Question Two: Why do we have to label people?
March 24, 2013 § 4 Comments
Day two, question two – for information on the panel please see the first post in this series – all posts collected under the tag ‘trans questions answered’ (catchy).
Why do we have to prioritise labelling people with minority gender/sexuality issues? You don’t hear people saying “Oh look there’s a heterosexual cis man walking down the street”. I have colleagues who are gay/lesbian but I think of them firstly as very interesting human beings. Where have we (mainly cis hetero people) gone awry in promoting people’s gender/sexuality as if it were the only thing about them that mattered?
Natacha: This is an important question: it is important that trans people can identify as a group in order to take concerted political action in order to fight the extreme levels of discrimination that we suffer as a group. In an ideal world being trans- or cis- shouldn’t make any difference. However in the real world trans people suffer huge amounts of discrimination in comparison with our cisgender brothers and sisters. We are more likely to be attacked in the street, more likely to be murdered, more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, more likely to suffer discrimination in many areas including housing, and the media. The only way to fight back against this is for trans people to work together as a group; human rights are never given, they are only ever taken by concerted social action. In order to achieve this we have to identify as trans.
Roz: Not every trans person is invisible or wants to be – and people do shout things in the street occasionally, or for some people a lot more often. It’s relevant because bigots make it relevant. I’ve been turned down for jobs because of being trans and people have tried to get me sacked for it as well.
Maeve: My feeling here is that minority labeling is important when that minority group is persecuted. For much of history, my status as a cis woman would have meant that there are many things that I would not have been allowed to do (vote, go to university, work in most jobs etc.) and thus was the key defining feature of my personhood. Now I am lucky to live in a time and place where women (according to the law, at least!) are afforded the same rights as men, and so I am defined more by other characteristics (bisexual, geek, knitter, student etc.).
I certainly don’t think we promote anyone’s gender or sexual identity as though it were the only thing that matters, but where there is an ongoing struggle against injustice, those labels are useful for bringing people together and identifying common causes.
CN: I think the problem is that, when there’s still often an assumption that certain ways of being in the world are universal and default (being straight, being cis, being able-bodied, etc.), people who aren’t those things struggle to be seen and understood as themselves, as whole and unique people – our existence is often erased or reduced to a ‘deviant’ exception from the norm. There can be a bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ element to labelling. I could ramble on at length about social scapegoating and homogenisation, taboo and difference – many brilliant people already have! – but I think it’s important to shift this question around. Instead of focusing on the people who are labelled as ‘different’ and arguing that they are, in fact, ‘normal’, I’d personally prefer to work on dismantling the aspects of culture that insist on ‘normalisation’, and promoting a message of individuality and plurality – which ultimately, I believe, leads to a deeper understanding of our common humanity. It’s easy enough to do on an individual level, as you yourself have found – just drop your assumptions and approach everyone as a ‘very interesting human being’.