On -isms: Labels

By | Thursday, March 24, 2016 Leave a Comment
At C2E2 this past weekend, I attended several panels on various -isms issues. (CBR has a great write-up of what I thought was the best panel of the whole convention: Comics, American Culture & the Black Male Image: Perspectives from Creators.) One that stood out was the LGBTQA Roundtable, hosted by Michi Brady.

The discussion was centered around some basic definitions. What's the difference between gender and sexuality? What does queer/questioning mean? And one thing they joked about: the increasing alphabet used to describe this community. If you've followed along over the years, you may have watched as LGB became LGBT became LGBTQ became LGBTQA... The running joke at the panel was that it's now LGBTQABCDEFGHIJKLMNOP...

The reason for the increasing additions is to try to be more inclusive. LGB, for example, basically only addresses sexuality and ignores people with sexuality-related concerns, but who still conform to sexual social norms. Like transmen and transwomen. Each additional letter represents another one of those groups; however, it's readily apparent that continuing to add letters is confusing to those outside that community and who might not keep up, not to mention that it can highlight who isn't being considered in those discussions.

Towards the end of the panel, they invited audience members up if they wanted to share their stories. They had spent the previous 45 minutes proving that it was a guaranteed safe space, and a number of people went up to relay what life had been like for them growing up. And how they often felt different or isolated from everyone else, but never had a name for why they didn't fit in. Frequently, they never heard words like "intersex" or "genderfluid" until well into their 20s.

And what hearing those labels means, often, is that someone else has had the same issues. It signifies that whatever-it-is-they-are, it's been seen in enough other people before to name. And that means they're not alone. The testimonies people gave for how these huge weights were lifted off their shoulders when they discovered that there were others out there they could turn to for support and guidance were incredible just in seeing these people's faces light up, often glittering with tears of joy.

(Sadly, not every story ended happily. Some people were still dealing with some very cruel relatives and divisive workplaces.)

Labels are often seen as a bad thing. But the problem with labels isn't so much that they exist, but that they're applied to others. One of the things panelist Sasha Katz repeated was that it's about your identity, and you can identify yourself however you want. And to be more all-inclusive, there's a contingent of people trying to push the suggestion of identifying that whole alphabet of letters above as simply SAGA, Sexuality And Gender Acceptance. All the old labels don't go away, but they're intended to be embraced under an inherently non-exclusionary umbrella. (And that it's also the name of a reasonably popular comic doesn't hurt either!)

I've always been one to eschew labels for myself. I don't self-identify as this type or that; I've always just thought of myself as Sean Kleefeld. Full stop. Of course, I also recognize that I can do that by the nature of my privilege. Because I'm a cishetero white male, no one has ever really tried assigning labels to me, and it was never an issue to adopt my own. But Katz was arguing (rightly, I think) that no one should have labels applied to them, and that everyone is free to choose whatever labels they feel are appropriate for themselves.

I was talking with a comic creator this past weekend and he expressed some discomfort with a "young adult" label that's sometimes applied to his latest book. It's not bad or wrong for young adult readers, but he felt that was too limiting a niche for the story. It can be read and enjoyed by anyone. People apply labels like that, though, because it works as a shorthand to help them organize their thoughts. "This thing is like that other thing, and if I file them under the same name, I can find both quicker."

The problem, though, is the label other people might apply might not make much sense because they're making an incomplete or superficial comparison. You might, for example, put "blue" and "lava" in the same bucket because they're both four-letter-words. But "blue" probably makes more sense to be identified as a color, while "lava" is more something that comes out of the ground and probably would really hurt if you touched it. So when it comes to labels for people, doesn't it make sense to defer to someone who is most expert about the subject -- namely the individual her/himself?

If you attend any cons this year, I highly encourage you to show up for whatever -isms types panels you can. Whether the discussion centers around Black people, gays and lesbians, disabled individuals, Latinos... anything where a segment of the population is feeling disenfrachised, try to sit in on some of them. Try to learn what labels these people might apply to themselves and how those might differ from the labels you apply to them. If you then look at these people through the lenses of those new labels, you might be surprised at how differently you read their work.
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