Are Labels Just For Soup Cans?

Labels - Soup Cans I love stargazing. One of the easiest constellations to identify is the Big Dipper, which in England is referred to as “the Plough.” What we know as “the man in the moon” the Chinese see as “the rabbit in the moon” (Thanks to Leonard Sweet for these insights in his book Summoned to Lead). The beauty of diversity is that each of us sees things differently and as a result, how we choose to name things may also be different. Semantics can be frustrating and may even seem petty, but examining the language we use is an essential step toward understanding. Before we get too far into this discussion, I want to preface it with a quote from Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” That is to say, I have no desire to argue about the labels that people claim for themselves. Rather, I want to explore the nuances and complexities of labels and the God-given responsibility we have for naming things (Genesis 2:19-20).

I struggle with labels, and I know I’m not alone in that. On one hand, I see their value in bringing about the relief that comes with finding a sense of belonging. On the other hand, all labels are limited in their ability to comprehensively convey what they are intended to get across. There are certainly plenty to choose from though. In addition to the “alphabet soup” letters (LGBTQIA+), there are also “same-sex attracted,” “Side A,” and “Side B,” just to name a few. The problem is that no matter what label a person uses, what they mean when they say that label is often not what the listener actually hears as they interpret it through the lens of their own background and experiences. What one person thinks of as a neutral or positive term may actually be a negative term to the other person. For example, Eve Tushnet writes about how she associates the term “single” with “stressed-out straight women made miserable by the unhappy prospect of dating (or, and this is sometimes even worse, not dating) straight men.” To her, a more positive term is “celibate,” which she asserts has a beautiful, long Christian history. Of course, in our culture today celibacy sounds incredibly negative to the majority of people, Christians included.

Labels, of course, are also the foundation of damaging stereotypes. For example, “gay” is almost impossible to separate from the stereotype of “the gay lifestyle.” (This is another can of worms entirely, and I’m sure I’ll write a blog post about it eventually. For now, I recommend watching this TED talk.) Sometimes, it is possible to engage people in deeper conversations about labels in order to deconstruct stereotypes and clear up misunderstandings. Definitions can be discussed, hopefully resulting in a more common understanding. Unfortunately, there are many circumstances that allow for nothing more than an elevator speech. As Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah said, “we are always navigating between the ‘I’ in ‘I am…’ and the ‘me’ people see as being me.” So, in the real world, will we use the words we believe to be most authentic even if there is a good chance those words won’t be interpreted accurately? Is it worth the risk, knowing that we probably won’t have the chance to explain ourselves? I don’t think there is a uniform answer for this. The labels we use for ourselves are deeply personal (not to mention the decision to come out at all). The good news is that more and more people are ready and willing to listen to our stories when we are ready to share them. When taking someone up on this opportunity, we need to recognize that in order to facilitate understanding, language is oftentimes one of the first things that needs to be addressed.

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The End of Sexual Identity

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In The End of Sexual Identity, Jenell Williams Paris begins by explaining, “sexual identity categories are social constructions […] contemporary categories for sexuality weren’t present in biblical cultures or even in my own society just over a hundred years ago” (p. 8-9). As she unpacks this statement, she emphasizes that sexual identity as we understand it today was not given by God at creation. Put concisely, “God created sexuality. People created sexual identity” (p. 75). Therefore, Paris has concluded that sexual identity labels are one of the “patterns of the world to which [Christians] ought not conform” (p. 16).

The result of this is that Paris has chosen to become “unlabeled” with regard to her sexual identity. She states, “I don’t want to be heterosexual. […It is] a social identity that privileges some and maligns others on the basis of inner desires and feelings” (p. 43). As much as I wish that becoming “unlabeled” was a viable alternative to sexual identity as Paris claims it could be, I know that for all intents and purposes we cannot escape these labels. To her credit, Paris does admit that her decision to become “unlabeled” is “inane” to some extent. This will neither change the fact that she is privileged nor help reduce the marginalization and discrimination of those who are sexual minorities. But perhaps it is still a worthwhile concept to entertain. If nothing else, becoming “unlabeled” is a good conversation starter and helps “introduce a pause in the rush to judgment” (p. 14). Maybe that is reason enough to refuse to label our sexuality.

Overall, Paris provides a helpful framework for reconsidering how we think about sexuality but unfortunately, her approach is limited by the fact that the framework is a decidedly Christian one. It is one thing for Paris, a self-identified straight Christian woman to claim that she is “unlabeled,” but her call for the end of sexual identity carries a vastly different significance for someone who is not straight and not a Christian. Although Paris is aware of the fact that sexual desire as a central element of human identity is new (p. 10), she does not broach the subject of why this change has taken place. In Virtual Equality, Urvashi Vaid speaks to the fact that an LGBT identity not only provides a sense of validation, acceptance, and belonging, the resulting subculture “shelter[s] us from the judgment and disdain of a hostile world” (p. 33). People in the LGBT community value the ability to use labels in order to name their experience and find a sense of safety among those who have similar experiences. Vaid acknowledges that “Few of us are solely gay or lesbian or bisexual; we all harbor other identities that matter to us” (p. 283) but for those in the LGBT community, becoming “unlabeled” with regard to sexual identity is almost unthinkable.

Paris’s proposition that people choose to become “unlabeled” as an alternative to sexual identity is ultimately impractical and unsatisfying. Nevertheless, in The End of Sexual Identity she has provided a helpful framework that, though limited in its scope, enables those of us engaged in this dialogue to ask better questions and have more nuanced, insightful conversations.