Let me be honest with you: I’ve lost count of all the nicknames I’ve garnered over the years, especially the years since I’ve started college. There’s the insubstantial–sweetie, cutie–to the meaningful-because-of-who-uses-them–pumpkin, love, muffin–to the comical–D-rab (like Arab, a nickname I somehow stumbled into in Israel), Strongman (which is funny because it’s true even though I’ve never seen myself as much of a pinnacle of strength), Breaks (long story)–even to the slightly-offensive-if-taken-in-the-wrong-way–of which Gay Jew Dude is still my favorite. Then there’s Mr. President. That one sits in a category all its own.
And please, don’t salute.
I use: love, dear, sweetie on occasion.
I often wonder: Is this inequality a lack of reciprocation, or is there something more to it than that? Is a name really just a name, or does it bear more weight than that? We all know Shakespeare–“A rose by any other name…”–but do we all know each other, if one name weighs the same as another?
Names, I’m afraid to say, form the basis of one’s identity. We can divine numerology, gematria, look at etymology and namesakes, but what’s in a name is still in a way only skin deep, although the image we gain of someone is often much deeper. How many times have you heard someone say “I’ve never known a *blank* that wasn’t *blank*?” There is power in names, that we cannot deny; but how much power is still up for debate.
I find a personal aversion to nicknames because I cherish the name I learn when I meet somebody. If I love you, you cannot change your name at all; if I love you sufficiently more, however, maybe you can. One of my dearest friends I met under the pretense of a username, and although I’ve since learned to call her by her preferred personal nomenclature, she is and will forever be that username to me. Another friend changed how he pronounced his name, and although I went along with him, to me his name hasn’t changed. One man I loved told me he’d like to change his name altogether and even just the thought of that broke my heart a little. How could I love him if he became someone else?
I understand the affinity we can feel to a multitude of names. I myself have about a dozen of them, spawned of usernames primarily intermingled with ritualistic names I’ve taken upon myself throughout various times of my life, alter egos to which I’ve instilled entire names and feelings and images, parts of my soul that seem to exist all of their own, as guides and memories and teachers as I need them, and dream-selves I’ve looked at longingly and lovelessly alike. But when I meet you, whoever you are, the imprint you leave upon me will be that first name I can attach to you.
Names, in the broad scheme of things, are just labels we use to organize people into categories. On the car ride home last Thursday, I was speaking about the SGA and the GSA (two groups of which my family is always confused of, perpetually asking why I couldn’t be involved in two groups with more drastically differing initials), and for some reason my brother asked what the full list of letters was, to which I told him LGBTQI, which I then explained as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Transsexual (which led further to a discussion on the difference thereof), Queer and Questioning, and Intersex. How easily it is for me to remember, and yet my family can’t even get SGA and GSA sorted out.
This all somehow led into an impromptu discussion on labels, which inevitably led to my admission that I still don’t understand the distinction between “queen” and “butch” (in the context of a gay male), but before we got to any of this, my mom made that fatal error of asking a question to which I had a good answer: Why do we have to label people anyways?
I had an excellent psychology teacher. He liked to say that question marks spark anxiety. If a thought ends in a question mark, you’re bound to worry about it until you can answer it. Think about it for a little bit, especially about those things that worry you the most, and you’ll see this statement is pretty true for most things. Why don’t you try it for yourself? Isn’t it true? Can you believe it?
Therefore, we label things. When faced with questions like “What is this?” and “How do I deal with this?” (both legitimate questions when facing homosexuality and related topics for the first time), we label things to give them definition. We say he is gay because it allows us to reconcile the strange notion that a man will be sexually and emotionally intimate with another male. We call her transgender because it allows us to begin to understand how a person born of one sex can feel the way of the other. We call him this, her that, et cetera.
Once people are properly placed into their appropriate categories, our minds are at peace. We can begin to deal with them, to tolerate them, to get to know them and to accept them. By labeling others we have brought them into our internal structure of knowledge and thereby brought ourselves into their circle of acquaintances, connections through which learning and compassion can both flow freely from one to another and back again.
The downfall of labels is that, for as much as they can bring us together and ease anxiety, they cause the opposite just as much. Labels, taken for more than they are, can begin to gain a life and a reputation all their own, absent and separate from those who bear that label, but intrinsically connected to them because of this intimate bond they share. Like all *blanks* being *blank*, once that connection is forged, it’s not easily broken.
