Beyond Labels

In my language arts classroom, I teach my kids to label words by their parts of speech—noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, etc—and once in a great while, a student from the realms of the bored senseless who’s not yet learned that her/his value in a classroom is relative to The Test (you know, the mandated ones that politicians beholden to giant publishers use to noose public schools to an end of privatized profits) will ask, “Why do we need to know this?” Not wanting to perpetuate the myth of the great power of The Test, I proclaim a higher purpose: “Once we can name these parts of speech, we can talk about how they work to create meaning in a text.” Translation: I can tell you how too many adjectives and adverbs can muck up a piece and how what you really need is more nouns and active verbs. And I can tell my students how to think about these nouns and verbs like it is beyond dispute in the literary world… like it is something more than a subjective point of view relative to the current culture of writing. It isn’t.

We like labels. They give us authority and control, and to those very ends, they diminish the essence of the thing or the person that is labeled; reduce anything really, and it’s much easier to control. And I learned quickly that the lesbian community falls vulnerable to its own set of gendered labels, namely butch and femme.

When I finally decided to embrace my sexuality as something more than an academic study with a side note of personal relevance, I signed up on For this introvert, frequenting bars, even those with a higher statistical average of lesbian regulars wasn’t much of an option, and although I looked at various lesbian meet-up groups, many of them seemed to require some sort of athletic skill like volleyball or softball. I asked a friend of mine if she thought I could learn a sport well enough to pass as an athlete, and her response was to roll her eyes and chuck a set of keys at me, fully expecting me to drop them. On my catch, she lifted an eyebrow in surprise and said, “You might have a little eye-hand coordination to work with.” Still, it didn’t seem plausible to her or to me that putting on a mitt for the first time at age 49 would garner me much credibility as an athlete no matter how hard I tried. And really, it just isn’t me. So… to Match I would go.

I wrote my resume` (also called a profile) and began looking at others, and it wasn’t long before I began running into lines like “I prefer women who are a little butchy,” or “I like femmes.” When one of the latter wrote me a note, I became fearful that I’d been assigned. To me, it seemed a little like calling the humane society and requesting a poodle or a boxer. Then I couldn’t help but wonder if there were other characterizations that accompanied those labels—conscious or subconscious assumptions of submissive and self abnegating, or protective and take-charge? If it’s truly just about appearance, why not say, “I dig strappy sandals with skinny heels and silver bangles,” or, “I think a long black tie on a crisp white shirt is pretty sexy.” Or even if there is some characterization other than appearance, why not say, “I’m turned on by a tender hard-ass” (I am :)). If we want to get beyond the politic of labels, why bother with them at all?

One of my favorite blogs is Raising My Rainbow. With tenderness, conviction, insight, and a measure of sass, a mother writes about her experiences and reflections raising her gender nonconforming son, C.J. She assumes an intelligent community of readers, explaining with a clarity of personal knowledge the specific meanings and implications for the gender nonconforming and so invites some pretty insightful comments. On one of her posts about her son’s playdate with a gender nonconforming friend who’d called asking C.J. to bring his “girly stuff” to play, yourlesbianfriend had this to say:

I involuntarily shudder a little at the term “girly stuff,” because in an ideal world, I would reject gender assignment to objects entirely. One has to wonder if C.J. and C.K. love fluffy dresses and pink studded clip on earrings because that’s simply what they love, or if they feel like girls and think that’s what girls are supposed to love.

And she questions use of the term gender nonconformity as it potentially reinforces the concept of gender conformity. Such great insights, yet how do we begin to get beyond the gazillion labels thrown at us in a day?


My son was four when he asked to take his Princess Barbie to his junior kindergarten class for show-and-tell.  Nervous, as always, I asked, “What about your rhino Beanie Baby, or Slither?  You play with those, too.”


“Or maybe your favorite book, Who’s the Beast?  I bet your friends would love that one.”

“I want to take Barbie.”

I must have tried two or three other favorites—pictures, hats, puzzles—before my son said from his fastened position in the back seat of the car, “Mommy, I don’t care if they laugh.”

