We all fall into 2 categories, labelers and non-labelers. Not so much that you are one or the other, but more that there are 2 sides of us. There is a side of us that craves labels. Not just for others, but for ourselves. Labels help us make sense of our world and help us belong. We constantly label ourselves: Mother, Doctor, Wife, Runner, Daughter, Scrapbooker. It helps us bond with others and gives us a sense of belonging. It’s like wearing a badge for others to identify us and click. “Oh, you love dogs, too?” “I’ve done an Ironman just like you!” “You have kids? Me too!”
The other side of us rejects labels. We don’t want to be boxed in. We don’t feel the label fits us completely. We are worried about the connotations and effects of the label.
We see this often with our kids. He’s autistic. But, let’s not let that define him. Let’s say he HAS autism, lest it define him. Or maybe we avoid applying that label as long as we can for fear the label will bring negative results. We don’t want our child to be defined by that label, even at the same time we feel a label can actually bring positive movement. Once we have a label, a definition, we can move forward in how we can help that child, identify the issues, and research what to do. Labels can definitely be tricky in that sense.
When our first was 2-3 years old, he was nothing if not a handful. He had temper tantrums to the extreme. He refused to cooperate with most activities. He didn’t like the feeling of clothes on his skin. He would scream in public. He would hide when guests were over. Dealing with each individual piece, it could be waved off as normal terrible two behavior. ”Well, my kid doesn’t like clothes either.” “That’s normal for them to have fits.” etc. But put it all together and it was clear that it wasn’t normal. When I came to that realization, after months of frustration and beating myself up as a mom, I searched and searched for a label. Not to give him a label for the world to box him in, but to find some sense of identity with what I was dealing with. If there was a label, there was hope. There was a way forward. There was a word to type into google or amazon in search of a book from someone who had gone through it as well. I was cautioned not to put a label on it, but when a label finally came, it was a huge relief. Only then I could move forward, help him, and understand the reason behind his behavior. The label helped everything make sense. I could then read the books, find experts, get him into therapy, but most of all, once things made more sense, it was easier to deal with. Once I knew WHY he would scream in public places (hypersensitive hearing), I could deal with his behavior. I could stop judging myself as a mom who wasn’t handling a naughty child correctly. I was still cautious to officially label him, as I wanted to give him the freedom to work his way out from under the label. But, the label did more help than harm. It didn’t define HIM, but it helped me help him.
I, too, like to avoid labels. I like to picture myself as an individual, not boxed in in any way. I’m a staunch “independent” voter. My record over my voting lifetime may be almost 100% skewed left, but I would never vote down party lines or proudly identify with one party. I want to be able to decide each time, based more on my ideals, than identify with a group. Labels can be good and they can go too far. We need the label to find community. The labels help us click with others. They can make us feel like we belong, finally! When I realized I had fallen in love with my future wife, labels didn’t make any sense. For 38 years, I clearly identified as a straight woman. Although I rarely thought of myself as such, because it seemed obvious. Married to a man for 15 years and raising 4 children, it was who I identified with. I remember talking to my life coach that I was physically attracted to my future wife and she said, “Well, then you have to be at the least bi, if not a lesbian, by definition.” At the time, it was hard to wrap my mind around that new identity. It was foreign. I was deep in denial. It was so far outside my perceived reality, I was struggling to make sense of it. To be totally honest, I had always hated the word “lesbian.” It was one of the uglier words in my vocabulary, like “moist” is to most people. I had always avoided the word. So to begin to label myself with a word I found gross, was difficult to say the least. In the beginning I was worried how I would deal with the fact that most people would automatically label me a lesbian since I was in a same-sex relationship and thought that it might bother me. I assumed I had fallen in love with the person, and it had nothing to do with anything else. Should I explain it to people? Have a shirt made? I wasn’t ready for the label even though I had no qualms about the relationship and feelings that went along with it.
At some point I realized I could deal with that, but really didn’t want to put too much thought in how I labeled myself. I liked to believe that I was beyond labels and I didn’t need to spend my brain power wondering what my label really was. It doesn’t really matter at that level, of course, because I’m in love and married to my wife and that isn’t going to change. It is what it is so I don’t really need to label myself. I didn’t believe that the label of gay or lesbian needed to define any part of me, and I was more than that label. I didn’t like that being the main part about me, the only part that was getting the attention. I was so much more than that. In some ways, it DOESN’T matter. I could have a false label, and that wouldn’t change who I really am. The risk of labels is that we can take it too far. We can get so wrapped up in how we should label ourselves, we end up limiting ourselves.
I stayed in the “label-less” category for a few months until I came to another realization: What if the label does make sense? Why AM I fighting a label? If the label is true, why wouldn’t I use it? I’m in love with a woman, physically attracted to her, and it’s who I am. I am a lesbian. My wife celebrated with a bottle of champagne when I mentioned in a blog being gay. She was worried that if I identified with being straight except for her, I may eventually change my mind about her.
This label doesn’t indeed define all of me, only part of me. I’m proud of that label now. And, the label helps me find my community. No, I don’t believe I can only identify with other gays or lesbians. No, I don’t only want to double date with same-sex couples. No, I don’t need to only go to playdates with other lesbian moms. I can relate to all the same people, and yet still find the community in the LGBT arena, when that gap needs to be filled of where I belong. The label gives a sense of belonging.
There is certainly danger in going too far with labels. When the label defines EVERYTHING about who you are. When you find yourself fighting for a special label and it destroys the rest of what people see you as. We can get so hell-bent on fighting for our label it distorts our identity. There’s danger when we can ONLY identify and find common ground with people in the same category. Labels give us identity to feel belonging and community, but when we cannot go outside our labels, we restrict our world, our ability to grow, and our ability to connect with as many people as we can. There can be a trend toward focusing on finding those people who are exactly like us, and believing only those people can truly understand us, that we harm ourselves in the process. We believe we can only belong to this tiny circle and then we don’t have to experience the discomfort of growth and communication and staying open to others.
I’m proud to be labeled a lesbian. I’m proud to be a part of that community. But I can also find community outside of that label. There is no category that I cannot find some connection with because of it. I won’t be boxed in and I won’t let a label define all of me. There is no label I have that can contradict another. Perhaps that’s the biggest message.