Thursday, November 19, 2009

Are We "Post-label"? Should We Be?

I was part of a panel yesterday at St. Paul School of Theology here in Kansas City. The panel was sponsored by Sacred Worth, a group at the seminary which supports and celebrates its LGBT students, most of whom are closeted because they are on the ordination track of the United Methodist Church, and there's no Extraordinary Methodist Ministries and someone should really start one...but that's another post.

At the forum, a topic was raised which has been rolling around in my head for a while now. A young man I know and like very much asked how welcoming churches ensure that their LGBT members are known for more than being LGBT. The responses from panel members then went mostly to the "labels are so not helpful" place.

I see where that thinking arises, and I understand it. It would be great if we lived in a world in which all were loved and valued equally, and perhaps the need to name ourselves by gender, sexual orientation, affinity, political persuasion, etc. is simply perpetuating the divisions in our society. Maybe if we stopped using labels we would stop needing them. "We borrow our authority from the future" is the way that Pastor Jeff Johnson--one of the deans of LGBT inclusion in the Lutheran church--has put it.

I see that thinking, but I raise you this: we don't live in that world of peace and harmony and equal value. We live in a culture which still privileges straight over gay, white over black (brown, yellow). We live in a world in which women are still paid significantly less for doing the same work as men and are denied opportunities in nearly every field. And as long as we live in that world, I think it is important to name those inequalities, and to claim our wholeness as black people, gay people, transgender people, women, Latino/a/s, queers, radicals and youth. If I left you out, please name and claim yourself.

Not naming ourselves doesn't keep us from being what we are. Not naming ourselves doesn't alter the field of disproportionate allocation of resources upon which we play. In fact, here's my big fear: when we do not name those who are pushed to the margins, we will default to privilege. When we do not have Black History Month, we'll continue to celebrate White History Month. Every month. And yes, that still makes the "score" eleven to one, and that's a big problem. But it's a start.

What do you all think? Are labels not helpful? Is there a way to usher in a new world without them? Or do you need to be named for exactly who and what you are?


Ruth Ellen said...

I like labels a lot. They identify me to the world and the world to myself. They help me find my kin. They help me evaluate my place in the world, my privileges and my compliance with power.

I think the answer to the initial question is "by summoning out and celebrating all their gifts." I feel like the question is somewhat irrelevant at our church since so many of us are queer, but at the church I grew up in, there were several lesbians who were... known to be lesbian, and also in positions of teaching, leadership, etc. and accorded respect based on their humanity.

I think it's especially important for us to be able to name invisible difference. I'm young and female, and anyone looking at me can tell that. But they can't see that I'm queer, and I claim the right to name that. (Then, it is... important and defining to who I am).

Anonymous said...

I don't like labels. I don't like them because when I am labeled.. or when someone else is labeled I feel as if we are narrowed somehow.. or the fullness of who we are cannot be explored. Oh she is a woman she can't blah blah blah.. Oh he is gay he must blah blah blah... Oh that person is black so that means they are blah blah blah. I don't like being restricted or put in a box and I try very hard to not do that to other people. For me it can create a slippery slope that leads to me being less open to people. To living a life that is less than I could live... there is no potential in labels.
-Having said that,
I also know that how we figure out who believes what or who stands for what is through labels. How could we find people whom we agreed with or could bond with if there were no Democratic Clubs or Extrodinary Ministries or PFLAG (or the young Republicans?)....
The real world has labels.. and I suppose I will have to continue to chafe under their necessity and be proud of my friends who claim labels that can be dangerous to them, because it's important-for now-

Andy B. said...

People who use labels are jerks. :)

Anonymous said...

Gee - this is a difficult one...your blog is very persuasive, and so is Ruth Ellen's comment.

But I really get what Niki is saying. See - I don't want to be totally defined by the "descriptor" because I am a child of God and evolving, maturing, and discovering things about myself every day. You know the scripture, " When I was a child. . ." well it really works for me. Once I could have been described as "hetero" but now I am decidedly NOT. If I had limited myself to that label, I would never have discovered the great love of my life. I think, therefore, that all labels should come with a disclaimer - this is how I think of myself now, but I reserve the option to change!"

One last thing. . . I think that if we want to self label - that is our right. What bothers me is when others decide to label me. Somehow it never seems to be a complement or affirming. I get a little touchy being called, "leftist, pinko, and commie...etc." In the end, for me, it is all about that covenental relationship between creation and God - that we do all things in love.

Ruth Ellen said...

I really agree with Anon on this point:

I think that if we want to self label - that is our right. What bothers me is when others decide to label me.

I think I often get on the defensive when the labels conversation comes around because I feel like my right to name myself as a lesbian is being challenged. And then I feel like the people who are refusing me that right are visibly queer, and I... don't look like a lesbian, my gender expression doesn't bend, and I don't ping people's gaydar. I just, you know, happen to fall in love almost exclusively with women, and people wouldn't know that about me if I didn't name it.

I think, therefore, that all labels should come with a disclaimer - this is how I think of myself now, but I reserve the option to change!"

I am so unbendy and stubborn, seriously, because I keep saying that even if I fall in love with and marry a cis man (which I think is highly unlikely, but possible) I will still (confusingly) identify as lesbian because it is SO important to how I see myself.


I also think it's important for us to claim our identities and name our privileges. Partially I spend much of my time in cyberculture, where we have to claim identities or no one will know (I knew my good friend Cole for months before I realized he was male), and in discussions about racism or sexism or homophobia, the race or gender or sexuality of the participants is a relevant variable. And being ale to say, "My race is not relevant to this discussion," is white privilege, and saying, "I'm not a feminist; I'm a humanist," is male privilege.



So I also have a thought about the eschatological dimension of this conversation -- because thinking about a just and equitable future where labels don't bear the burden of inequality... well, I have Thoughts on this. First, in the temporal millennium (the Kingdom of God right here, right now, an earthly utopia), I think it will continue to be important to learn about histories of inequality, and even if the people learning those histories are all omnisexual gender-fluid... no, I'm sorry, I can't even go there. Even if labels aren't in contemporary use, it will be important to know that there was a time when society was segmented.

And my other thought is about the new heaven and earth, Kingdom come, the Reign of God, the end of time.

So I read this article by Elizabeth Stuart called "Sacramental Flesh." She says, "Jesus becomes the multi-gendered body of the church," and therefore, "the body of Christ is queer." "[T]he resurrected body of Christ is multi-gendered and therefore beyond gender." And that's where I lose her.

"At death my church teaches me that all my secular identities are placed under eschatological erasure."


I am troubled by this idea for two reasons, one contingent and one ultimate.

1. When we talk about generic people, without secular identities? Those generic people are rich, white, heterosexual, cisgendered men, because rich, white, heterosexual, cisgendered men have the privilege (and the tendency) to see their experience as universal.

2. That concern is contingent... but the reality of difference is not. "Multi-gendered" is not the same as "non-gendered." If all our secular identities are erased -- all the things we love, all the things in which we find joy, all the things we're passionate about -- then our personhood is erased. Stuart says, "[T]he I that I am is God's own special creation, and that is my only grounds for hope," but I am not I -- the unique and beloved creation of God -- without my identities and my history.

...sorry, Pr. Donna. I got ever so slightly long-winded.

John Carey said...

Labels per se will not likely go away. They are part of how we interact with and understand our world.

I think Ruth Ellen said it best!

John Carey