I’ve written before about identity and labels, eg here. But I think that I haven’t made it quite clear why one becomes the other, and why both are so essential.
To illustrate, let me give two examples from my own life.
The first is the ‘label/identity’ of being autistic. I grew up and spent decades of my adult life knowing I was ‘different’, but having no idea why. From the age of about seven onwards, I knew there was something ‘wrong’ with me, that I wasn’t like others, and much of my life has been dominated by that fact. I spent decades trying to either find out what my ‘problem’ was, or to get rid of it, to forcibly make myself ‘normal’, and just like everyone else. Neither effort was fruitful.
I became convinced that I was just not as good as other people, that I was weak, useless, pathetic, because I couldn’t cope with or do the things that others coped with or were able to do so easily. I was told ‘don’t be so sensitive’ ‘it’s not such a big deal’, ‘what are you worrying about’, ‘you’re making a fuss about nothing’, and so on. I was laughed at for ‘moving funny’, or ‘saying daft things’, or criticised for being ‘insensitive’ or ‘rude’ or ‘selfish’. It often seemed like nothing I did was right, I became scared to do or say almost anything. In the end, I withdrew from much human interaction, because I just couldn’t cope with it.
The result of all this is that I have suffered from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and self-hatred for most of my life. This self-hatred went so deep, that even now, I haven’t gotten rid of all of it all. But an amazing thing happened, almost by accident. I began to read up on Asperger’s and autism, in order to help a student I was working with, and quickly recognised myself in the descriptions. To say I was surprised is something of an understatement. To say I was relieved, when I finally found that there were others like me, that I wasn’t ‘one of a (weird) kind’, a sort of lemon off the human reproduction line, is even more of an understatement.
What was a label quickly became an identity, as I studied more, read more, listened to my fellow autistics, discussed my ideas with them, shared my thoughts and feelings, asking ‘is this familiar to you? Have you ever felt/done/said this? Had this reaction from others?’ And the response was overwhelmingly YES! Yes, I know what you mean, yes, I’ve done that/been in that situation/felt that, yes, I’m like you.
I’m like you.
I wonder if anyone who’s never felt like they don’t truly belong anywhere can understand how profound that can be, to have people say that to you. To be understood, to finally, finally, FINALLY know who and what you are. To be validated. To have the right word, the right ‘label’, the right IDENTITY, to describe yourself, a community to fit into, a ‘place’ to call home. To belong.
I don’t think there are words strong enough to describe that feeling.
This autistic identity is one that’s formed over the last ten to fifteen years. But there’s another, more recent, identity that’s been forming, and that’s to do with my sexuality and gender identity.
I always knew I was ‘different’ in this respect as well, and again, I had no labels for it, no words to describe it, I just felt an unease, a sense of ‘not fitting in’ to the prescribed feminine roles. I was designated female at birth, and have a female body. All my life, I’ve been okay with this in the sense that I’ve never felt like I’m male, but... I also always knew something wasn’t quite right (on top of the ‘difference’ I mentioned above, that is). I was called a ‘tomboy’ as a child, and had a sense that I ‘wasn’t like other girls’. Then as a teen and young adult I was totally uninterested in fashion, makeup, long nails, elaborate hairdos, etc. I conformed just enough to avert criticism, but never felt happy doing so. In fact all things ‘womanly’ felt… just not me, somehow. Yet I didn’t like very ‘masculine’ clothes, or behaviour, either. I found both extremes not just an ill-fit but almost oppressive, like a sensation of being smothered.
Then, when I was in my mid-20s, I came out as a lesbian, and thought ‘oh, this is why!’ I joined the feminist movement and lesbian community, and for years this was my world. It liberated me (or gave me an excuse, take your pick) to chuck out ‘feminine’ clothing, ditch the makeup, and wear mainly jeans, t-shirts and sneakers. But I still felt somehow different to my lesbian ‘sisters’. I never called myself a ‘woman-loving woman’, for instance, as some lesbians did. I told myself it was because it was ‘too much of a mouthful’. I felt uncomfortable with many of their behaviours, and privately ruminated on how so many of the lesbians I knew hadn’t really ‘undone their feminine conditioning’. But I still felt like I was missing something. I groped for the words to describe it, I searched the literature, but there was nothing. Just a blank void that I echoed around in.
