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.

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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.