Oh, identity label. No matter what term you are—gay, Black, blind, Jewish, straight, young, Latina, fat, kinky, white, Deaf, trans, or a thousand others—what a complex existence you have.
In the hands of a bully, you are a weapon. You are hurled as an insult in an attempt to force people into being more “normal” or “right”—or just to make them feel crummy about themselves. You are a cage, something to lock people into in order to define the limits of “acceptable” behavior for them, or to make them feel powerless and defined only by a single unchangeable (or falsely perceived) aspect of themselves. You can be used to cause shame, fear, defensiveness, ridicule, confusion, and hurt.
In the hands of someone unfamiliar with the community you apply to, you are a box. You are this person’s attempt to make meaning of the world and gain understanding about people who are different from them. To this person it is imperative that you, identity label, have a clear and unwavering definition. You are a reference entry and they are a librarian, traveling the world with the noble cause of cataloging everyone they meet correctly without any need for effort or real interaction.
In the hands of someone who claims you as their own and is seeking others like them, you are a flag. You are a banner under which everyone like them can (and must) march. You speak to them of a universal experience, a sameness shared by everyone you apply to. You, identity label, represent something essential about themselves and also the other people they feel most comfortable and safest around—people like them. They become very invested in making sure that everyone who claims you is, in fact, just like them.
But identity label, in the hands of the person seeking to understand themself and to make meaning of the experiences, background, and culture that influence who they know themself to be and where they fit in this great wide world, you are a tool for liberation. You offer each of us the chance to name ourselves, claim our truths, and stake our authenticity.
We can wear you like a name tag, etch you into our skin like a tattoo, or simply hold you in our hearts and minds without ever needing to speak your name. We can take you on for a day, or a month, or five years, or a lifetime. You could be a stepping stone, a truth that leads to a different truth, different language to describe ourselves with. We each have a unique relationship with you, dear identity label—each person who claims you has a slightly different understanding of what you mean to them. But to all of us, when we intentionally decide to claim you as our own, you offer visibility, realness, a sense of self and home that we had been seeking.
Identity isn’t a label. Identity is bigger than language. Identity is an inner sense of being that transcends simple words. But the language we choose to describe our identities, our authentic selves, matters greatly. It matters that we don’t simply accept the words that other people use for us—whether hurled as hurtful bricks, fitted to us like constricting, itchy sweaters, or excitedly waved over our heads. It matters that we don’t accept other people’s definitions of the language that speaks to something in our very cores, because other people don’t get to define us. It matters that we empower ourselves to give voice to the aspects of ourselves that are central to who we feel ourselves to be. Language is a big part of that voicing.
And if we can’t find words that fit us right, we get to make up new words. Blaze new trails. Although there are a lot of people who adamantly believe there can only be one “correct” definition of a word and that the only “real” words are the ones that appear in a dictionary, the role of a dictionary isn’t to restrict, dictate, or police language, it’s to reflect how language is being used. “The people who actually determine what a word means are the people who use it, not the people who collect and record it,” says lexicographer Kory Stamper. “Language is ever evolving,” adds Melissa A. Fabello in her fantastic piece “Why Grammar Snobbery Has No Place in the Movement”; “it is used adaptively to benefit the community using it [and] its very existence is dependent upon growth and change.”
You are the only authoritative expert on you—your identity, your authentic self, your core-deep being. You get to decide how to describe yourself and how not to describe yourself. You get to experiment with language and you get to continually shift and change how you name yourself and give voice to your ever-evolving sense of being. You aren’t entitled to claim any and all identity labels that exist—after all, if you have near-perfect vision it would be inauthentic and wrong to claim the label blind for yourself. But you do get to explore which words fit you and which words don’t. You do get to reclaim words that other people have inauthentically used for you and create new, authentic definitions for yourself. And you do deserve to have your own language for yourself affirmed and used by others.
Labels don’t create division and injustice; people do, when we don’t honor differences in how others experience the world. Labels don’t create understanding; people do, when we build real relationships with each other and respect how we each experience the world. Labels don’t create unity and solidarity; people do, when we work to create space for new and different ways of being and forge alliances grounded in love and justice rather than sameness. Labels don’t create liberation; people do, when we write and speak and name our unique experiences of the world and our deepest selves into existence and honor our own wholeness and worth.
Thank you, identity label, for offering yourself up as a tool that can help us honor each other’s truths, build relationships across difference, forge alliances and solidarity, and claim our own unique experiences of self and wholeness. May we accept the challenge.