Terms & Labels

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

9 thoughts on “Terms & Labels”

  1. this reminds me of when i went to a Harry Benjamin Conference , and a psychiatrist–one of the few who actually tried to help trans kids rather than torture them into self-hating conformity–told how he would go to schools where some trans kid was being horribly bullied.

    He would address a meeting of students and teachers and say “Billy has a condition called gender identity disorder” and then explain that. And amazingly, the people would react with, oh, well that’s okay, and stop being nasty.

    That’s when I realized that labels are not always destructive.

    I think it’s a shame when we fall into believing the labels about ourselves but sometimes they can be useful for others to at least start to understand.

  2. I love labels, especially as they never seem to fit their purpose when applied to me a transgender woman. So who am I? We’ll I am:

    a post-op post-heterosexual bicurious lipstick lesbian transgender emancipated woman.

    I think.

    Apart from the first label all are just partly true. But the combination pretty much describes me. I tried to learn to read the sentence quick enough to get people completely confused. A state that I prefer for others than myself. It usually kills any false discussion.


  3. Alice, I would suggest that when you take what others see as labels and create novel combinations that allow people to understand you, you transform those labels into terms to describe yourself uniquely.

    I remember describing myself as a “power femme drag mom theologian” and how at least one person bridled at what they saw as contradictions in that phrase enough to be offended that I would use a label they valued in such a sacrilegious way.

    I too love words, but I love them most when they leave the conventions to express grace.

  4. Rachel, you make an excellent point about labels and assimilation. We take on labels in order to join groups.

    If that group is one of the afflicted, with a label assigned by a doctor, well, then, that may give us some relief in assimilation. We have a disorder, a birth defect, a syndrome, and have authority figures defending & justifying us, and that feels useful.

    For many, it seems to me, genital reconstruction surgery (GRS), is a way to have a doctor sign our body and “prove” that we are really entitled to make our own unique choices that cross gender assignments.

    I have often said that one easy way to categorize transpeople is by the defenses they use to get along in the world. Some say we are just playing, some say we are sacred, some say we are sick and so on. We use the shorthand labels to cut space for us, even as their oversimplification limits that space.

    It is when we believe that we are those labels that things get sticky, at least in my experience. When we were first limited by the label placed on us by dint of our birth genitals — “boy” or “girl” — we then become limited by the labels we place on ourself to justify and rationalize and assimilate.

    Claiming illness with a doctor certified label is certainly a powerful tool that many transpeople have used effectively to move forward.

    But unless they also move past that label to express individuality & connection, that label just papers over who they are.

  5. stories like rachel’s seem to me to come down to something like this:

    tranny: emits nonconformant behavior
    cissy: “you freak”
    tranny: “i’m not a freak, i’m a cripple.”
    cissy: “oh, well that’s all right then.”


    . . . continued

  6. Callan, this discussion reminds me of early Christian theological reflection on the power and inadequacy of language about God.

    One of my favorite concepts along these lines is from Dionysius the Areopagite, a fifth century patristic theologian who described a class of language about God as “dissimilar similarities.” It involves layering of terms that kind of mutually, paradoxically bombard each other.

    Dionysius is also known for his use of negative language– God is not x and not y– which can also be used with layers.

    So in that sense, I don’t actually object to the use of negatives in trans folks’ attempts at self identification. I just think it conveys more depth when combined with ‘cataphatic‘ layering.

    I love your “power femme drag mom theologian” combo, by the way.


  7. Cameron,

    When we try to communicate notions that don’t exist in everyday conventions, notions that seem ambiguous or contradictory, defiant or dammed, we do need to use language that cuts open new spaces, adds new layers, effects nuance.

    I would never stand against all use of negatives in language; absolutism is just not my style. We need all the language we have and more to claim our own identities.

    The post here was a comment on another blog, short and necessarily reductive.

    Readers of my blog, though, know that I care about language as symbol to reveal meaning layered in the space between, held in the negative spaces for which there are no direct words.

    When we use terms that are apparently negating as part of positive creation of identity, that can be powerful. When we use negations of other groups, though, I find that it’s mostly not to open some personal power, rather it is to use shorthand stereotypes to wall themselves off from what they are yet afraid to engage, to claim kinship with others who also like those walls.

    Thanks for coming here and commenting, and for being out, loud, and braving Harvard Divinity for us.

  8. Thanks for your comment-reply, Callan.

    I too care about language’s ability to point to the layers of meaning in in-between spaces, and I appreciate that about your blog– as far as I’ve had a chance to read it, having just stumbled on it last week.

    Your attention to language, its limitations as well as its possibilities, is quite refreshing, and I find sometimes hard to come by when so much ‘official’ trans language is (and, I realize, needs to be) less evocative in its efforts to gain basic rights.

    So, thanks again.

  9. Official trans language is wrong.

    I know. I spent over a decade trying to talk about trans in some kind of analytical and “official” way, from the late 1980s until 2000, and while I did it well, it was eventually a dead end.

    We aren’t a group, and we aren’t a civil rights test. But that’s the line, and it is a dead end. I walk out when someone starts doing Trans 101 now, that horrible litany of categories, TV/TS, FTM/MTF, whatever.

    We are claiming our space as individuals, and the only way we can do that is with personal narrative that cuts bounds, the stories that tie and connect us together. It is true that at the bottom of those stories are shared archetypes and myths that have always held the deep truths of humanity we cannot easily quantify, but finding those truths in our stories is the journey of a lifetime.

    We can’t come together by cutting apart. And we can’t stand for the power of individual expression when we don’t value the individual truths that we each hold.

    Trans isn’t some kind of group politics, where we have official language, it’s a kind of shared journey where individual threads tie together deep connection.

    What else can we evoke other than some fundamental human truths that celebrate the essential specialness of each human?

    Trans isn’t about political protection, it is about respect for personal empowerment, not just the profoundly trans, but for the profoundly human in everyone.

    OK, well, that’s my rant.

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