Friday, April 16, 2010

Labels Schmabels

This is a hard post for me to write. Mostly because I'm almost certain to offend someone by writing it. If I offend you, I'm sorry. That's certainly not my intention. My intention is to try to explain what I've felt watching an ongoing argument between friends degenerate to the point where I'm afraid to even try to ask a simple question for fear of offending people I enjoy being around.

I grew up in a nuclear family, in New England, went to school, held jobs, and I think I had a pretty ordinary life. Oh sure, I've had a difficult time of things off and on. Nobody's life is perfect and mine certainly was so far from it at times that I often wondered if the TV shows I watched were the way "real" families acted, why was mine so different? It was hardly a culturally diverse state, much less a sexually diverse one. Oh, and did I mention that I grew up without the benefit of the internet and all the wikis, blogs, and encyclopedias of what I "should" have learned?

But I did have some advantages.

My first exposure to the world of alternate sexuality was from my uncle. He was a crossdresser who only dressed when out of the house. Whether or not my aunt ever knew, I still haven't asked. But he'd take me out on his motorcycle, make a stop, and emerge dressed. We'd drive to another town, where he'd take me for ice cream. Purse, makeup and skirt intact. I didn't exactly know what was going on, but I could feel his fear. He trusted me and except for one person, I've never told another family member about our little forays. I asked him a few years ago why he trusted me with his crossdressing. He told me that just once, he wanted someone to see him dressed as just a natural part of who he was and if he just didn't make a big deal of it, and presented it as just a normal thing for him, I wouldn't view him as a freak. But I knew that my mother would have freaked. I knew it wasn't "normal" and that if she'd caught him dressing and parading around as my aunt that all hell would have broken loose. It became normal to me, but that normal was tinted with his fear of being found out, and the fact that it became a secret I kept.

My sister is a lesbian and although I probably knew that she liked girls more than boys from the time I was pretty young, she came out to me in a rash of self-loathing, self-destruction, and confusion. I still remember that call late in the evening, after I'd gone to bed. I remember her voice when she told me that she was a lesbian and that she was afraid. I assumed she was afraid of coming out to our parents. But her biggest fear was that I wouldn't understand and that because of it, I'd prevent her from seeing my children. It was a real fear for her. I was married to a man who was intolerant of all things gay. But I assured her that I loved her and I couldn't imagine a better aunt for my kids. And yes, my children have known she's gay since they were little. To them, she's their aunt. A fun woman who does all sorts of cool things that they'd never do with their mom. She's not their "gay aunt".

My two best friends for over a decade were a couple of gay men. Or as I like to say, one was gay, the other was only mostly gay (and believe me, I still giggle when I say that). One of those two men was such a little swish that Nathan Lane would be put to shame. The other was more circumspect. He was quietly gay in a world where his family would have disowned him. He was a strong man who balanced who he was with wanting to maintain family ties that were important to him. His parent's religion, age and background would have immediately cut him off from them. He almost completely cut himself off from his family because of being gay.

I knew them when the HIV epidemic quietly started making mainstream evening news media coverage, when it was devastating families, leaving people without friendship or support, at at time when being gay was still talked about in hushed tones and thought of as something that happened in "other people's families". I sat through those newscasts with my family, listening to the off color jokes, the slurs and the hatred of gays and being powerless to stop it. And I knew them when being gay was a shortcut to being blamed for the disease itself. I held both of them when a friend of ours died. I listened to their anger.

So although I don't have any experience in trans issues per se, I do have some experience with people whose expression doesn't match mine. I'd say that I'm pretty typical of the "whitebread" background that I grew up in. My milieu as it were, acknowledged that some people expressed things differently than I did, but it wasn't discussed at the dinner table. I don't think I'm that different from a lot of people in the kinky community. We're just people who grew up with varied backgrounds, with varied societal norms, and with a language based upon those.

So, a crossdresser, a lesbian, a swish and a bisexual. They didn't have any common background except the fear that they all had when dealing with "normal" people. But my uncle, my sister, and my friends had one very important thing in common. They provided a way for me to learn about those expressions without being made to feel as if I were "the enemy". And they also forgave my faux pas. The understanding that my curiosity came from interest in their lives and from love . They didn't love me because I was "not" those things. And they didn't answer my questions in order to "educate" me. These were their worlds and I was the one stepping into them. And like all tourists, bound to make a mistake or two in local custom along the way. Explaining the customs to me in their language was difficult. But had I been kicked out of those countries for trying to explain my confusion using my native language, we would have missed so much.

I recognized that these were the people I loved and if they received joy from life, then not only would I support them, but that my support didn't come from jumping on the bandwagon of "gay rights". It came from my desire to just love them. These were simply people that mattered a great deal to me. I didn't love them because of, or in spite of, those parts of their lives, I loved them for the joy they added to my own life. What mattered to me was that my uncle was a hell of a mechanic that always helped me with my cars; my sister is a wiz at explaining baseball, cocktails and traveling; G was a hell of a fashionista who taught me makeup, flirting, and even how to insert a freaking tampon. And J. J meant more to me than anyone. He was a fabulous artist, a quiet man who could paint for hours and helped me find the beauty in my own life. He was the most important person in my life until I met Septimus.

