Let There Be Words!

“Why do we need labels? Why can’t we just be people who love people?”

It’s a question I’ll hear or see periodically in discussions on sexual orientation and identity.

Most often, it comes from very privileged places—people who don’t have to deal with erasure and all that goes along with being an invisible minority.

Sometimes it comes from those who belong to said minority and seem to think the prejudice and invisibility are due to the label rather than to bigotry. For them being invisible is preferable to being targeted.

Very rarely it comes from someone who honestly doesn’t feel the need to have a label for themselves or is perhaps unsatisfied with ones that still don’t seem to fit.

Regardless of where it’s coming from, I always encounter it after someone else (sometimes that someone else is myself) asserted a desire for their identity to be named, recognized, and respected. It will pop up in discussions about all the identities under the Queer, Bi, or Trans umbrella. It will creep into any conversation about bi-erasure or biphobia—guaranteed. It will be present in the discussion over how many letters should be in the LGBTQIA+ acronym.

And it will come up whenever and wherever an individual is complaining about social justice issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s one of those insidious questions that sounds like a mere preference of the individual expressing it but ultimately has a silencing, erasing, and oppressive quality to it. It’s not just about that individual’s desire not to use labels for themselves but about controlling the language and the existence of words that others want to use.

Below are some of the reasons why I think that label and identity words should and must exist.

To Express Internal Experience

As a language nut, I recognize that words hold a very special power. It’s not impossible for people to experience something without the language to describe it, but we’re verbal creatures. It’s much harder to acknowledge that experience, and impossible to talk about it in a meaningful way, without language.

I remember the first time I came across the word “bisexual.” In my mind, there was only gay and straight. Finding out that there was something to describe my internal experience of being attracted to multiple genders is on my list of most exciting life moments.

I was twenty-one, though, by the time I found out there was a term that felt like it referred to me.

For those who have never felt invisible, perhaps it is difficult to imagine what that experience is like. If you’ve ever read one of those lists of “untranslatable words” and thought, “damn I’ve experienced that!” when reading about schadenfreude (German word referring to the joy at seeing other’s misfortune) or dépaysement (French word referring to feeling displaced when traveling) then you can imagine a shadow of how I felt.

Generally those untranslatable words refer to things we experience periodically. Living without that word isn’t too problematic, and our happiness at finding that there is something to name that periodical experience is generally within the realm of the happiness of stumbling on five dollars dropped in the street. How lucky!

But when it’s something you experience every day and the language to describe that experience is lacking, the significance of finding your word goes well beyond mere serendipity.  Take that joy at discovering a beautiful, single word to describe an experience for which English doesn’t have a word and multiply it by…basically the sum of your existence.

To Decrease Isolation

Without language to create commonality, people also can’t find each other.

Being invisible can get lonely. Feeling like you’re so outside of the normal range of experience that there isn’t even a word to describe you can be a very isolating thing.

But having a name for that part of your identity means that even if you are the minority in your area, you can look for others who might understand you. You can reach out and find support, whether online or in person.

That’s why survivors of every imaginable disease and life experience have support groups. They recognize that they experience/d something that other people may not be able to understand and that bonding with others who “know what it’s like” is important.

Queer centers and pride centers are a haven for non-heterosexual people—a place where they know they can exist without hatred or judgment. Online forums are a lifeline to isolated and closeted individuals who need to know that there is more outside of their conservative Christian home and close-minded home town.

But it takes having the language of identity to be able to create these spaces where people who share that identity can connect.

To Seek Social Justice

In government and society, if something doesn’t exist as a word, it doesn’t exist. Period.

Oppression, discrimination, and prejudice towards a group of people cannot be addressed without the language to first identify that those people are even there.

Some express trepidation that labels create division—an us vs. other.

In reality, the division already exists. There is already oppression and prejudice. Being able to say “this is homophobia/biphobia/transphobia” doesn’t suddenly bring it into existence. It merely identifies it as already present—again putting a name to the experience of being hated for an aspect of your identity.

Diversity is never at fault for division. People’s intolerance for diversity is what creates the us vs. them mentality.

