Don't let your schooling interfere with your education.
~ Pete Seeger

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Labels

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.

7 comments:

anne said...

Hey girl,

I think the labels are needed when people first break out of the boxes. Sometimes they are good in that we need to re-identify those labels and cast them aside; other times they are good because they form a new awareness. People sometimes don't like the new. I never understood why people freaked out over non-traditional sex and gender; but people seem to equate it with perversity. I'm not sure why. Maybe because the Babylonians were more tolerant than the Patriarchs?

But you missed one label: Seda. That's a label you picked out and like. Most of us didn't pick out our labels and people resent it when we try to change our names--you can't according to the government. You will always have that label you were given at birth as a "name you were previously known by."

But, yes, we can be proud of our labels or shamed by them--I'm glad you are now proud to be who you are, girl.

yay!
anne

CrackerLilo said...

It's so important to have the words. I remember how wonderful it felt to learn, at age 14, that the word "bisexual" existed. Just to know that it had to be invented told me I wasn't the only one who liked females and males both. And I get pissed when people try to erase that word.

In 1984, George Orwell writes wonderfully about how shrinking language also shrinks minds, how taking away words takes away one's ability to think about the ideas behind them in depth. The totalitarian regime is trying to shrink the English language into "Newspeak" for this reason. That's what the people who are offended by the word "transgender" (or "bisexual," or "gay," or "atheist") want--to not have to think, and not have others thinking, either. I find that the "anti-label" stance is a liberal approach to expressing prejudice more than anything else.

You have it right--the very fact that there's a controversy demonstrates why it needs to be addressed. The fact that they aren't accepting the labels means they aren't accepting the person who wears them. I'm sorry some of your co-workers are teaching a few extra lessons of their own.

Seda said...

Great comments! Thanks, y'all, you've really added to the discussion.

It's true that labels are incredibly important. We use them to express our individuality, to demonstrate who we are. So long as they expand that limitless boundary of our individuality, they are essential to who we are. They only become destructive when they are used to limit us. Prohibiting one of our labels from the public discourse, by its very nature, limits us and so is destructive.

Fannie said...

"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."

This is interesting reading your comment, Seda, juxtaposed with CrackerLilo's comment about Orwell's idea that shrinking language also shrinks minds.

Those who do not want to be exposed to the reality that transgender people exist are like those who do not want to be exposed to the reality that gay people sometimes get married. In both instances, they wish for reality to go unnamed and unacknowledged, effectively invisibilizing phenomena that EXISTS IN REALITY. It is willful ignorance. And unbelievably sad.

Seda said...

It is sad, Fannie - and for that matter, not wanting to be exposed to any people is sad. We are all one. We are all God's children, truly of the same family. To kill anyone is to commit fratricide. There is no "other."

aj said...

I sincerely loved this post. It explored so many details behind labeling individuals. The good, the bad, the why, and the misuse. Thanks for the post. ;)

Seda said...

Welcome back, AJ! I've missed you.

Glad you enjoyed the post. Now for the followup...

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
~Helen Keller

Reading List for Information about Transpeople

  • Becoming a Visible Man, by Jamison Green
  • Conundrum, by Jan Morris
  • Gender Outlaw, by Kate Bornstein
  • My Husband Betty, by Helen Boyd
  • Right Side Out, by Annah Moore
  • She's Not There, by Jennifer Boylan
  • The Riddle of Gender, by Deborah Rudacille
  • Trans Liberation, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transgender Emergence, by Arlene Istar Lev
  • Transgender Warriors, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transition and Beyond, by Reid Vanderburgh
  • True Selves, by Mildred Brown
  • What Becomes You, by Aaron Link Raz and Hilda Raz
  • Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano
I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men's hands even at the height
of their arc of anger
because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His - the Christ's, our
Beloved's.
~Hafiz