I’ve heard it said several times that hating labels is a luxury of the privileged. Only when you don’t need labels, do you find them superfluous. It’s the stereotype of the white person who doesn’t see race–it’s their privilege that allows them that blindness.
I’m a fan of labels, because it took me so long to find them. When I was young and struggling with my sexuality, I was a complete outsider. There were no out queer people at my school, I was harassed endlessly under the mere assumption of my queerness, and I lived in complete terror. I was threatened with beatings and death, I was sexually assaulted, I was the target of bullying that dwarfed what movies had taught me to expect. Then I stopped hiding. I came out, and I started to embrace myself as a queer person.
Did my actual situation improve? Not really. I was still threatened, I was still bullied, I was still assaulted. But now the label that others had used against me as a weapon had become my shield. They couldn’t point and call me “queer” or “dyke” and expect me to flounder and hide. I just said, “Yeah, what of it?” and they were the ones left speechless. I’d blow the girls kisses and walk on with pride, comfortable with my label, satisfied with my place in the world. I was queer, and that was fabulous.
I think labels can really serve a purpose for people who always found themselves outside the default. I always felt awkward in my attractions until I settled into the label of “queer,” because it opened a whole new community to me. There was this entire world of people living lives like mine, and I had no idea they were there. I reached out to other queer people (online, because as I said, I was the only out person where I lived) and built a community for myself around that identity. It opened doors for me when I thought I was living in a room with no exits.
I’ve found similar communities with other labels, but none so strong as that which I discovered when I became crippled. Again, here’s this slur that people use to dehumanize me, and I’m finding joy in it? It seems so backwards to some people, but it’s a call to arms for those of us who have been ostracized because of our identities. When I call myself a cripple, I am calling upon all of my experiences as a disabled person. I am cloaking myself in that existence, using that ableism against those who’d oppress me with it, and telling the world I am a full and complete human being, even as a cripple.
“Black women wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see Black women. White women wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see women. White men wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see human beings.” — Michelle Haimoff
Now this isn’t to say there aren’t minorities who dislike labels, and it’s always important to respect the individual and not apply a label to them that makes them uncomfortable. But for many of us, labels are an essential part of our humanity. Disrespecting those labels is just another attempt to sweep us under the rug, to ostracize or at best ignore what makes us different. But society doesn’t let us ignore those differences, because we’re punished for them on a near-constant basis. We’re expected to bear the weight of prejudice without ever calling it out for what it is. That’s why labels are important–they allow us to call out inequality, by bringing attention to who is victimized by it.
I like the concept of the ideal world where labels are unnecessary and we all just view each other as human beings. But until minorities no longer have to fear hatred and violence because of our minority statuses, our labels will be necessary. And disrespecting that is an act of privilege.