I struggled with relationships too – I always wanted to get to know a person first before jumping into bed with them. The result was that I’d often have to choose between being sexual before I was ready to, or missing out. Mostly, I missed out. And when I did get into a relationship, the problems weren’t over then. Some difficulties were due (I see now) to my undiagnosed autism. But there was also something else that yet again I struggled to define, a sense of being trapped by the ‘romantic’ role, or by simply being in a romantic relationship. And when it ended, my biggest feeling was always one of relief - the kind of ‘oh thank god’ relief that comes when you quit doing something that’s truly beyond your capabilities.
After my last relationship ended, I drifted away from the lesbian community, mainly because I just didn’t feel like i fit in. After a while, I found the autistic community, and made new friends. This soon became a new ‘home’, not least because of its higher rate of sexuality/gender variations, and higher rate of acceptance of them. Eventually, however, some deeper, nagging sense of difference reasserted itself.
I avoided (I realised later) describing myself as a ‘woman’, or even as a ‘lesbian’, and would say things like ‘well I’m female but not feminine’. I also developed an interest in reading about trans people, and in fact anyone else who didn’t fit into the gender binary. More recently, I also found myself reading about other different gender/sexuality identities, such as intersex, asexual, aromantic, all the grey and demi-identities, non-binary, etc, without quite realising why. I soon realised that I’m almost certainly ‘demi-sexual’, and probably also ‘aromantic’, though I’m still exploring both of those. It is however a relief to know that I’m not crazy, for feeling the way I do about relationships!
But it wasn’t till a trans woman friend chanced to remark “you’re a woman if you identify as a woman”, that something clicked for me. Because even as some part of me was mentally nodding, going ‘uh huh, yup’, another part of me suddenly said “….But I don’t identify as a woman”.
Well! To say that was a shock is yet another understatement! I reeled, and then it began to click. Of COURSE I’ve never felt like a ‘typical girl’ or a ‘typical woman’, I’m not one! I dived into exploring the whole non-binary thing, and was amazed. ‘You mean, there’s actually a WORD for what I am?’ There’s a reason I don’t feel comfortable with ‘feminine’ clothing, hairstyles, behaviour, etc, but feel almost equally uncomfortable with ‘masculine’ things/behaviour? There’s a neutral territory beyond gender, devoid of extremes, that not only myself but others exist in? Wow, wow, and wow!
Anyway, although many of my friends on Facebook already know, I guess this is my official ‘coming-out’ as non-binary! In case you’re wondering, I’m still fine with female pronouns, and have no plans to change my name or official gender registration, etc. (Please also note, I’m NOT criticising any non-binary who does, everyone makes their own choices according to their inclinations and needs, and this is mine. I’m too old, too cranky, too tired, too used to my current name - which I chose for myself anyway! - to feel any need to do it, even if I had the spoons, which I most emphatically don’t.)
This is my story, but it echoes that of many others too. Discovering that ‘label’ which becomes an ‘identity’ won’t solve all your problems (I still have plenty!), but it will solve one big one – that of your core identity; knowing who and what you are. No more floundering in whatever kind of social/emotional/sexual/gender/neurological wilderness you were in before. These labels I’ve mentioned, and so many others, are providing real clarity, real self-discovery, real comfort, and a real sense of belonging/solid identities for so many now. And no-one has the right to take that away from us, and to attempt to push us back out into that wilderness.
So think on that, before you disparage ‘all this fancy label nonsense’ or talk about how you ‘don’t want your child to be labelled’, or claim ‘it’s just a fad the young are getting into’. (Need I remind people that I’m far from young? And yet here I am, non-binary etc, anyway.) You may be denying someone the chance to find themselves and their true identity, and to finally feel ‘at home’ in their own skin.
So please, just think before you judge. Close your mouth, open your heart and mind, and listen instead. You might be amazed at what you find out about those you thought you knew.