We never see scientists or doctors asking each other, “Why do we need to name this new discovery?” “Why do we need labels for disease?” “Why do we need to differentiate the elements and chemicals in the lab?”

Within most areas of knowledge, we recognize that the naming process is important. We take great pains to make sure that an appropriate name gets attached to a new discovery.

Hell, for a certain amount of money, you can even name a star after yourself for no other reason than to feed your own vanity.

We find it important enough to spend money on naming processes when the categorization of Pluto as a planet is probably going to have the least real-life effect on people, but somehow honoring a label that helps someone express their inner experience, find others who share that experience, and gain recognition in fighting oppression is…what? A waste of words and energy?

I don’t buy that.

Only you can decide what label, if any, is right for you. Only I can decide which is right for me. But as to the existence of words of identity—that shouldn’t be up for debate.

Stereotypes, Identity, Spirituality, and Halloween–e.g. word vomit

At the beginning of October, I did a post on creating meaningful costumes. One of my suggestions was to dress up as a stereotype or caricature of yourself.

Apparently I’m not the only person who thinks this is a good idea. It seems to be a theme among other witches as well. Huffington Post has a wonderful article going into depth about how this particular costume idea can be used in a powerfully beautiful way, creating opportunities for self-exploration as well as conversations with others about what the stereotype means and how it fails to capture the complexity of true identity.

Identity is a funny thing. That’s one of the first thoughts that came to mind when I started trying to write out a biography for myself when I began this blog. There are certain labels that are very important to me, and I wear them loudly and proudly.

Yet there are times when I really struggle with identity.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a gemini or because of the trauma of coming from a cult, but I never feel like I entirely fit anywhere…nor do I want to.

Labels come in handy in trying to express something. They give a quick snapshot of a personality characteristic (like manic pixie dream girl), a belief (like witch), or group belonging (bisexual, feminist, woman).

But as soon as a label starts to feel stifling–when trying to adopt that label erases me more than it helps me be seen, then I start to chafe.

In the beginning of my spiritual journey away from the IFB, Christian wasn’t a bad word to me. I wanted to be a “Christian.” I wanted to reclaim that label for myself the way I had claimed bisexual and feminist. I spent a good three years trying to find a way to fit into Christianity on some level or another. I knew conservative Christianity would never accept me, but I had hope for a more liberal strain of Christianity.

But Christians had other ideas. Everywhere I turned, I found myself confronted with demands of what I needed to believe and do in order to be a Christian. There was nowhere that I could go within the church to work through my own beliefs and figure out my own brand of Christianity. There was nowhere I was given the space to be me.

I still mourn the loss of my religion. It was a big part of my identity, both given and chosen (or at least I tried to choose it). I walked away ultimately not because I didn’t want to believe anymore but because I couldn’t find a way to keep the label and be free at the same time.

In hindsight, I think it was good. I’ve discovered a spirituality that feels like what I was born to be, with a label that lets me define what it means for myself, not for everyone else. In fact, it’s such a perfect fit that I haven’t really even thought about my former religion with much emotion for at least six months, maybe even a year.

But as I use Halloween as a spiritual exploration of my darkness, my demons, my hell, and my identity, I’ve discovered that there is still a very deep, bitter grief surrounding Christianity for me.

My theme this year is blasphemy. Although it was meant to be and will still be incredibly fun, I am discovering that it’s more of a final destruction and burial of my former religion. This is the saddest Halloween I’ve celebrated thus far as I prepare to put on a stereotype of the only identity I ever found consistently applied to me within Christianity–sacrilegious abomination.

 

Check Your Privilege: When Privilege Conversations Participate in Oppression

“If you’re right-handed, how often do you benefit from a right-handed world?” The speaker looked around the room as a few half-hearted answers trickled up from the crowd.

“If you’re left-handed,” she continued, “how often do you tweak to fit into a right-handed world?”

The illustration, though simple, was obvious. Right-handers are privileged; left-handers struggle with a world designed without them in mind. And even though there wasn’t a particular disadvantage I could identify within this illustration, I sat there fuming.

Once again, dichotomy erased diversity.

