Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On Labeling and Identity

I know our lovely little blog has been on hiatus a bit, but I'd like to initiate a conversation on identity, labels, and boxes. By "labels and boxes" I don't mean office supplies, but those organizing features that so many seem to need to fix to everyone in order to understand the world and put people in their proper category.

To begin, a some background and an anecdote.

As many of my fellow blogistas and those few that know my true identity are aware, I started dating the lovely woman named Teacher Poet about 9 months ago. This was the first female I had dated, and, of course, questions arose about my identity. Who was I? A lesbian? A bisexual? A heterosexual who happened to fall in love with this one woman? Over the course of these months we have been together, my particular philosophical/theoretical training (you know, feminism, gender studies, and the "posts:" post-modernism, post-structuralism) has caused me to shirk any kind of label in relation to my sexuality. This is because I look at most forms of identity as changing and in flux, and I don't think that who you date determines a thing about you. in other words, actions do not always equal identity (because how could they?).

Now, I do realize that not claiming some sort of label has all manner of implications for identity politics. We often need these labels in activism to decide who is marginalized, and therefore whose rights we are fighting for. You know, defining group identification and all that. In that case, I would gladly claim a label for a political purpose. If, for example, me standing up and saying, "I am a lesbian" gives me more, um, credibility (?) in fighting for gay civil rights to, for example, get married, then so be it. In general, though, I do not want to be referred to as a heterosexual, a lesbian, or a bisexual. Identity is in too much of a state of fluctuation for me to worry about such things. And what does it mean to be in one of those labels anyway? Again, we get into some complex issues regarding identity politics and tricky definitions.

So, recognizing that my decision to not claim any kind of label except in very specific cases has all kinds of implications and problems, I still stick behind it. If anything, the label "queer" fits very nicely, because from what I've heard it implies that you don't link sexuality to identity, you don't worry about which categories your behavior fits into, etc, etc, etc. That discussion is probably best for another time.

When I arrived at Cornfield U about 6 months ago, I was open about the fact that I was dating a woman to my fellow classmates, but I was also just as open about the fact that I do not like to claim labels for myself and why that was. Today, however, I discovered that despite the fact that I tell people why I don't want to be put in a box, they have put me in one anyway. I was just having an afternoon snack with a few girls in my program when they told me that they had told someone I was a lesbian (long story as to how that came up).

Now, let me make myself clear: I am not, not, not bothered by the fact that I was called a lesbian. What bothers me is that despite the fact that I have made it clear to these women that I do not claim a label (and WHY!) they still put me in a category based on the fact that I am dating a woman (a very wonderful and beautiful one, by the way :-)). They decided what my identity would be based on their own definitions. They put me in my proper box (and perhaps they did it because that is how they have to see the world. But why does it matter? It always makes me suspicious of people's motivations when they have to identify who's "gay" and who's "straight."). Part of me wants to say that perhaps we need a different classification system, one where there is a term that sums up my philosophy on identification and such. However, that wouldn't address the issue I am bringing up, would it?

My reason for posting this anecdote is to try and get a conversation going about identity and identity politics. I realize that I have raised many issues in this entry, and not all of them are particularly well fleshed out. How, for example, is my choosing to claim/not claim labels hurting/helping the LGBTQ community? How does this factor into identity politics? And am I just reading too much into all of this? :-)

Happy discussing.


Serendipity said...

"Reading too much into all of this?" How could that be possible?! We're Englishists! Reading nuances is what we do! :-)

I hope (and I'm sure you will, 'cause you're a very nice person) that you'll keep in mind that there's going to be a learning curve regarding your feelings about the labels for some people (including me, just so you know, though I hope I'm a fast learner), and even the best-intentioned people may be simply making a mistake (goodness knows things can come out of my mouth incredibly badly when I haven't thought through what I'm saying first); may be honestly trying to be friendly by showing that they support your freedom to choose whatever partner you happen to want to by being direct about it (though that results in an expression that makes you uncomfortable, ironically); may be clueless about the nuances despite your explanation; or may not know a way to express your philosophy succinctly in a way that doesn't sidetrack the conversation (which raises the question of why there has to be an explanation, but anyhow. . . )

I've had some conversations with one of our mutual friends about the idea of "cognitive misers"--people who (presumably automatically) streamline thinking about things by reducing complex ideas to simple ones (and we may all do this, though I think the extent varies by individual). Your situation sounds to me like one where many people have been trained to be cognitive misers.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm trying to defend slapping labels on people who don't want to be labeled. And I like the identity politics issues you're raising--though I think I'm going to stop writing for now rather than addressing them right away. I just got sidetracked thinking about some factors that might lead to people doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable (evidently unintentionally).

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Rhetorical Twist said...

Serendipity--you make an excellent point about being patient with the learning curve. That is something that I definitely need to keep in mind. I am comfortable with saying that I know for a fact these women were not applying a label to intentionally do anything "harmful." I think my post came across with more ire than I actually felt :-p I think it was more just the thoughts of these labels and their loaded connotations that got me thinking...

Later in the evening, I had a conversation with a group of LGBTQ women about labels and their connotations. It's amazing the number of problems that came up when trying to define terms! One woman calls herself a dyke because she hates the word lesbian, another woman identifies as "queer" because to her, that has inclusive connotations (whereas for others it has connotations of being a slur--equal to calling an African American the "N" word), others don't identify at all because they can't find a term that fits them, and another woman thinks of herself as bisexual, but hates the horrid connotations of that (along the lines of being "wishy-washy" and not fitting into either the gay or straight community).

My goodness, I could turn this into a book!

Rebel said...

Yeah, I don't think you can expect other people to be as concerned about your desire to be labeled/not labeled a certain way as you are yourself. I'm teaching in Thailand and I tell every single student "I'm American" but I can't tell you how many times I've been refered to as "European" - just gotta let it slide.

As for why labels for sexual identity are so important - it's because humans want to know who we can sleep with and who we can't! Even if just in the hypothetical.

One of my friends (a woman) met a woman at a party. They hit it off great were chatting and the woman asked my friend "Are you bisexual?" hinting at the fact that she might want to ask her out. My friend (a lesbian) said "Oh no. Not at all." completely missing the point. It was only later that she figured out the woman was hitting on her, and she had to go back and explain that she did in fact date girls... the objectionable part of bisexuality was the boys. So I think it is important to 'pick a team' as it were so people know how to approach a relationship with you. Will it necessarily be platonic or is there a possibility for romance/sex?

And for the same reason I think it's important for married people to wear wedding rings, and for people in serious relationships to casually mention it in the getting-to-know you stages. No one likes the surprise of falling for someone who's for one reason or another off-limits.