I'm a member of the Diversity Committee where I work, and to celebrate Transgender Awareness Week (TAW) and International Transgender Day of Awareness (TDOR), we prepared a display that illustrates some of the gender-variant people through history, profiles of individual transpeople and their accomplishments, and a few of the people who've been killed over the last year because of their perceived gender-variance. The display will be put up in my building, and it turns out that, for some of my co-workers, it's controversial. They ask why we need to label people, why we can't just accept people for who they are without the labels.
And which label is it that offends them?
Turns out the display includes the word, "transgender," and a few of my coworkers don't want to be exposed to that word, and they don't want their children exposed to that word.
There's no doubt that labels can be limiting and destructive; that they can make pain and add to prejudice. But I'm not sure how you can have a display celebrating trans people for TAW without including the word "transgender." It would be kind of like celebrating Independence Day, but removing the word, "Independence." What makes that day different? What is it about these people that is different from others?
It's human nature to compartmentalize things, to label them for ease of understanding. There's great danger in that, as mis-labeling is common, and judging solely by label is guaranteed to result in misunderstanding and ignorance. Nevertheless, we cannot escape labels – and labels do have their place. They do differentiate according to individual characteristics. The error is in making assumptions regarding the person that go beyond the label. Assuming that because someone is a woman, she's weak and emotional. Assuming that because someone is a black man, he likes watermelon and fried chicken. Assuming that because someone is a Christian, she's a Republican. The label is accurate and impersonal, but that's all you know about the person; the assumption may or may not be accurate, and accepting it as truth perpetuates ignorance and violence.
In our building, we've also got a poster up called "Women at Work," illustrated with various women performing a variety of jobs, to show that women are capable workers. No one I've ever heard about has objected to it. We regularly put up notices regarding "Asian Celebration," or "Black History Month," or "Women's History Month", or "Hispanic Festival," or "Disability Etiquette." No one objects. If folks make assumptions regarding the people behind the labels, they keep those assumptions to themselves. The labels are accurate and impersonal, and important to place the announcement in context, to give it meaning. If you take that label away, you erase a part of that person's identity; you remove the person or the event from context, and make it meaningless. We are men, women, black, white, Native American, Asian – it's who we are, part of what makes us individuals, an aspect of our personhood that defines who we are in relation to those around us, that gives us our individuality within our common humanity. The label does not represent who we are – but who we are is not complete without it.
I am an American. I am white. I am middle-aged. I am a mother – and a father. I'm a writer. I'm a designer. I am an ex-Marine. I am a carpenter. I am an activist. I'm a feminist. I am free. I am a human. I am a woman. Most important of all, I am spiritual, a child of God. And I am transgendered.
Labels. I claim each one, I wear it with pride. This is who I am. Just as you label yourself, in whatever way you do, with whatever pride or shame you have about that aspect of who you are. Some of those labels I wear by choice – designer, writer, feminist, free. Others have been assigned to me by accident of birth, by fate, or by God – human, American, white, child of God. Transgender.
I don't have any choice about it. I was just as much a transgendered woman when I wore a beard, a man's name, and man's clothing, as I am now. I was just invisible, isolated, and desperately, suicidally miserable.
So when I hear that some of my own colleagues are so offended by who I am that they not only don't want to be confronted with my identity, that they don't even want their children to know of my existence; when I see that they want to bury my identity, erase it, make me invisible – it hurts.
It hurts not only because an important part of my identity is being dismissed. Making that label of such paramount importance that it must be hidden or erased, actually makes it more visible, even as it makes me invisible. The attempt to remove the label isolates it, so that it then becomes the definer of my individuality. It reduces me, and every trans person, to less than fully human, to only transgender. It perpetuates ignorance, prejudice, and fear, and smoothes the way for violence.
This is why we need the display so damned much in the first place.