It may not matter on a practical level that ambidextrous people were completely overlooked, but it did matter on a philosophical level. The speaker was attempting to highlight privilege with a relatively innocuous illustration, and she inadvertently succeeded in highlighting what I think is the biggest issue surrounding the conversation of privilege currently.

Time and time again, invisible minorities don’t even make it onto the table.

Someone I know recently remarked, “If diversity were the Olympics, invisible minorities wouldn’t even be a team.”

So often it seems that oppression and privilege are approached like a competition. Whoever has the most visible disadvantage wins.

Visible

What happens to the invisible? The ones who don’t fit neatly into the accepted, clearly drawn lines between dichotomies of white/black, gay/straight, male/female, rich/poor, disabled/abled, or…as with the silly example above, right-hand/left-hand?

They get lost, ignored, erased, and denied.

It comes from “both” sides.

This year I’ve heard more about privilege than ever before. Initially I was ecstatic because it’s a conversation we desperately need to have as a nation.

But now I’m just burnt out.

I’m so tired of responding to a privilege question with “but what about…” I’m tired of being told I benefit by being erased or that my version of oppression doesn’t matter because I didn’t experience it within the accepted categories.

Some will preface their privilege conversations with statements about how identity is complicated and no one is entirely privileged or entirely oppressed. Someone can be privileged in one area of their life and not be privileged in another.

Someone can also pass without necessarily belonging to the privileged.

But when it comes down to the carry-out, awareness of multiple facets of identity rarely remains, much less awareness of the multiple expressions that a single facet can take.

More often than not, I watch privilege discussions degenerate into people vying for perspective king-of-the-mountain, and if that requires pretending that only two opponents exist, all the better. It’s easier to categorically deny someone’s experience if your world is black and white.

However, I don’t believe it’s possible to make progress in the conversation about privilege and oppression while we are ignoring the experiences and realities of anyone. That just creates new oppressions, one in which “both sides” participate together. If we truly want to fight oppression, prejudice, and discrimination, we need to address the co-oppression of the invisible minorities. We have to stop erasing those who don’t fit into our dichotomies of identity.

I know it’s threatening to think that the lines of identity aren’t as clearly drawn as we would like to think. I know it’s terrifying to realize that we might have something in common with the “other”/”not you” or that our experiences might be shared on various levels. I even know it’s confusing to consider how identity works if there are so many people that fit in the middle.

It’s uncomfortable to think about trying to navigate a world in which we can’t visually pigeonhole someone and know whether we trust them or like them or belong with them.

But then again, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be breaking away from anyway?

 

The Different Shades of Rebellion

Who is more rebellious? The girl wearing makeup, a skirt, and high heels? Or the girl with baggy pants, a shaved head, and a dozen piercings?

Stereotype would say the latter is far more rebellious, and not too long ago, I would have agreed.

Not anymore.

I’ve been reading Shiri Eisner’s Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, and it’s completely shaken my assumptions of what makes up a rebel. (Yes, it’s the same book that I was reading when I wrote this post, and yes, it’s my first reading still. I’m slow with nonfiction books. Don’t judge me!)

I never considered my sexual orientation as an asset to rebellion. As a bisexual female married to a guy, I often feel like I’m the most benign version of “queer” out there. There’s no way to avoid passing as straight unless I stand up and wave a flag in people’s faces (which I’ve enjoyed doing at Pride parades). However, Eisner has helped me see that it’s that very facet of my identity that makes it so much more subversive because it challenges what people think about relationships, sexuality, and identity in general.

Whether I fit into or challenge the stereotypes about bisexuality, either way I challenge stereotypes about what it means to be straight or queer. My very existence undermines the invisible certainty of monosexuality.

In other words, me being a bisexual woman can be seen as an act of rebellion. Yay me!

It was a subtle shift in perspective that had enormous consequences on the way I viewed the rest of the world and my place in the world. Suddenly even mundane activities seemed potentially radical. With the example given at the beginning of the post, both girls could potentially be making a radical feminist statement . . . or a statement about gender . . . or a statement about freedom . . . or a statement about sexual orientation.

I guess it really comes down to two basic ways of rebelling. The first is by abstaining from certain looks, behaviors, or associations. The second is by embracing them.

