There are people out there who have a problem with “labels.” I’ve dealt with them on several occasions, to point out that some identities cannot so easily be set aside and to point out that, a lot of the time, their pretense of being unlabeled is a front for something altogether more horrid. There’s something else in the conversation about labels, though, something that intersects with the idea of self-identification and the idea of normalcy to show us why some words are vitally important even when no one chooses them for their own.
I bear many labels. I am not “just a person.” I am a Hispanic, American, transfeminine, female, atheist, ex-Catholic, D&D-player, aquarist, student, feminist, skeptic, progressive, and lots of other things, on top of being a member of Homo sapiens. Every one of these things that give me experiences I share with some people and not with others. Having a noun for each of these affiliations eases the task of finding those who have similar histories, values, and interests, replacing a cumbersome tangle of “I do these things” and “I know that feeling” multiplied dozens of times. This is a natural evolution of language, at least in English, by which the Californian descendants of migrants from Oklahoma became “Okies,” aficionados of Doctor Who became “Whovians,” and those who buy binoculars and cameras to witness the behavior of wild dinosaurs became “birders.” Other connections and similarities build around these terms and the groupings they represent, and they become identities.
This, I have learned, certain incredibly privileged people face with consternation. They see this array of defined difference and segmented identity and see in it the seeds of future conflict. Why do we need to be all of these other things, have all of these other affiliations, recognize ourselves as things other than “just people”? Aren’t all these labels “divisive,” separating us from our fellow humans with a line between “us” the Hispanics, birders, otakus, sapeurs, Qizilbashi, lesbians, and liberals and “them” the white people, herpers, film geeks, goths, Uzbeks, straight women, and socialists? Doesn’t recognizing oneself as distinct in this way automatically separate oneself from others and therefore prevent us from recognizing what we have in common with them, leading immediately to their demonization and dehumanization? Why can’t we all be “just people”?
These are the folks who think that QUILTBAGs disappearing back into our closets would “solve” our oppression. For if we can no longer be identified, how can we be targeted for violence and discrimination?
That is what this rhetoric is: an attempt at erasure. This rhetoric is pointed specifically at people who differ from a perceived norm, for daring to recognize and then not be ashamed of that difference. It is pointed even harder at people who notice that their membership in one of these minorities is related to hardships they face, because even noticing that pattern, let alone seeing it as something that ought to be addressed, requires recognizing some people as being different from others. The endgame of this line of thinking is to erase people’s experiences of difference and especially oppression by denying them the voice and language needed to express those experiences. It is not the majority who loses the ability to talk about itself when people with certain commonalities abandon the best linguistic tool for finding one another: it is the minorities.
When we are “all just people,” what we get is “we are all the majority.” To bury the breadth of humanity under “we are all just people” is to pretend that the loudest of us can speak for everyone—for, if we are all just people, why would it ever matter which one we ask about something?
This brings us to a labeling bogeyman that has gotten vastly outsized attention over the past forty years: “cis” and its derivatives.
Continue reading “A Crowbar for Normalcy”