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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Stop Throwing Trans People Under the Activism Bus!

I’m thrilled that people are taking a stand against North Carolina’s anti-trans law.

Really, I’m thrilled.

But I want to ask those who are supporting the rights of trans people, please stop throwing trans people under the bus in the process.

At least once a day, I see some sort of meme go by asking: “Do you want this person in the ladie’s/men’s restroom?”

I sort of get why it might seem appealing to use those memes. It’s the whole “get them with their own prejudice” idea…and it probably seems super ironic.

But please stop.

The memes that ask that question with pictures of attractive men and women are essentially saying, “Do you really want to risk this trans person stealing your partner?” It sexualizes and objectifies trans people even further, which is hugely problematic since trans people face tremendous risk of sexual violence, more risk than the ciswomen that conservatives are suddenly (and ironically) interested in protecting from sexual violence.

The memes that ask that question with pictures of burly dudes are even worse. They are essentially capitalizing on the fear of sexual violence, implicating that it’s not safe for a trans man whose birth certificate says “female” to be in the same bathroom as another woman. In other words, it’s implying that what the law is trying to prevent will happen by virtue of the law being in place.

Just…stop! That’s not helping!

But the biggest reason why those memes are more destructive than helpful is because they continue to support the binary myth that there are men and then there are women. End of story.

The most discriminated people in the trans community are erased as much by this pathetic excuse for activism as by the law itself because they are essentially told that they have to fit into one category or another, no exceptions.

The truth is, unless a security guard is checking birth certificates on the way in, if someone looks strictly feminine or strictly masculine, regardless of whether they’re trans or cis, they’re probably not going to be barred from using the bathroom that matches their gender.

That doesn’t mean the law is okay by any means. The intent to discriminate is abhorrent regardless of whether it’s easily enforced.

However, the ones at highest risk for this discriminatory law aren’t going to be the beefy guy or the sexy lady. They’re going to be the people who are still in transition, the ones who don’t fit into the binary (e.g. genderfluid, bigender, agender), the ones who are unable to adjust their appearance due to lack of access, safety, or money, or the ones who reject traditional masculinity and femininity for various reasons.

And the memes don’t even begin to help those people. The very opposite actually.

If activism perpetuates transphobia and prejudice or objectifies and erases vulnerable people, that’s terrible activism!

So if you want to show support for trans people and protest legalized bigotry, find another way.

EDIT: Someone pointed out that this post doesn’t offer any alternatives. I chose not to list my thoughts on how to be an ally because I didn’t feel it my place to define that for a community to which I do not belong. However, I am all for providing constructive alternatives when pointing out problematic areas. Therefore, I recommend GLAAD’s page on Tips for Allies of Trangender People.

 

Facebook Sides with Abusers and Bigots

Facebook is being a fucking ass right now. In case you haven’t heard yet, they’ve begun shutting down people’s accounts for using chosen names or pseudonyms.

I first started hearing rumors about Facebook locking people out of their profiles, asking for identification in order to get back in, several months ago. At the time, they were very distant rumors. I assumed it was someone who had been harassing another person and was reported as a result.

But then I started hearing rumors about drag performers being told they had to use their real names, and I thought, “Well that’s dumb. They’ll get push-back and change their policy.”

I began to watch more closely as Sister Roma struck up an attempt to raise awareness and convince Facebook to change their policy to allow pseudonyms or alternate names. Sister Roma, and those fighting with her, made an excellent case for why Facebook should rescind the policy, but Facebook declared that they were going to stay with their jack-assed assumptions that people must use their legal name on their profile.

Why is that such a big deal?

There is quite a bit of prejudice inherent in demanding that drag performers or transgender individuals use their legal birth name. Refusing to acknowledge someone’s preferred name, like choosing to ignore their preferred pronouns, is a form of transphobia that attempts to steal identity away from the person. It’s an ironic move on Facebook’s part since they recently introduced more gender options for a person’s profile. It’s even more ironic since I haven’t heard of a single celebrity being locked out of their account for using a stage name rather than a birth name. So much for consistency.

But the transphobia and double standard isn’t all that’s at play here. This name policy holds huge repercussions for other groups as well, particularly survivors of abuse.

I found out the hard way that using my name on the Internet wasn’t a good idea. I was stalked both by former cult members and a random stranger who just decided I was a convenient target. I always thought that just keeping my information private would be enough, but when one of the stalkers (hint: it was the stranger) managed to find out where I lived and worked by using a combination of Facebook and the white pages, I decided that was the end of my “real name” days.

Many others hold similar reasons for using different names, whether it’s someone trying to get away from a toxic relationship, questioning cult members seeking answers, LGBT who aren’t out of the closet yet, political refugees who want to maintain contact with family and friends without putting those people in danger, or a blogger who doesn’t want to risk being threatened and driven out of her home by angry jerks like Anita Sarkeesian experienced.

According to Facebook, their name policy stems from their desire for others to know who they are connecting with, but I think they reveal their hand a little too well in the face of their opposition. Their interests do not lie with the LGBT community or with domestic violence survivors or with rape survivors or with anyone whose identity puts them at risk of harm if revealed. Their interests lie with the abusers, the haters, the stalkers, and the violators. Their interests lie with those who don’t give a flying fuck about other people’s privacy or autonomy.

Which makes Facebook an abuser in its own right, using the threat of isolation and the loss of access to personal information to coerce people and putting individuals in the line of violence with cold disregard, declaring that those who don’t like it must be the ones in the wrong.