A Rose by Any Other Name

This post kicks off my 2019 Pride Month series “Proudly Reaffirming Identity, Diversity, and Equity,” exploring present-day issues facing the LGBTQ+ and allied communities.

We all know Shakespeare. We all know Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps not the first illicit love, but surely the most notorious. MacBeth gave us witches, and Hamlet gave us unanswerable questions, “To be or not to be?” and Romeo and Juliet gave us words.

Words, however, should not be underestimated.

“A rose by any other name,” he says, “would smell as sweet.” But what does this mean? Who’s calling this rose by another name? And if everyone agrees to call the rose something else, is it still actually a rose? Maybe it would smell as sweet, but is that the point? And what does the rose get to say in all of this? If the rose wants to be a rose, do we have any right to call it otherwise? And if the rose doesn’t want to smell sweet at all, should we still call it a rose despite it not meeting our expectations of roses?

You might be laughing, asking yourself, “Is this guy serious?”

And trust me, I am.

I’ve lived most of my life Jewish, and every Friday night begins our sabbath. We prepare the wine. We bake the challah. We light the candles. And every step of the process is partnered with a blessing, a prayer: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the light of the holy Shabbat. Implicit in our praise is the gratitude that we are capable of serving his commandments, that we have been brought through the week once more. Every day is cherished. Nothing is taken for granted.

So when it comes time to bless the wine, we cover the challah. Why should we cover the challah? Because, God forbid, we wouldn’t want the challah to feel embarrassed that we blessed the wine first! But it’s only bread. It has no brain, no feelings. Why do we care?

The moral, so said my rabbi when I was in middle school, is because if we express so much care for something that cannot feel, how much more care should we express for those who can? It’s a message that’s stuck with me throughout my life, through all the years of reading fanfiction online and providing feedback to other aspiring writers, through all the years serving in college organizations focused on supporting LGBTQI+ people, and through all the years (few they may be) of teaching high school.

I began this mental meandering talking about words, and though it seemed I veered off course to talk about caring for others, the truth is there are few ways to show care to others more immediately than the words we choose to say.

(Just think about how much certain people get worked up about people saying “Happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”–words matter.)

And in the LGBTQI+ community, there are many words. And there’s some debate over who gets to decide what words we use and who gets to use them–and, perhaps most importantly, who gets to define what all these words mean.

In particular today, I want to talk about the word “pride.” What does it mean, and why should we celebrate queerness by affirming pride? Isn’t pride one of the seven deadly sins? If we want to build allies in religious communities, isn’t framing ourselves in sin precisely what we’re trying not to do? Like I said, words matter.

The problem with pride–and what makes it the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, as some would say–is an excess of pride. Unmitigated pride. Hubris. In his aptly-titled book Pride, Professor Michael Eric Dyson says, “Thinking too highly of yourself is a sin. Thinking well of God and others, and therefore, of yourself, is a sacrament.”

So pride comes in many forms–a realization we can glean from perusing the dictionary.

PRIDE
1. a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.
2. confidence and self-respect as expressed by members of a group, typically one that has been socially marginalized, on the basis of their shared identity, culture, and experience.
3. consciousness of one’s own dignity.
4. the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.
5. [literary] the best state or condition of something; the prime.
6. a group of lions forming a social unit.

 

Definition 4 is precisely the sin we’re cultured to call pride, and note the “excessively high” part of the definition; having an “appropriately high” opinion of oneself would therefore not be sin at all (and by Professor Dyson’s remarks, could in fact be sacrament for some). And definition 6 is simply irrelevant to our present discussion.

The fifth definition is generally used in a literacy sense, but is worth revisiting later; and the second definition seems to have been written to describe the gay Pride movement. Part of me wonders which came first: did the queer rights movement adopt pride because of this definition, or did its adoption change the use? It’s the rose all over again.

The third definition is where I’d like to focus first: consciousness of one’s own dignity. The example the dictionary gives is “he swallowed his pride and asked for help.” In this example it once again frames pride as a negative (something he had to “get over” in order to ask for help), but we don’t need to get over our dignity to ask for help–or do we?

Dignity is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect,” which actually makes me take offense at the implication that asking for help is undignified–that asking for help is neither honorable nor respectful. Clearly, this is false: some of the best things happen when people ask for help and collaborate, and as an educator, I expect students to ask for help and admire most those student who do.

If we circle back upon “pride,” we can then think of pride meaning “consciousness of one’s own worth.” This reminds us of the first definition (pleasure or satisfaction from one’s own accomplishments, qualities, or possession) but focuses mainly on the self: this consciousness isn’t feeling satisfied because I possess something that others admire, but because I’m satisfied being myself. I get pleasure and fulfillment from being myself.

When we frame pride in this manner, the second definition falls out easily (making me believe the nuanced line in the dictionary may have originated more recently, even though the general meaning has persisted longer), and we’re left only with the fifth: that literary definition meaning the best state or condition of something (or someone).

I’ll be honest, the Pride movement has problems. There’s in-fighting, concerns over corporations getting involved, legal battles, hatred and misunderstanding from those outside (and even inside) the community, and a plethora of other ails. It’s why I’ve decided to call this series “Proudly Reaffirming Identity, Diversity, and Equity.” Many of these issues are the same ones that have inspired these conversations, and to truly address them, I believe we need to be grounded on a common foundation.

That foundation is pride.

Pride isn’t only where we’ve come from and where we’re at now–it’s also where we’re going. It all starts with ourselves, as individuals. Fuck the patriarchy. Down the corporations. Topple the elite. End government. Whatever. You come first. Developing a consciousness for our own self-worth, free from the tabloid headlines and high school bullies and rampant media socialization that tells us what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to do and even how we’re supposed to look while doing it–well, there are so many barriers to developing that consciousness that I forgot what I was talking about just listing a few of them. It takes time. It’s painful and confusing. And it’s possible.

That’s the pride of where we’ve come from: I have hated myself, and I have tempered that hatred and fostered love for myself. I know my own worth, and even though sometimes I forget it, I know how to find it again. How to sift through the wall of messages telling me how I should be (that isn’t always how I am) and then centering myself around myself. It’s hard work, and I’ve gotten here through years of reflection and practice and the support of therapists, friends, family, and favored authors. And it’s an ongoing journey, a journey too many people feel ashamed to talk about.

The pride we’re at now is messy–and in many cases it seems to teeter pretty close to hubris. As a movement, we’ve grown so self-assured that we’ve forgotten the care we still need to show for others (or we’ve grown so jaded because parts of the community have forgotten us that we’ve become prone to call others out and tear them down rather than trying to build bridges that need building to save us all from a rising flood).

Then there’s the pride we’re moving toward–pride that may be our own destruction if we don’t change directions, or pride that may exemplify our best as a community.

It’s that latter pride I hope my reflections this month will inspire us to achieve.

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