A dog in the fight

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about labels, and the ways we reject and embrace them. It’s always been my opinion that labels should only be self-applied but that they can foster community where groups of individuals self-apply the same label. Still, unless everybody signs a charter or something, that label doesn’t have to mean exactly the same thing to everyone in the community.

Since that first paragraph was a little awkward and confusing in its vagueness, I’ll get more specific: lesbian and woman. These are two labels–identities, even–that I embrace. I was recently in a discussion where a woman explained that she identifies as queer rather than lesbian because she feels the Boston lesbian community is extremely hostile to trans*men and the women who date them. While I would never deny that experience, it hasn’t been mine. Even if it were, however, I think I would still identify as a lesbian. (For the record, I also identify as queer.)

If, as this friend of mine contends, the identity “lesbian,” at least in Boston, equates for some with “woman who sleeps with women and explicitly does not sleep with trans men, and is hostile toward their presence in the community,” I don’t think that means the rest of us should abandon the identity and adopt another. In other words, I’m not going to let some intolerant women spoil lesbianism for me. Rather, I think it’s my responsibility to identify as a lesbian who does not share that kind of attitude, so that the label isn’t wholly associated with intolerance.

It’s the same way I feel about being a woman. There are a lot of things about me that I–and others, probably–consider more stereotypically masculine than feminine. I’m misread as male a significant part of the time, both for reasons under my control (the way I dress, my hairstyle) and reasons totally beyond it (my height and body structure, the pitch of my voice). I reject certain stereotypical trappings of femininity (I look damn awkward in a dress, and I’ve never tried heels) while embracing others (I ache to be a mother some day). At the end of the day, even in my favorite pair of boxer briefs, I’m still going to identify as a woman, and demand that others recognize me as such. Not because I have a uterus, not because I can fill out a C cup, but because that’s who I am. And if other people–men, women, or otherwise–have a picture in their head of “woman” that doesn’t look like me, it’s my responsibility to call them on it.

I do realize that “lesbian” and “woman” may be two very different identity categories, but I don’t really want to get into biological determinism or whether sexuality or gender can be chosen. I just think it’s time we stop letting other people define our identities for us.

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6 Responses to A dog in the fight

  1. Hi mk, I came over from all the shameless self-promotion at Feministe. I don’t know that I actually have anything substantive to say, just that this is a really great post. Some of the comments in the threads following a few of piny’s recent posts have gotten me thinking about this same topic of identification more than I usually do; thanks for helping me clarify a few of my thoughts on it 🙂

  2. Em says:

    Hello, here by way of Feministe and pleased to read a lot of your gender stuff. I would like to hang around if you don’t mind.

  3. lauram says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Language is SO powerful and so rarely understood as such by the masses. Most people that I talk to about language and framing seem to think it’s all hogwash and how you say what you say isn’t important. I think it’s all important that we use words that say what we mean.

    Reclaim away. I will never accept being called a “lady” or a “girl”. And if I’m a different sort of woman, physically, emotionally, etc. than you – well Amen to that. Those who can’t get their heads around “women” being so different from one another and from “the norm” are welcome to have their little heads expanded a bit from the effort.

  4. pandanose says:

    So nice to see some new faces! Er, pseudonyms…

    lauram, your point is an important one–“girl” instead of “college-aged or older woman” is one of my personal pet peeves. And whenever a woman accepts external application of a label she would never self-apply, she’s helping language be more inaccurate and more inappropriately generalized.

  5. pandanose says:

    (Also: em, just checked out the Feministe comments again. Sorry to hear you’re not finding things as helpful, but I hope you still want to hang around.)

  6. holly r. says:

    hey there,

    I too, came over here by way of Feministe. I have nothing to add to what defenestrated said. Well, except that I am continually (probably more than I should, or than time warrants) pondering labels.

    As a woman that majored (uselessly) in psychology, and has concentrations in women’s studies and sociology, working on her MSW: I’m ridiculously intrigued by labeling. That and I fall somewhere in the middle of the sexual identity spectrum; and I refuse to be labeled by that. Anyway:

    I love the ideas you’ve given voice to. Thank you!

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