When I first started talking with my family about sexuality and gender, I got a lot of push-back over how I described myself and how I didn’t describe myself.
“Straight” or “heterosexual” were terms my relatives were willing to compute. They also understood “lesbian,” even if they refused to engage it. But “fluid”? “Bisexual”? They weren’t familiar with that language at all, and they didn’t want to become familiar. My parents and senior relatives had no real connection to LGBTQ people; in some cases they were assertively hostile to the community; and many of them also had deep misconceptions about what it means for a person to be anything other than heterosexual.
So on top of learning about myself in an environment where I had no visible forerunners, no elders from my ethnic or religious subcultures who’d been where I was and were willing to share their experience with me, I also had to help some of my relatives make their implicit assumptions explicit long enough for us to sift those assumptions and replace misunderstanding with truth.
For us, that meant a lot of really hard and mostly thankless work over years. Eventually I had to stop before I burned out, and walking alongside resistant people is not an adventure I’d recommend to anyone!
One conversation still stands out to me, though. I was eating a fancy pizza with one of my favorite humans, and she was trying to figure out the implications of what I was sharing with her. I told her that I wanted to focus on being honest about where I was, how I read my own history, and how that could change, and I said that I didn’t want to be overshadowed by the labels I used.
Back then, she thought this was a naive position. I can empathize with that now, even if my basic point of view hasn’t changed.
Labels are what we use to help us move through the world. Labels help us distinguish “table” from “chair” and “plate” from “knife.” Labels allow us to distinguish between “gungo peas and rice” (a Jamaican dish) and “arroz con gandules” (a Puerto Rican dish made three hops east of Jamaica).
With labels we more easily share our experiences with other people and connect with people we didn’t even know we were linked to. Labels allow for both communication and for community. No matter how much we chafe at them, they’re important. But the ones we choose for ourselves can only take us so far, because our wider society also chooses labels for us. We can’t opt out of navigating these social tags even when we want to.
In the short book Our Lives Matter, Rev. Pamela Lightsey looks at how members of the 20th Century civil rights movement have built common identities. It’s not an easy, linear story, not any more than individual identity formation is easy or linear.
While [identity] categories are subjective, our history has shown that not only is identity as real as an individual perceives it to be, [but also] the impact is as real as the society in which we live perceives it to be. The constructs can be experienced as lived reality despite [their] subjectivity… And while no one person can speak for an entire body of people, there are many occasions when for the sake of justice we need to address discrimination and do so on the basis of solidarity… Sticks and stones may break your bones and yes, being perceived in a particular category can also hurt you.” —Rev. Pamela Lightsey
None of us can fully represent the experiences and perspectives of other people. However, social solidarity work often means that our groups’ stories and experiences need to be shared with people who might never meet the people we’re communicating with and might only ever hear from us. It takes courage to share in those conditions. And it takes strength to use one’s labels without making oneself or one’s story a mere instrument in the service of “good.”
One thing the concept of identity that Lightsey described has done for me is authorized me not to take demographic group membership so seriously I can no longer explore, play, or be surprised. I especially want to hold identities lightly during times like this, when social battles are overwhelming and hope is thin. At times like this, it helps to remember I’m more than what I’ve been told I am, and It serves me to keep learning, keep growing, and keep serving, regardless of my social names.