“Labels are important, to me they signify affinity”
I am a woman. Of trans history. Sexually chaotic. Confused, even. Writer. Campaigner. Public nuisance and general pain-in-the-butt when it comes to “the establishment”. Knitter. Occasional stand-up. Cat lady. I could go on, but at this point, dear reader, I suspect I am testing the limits of your tolerance. Besides, I imagine that the point is made. I carry a multitude of labels, every one of which could be swapped for loads of descriptive words. Some weekends I tour the alternative club circuit, exposing myself embarrassingly, getting laughed at. And that’s an accurate take on both my comedic efforts, and my attempts at achieving some frisson of sexual satisfaction. But why bother? With the wordiness, that is; because I had you at “occasional stand- up” and “sexually chaotic”. The problem, I guess, and where I have sympathy with the anti-label cause, is what happens when we use labels to define and limit; when it is decided by others that if you carry a label, your life is henceforth bound by that label. Like the woman writing to the Telegraph recently and agonising over whether she is a “real lesbian” or bi, or something else entirely because, despite preferring women, she has slept with a man. Ok, she didn’t really LIKE it. But she did it. So she fears she must now detach her good-lesbianing badge. As a problem, this highlights all that is good and bad about the label/no-label debate. Agony aunt Dr Petra Boynton, for whom I have much time and respect, responds re-assuringly: of course she is entitled to identify as lesbian, because that is the label she is comfortable with. Yet some labels – “gold-star lesbian” for instance, are toxic, adding little to understanding or sisterhood. I have so much sympathy for the antilabelling point of view that I have to keep checking to make sure I haven’t spun round into reverse. But the nub of the issue is this. In general, I am against categorisation. I don’t believe people can be neatly ascribed to simple categories, or worse, nailed to exclusive ones. I believe in grey and fuzzy boundaries and have written at length about this. Not least, when indulging in one of my favourite diatribes against Aristotle, who set us on the road to all this thisness: the idea that you are (logic alert!) A or not-a, and cannot be anything else. That, to me, is nonsense with bells on, and the root of so much evil. But that’s because it is essentially essentialist – the idea that you define who you are by a set of intrinsic characteristics. Whereas, if I must lay claim to any philosophic label it would be closer to existentialist. Oh, and Catholic too. Reconcile that, comrades! So why are labels important to me? Not because they define, absolutely not. But because they signify affinity. According to tabloid speak, I transitioned because I “am” a woman. True. But more importantly, I always felt that I belonged to the tribe identified as women. Women were, and are, my spiritual kith and kin. But that is complicated, far more complicated than I care to explain on first encounter. Like: “Hi, my name is Jane and I am [insert philosophical discourse here]”. I am, as Nadia argues, what I do. I am also where I locate myself politically, personally and philosophically. For me, that is best addressed in shorthand with a simple label. And that is all it is: useful shorthand. It’s a shame that some people, including her gay bar encounter, insist on using labels as a means to define and exclude.
Labels are important, to me they signify affinity