortable sensation of not knowing, which many times is argued as unfair, for we as humans detest not knowing – but if as the asker you feel uncomfortable in your uncertainty, imagine then how the askee may be feeling in theirs.
This again is why I suggest that labels are launch pads. As humans we desire for a place to belong, and as we trip and stumble through the journey of trying to find and understand our individual identity, it can be these labels which give us safe haven during the moments when the road becomes most treacherous.
And it is in my chosen name that I find the greatest strength, for individual names may be the greatest label of all. Names tend to be a source of pride, along with being an identifier. You often hear of the common dream of one seeing their name ‘up in lights.’
And indeed, I would argue that a sense of identity can hardly be formed without labels, without names, without launch pads.