Labels are the way that we communicate with other people about ourselves. They save us time and processing power when we are telling others of our experience. Its much easier to say that I’m queer then it is to explain all of the things that are involved in that word. Labels are the maps that we can show others so that they can see where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. But, like a map, the label does not fully convey the essence of the person. It gives a general outline but if one is going to truly see and know what is there, one needs to be on the ground exploring. And I feel that folks forget that labels are just tools or maps to be wielded and that our actions don’t need to always “reflect” those labels. The terrain doesn’t need to match the map exactly and in fact such a project is impossible. Not only do labels act as maps but they also act as boundary markers. When I assert that I’m queer, I am making space for my experience and narrative. I am rejecting the normative narrative of heterosexism and say that I am not that. I am defining myself in relationship with what I am not.
Moreover, labels are empowering. This is because by owning that part of your self, you come to a greater understanding of who you are as a person and you are able to love yourself on a much deeper level. By seeing that part of yourself for what it is, and embracing it, you are rejecting the normative and oppressive ways of being that need your complicit thoughtlessness to continue. By being thoughtful, you are better able to reclaim your power and take action against those systems of oppression.
The other interesting aspect about labels is that many of them aren’t chosen by us. They are placed on us by how society perceives us. For example, the fact that I have brown skin makes it so that people perceive me as a person of color. Regardless if I identify with that label or not, that is still a label placed on me and that is apparent by the way that people and society treat me. Another example is being trans*. Nine times out of ten, I can pass as a cis woman. It is only when I out myself as trans* that folks treat me in a different way because of the way that they perceive me.
It really frustrates me, then, to hear folks say things like “I hate labels. I’m just me.” More often then not, these people are white, straight, upper-middle class, cisgender etc. They usually hold many privileged identities and labels. And they reason they can just “be themselves” is because the labels and identities that they hold are the societal norm. They have never had to think about their identites and labels because they don’t need to define themselves against the norm. There is no need to delineate that space because society has already given them that space. Moreover, it is very invalidating to people with oppressed identities because it says to them, “I can just be me. Why can’t you just be you?” And the fact of the matter is, I can’t just be “me” because of the history of oppression that surrounds and defines my existence as a human being. The me that I am is informed and created out of that oppression.
Not only that but saying that “I’m just me” reinforces the false idea of individualism. Put in another way, it says that we all exist in alone in a vacuum and that we don’t effect one another. It insists that there are no greater systems of power at work in our lives. It says that we are the sole mover in our lives and that our success or failure relies only on how hard we work. It also downplays the individual’s role in upholding and perpetrating systems of power and oppression. But that isn’t the case, is it? The fact of the matter is, there are systems of power and oppression at work that make being successful easier or more difficult depending on the kind of body that you possess. The world is much more complicated then just individuals moving through the world. Society takes and forms us and we have more agency in this world if we are white, rich, male, straight, cisgender etc. Individualism, and by extension the denials of labels, fails to see that.
Saying that you “Just want to be me” is one of the biggest sign of privilege and lack of awareness as to how the world works. It speaks to an absence of recognition of one’s relation to the world. And it’s just plain ignorant.