I’d been taught to view the abstemious method as rebellion, but only because I saw embracing such behavior or associations the same as embracing the norms that society attached to them. How could that be rebellious?

I was faced with that question when I found out about Abercrombie and Fitch’s ridiculous status obsession, from not wanting the homeless to wear their brand to refusing to supply clothes to women larger than they deemed attractive.

I never actually purchased anything from Abercrombie, but I did have a shirt with their brand on it that my partner had found in a thrift store. Normally I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about brands, but I did get a small thrill whenever I wore Abercrombie. It was the only brand that was outright forbidden in the IFB because, as the Bob Jones University student handbook from 2011 states, “Abercrombie & Fitch and its subsidiary Hollister have shown an unusual degree of antagonism to biblical morality (page 32).”

I was more than a little miffed when the CEO turned into the king of snobs. Most of the people I knew wanted to boycott the company (abstinence rebellion). For a while, I felt pressured to stop wearing my thrift-store purchased shirt in solidarity.

Then this guy starts a movement of giving Abercrombie shirts to the homeless to “taint” the brand’s “pristine” reputation. An exploitative move on the part of privilege by using the homeless in status wars? Perhaps. Charitable activist choosing to make a political statement while helping those in need? Perhaps.

Regardless of whether his move was particularly wise or not, the larger idea—claiming something “forbidden”—is a valid though often overlooked form of rebellion. He wasn’t the only one doing the whole “you can’t stop me” act with Abercrombie, but he was the only one I saw that actually got attention. Such a form of rebellion raises a valid question. Would a rebellion be more successful by people boycotting Abercrombie (fiscal punishment) or by “unacceptable” people wearing their brand (reclamation of the forbidden)?

Several years ago, I saw rebellion as an action against an authority or a system of rule. It was a choice akin to standing up when you’ve already been sitting down. It was the radical, in-your-face moments of movies and books. And I’ve had my fair share of those and am proud of them.

But that’s not where rebellion has to end.

Now I’m starting to see that rebellion can be more “passive” than that. It can be as simple as refusing to submit to a false dilemma—refusing to box in your identity.

In this way, my agnostic spiritual life becomes a form of rebellion against fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists alike who want the world to be a choice between each other. My nudity-affirming feminism becomes a form of rebellion against both modesty culture and objectification culture that wants women’s bodies to be all about male arousal.

There is a time and place for marches, protests, petitions, and attention-grabbing speech. By all means we should be making use of those to effect change in society. But in the times when those are not appropriate or simply not feasible, it’s the quiet rebellion, the passive rebellion, that erodes the lines of societal norms. It’s the every-day, mundane kind of rebellion that shifts paradigms.

So, join me this week by going out there and living a rebellious life—a life that says that you can challenge or embrace stereotypes and still be kicking ass and taking names.

 

What’s In A Name? Just A Soul

Hi my name is

What’s in a name?

Everything as far as I’m concerned. Names tell who you are. They’re your primary identifier. They say something about your personality, the culture you were born into, and your family history.

They possess power.

Names are important. Deep down, I think we know that, even if we don’t consciously acknowledge it. I think it’s why we give each other nicknames and pet names, because we recognize that public names don’t have the same power as a name that is more personalized to an individual.

I hate my given name, but it carries a lot of information for an observant person. When I introduce myself with my birth name, someone could easily figure out that I grew up in a Christian home. A person who knows the etymology of my name would know that I was named after an animal that is not exactly known for thinking for itself. Someone who knows even a little bit of my background could easily deduce how the animal I was named after was both revered and disdained by my religious group.

When I first decided to choose a different name for my online life, I did so out of a desire to protect my given name. I was taking baby steps out of the IFB and was paranoid about being watched—for good reason. Family and members of my former church would stalk my online activity, often attacking me or chastising me for the questions I was asking. Something as simple as choosing a new music artist to listen to or talking about seeing a movie at a theater was enough to get me embroiled in arguments or buried under nasty emails. As the closet to my sexual orientation and changing religious beliefs began to peak open, I felt trapped. I needed a safe place to figure out myself and my world, but my Facebook page wasn’t that place.