At four, my son understood conformity and something of the consequence of nonconformity without my explaining it. He knew girly without the word ever escaping my lips. He knew it in my hesitations, in the functions and associations of his classrooms, he knew it in story, and television, and theater, and a very progressive church.

He knew the expectations.

So, again, what do we do? How do we move against the cultural impulse to size people up and control perception in order to win the competitive game? A game that creates the need for the losing others to rise up with reversed labels that function by some necessity to derail the myths of the perceived order.

I cannot begin to imagine what must be an incredibly complicated answer to that question. But begin I must, so in this new year, I’ll start with this possibility:

What if I change the questions I ask to those that cannot be answered with a label? Going back to that analogy of my classroom… What if when I walk into my classroom on Tuesday morning, I don’t ask students to name the parts of speech but instead ask them to look at the words on the page—to make of those words neighbors and friends and ask how they all work together to color the text with meaning and interest. What if I ask my students how the relationships of those wordly neighbors and friends deepen and brighten the story?

And what if I asked the same label-free questions for the relationships that deepen and brighten my story? What would I learn? That you like the sleek look of a black tie on a crisp white shirt, or silver bangles that frame a face with movement and light? Or maybe that you prefer the simple, unadorned companionship of a tender hard-ass. I might learn something of your humanity—what is rich and real to you, beyond a label… and my life, my story would be richer for it.

“My Son’s Playdates Include Manicures and Formal Dresses” Raising My Rainbow, WordPress, 9 August 2012. Web.



Filed under feminist, gender, institutions, lesbian, out late, memoir, relationships, society

7 responses to “Beyond Labels

  1. Ohh wonderful and thought provoking and…I’m pressing ‘follow’.

    • Thanks so much for reading. Being relatively new to the lesbian community, it’s a little scary stepping into spaces of butch/femme. From the little research I did, I suspect there may be some strong feelings. But I wanted to be honest and hoped if someone had thoughts or information I hadn’t considered, they would share.

  2. rmiles

    Enjoyed reading your post and I would think you would get more responses from your online profile if you used phrases such as those you mentioned rather than the run-of-the-mill terms. It would tell me, and possible others, that you think outside of the box and I like that. As for wanting to appear more “sporty”. . .I had to chuckle because that’s what my partner says she wants to be so she dresses the part and she likes to attend live sporting events for the people watching, both making her seem more sporty than she really is. Cheers.

    • Now I’m the one chuckling. The things we do… 🙂
      Thanks so much for reading and for your suggestion. Would you mind telling me more? By “on-line profile” do you mean my “About” page? Where do you think I could change the phrasing?

      • rmiles

        I meant your online profile on Match. I’m assuming the whole point of going to an online dating site is to get as many responses as possible and then go from there, i.e. emailing, talking, dating, etc. You wrote in your article above you felt like you were being “assigned” by the labels used on the site and made a suggestion that went beyond labeling or appearance, “I’m turned on by a tender hard-ass.” Now, I’m not suggesting that you use that one necessarily . . . it’s totally up to you. All I’m saying is that if I were to peruse a site such as that, I would be more likely to check out a profile that stood out from the norm, “Butch seeking femme” is so boring. Why be hum-drum normal when you have the ability to think outside of the box and be unique?
        Hope that helps you in your adventure. Good luck and have some fun with the whole thing!

      • Ahh… the Match profile. I totally misunderstood. Actually, my reference to Match, although true, was simply to make the point about how labels are a little reductive. And the woman that I met on Match and fell in love with about a year and a half ago said things like I kiss my dog on the lips; I’m mostly vegetarian but can’t resist a good burger once in a while (and don’t forget the sweet potato fries); I love snakes; and I cried when Steve Irwin died. I’m lucky I found her first. 🙂 But if I ever do Match again, maybe I’ll throw in the tender hard-ass line. 🙂 Thanks again for reading.

      • rmiles

        Ah, I see, I didn’t realize you were talking about the past. . . oh well, all’s good. Peace.

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