Re: What I mean by that is. . .

Subject: Re: What I mean by that is. . .
From: TheCallan (
Date: Sat 24 Jan 1998 - 18:05:59 GMT

I wrote a piece on the notion that we should be more focused on what people
mean about themselves when they use a label/term, rather than on on some
"objective" definition of what each term means, and I got some feedback.

A few people wanted to talk about the political nature of labeling. They note
that many people use labels for political purposes. This included coercing
people into positions by withholding or denying labels --"You aren't a woman,
because no woman would. . . ." -- using labels to minimalize people -- "Well,
he is just a crossdresser, so. . . ." -- and attempting to self justify by
using labels --"Well I am a femme, and I don't do that, so people who do that
can't be femme."

These three political goals -- self-justification, vilifying others and
attempting to enforce a norm by denial of a label -- do happen often.
Labeling anything is a political process. Labeling ourselves is trying to
state our own political process. Labeling others is trying to define their
relationship to our goals and beliefs. Humans, as social animals, are
political animals, and this political use of labels in not inherently bad or
inherently good.

Everyone who claims a label can be expected to have others look at how they
substantiate that label, if they embody the meaning of the term or if there is
a lot of dissonance between label and meaning. For example, someone who says
"I am a woman, and I'll pound the crap out of anyone who says I am not!" may
find that the dissonance in their message makes people less likely to believe
their claim on a label.

Others wanted to make it clear that they found my assumptions about what
various labels indicated to be wrong. They wanted me to question my
assumptions about the conflation, for example, of sexual orientation, gender
identity and community inclusion.

I note that while those are three different vectors, conflation is very
typical. For example, I know few people who do not identify as gay men who
also identify as drag queens. I assume that drag queens see themselves as gay
men. Now, I am sorto of a drag queen and I don't ID as a gay man, so I try to
make that clear when I do ID as a drag queen, using the phrase "lesbian drag
mom" as I pointed out in my first post.

Others pointed out that I had missed some terms they use to define themselves,
like transsexual woman, and they see transsexual as a modifer of woman, not
woman as a modifier of transsexual. I agree, which is one reason I am
interested in the constructions "woman of transsexual experience" or "woman
born male," where the final phrase clearly modifies woman.

Others said that they ID as bigendered, but that they primarily try to avoid
labeling themselves, hoping for more of a "what you see is what you get"
notion. I often use the quote from Octavio Paz, "I am the shadows my words
cast." I am not the symbols, but rather I am the meaning that underlies those
symbols, the shadows.

In any case, it was not my intention to to create an canonical list of the
assumptions people make. I suspect that those assumptions are as varied,
location & cultural dependant and as fluid as the meanings of the terms that
people use to ID themselves. My only goal was to open up the discussion that
maybe finding absolute definitions of terms is a less useful goal than
attempting to understand what people mean when they call themselves various

One key issue in this whole question of how we define ourselves is the issue
of negative self definition. Kate Bornstein says "I knew I wasn't a little
girl, so I assumed I was a little boy. It's so much easier to know what you
are not." I suspect lots of people know what assumptions they don't want
people to make about them, but many aren't at all sure what assumptions they
do want people to make.

I think of one transgendered person born male who lives as a woman, in woman's
clothing, and who participates in Metropolitan Community Church. Every time
this person talks about this church, they say "It's a gay church, and that's
OK, but I am NOT A HOMOSEXUAL." I'm never sure what that means. Does that
mean that he wants to be seen as a heterosexual man? Does that mean she wants
to be seen as a heterosexual woman?

I suspect the truth is that a long history of living as a man and showing
gender transgression, which many people conflate with desire, assuming for
example that males wear dresses to attracte men, that this person has learned
that being homosexual is one assumption that they do NOT want people to make.
Yet, they haven't found an assumption that they do want people to make.

This issue of negative identity definition, where we are clear what we don't
want to be seen as, but are not sure what we do want to be seen as, tends to
keep us in a defensive and reactive posture rather than a open and proactive
one. We focus on correcting mistakes and making sure that separations are
clear, rather than on encouraging new thought and making sure that connections
are clear. Negative identity definition lets the edges set the agenda, rather
than setting the agenda from the center.

To know what assumptions we want people to make about us, and not just what
assumptions we don't want made about us, seems to be the only way that we can
effectively and positively claim our identities and our place in culture.'



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