Just on a side note, before I start my column: I came out to my parents a while ago. I chose the night before my 16th birthday, just for the hell of it. My exact words were, "I have exciting news, I'm gay," just to try to put a positive spin on things... albeit in a slightly esoteric way. They, being quite liberal, (even though they are Republicans, although sometimes I think that they mischecked the political party affiliation box on the voter registration card...), had no problem with it, although, much to my surprise, my Mom took it a bit harder than my Dad. Once again, gender-based stereotypes have been flaunted. In any case, I didn't sleep very well that night, or the night after, and I felt kind of awkward on the proceeding days. They claimed that they didn't sleep all night. They had a lot of questions the following day. We haven't talked about my coming-out or gay issues as a whole since. I'm not sure if that is good or bad. It was a weight off of my shoulders, but it wasn't as much of a weight lifted as I had imagined in the wishful-thinking based brain of mine. I guess that euphoric moment of life will come when I finally come out to the rest of the world... Until then, I just have to be tough.
Part of a recent article by Daniel Harris, entitled "Qstudy-L" and published in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, focuses on the usage of "labeling" in our society and delineates an extreme case study in which the usage of labeling on an Internet mailing list about "Queer Theory" (Don't ask, read Harris' article) causes so many problems, mass-confusion mixed with a few feisty flame-battles ensues. (For those of us who have spent any amount of time on Internet mailing lists, we know how easily these things come about). The article caused me to think about some interesting issues related to the practice of labeling, and the benefits derived from the practice as well as the foibles it has engendered.
Undoubtedly, we couldn't function in a world without labels. We need to have words to describe complicated ideas so that we can efficiently talk about them. However, choosing the correct simple word to describe a certain complex event, process, or occurrence can be controversial at best, especially when there are a large number of people who are extremely emotionally involved with whatever phenomenon is being summarized by the label.
One area of controversy when it comes to labeling has been people with disabilities. It used to be that this demographic group was known under the blanket expression "the handicapped." However, over the past couple of decades, this has been replaced with "the disabled", or, by the most politically correct, "the mentally and/or physically challenged." The denotative definition of a handicap is something that is an externally imposed hindrance that a person can overcome. An example of a handicap is giving Person 1 a shorter amount of time to complete a task than person 2. Person 1 may be able to complete the task despite the hindrance, but once the task is completed, that particular handicap is gone forever. A disability, however, is a permanent hindrance that will forever make certain activities difficult or impossible to certain people. The technical difference may seem dubious to those of us who are not affiliated with the disabled community, but they were important enough to that community to cause a culture change.
Perhaps even more important than the denotative definitions of the words used as labels are the connotative ones. Handicapped was originally coined in England to describe people who were poor and were forced to stand on street corners holding out caps as part of an effort to solicit money. Most people with disabilities aren't standing out on street corners panhandling, so the adjective carries a false negative aspect which people affiliated with the disabled community obviously didn't like.
The gay community has its own set of labels, "gay community" being one of them. What is this "gay community"? The article correctly points out that this is a misnomer to some degree due to the fact that there are many gay communities. I would guess that most queer youth reading and writing for this publication, especially those like me who are still closeted, do not feel like they are a part of "the gay community" in the broadest sense of the word, simply because all gay people do not fit into any single community. The word community implies belonging, and if you don't belong, you're not a part of a community. There are certainly many large adult gay communities, especially in large population centers. There are small, exclusively or almost exclusively gay neighborhoods. Oasis readers and writers do belong to at least one gay community, that community being Oasis itself.
Other labels in the queer universe (a much more egalitarian label) include gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, and transsexual. The Queer Theorists, according to Harris, found these words inexact as well, considering that there is a broad continuum of sexual tendencies that need to be observed. To be able to talk about different points on this continuum, members of QStudy-L coined words like, "lesbian heterosexuals, heterosexual lesbians, male lesbian, female gay men, and feminist sex radicals." If you can explain to me what any of these mean, call me collect!
When it all comes down to it, I think that many attempts to complicate and amend labels relating to the "gay community" have been made by people who have figuratively missed the boat. Just because no one knows how to fairly represent thousands of words of thought in one word doesn't mean that we should stop using labels to assist intellectual thought. Those who use labels, (all of us), need to realize that we're dealing in imprecise territory, and if that thought is never forgotten, we can avoid a lot of the superficiality that labels have catalyzed. That's not to say that labels shouldn't be as accurate as we can reasonably make them, or that we shouldn't try to eschew blatantly negative labels.
It's also important that our involvement with labels doesn't change from utilizing them to facilitate advanced intellectual thought, whether it is alone or in a group, to using labels to as an "othering" device. It is the lower levels of the brain, in the areas just slightly more advanced than our reptilian "fight or flight" mechanism, that instigate our internal drive to develop social structures, and labeling is one part of this process. Rather than developing labels so that phenomenon can be discussed, they are developed to persecute things that are different from us. "The other," while denotatively neutral in judgment, is connotatively negative, and this provides people with a very negative outlet for labeling. In today's world, if you hear someone using the word "retard" to describe someone with a disability, it will almost always be in a spiteful tone. However, it was not long ago that "retarded" preceded "handicapped" as the word of choice to describe people with disabilities, even when a majority of people with disabilities weren't even mentally retarded.
The problem is not, of course, limited to the disabled. Labels designed to "other" women, African-Americans, and, yes, queers have all been designed and have all flourished. Fighting these labels has taken many forms, education campaigns being the most effective on average in all circumstances. Other methods have also made important inroads towards erasing labels born of "othering," including, what I call, the "repossession" of these labels by the demographic groups that they attack. African-Americans have almost completely stopped the use of the n-word by using it themselves in speech and in music, which has psychologically taken control of the word away from those who once used it to oppress. I have seen this same kind of literary repossession, albeit on a much smaller scale, in the gay community. Words like "faggot," "flamer," and "dyke" are being used more and more by queers in everyday speech and writing. Just as fighting these blatantly negative labels is important, it is just as important that we don't allow the creation of new labels that are designed to oppress and "to other." When it all comes down to it, there is a thin line between the use of labels and the abuse of labels.
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