07 December 2008

Power In Labels

Words carry power. Without words, thoughts remain nebulous, and expression pales. When a word's perceived meaning is changed, communication and understanding shift with it. Words carry cultural implications and symbolic nuance.

It is precisely because of this that I often refuse to be a slave to existing social paradigms in the self-application of labels. If I use a label for myself, it becomes mine, and it makes me no less an individual or beholden to some one-dimensional mass. Rather than assimilating wholly into the label, I add context and facets to it. Perhaps I'm naive in thinking so, since most people will not see it this way. Most will see the label and ascribe various traits and beliefs to me without even realizing they've done it or questioning whether it is just to do so. Fortunately, I'm generally not afraid of that. Those who prefer ignorance will persist in it regardless of what I bring to the table. Those who recognize their own ignorance will learn and will add me to their conglomeration of who comprises a given label. But the perception of the label will never change if those whom it describes don't speak up for themselves.

Merriam-Webster's definition of gay:

Main Entry: gay
1 a: happily excited: merry
b: keenly alive and exuberant: having or inducing high spirits
2 a: bright, lively
b: brilliant in color
3: given to social pleasures; also: licentious
4 a: homosexual
b: of, relating to, or used by homosexuals

Main Entry: ho·mo·sex·u·al
1 : of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex
2 : of, relating to, or involving sexual intercourse between persons of the same sex

Some are uncomfortable referring to themselves as "gay" because "gay" is associated, as you can see, with "licentious". And "homosexual" implies purely "sexual" desire. And we, in Mormon culture, know that sexual appetite is evil, right? Some argue that same-sex attraction is about much more than sexual desire--intimacy, sexuality, romance, etc--so to use "-sexual" undercuts those nuances. Generally speaking, people so acutely aware of the problems with such labels don't apply the same stringent requirements to other self descriptions, but perhaps social stigmas make us understandably more defensive about certain pet peeves.

Maybe it's fair for people to say "I don't consider myself 'gay', so I don't care about changing the perception of that label." I, however, would prefer it if, one day, people could hear "gay" without thinking only of Will & Grace, anti-prop-8 protesters carrying "Mormon scum" signs and vandalizing temple grounds, or gay pride parades replete with all kinds of whoredom. I know gay people who are quietly living productive lives, giving to their communities, maintaining committed relationships, living every bit as "morally" as their straight counterparts, just not following the Proclamation on the Family. Are they less "gay" because they don't subscribe to licentiousness? Am I less "gay" because I'm not looking for a same-sex partner? I guess we all draw our lines somewhere.

Some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refuse to ever call themselves "Mormon" because they are "latter-day saints" or "LDS" or "members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". Many of us will use "Mormon" casually when it's convenient. Heck, I've even known one or two members of the Church who would not refer to themselves as Christians because that carried a connotation that they were part of the larger, apostate Christian community, and they were more comfortable staying separate and distinct from that. Again, I guess we all draw our lines somewhere.


Bravone said...

Thank you for the last two thoughtful posts. I will admit that I "struggle" with "labels" at times. However, the more comfortable I become in my own skin, the more comfortable I become with the "gay label." I have read three blogs today with a similar thought as yours and have been challenged to become part of the "movement" to help break down the stereotypes associated with the label "gay."

I am gradually trying to do my part in the cause. Considering the fact that I choked on the g.. as I looked in the mirror and admitted to myself that I am gay just months ago, I think I am making progress. I have told my wife, oldest son, and some close friends. I agree that we need to take responsibility for changing the perception of being gay means. Thank you again for your post.

Original Mohomie said...

Bravone, thanks for your thoughts. We all sort things out on our own timelines.

You touched on something else: comfort in using certain labels may require a strong sense of individuality or "being comfortable in your own skin". Only then was I able to freely call myself gay even while rejecting the many aspects of the culture I eschew. That took time and some degree of self-assurance, along with the ability to at least mostly shrug off other people's prejudices.

Congrats on the progress you've made in opening up to people, including yourself.

Kengo Biddles said...

It's interesting to see the spread on feeling about this--my friend Ted is staunchly in the "struggle" camp, while I'm fine admitting that I'm 2/3rd's Gay.

One Thousand Otonos said...

I appreciated your post because its truth proved to be multifaceted enough to apply to those of us who are not struggling with the titles of "gay" and/or "struggler". We all have labels which may be applied to us, but with which we do not identify or feel to be correct--unless we step up and clarify what that title/label means to us as the individual. You said it better, and I merely wanted say how much I agree with the personal responisibilty aspects of what was written. Thank you.