The topic of identity labels is something I’ve been mulling for a couple of weeks, ever since a Normal acquaintance commented on one of my Facebook posts about intersectionality, asking that ‘we’ “stop attacking generalities”, and suggesting that “beings are best approached by their qualities, not how they are qualified.” I mean, really, I’ve been mulling it for years but that comment, and a couple of recent discussions on Twitter brought it back to the front of my mind. (Incidentally, I’ve noticed that while Normals mostly ignore my posts about disability and even my yelling about capitalism, it’s usually when I write or share posts about the intersections of race and disability that they seem to think I’ve gone a bridge too far. Which I think is telling in and of itself.) Nevertheless, I’ve decided to attempt, in good faith, to explain the personal significance of identity labels for those who may be confused but genuinely interested in learning. (Do you exist?)
So if you’ve ever been confused about why some people cling to identity labels, because “we should look at the whole person” and “people are more than the sum of their labels” and “I don’t see race / gender / disability” and “labels are oppressive” and “generalisations are bad”, take a seat because I’m about to drop some knowledge.
You’re confused because you don’t know what it feels like to never fit in anywhere. To never feel safe or comfortable anywhere.
And no, I don’t mean being that quirky kid with the quirky band of emo / goth / punk / drama club friends whom everyone else thought was weird in high school. I mean the kid with no friends. Who drifted in and out of friend groups trying to make a place for themself, and never succeeding. I mean the kid who spent years asking for help, only to be told they didn’t need it. And the kid who was given ‘help’, and help meant teaching them all the parts of their existence that were fundamentally unacceptable and how to destroy them. And the kid who was ‘beyond help’ and the best that could be done was to stick them in a different room so their continued existence wouldn’t bother the other kids. I mean the kid who maybe did have friends, but for whom society always made it clear through a multitude of ways that their existence would never be valued, respected or protected. The kid who had friends but who, in order to keep them, had to sacrifice little bits of themselves along the way. The kid who was so lonely all the time that there was a constant dull ache located somewhere inside their chest cavity and being around people only made the ache worse.
You do not know what it means to grow up feeling utterly alone, worthless and unsafe. And so you do not know what it means, after years of feeling like that, to find a space where you do fit. Where people understand your experiences and validate them because they’ve experienced those same things. Where, over time, you can start to make jokes about those experiences with each other because holy shit can the Normals be clueless assholes sometimes. Where people tell you that, contrary to what society has trained you to believe for as long as you can remember, your existence has worth. You have worth. Exactly as you are, without changing or hiding or destroying parts of yourself.
It feels like you’ve been wandering for years in some shitty second-rate fairytale wasteland and you’ve finally found your way home and even though you’ve never seen this place before, it’s familiar somehow and either way, you’re sure as hell never leaving it again and you’re sure as hell going to protect it with all the strength that you have.
This is why, on a personal level, identity labels matter for many people. Political significance aside*, identity labels represent a space that has been carved into a world that doesn’t want you, by people like you, for you. It’s by no means a safe space: the world is still shitty and hostile and it’s going to keep on trying to destroy you for as long as you live. But now you have something to fight for, and someone to fight with, and that means everything. Identity labels are about love and about safety and about life.
(This is also why, on a personal level, some people may not identify strongly with an identity label, even if it ostensibly fits them. If they’ve always had a place in the world, this new place may not be quite so important to them. This is also why it doesn’t matter even the tiniest bit whether you reject labels personally. They are not there for you. They are there for the people who need them.)
* This should not be taken as a dismissal of the political significance of identity labels. They have incredible importance on a political and social level, which I have discussed elsewhere, extensively, usually in response to Normals telling me how I shouldn’t be so beholden to identity politics. This is my attempt to reckon with their personal significance, with the reasons why pride and activism play such an important role in marginalised identity, and with the emotional and psychological violence of people rejecting or erasing a person’s self-assigned labels.