So, as I'm thinking about all those people in my own life, it occurs to me that none of what is happening on Fetlife matters much to me. Sure, I get offended by being pigeonholed into being "cis-privileged", but after I got over my offense, I realized that if someone wants to label me without knowing a thing about me, simply because I'm in a hetero relationship, or that my gender/expression/whatever is aligned, then they're missing out on knowing the real me. I mean, I didn't even know I was "cis" anything until reading that thread. It was an unfamiliar label. I always just thought I was a person. If I ever thought to label myself I generally don't start with my sexual habits or descriptions of what I may or might have anatomically on my body.

I suppose it may be "cis" privilege that I don't have to focus on those things primarily. It's a privilege that I can't control....society has granted it to me. But all my cis-privilege doesn't help me in the least when deciding to tell someone I know about WIITWD. That at least is a commonality for trans and cis to understand. I am no more welcome talking about WIITWD at the dinner table in my parent's home than a trans person might be in their family home.

But labels are important for some people I guess. After all, it's important to have those labels so that we can identify "those not like us" right? Kinky/Vanilla, Gay/Straight, Butch/Femme, Male/Female, Top/Bottom, Trans/Cis. For people who don't like to be pigeonholed into one behavior....the kink community seems to thrive on binary labels. Which only leads to "us/not like us" thinking.

And the funny part is that I don't use the label "trans" anything. I don't walk up to someone and say " know my friend Lydia?....she's a transwoman who likes to cook." Nope, I walk up to my friend and say "meet Lydia....she makes the most delicious chocolate fudge I've ever had in my entire life! But don't ask her to play cribbage....she'll beat your pants off!"

I guess the point that I'm trying to make is that when you introduce yourself to me, or when I introduce myself to you, I'm doing it because I want to know you. My attraction to you doesn't depend on anything except what's between your ears. I can't control the world, or how anyone sees anyone else within it. All I can control is my own view of that world. And my view doesn't start with what's between your legs. Be who you are, act how you will, and I'll do my best to not offend you. If I use the wrong pronoun, by all means tell me. But realize I'm not doing it to be nasty and that I might forget again. After all, it's not a country that I'm used to living in. And even a country I may have visited often, changes from time to time.

I don't ask if you're a trans anything and I really don't care if you are. When I ask you to tell me about yourself, I'm not asking you what you are.....I'm asking you who you are. Do you have hobbies, interests, thoughts that don't revolve around kink or gender? And if you really feel the need to reduce yourself to being a trans first, above all the other really cool things you like, feel and think, then please forgive me if I get a little confused. I'm not used to dealing with people as opposing sides to an either/or equation. I'm used to dealing with my uncle, my sister, and my friends. And if I should use a word you find offensive, please don't bite my head off.

Labels are for products, not people. If all you'd like for me to know about you is your label, then you can hardly fault me for not seeing the person....or for not reading the packaging.


CoyoteToo said...

Well, I still don't know what CIS is (I'll go look it up), but I've seen the battles you speak of. This is a gorgeous post. Mind you it makes my upbringing seem amazingly whitebread, and yet we ended up with much the same conclusions.

Tell me how you want to be addressed, I'll accept that pronoun and then settle down to get to know you (or I'll just figure it out *as* I get to know you). Yes, there are battles to be fought, and people to be educated, but if the gay marriage movement has taught us anything (and mind you, we should have known it already), it's that you change minds not by making people label you as someone different (let alone someone *angry* and different), but by making them realize that you're people, just like they are; neighbors, friends, relatives, housemates, parents and children. People.

Thank you for yet another powerful post and for being an amazing person.

Stacy said...

What a wonderful post! I hope that if anyone finds offense, they read through to the very end and understand a little bit about the author. I like knowing that there are people out there, or in here, or everywhere :) like you that just want to know people for who they are.

Anonymous said...

Brava! Such a brave post. And so very very wise. It would be so refreshing to live in a world where we could all just accept each other as we are. I commend you for putting it in words that even the most closed-minded would be able to understand, if they were brave enough, and confident enough, to read through to the end.

Tremolo said...

For people who don't like to be pigeonholed into one behavior....the kink community seems to thrive on binary labels.

Don't. Get. Me. STARTED.

We're making sub-caste systems that perpetrate the exact nonsense we've huddled together to overcome. And we wonder why there's so much drama in the scene...

Also, the term "cis", in and of itself, is fundamentally retarded. "Trans" is an prefix used in a great number of contexts to explain a fairly clear concept. "Cis" is to the best of my knowledge only being used in gender games and is some seriously pretentious bullshit.

Tremolo said...

Another thing:

Folks of this generation are playing games with their gender the same way that folks of my generation started wearing mohawks.

I respect trans folks who honestly believe they're cross-sexed. I have a hard time with people using it as a fashionable pose. And a LOT of folks in this community do the latter.

Inferno said...

I actually started reading the post to see what was going to be offending... Awesome post.
People love to label and those labels never do anybody any good.