I may not like labels, words people apply to me, but I certainly need terms, words I use to describe myself. I need words to speak who I am, to make myself visible beyond the expectations of heteronormativity.
But labels have limits because they are always based on some degree of ignorance; they describe how others fit in our taxonomy, not how others know themselves.
I have often asked transpeople to explain who they are without using the word “Not.” Too often we use labels as crutches and end up with a negative identity, one based on the claim that we are “not like them” and “not like those others.”
The more we try to positively state the nuances and details of our own identity, without resorting to quick labels as identity props, the more we begin to value not only own our own complex nature, but also to value the complex nature of others.
Words are symbols, and like any symbol, they are not equal to what they represent. Meaning lies not in the word, but in the spaces between the words where reality exists.
When we use words to cast those shadows of meaning, we have terms.
When we use words to paper over that nuance, we have labels.
My Comment on “Label, Label, Label” by Monica Helms
“I really need to build a stable life before I can start to work on my own healing.
“All I need to do is to first find my lifetime soulmate and settle down with them, because if people can’t find one person who can meet their expectations, then my entire belief system is false and has to be discarded.”
I really feel for her when I hear her say something to that effect.
I wanted to have the same thing before I went back and engaged the healing I needed to do. I once turned to Christine and said “I believe I am learning to trust myself, but now I have to work on learning to trust other people,” and she replied “Can’t you do that on your own?”
I dunno. As a transperson I had a sense that I had to give up normative expectations of coupling, no matter how much that broke my heart, but other “Too-People” — the ones who are too smart, too strong, too visionary, too powerful, too questioning, too sensitive, too intense, too queer — well, the idea that they have to let go of what they consider everyday expectations, well, that’s not easy.
My experience is that it is healing that brings us the potential of stability, and healing is always in the miracle of seeing our experience and our possibilities in new ways, beyond and outside of old conventions & old expectations. To look for stability before healing is like building a house on sand; the foundation will shift and crack as the ground moves underneath it.
Behind that sharp exterior, though, I hear the cries of an abandoned child, one who didn’t have the kind of empowerment and stability she needed to heal the effects of her traumas and terrors. That cuts through me because share that experience. My mother feels the best she can do is worry for other people, so she spews her own fears around, adding to burdens and destabilizing the experience, pushing farther away from empowerment and more into despair.
When I think what I did to try and find a partner, well, it was manipulative and bad. Thank God I had Christine to push back against me, to explain that I had to do my own work and couldn’t expect anyone to just be there for me in a way I imagined. It was very, very much not what I wanted to hear, but, of course, it was what I needed to hear.
Writing this, I have to wonder about the possibility that I might have been wrong, that if I had just kept looking I would have found the perfect person to support, comfort and empower me to become who I really am, which is the reward of a lifetime according to Joseph Campbell. It’s such a seductive thought, but in all my learning, the basic lesson is that we have to heal ourselves, and that is an individual journey, no matter who supports us.
No, the falls and the bumps and the instability, well, those contain the lessons we have to learn, and until we learn them we just get more of them. It is where we stumble that the jewel lies, and our obligation is to find that jewel and carry it until it becomes part of us.
It’s so easy to want to externalize our own struggles. “It’s they who don’t get it, they who cause me pain, they who aren’t healed, they who don’t come up to expectations.” All those cries are correct of course; the most difficult thing for us is that others heal in their own time and not on our schedule. They can’t be there for us because they cannot yet be there for themselves, or they can’t be there because they have their own work to do, or they can’t be there for us because we are not yet there for ourselves, not yet engaged in our own healing.
It’s hard, very hard, to internalize our struggle, to be clear in every day and every moment that we are the only one we can heal, that we are the only one we have the obligation to heal, and that we have to find our own stability before we can accept what others can offer us.
Each of us dreams of the perfect home, where we can be safe from pushing the buttons of others, where we can be seen and understood deeply, reflected in positive and affirming ways, able to push though our own fears and pain while feeling supported and empowered. We crave that safe space.
It turns out, though, that space is expensive to create and maintain, because everyone enters there with their own pain, their own trauma, their own terrors, and their own turmoil. We have to be able to create our own safe space, as I wrote in 1994.
In the end, it is our responsibility to unwire the buttons that can send us into a spin. Pilots know that the only way to learn to exit spins is first to enter controlled spins and then to follow the procedures. To heal, we have to enter our own unstable places and learn to create stability. Maybe we do that first in a simulator, rehearsing responses — I do that in writing — and then we stretch our wings and get stronger, counting on our own choices to regain stability.
I’d really love to be able to externalize my challenges, to look for external stability before entering the pain. I crave having someone near me to help, I do. That’s one reason I had a crush on Shelly from Celebrity Rehab, she is post-therapy enough to help each other do the work. But she isn’t in my life, and her TV/work role as centered saint isn’t all of who she is. We would have issues too, so we each do our own work, and find the lessons we need offered to us.
Healing is the path to stability, rather than stability being the path to healing, at least in my experience. The only way out of hell is through, as I have learned.
But my heart cracks a little bit more when I hear the cry of a child who just wants that dream of a perfect partner.
That’s because somepart of me wants it too, of course.