I briefly considered going offline altogether, but I had started to build a true network of support for the first time in my life and couldn’t imagine leaving all that behind. Changing my name seemed like the only way I could protect myself as I explored where I needed to go.

So I unfriended everyone from my former church and blocked them on Facebook. Then I changed my name and web address. From then on, I started to develop a persona under Diane.

While my given name had been pretty well descriptive of who I was within the cult, Diane was much more descriptive of who I was striving to be. Diana is one of my favorite Goddesses—the virgin Goddess, a strong, capable woman who owes nothing to no man . . . the type of girl who doesn’t take shit from those who stick their noses where they don’t belong.

I felt different interacting under that name. It wasn’t just the security of having a protected page. It was the way the name made me feel, the personality traits that it brought to mind.

It was liberating.

Eventually, Diane came to feel like a true name—my birth name felt more like the shield that I wore around my family to protect my identity. Diane was the persona I wanted the world to see, while my birth name was the persona I adopted when I wanted to give the world as little of me as I could.

When I started this blog, I considered going back to my birth name. By that point, I knew that my chosen name had been divulged to my family (because the IFB are really persistent stalkers, especially when they’ve been denied the ability to snoop easily). I had no hopes of continuing to keep my chosen name a secret, but I also knew that I was no longer so afraid of them seeing my beliefs. They had lost the power to shame me into conformity.

But I came to realize that Diane felt too real to me now. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to use my birth name for fear that someone would link my words back to me; I didn’t want to use my birth name because I felt that my birth name no longer applied. I’ve even considered having my name officially or semi-officially changed (by semi-officially, I mean announcing it to friends and family and smacking them if they don’t comply).

But here’s a secret, even though I’ve adopted Diane as my own name, it’s another alias to one extent or another. It’s closer to who I am at my core–as close as I will ever publicly get, but it isn’t the name that I sign off with in my journals. No, I first learned the name I would adopt as my innermost name from a friend way back in high school. It was the name that resonated to my absolute core. It is my soul’s name, and only a handful of people have ever heard me refer to it.

And no, I’m not going to reveal that one here to you because, like the Doctor, I believe fully in the power of a name and the need for that power to remain with the one who possesses it.

Doctor Who Name

Nor am I going to reveal my birth name because, as every musician, actor, or writer has discovered at some point, the power in a given name is nothing compared to the power in a name you choose for yourself.

What’s in a name?

Only the identity you are given . . . or the identity you create.

I’m here. I’m a feminist. Get used to it.

I only just discovered feminism a few years ago. It may be an old movement, but it is entirely new to me.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I “knew” about it, but only from the narrow perspective of fundamentalism, which basically taught that it was akin to homosexuality in its destruction of family values and ruination of marriages.

When I got a real does of feminism, the straw men—er women—fell easily away. I was a big fan of their early victories, such as getting the right to vote, establishing that wives are not property to their husbands, fighting for education, etc. I looked at real feminist’s lives and was impressed by how sane they seemed to be. They stood for things that I already felt were important. In my mind, once I was exposed to the truth, it was a no-brainer to be a feminist. I already was one!

Adopting the label of “feminist” was empowering and scary at the same time, kind of like adopting the label of “bisexual.” I knew there would be people who made false assumptions about me based on negative stereotypes. I knew that there might be a handful of people who would be turned off by the rhetoric and antagonistic towards the “agendas” of *gasp* equal rights.

But that was all part and parcel of taking a stand for something. By the time I decided I wanted to be a vocal feminist, I’d already faced so much backlash for my worldviews that the idea of yet one more person disliking me seemed like another no-brainer. It was worth it to stand for women’s rights.

I hadn’t even been a feminist for a year before I encountered a new enemy to feminism—feminists. I started hearing rumblings about former feminists who declared they were no longer feminists because they wanted to be more “inclusive” or who felt that feminism had become too vitriolic and had lived past its use.

All this while the GOP was doing everything in its power to take us back to the early 1800s, including some who thought women shouldn’t be allowed to vote!

