Several months ago, I was engaged in a conversation with a poet acquaintance of mine. During the course of the conversation, she asked, “Why do you identify yourself as a transgender poet? That is so limiting. Why not a woman poet or just a poet?” That conversation has been rattling around in my head since then like a broken pinball machine.
In fact, this is certainly something that I had often thought about before. I have frequently struggled with the question of whether I should run away from, or embrace being identified as a LGBTQ+ poet and writer. Specifically, I wondered if the success that I have had as a writer and poet is because I am somewhat of a novelty as a transgender or queer poet, or because I am a truly talented writer. I imagine these thoughts largely stem from my struggles with low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. But, it does raise the larger question of whether labels limit or define us.
Labels are defined by Wikipedia as “… an abstract concept in sociology used to group people together based on perceived or held identity. Labels are a mode of identifying social groups. Labels can create a sense of community within groups, but they can also cause harm when used to separate individuals and groups from mainstream society. Individuals may choose a label, or they may be assigned one by others. The act of labeling may affect an individual’s behavior and their reactions to the social world.”
Gloria Steinem said, “Labeling makes the invisible visible, but it’s limiting. Categories are the enemy of connecting. Link don’t rank.” This statement may be contrasted with Martina Navratilova’s statement that, “Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.” It would seem that Ms. Steinem believes that labels may serve a limited purpose, while Ms. Navratilova’s statement indicates that labels, as they apply to people, serve no purpose at all.
Yet, it seems to be natural human behavior in today’s world to categorize and label people whether it is by gender identity, gay, straight, political affiliation, fat, rich, poor, or a multitude of other categories. This often occurs when we meet someone for the first time. Our world view and ingrained biases immediately place the person into one box or another like a radio station playing only music that nicely fits within its chosen format. Sometimes, the labels change as we get to know a person better. However, more often than not, in the divided society in which we currently live, labels are used to further divide, belittle, or demean us. Sometimes, the meaning of labels may change over time. For example, the word “queer” was often used as a derogatory term before being reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community.
In my opinion, whether a label limits or defines us is based on taking control of our own labels and not letting other people define us. If I tried to list every label that has been, or could conceivably be, applied to me, it would take up the next two pages. Instead, I pick the ones that have some meaning to me; the ones that are important.
I did not know it at the time, but the answer to my acquaintance’s question occurred at the very first open mic that I attended in a west Akron coffee shop after I began writing again. Maybe I was naïve, but I introduced myself as “a person who writes about her struggles, emotions, and passions while struggling to live her truth as a transgender woman.” Then I read my poem “Trans Privilege.”
If the label transgender or queer writer or poet limits me, then so be it. That is who I am.
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