The pain and joy of labels

label makers

I’ve felt alienated from my own culture my whole life, because of a label. That label is “girl.”

The moment I was born the doctor didn’t say, “It’s a new person!” He – and it was a he – he looked down between my legs and saw a lack, so irrespective of  brain chemistry, hormone levels, personality, or individual skills and aptitude he labeled me “a girl.” I have a certificate that says so and everything. You might too.

The label affected every aspect of my life.

Sometimes the label meant more choice. I could, and can, wear fabric printed and woven with every color, and every motif; flowers, ducks, tiny checks. I can wear flat or high heeled shoes (I still don’t know why anyone would want to wear high heels, but hey, I’ve got the choice and no one would bat an eyelid if I did).

But mostly the label meant restriction:

No, you can’t play rugby
No, you can’t be an audio-visual monitor and skip classes to set up films for teachers.
Non-fiction books are for boys; the girls borrow those novels over there, about Sue Barton, student nurse.
You can’t ride in the toy car in the playground; that’s for boys.
You can’t have done this school project on computers; you must have had someone do it for you. Just own up now and I’ll go easy on you.
No, you‘re not allowed to want a lot of sex with a lot of people. It’s probably okay if you want it with just one person, though, as long as you don’t want it too soon, you’re not too demanding about it, and you don’t actually expect orgasms.
Don’t eat too much.
No, you can’t play, you have to come inside so I can teach you how to fold napkins and set a table for a formal dinner (I still can’t believe this is a thing that happened. There was a hell of a lot of side-eyeing that day.)
Don’t snatch, see if someone else wants something. Always think about others first.
Wear makeup.
Don’t walk too far, or too fast, or you’ll sweat and your makeup will be ruined.
Don’t interrupt men.
Don’t uptalk, and don’t use vocal fry. In fact, just lower your whole tonal register.
Always skip dessert.
Image by Samantha Ray of LULA Hair and Makeup

I’m GenX. Even if you share my gender label, some of you will be younger and you may have had different experiences. Some of you will be older, and your experiences will be even worse than mine. I do know one thing we all share under this label, though: the earnings gap. Which leads to my favorite two restrictions:

Don’t negotiate or you’ll come across as a bitch and be professionally penalized.

I know some people  were braver than me, and ignored their label their whole life, but I really tried. I wanted people to like me. I wanted to not be a failure.  I bought books to teach me. Mary Quant’s Ultimate Makeup & Beauty Book. Peter Shen’s Makeup for Success. Victoria Principal’s The Beauty Principal.

As I grew older the label ‘girl’ fractured into a thousand permutations. Bitch. Whore. Cunt. Prude. Gash. Donut. Piece of tail. The girl next door. A nice girl. A real lady. Divorcee. Crazy cat lady. Better half. Single mom. Ladies who lunch.

God, any of you ever had that moment? That moment where you go to a spouse’s work function, and someone walks up to you and asks you what you do, and you say, “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” and you watch them switch off – maybe literally walk off – because you’re not a person, you’re a mom. And you end up sitting on a plastic chair at an empty table, clutching the thick catering-quality wine glass by the stem and hurting and drinking too much chalky chablis because then maybe you won’t feel like a nothing that’s been shoved in a box and pushed to the back of the closet.

Screw that moment.

I spent my whole life screaming inside, hating myself both for the label, and for failing at performing the label. It wasn’t till I was in my thirties that I found it in myself to truly say, “Fuck your labels.” Labels trap us, classify us, dismiss us. They’re designed to reduce, to censure, and to control. Labels are cultural violence that limit us and deny us personhood.

So, what happens sometimes is that someone says to me, “I’m bisexual,” or “I’m a transwoman,” and I respond, “You know, sexuality is fluid. It’s a continuum, not a binary. Gender is a cultural construct. What is it to be a ‘woman’ anyway? Don’t label yourself. You can be whatever you want.”

Because what I mean is, “I see you. I acknowledge you, the way I’d like to be acknowledged, as an entire human person, and not a template. I don’t want to have to sit within proscribed barriers and borders because of my social label, and I won’t insult you by classifying you and making assumptions about you because of yours.”

But what people hear is, “Your identity doesn’t matter to me.”

Sometimes I feel such sorrow and pain and frustration at the labels applied to me I forget that labels can join us together. Labels unite us and give us strength.

M/M romance reader. That’s a pretty good label. I like that label. I’m proud to be a member of the M/M community. I can search online for M/M romance and find other readers, find groups, find books, find non-fiction writing. Sometimes I have to use labels that are kind of similar, like slash fiction, or fanfic. That’s okay. Searching “M/M romance” is how I found Goodreads in the first place.

My friend Chris helped me find two more labels last year.

Austistic. I’m an autistic person. No, not a person with autism. It’s not a disorder, it’s a set of characteristics that make me inherently me.

Autochorissexual. I’m an autochorissexual person. When Chris emailed me a piece about autochorissexuality I legit cried. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like a defective human. I’m autochorissexual. Which means I don’t want to have sex. I don’t want to imagine anyone doing anything to me sexually at all, no thank you. But hell yes I will take your m/m daddy kink with knotting and shifters and do all the fapping, as long as I am watching through the text and not involved in the scenario in any way. Although I’m up for cuddling and back tickles any time.

I’m autochorissexual and I’m not broken. There are other people like me, and we have a name. I can link to information, because we’re real. I’m not broken *cries again*

This is a label that has brought me peace and joy.

Some labels bring community, strength, and belonging. Infographic by lovemystarfire

And yet I still struggle with the label ‘woman.’ I identify as human, not as a gendered human. That’s also okay. I get to choose some labels, while I reject others. I’m allowed to make that decision for myself.

So are other people.

When people transition my response can’t be, “Why are you tying yourself to one gender?” or, “Gender essentialism sucks. Embrace being human.” It’s utterly dismissive of other people’s identity for me to make that decision for them. If someone says they’re bisexual the very last thing they want to hear from me is, “Don’t limit yourself with a label.” Denying them the label they choose gives them the same rage and agony I feel when I see someone post about “cis-het white women,” as if that’s an indivisible, lumpen mass. That’s one of those labels that feels very familiar; a label designed to reduce, censure, and control by making people – glorious, vibrant, diverse people – into mere meat, defined by genitals, melanin, and ovaries.

I’m allowed to pick my own labels. I’m free to reject others. But I’m not allowed to deny them to anyone else.

7 thoughts on “The pain and joy of labels

    1. thank you so much. You are the best kind of friend. You are always accepting and supportive. You never judge. And you understand the appeal of stationery 🙂 I really appreciate knowing you. I’m so lucky to have you as a friend!

      1. *blushing* Awww! 🙂

        I’m also terribly snarky and pretty funny irl… I think that’s a surprise to most internet friends when they meet me…

  1. Eve

    Lovely post, M. I completely agree – people should be able to label themselves as they choose. My thinking in this area has not been very considered or refined, and I’ve mostly been just perplexed at the hoopla, so I’m grateful you shared your insights.

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