I was confounded, to say the least, and horribly disappointed that feminists seemed to have started believing the anti-feminist propaganda. Seriously, this is the movement that has been demonized from the get-go. Perhaps we’ve forgotten, but there were printed cartoons trying to make feminists look like man-eating monsters to defame the women’s movement. This kind of antagonism is nothing new to feminism.

feminist ad

This past weekend, I overheard part of a conversation at a writer’s event. The New Feminist Agenda by Madeleine Kunin was being featured, so it was natural for feminism to come up in the conversation. Those who have met Madeleine know that she is an incredible feminist and an inspiring woman. Those who have read her book can tell you that the “new” agenda she proposes is one that focuses on family needs like childcare and job flexibility for both men and women—hardly anything “radical” or “family-hating.”

Although I did not have the pleasure of hearing Madeleine speak this time, I did hear a few women discussing a story she told—of a college girl who said she would rather be called a slut than a feminist. The women were saddened, understandably, by this young woman’s attitude towards feminism. While I agree that it’s disheartening that a woman who is benefiting from the hard word of so many feminists would consider it an insult to be associated with women’s rights, the sadder part was the discussion that followed.

One of the “feminists” wondered if the title of Madeleine’s book should have used a different word because “feminist” was just too . . .

I actually didn’t hear the end of that thought, but I can fill in the blank with any number of words that I’ve heard before. “Tainted,” “negative,” “off-putting.”

Oh my heart broke at that moment.

Let me make something clear, I don’t think everyone has to identify as a feminist. I’ve got friends who support equal rights but who do not consider it a big deal to identify as a feminist. That’s fine. If the label doesn’t feel right, don’t wear it.

But if you do identify strongly as a feminist, why the hell would you let someone scare you away from your own identity?

Yes, there are a handful of extremists who trumpet the feminist label while doing horrible things. Does the fact that feminism has some crazies—some truly horrible, mean, bigoted people—involved in it make it an illegitimate movement suddenly?

No!

Because that would mean that the Republican party, the Democratic party, the Catholic church, Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, Atheism, Humanism, Agnosticism, and any other movement or philosophy you can think of are all illegitimate for the same reason.

Every group is going to have extremists within it.

Every group is going to have assholes.

But the majority of feminists don’t actually want to castrate men, take all the power, kill babies, dismantle all of society, destroy the family, force women to stop shaving their legs, or oppress other people based on race, gender, religion, etc.

Do people like that exist?

Yes.

You’ll find them wherever you go, including within feminism. But guess what? It’s not because they’re a feminist that they hold onto their own brand of bigotry. One jerk within a movement doesn’t make every other person in that movement a jerk as well. One flaw in the history of a movement doesn’t make it entirely flawed.

I’m more than willing to denounce anyone who is promoting their own brand of bigotry, but I refuse to let their stupidity take away my identity.

Today, I’m here to tell the world that I’m fucking proud to be a feminist.

If that means I’m called a “slut” because I refuse to conform to the sexual double-standards and taboos of society, then I’m proud to be called that too.

If that means I’m called a “bitch” because I don’t erase my individuality around other people, then I’m proud to be called that too.

If that means I’m called “radical” because I have a voice and use it, then I’m proud to be called that too.

The people who already hate what I stand for DO NOT get to define me. I am a feminist because I believe that women’s rights are as important as racial rights and gay rights—because they’re all part of human rights.

For the past two years, I claimed my identity as a bisexual and walked down the streets of my home town and of New York City with people holding signs that said “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” While there are certainly people within the Queer community who hold prejudices against others and against their own or who ascribe to ideas that I’m not comfortable with, I’m not ashamed to identify as LGBT.

Perhaps this is the year, then, that I need attend a  slutwalk topless screaming “No means no” or march on D.C. with a sign that says “My body, my choice.” The world can demonize feminism all it wants, but I’m not giving up.

And if you identify or used to identify as a feminist, I challenge you to claim your right to your own identity. Grab hold of it with both hands and don’t let anyone scare you away from it. There will probably continue to be a negative view of feminists for a long time because we’re nowhere near where we need to be yet. There will always be people who hate you for what you stand for. But that should be all the more reason to stand proudly.

The very fact that feminism is considered a dirty word is exactly why we still need feminists.