I would personally like to reject most labels that are given for the sake of comfort and conformity. I would personally love to embrace gender-fluidity, stand against the outmoded paradigm of patriarchy, and reach out to find co-creators of a revolution that see the commonality of spirit as the primary trait that yoke us together on our shared journey; with gender, race, belief, attraction and ability being unique expressions upon various spectrums of this unifying spirit meant to be celebrated instead of being concepts used to isolate and divide us. I have just enough of a rebellious streak to find this anti-establishment mentality appealing, but that’s not my motivation for writing this piece.
My true intent of this essay is to address the difference that I give to labels and names, my personal account with labels (which has left a bad taste in my mouth), and why names hold so much power. While it’s true that we need a certain level of labeling to find commonality, so that we understand what it is that we are discussing, the danger comes when people come to believe that these labels are more than an understanding, that they are a hard and fast universal truth.
The biggest problem with labels is that they are assigned externally. In other words, society/others assign labels. This is most problematic when it comes to labeling people. The consensus of society works on assumptions that there are a finite number of categories. This is where the inherent problem begins. To maintain consensus, (in other words, to maintain order) society must only have so many views and vantage points. To allow there to be too many different ways of seeing things would make it too difficult for the powers that be to maintain their perceived stronghold of control.
Before you write me off as a crazy conspiracy theorist, let me give a major example to illustrate what I mean: Advertising. The field of marketing and advertising uses demographic information to sell products. These demographics are labels. What would happen to the way that advertising were done if suddenly gender were addressed as a spectrum instead of the male/female either/or choice that we’re inevitably given? What would happen if race and ethnicity were suddenly de-emphasized in the marketing world, and advertising agencies starting acting like people of color are just as likely to have true wealth as white people? (There are reflections of positive changes that I have actually been noticing in baby steps in advertising. But the overall average is still quite stuck in a stereotype.)
Advertising is just one representation of the perceived “powers that be” who direct the focus of society. It makes sense to want to keep their nice, neat, little labels to be able to organize all of the people to direct them. Boys should play with this toy. Girls should wear this outfit. People of this ethnic group should listen to this music. And so on. The truth is this: Labels are not neat and clean. Labels are not truth, because they were never meant to be. Labels were meant to be a tool, and only a tool – not an identity. Sadly, many of us have been duped.
Many labels assigned to us don’t even have anything to do with our demographics, but these are just as often misused and misconstrued. This is where my personal experience with labels come into play. From a very young age, it was clear that I was……different. In West Virginia, this got me the label of being a bit ‘touched’, meaning off or crazy or deviant. I was in kindergarten. By the time my family moved to Virginia, my ‘oddness’ and my ‘knowings’ earned me the label of being a witch, so I started on the path to become exactly what was expected of me. The same thing happened when I was ten and became the ‘faggot’ or (more appropriately, in every sense of the word) the ‘queer’. Now, before you think that this was just a bunch of kids calling me names, let me inform you that there were just as many (if not more) adults using these lovely verbal points of reference for me.
I took these terms – these labels – as parts of my identity. I used them to define myself, and while there was truth in these statements, there was limitation and a lot of danger that came with it. I decided that since I was gay, I should learn to do hair, so I completed an apprenticeship in cosmetology. I studied Wicca, which was the only form of ‘witchcraft’ my teen self could find outside of the practices of my family. I literally took their taunts to heart. Their hatefulness defined me. (And we wonder why queer teens are two to six times more likely to attempt suicide.)
Labeling isn’t just something that happens in the formative years of childhood either. About two years ago, I was sexually assaulted. Shortly thereafter, I had to share this information with a few people. Those that I was close to held space for me, and couldn’t have been any more wonderful or supportive. Those that were professionally trained to help me though immediately labeled me: victim. I found that outside of the close circle of about 4 or 5 people that truly held space for me, everyone else reacted in a way that cemented me in the role of the victim. I was pitied, and told how brave I must be. I was told all of the empty things that you tell a victim when you are trying to convince them that it will get better.
I very quickly decided to mostly keep this to myself. I worked through my healing process as best I could. I went through several counselors before I finally gave up because I just couldn’t find someone that could see me as something other than victimized. I slowly worked spiritually to reclaim my power. I eventually shared my experience with someone that I knew and trusted to not try to label me. Unfortunately, she fell into the trap of pushing her viewpoint, paired with/behind her spiritual experience. She didn’t push the label of victim, but it was a label nonetheless.
She insisted that I must be a Survivor. I must rise above. I must prove to the world that I am every bit of the man I was before – otherwise that bastard rapist won! And she was quite animated in her insistence. Here’s the thing though – I am not a survivor. I did not survive my rape.
A part of me died. I am not the man I was before. I mourned. I transformed. I had to let go of EVERYTHING from the life I was leading prior to the assault, and then slowly reclaim the pieces and parts that actually fit me. I am now more myself than I think I ever have been because of it, but I am no survivor.
This is where I finally introduce the difference between naming and labeling. I’ve made this distinction to help me wrap my brain around a few spiritual concepts, as well as provide a tool for empowerment. To me, naming could superficially be seen as how we choose to categorize ourselves. It can be thought of as the self derived, self empowered version of labeling. But, to me, it’s so much more.
In some forms of magic, it’s said to know a spirit’s name gives you power over it. Uttering the names of deities from the Kabbalah or mantras from Vedic and Tantric traditions is a way of invoking their power. In short, names have power. When we name ourselves, we are giving ourselves a kind of power, or maybe more appropriately, affirming a kind of power for ourselves.
To me, naming is something that is seated deeply in the Spirit, down to cockles of the Souls. To claim your naming is to set yourself on your path of truth. To find a name is to find a home. I think of the example of a transgendered person claiming their proper gender.It isn’t just a ‘Huh, yeah, ok’. It runs so much deeper. It’s a powerfully resonant truth that is driving enough to help them shift and change a lifetime of gender based assumptions levied onto them. Naming runs deep. For me, I’ve had to name and re-claim my names several times throughout my life.
Part of the discrepancy I feel from being labeled a survivor comes from my spiritual practice. If I am to be a victim or survivor, then I am to carry the hurt and pain of the attack with me for the rest of my life. I am supposed to be ‘brave’ like that, and to me, that simply isn’t healthy. My spiritual practice is one of forgiveness. I forgive my attacker. Not for him, but because I refuse to carry that bitterness. I forgive myself for the attack. I forgive those that hurt me after the attack, that didn’t respond the way I needed them to. I do this so that I can take this burden off of my shoulders. I do this so that I no longer have to wear these labels. I am no faggot. I am not touched. I am no victim. I am no survivor.
I have journeyed long, and I have found many homes in several names. I reclaim my home in the practices of yoga. I reclaim my name as witch, as healer, as psychic. I claim my name as artist.