So gays become demonically possessed, promiscuous, and determined to destroy family values. Bisexuals become wishy-washy, unable to make up their minds, and patently confused. Jews become long-nosed and greedy hags who’ll take everything you have. These labels, of course, are more commonly known as stereotypes, and they’re the worst thing labels can be. They divide us, delude us, and incite hatred and fear where neither is warranted.
Of course, these are some pretty broad labels, and just as I mentioned butch and queen earlier, while we were having this discussion in the car, I remarked how many labels in the gay community there really are. It’s those damn question marks again. It’s a slender, pale young man looking at a muscly man covered in fur and asking himself, how is it we can both be the same, stuck in this same group together? We’re nothing alike. So there’s twinks and bears (which fall into polar bears, panda bears, wolves, otters, and cubs, to name a few), there’s the butch and the queens, the drag queens and drag kings, those familiar with fetishes, those from the cover of Brokeback Mountain, those still to be labeled, those young ones trying to figure out which label suits them best. The list goes on.
On the one hand, it’s nice to have our own identities, to know where exactly we fall in this foreign culture few of us ever grow up in but to which we’re all predestined, but at the same hand, labels can be pretty hard to bear, no pun intended. We become so concerned with figuring out where we fit in this jigsaw puzzle and word collage that these labels become divisive and threaten the unity and solidarity of the entire LGBT community. Twinks and bears living under the same roof, sharing drinks and being friends? It’s preposterous! But it happens all the time.
A few weeks ago a cousin of mine and I shared a great discussion on the topic of labels and I’d like to share a few of the things I wrote to him because I think they’re perfectly relevantly here.
It’s funny in a way, I guess, how you mentioned wanting to fit in…. I think I’ve grown past wanting to “fit in” so much now that I’ve become more comfortable with how and who I am, but I suppose there will still always be part of me, even unconsciously, that will try to find those similarities, those uniting factors that tie me with others. …
I don’t mind labels, unless they unnecessarily restrict people. On the contrary, I think labels can sometimes help, if we don’t let them make ourselves narrow. Sure, I sometimes identify with the bear community, but that doesn’t mean I don’t identify with other parts of the larger gay community, or other communities outside of it. I can carry a dozen different labels every day, because they all describe parts of me. That’s all they are, really, descriptors, until people get carried away with them too much.
This is rather abridged, due to the largely personal nature of our conversation, but the main points stand the same. When we all identify under a common label, we can relate to each other better, we instantly have some common ground to stand upon upon that has without our knowing it already broken the ice; we can, as I said here, begin to fit in. And, as I mentioned before, labels can help us, but when taken too far, they do hurt us.
I do carry around a dozen labels every day. I’m Jewish. I’m gay. I’m bearish (a total cub, a friend once called me; I found it rather cute when he put it that way). But I’ve also been called a flamer and a queen, not that these are labels I personally subscribe to much on my own. SGA President. Activist. Volunteer. Teacher. Student. Brother. Son. Uncle. Friend. Cohort. Confidante. The list goes on, and surely I’ve already surpassed a dozen. All in a day’s work.
Labels define and only when that definition fails to describe something have they failed. If you label that frozen dinner “food” it does nothing for anyone, but if you label it “delicious roast beef with a side of potatoes and stewed carrots,” everyone will know exactly what it is from a mile off (or at least as soon as they pull open the freezer door).
When we fit ourselves into the labels that define us, as we would like to define ourselves, they can provide a sense of confidence and inner-understanding that allows us to showcase ourselves from a distance to people we don’t even know, who don’t even know us. And when we’re the bearer of unfavorable flavors, we can make them taste a bit better by being the example that changes the definition for everyone, a beacon of light and hope in a cascade of misunderstandings and misrepresentation.
Therefore, I am a name-caller. I will call myself by those names I know, describe myself with those descriptors that bring sense and order to the confusion and chaos comprising my mind. And you, you I will call by your name, and although you may have one true name to me, if you change it, I will call you by what you wish to be called. I will not label you past what you wished to be labeled, and in no way will I try to impose my labels on yours or insist that mine are better. Certainly, mine are better for me, but I’m sure yours are best for you.
I will call you by name. I only ask that you do the same for me.