Penny's Story

A cute little drummer living her dream.

My, How We Categorize Each Other

I’ve never cared much about the groups to which people belong. I’m human, and I do tend to lump people together in categories, especially people I don’t know, because it just sort of helps to keep track sometimes of populations of people that far outnumber my ability to have an accurate or detailed idea of everyone. These lumps are fuzzy and coarse, and I’m not remotely attached to them (so, if I label someone as “Brown-eyed” and later find out that they actually have hazel eyes that are only brown sometimes, I’ll have no problem letting go of my erroneous classification and I’ll hope that they weren’t offended by my mistake – similarly, I try not to be frustrated when someone mislabels me, because I know how easy it is to do). I hate labels and classifications, and yet I use them all the time just to keep track of folks. I have some friends who love Broadway Musicals; if I were to organize a trip to see “Evita” it would be helpful to know who I should ask. But then maybe a friend who usually hates musicals just happens to love “Evita” for some reason. So the distinctions are useful, but they can also be a trap if they’re held too rigidly.

I try to never use these lumps as ways of segregating folks. I have a hard time with spaces that are exclusive. My church is “Radically Welcoming,” the generally queer open-mic that I attend is certainly inclusive, when I open my house to my friends it is open to all of my friends. I become overwhelmed at rallies and sporting events because the “hive mind” feels oppressive to me (I’m very empathic, and I feel the weight of so many people thinking the same thing as suffocating – I find it physically uncomfortable).

I don’t understand why we don’t celebrate our differences. Labels are fine for groups of people, but they’re really too coarse to do a good job of describing individuals. Groups created around labels can be great, but I don’t understand why they need to be exclusive. I posted pretty regularly on a message board a few years ago, and the rule was that content could be moderated, but people would not be (so, anyone could post, they just had to stay on topic). I tend to live my life much that way, finding open assemblages of folks who come together as much out of some random commonality as any of their labels.

I simply have never understood why it is necessary for folks to work so hard at othering other folks. People are “gay” or “Republican” or “Communist” or “hippie” or “geek” or “hipster” or “straight” or “trans” or “Catholic” or “foreign” or “Irish” or whatever. And the labels aren’t really that problematic, honestly no matter what they are. So much of the trouble starts when people use the labels to be a form of “like me” vs. “not like me” which all too quickly turns to “like me (=good)” vs. “not like me (=bad).” I’ve mentioned before how I simply have never understood the prevalence of “us vs. them” thinking that so many people engage in. I watched liberals call George W. Bush “Hitler.” Now I’m watching conservatives call Barack Obama “Hitler.” It’s pretty depressing, and from my perspective I just can’t understand. I believe that people are generally good, and want what’s best. Good people can disagree. Why do disagreements turn into personal ad hominems so easily and so often? I get uncomfortable when my friends start bad-mouthing groups of people, it doesn’t matter which group is being slammed. My Darling Boyfriend says this is deep-seated and has to do with our tribal roots, but I hope and pray that we can grow beyond it and start to see all other people as connected to us.

I’m expected to think a certain way because of the groups I belong to – the labels I wear, and it’s as frustrating when friends do it as it is when people who dislike me do it. It might explain why my favorite label is, shockingly enough, “Penny.” When it comes down to it, the labels I wear, and the rules I break and follow, all combine to make me a unique whole. Shoving people into lumps can be useful sometimes, but everyone is unique, and I work hard to always remember that.

I’ve been watching several things happen online lately that have just made me so sad…

I’ve been reading and expanding some of my ideas on the Chartreuse Flamethrower. I’ve had trouble processing some of the ideas expressed there, but I think it’s important, most notably because I’m having trouble understanding. And I’m most interested in understanding folks different from me – I already understand me.

I read about one way of looking at being trans written by Dyssonance, and  I found myself disagreeing strongly with her thoughts. I have found the concept that my SRS was a “cure” to be just about the perfect way to express what was going on both internally and externally. But I’m not threatened that the idea that transition or surgery is a cure doesn’t work for everyone. For me, it was pretty clearly a physical birth defect. I get that different people have different experiences, and again, I think that’s really cool. Other folks’ experiences do not invalidate my own – how could they?

I read about the immigration law recently passed in Arizona, and the many people boycotting businesses in the state, and how that’s effecting trans folk in the state.

I read about ENDA, and how trans folk (and really anyone who transgresses gender stereotypes) may get stripped from the bill once again.

I read about how WPATH is encouraging the depathologization of trans folk in the new DSM, and how an intersex group feels that can lead to their further pathologization.  And I wish there was a way to make it possible for folks who want or need medical intervention to get it while not stigmatizing everyone who is either trans or intersex.

And I read Zoe Brain, whom I continue to think is the bees knees, talk about the incidence of intersex, and say this: “I just see that while there are two distinct sexes, there’s an area between, neurologically and anatomically, where things are not so straightforward. Someone can be neurologically usual, but otherwise anatomically unusual, or the reverse.” And I just think that makes so much sense, but then I wonder if that would make others feel squeamish (with the word “usual” being so close to “normal” and all).

I just can’t understand why defining oneself is so often a leaping off point for saying how others definition of themselves is either wrong or evil. I love the diversity of expression that I see in the world around me. And I’m always surprised by the people whom I end up loving and disliking. I’ve met Swedes and drummers and trans folk and Christians and liberals and conservatives and a million other people from a million other labels and descriptions, and whether I like or dislike them (and vice-versa) seems much more often to be about who we each are as people – not about their or my labels.

This post has turned into my usual quoting of Rodney King, Bilbo Baggins, and Bill & Ted, respectively: “Can’t we all just get along” … “I simply do not understand war” … “Be excellent to each other; party on dudes…”

But there it is – can’t we just be gentle with each other?

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6 Comments»

  Corrvin wrote @

I think the right way to live with labels is to move fluidly into them and out of them and around them. It’s good to be each thing that you are sometimes, but not all the time.

For instance, I’m a Christian at church and, in some very basic ways, I’m a Christian wherever I go. But if I stop to help someone on the street, I’m not a Christian to them unless (until) they ask me about it or see the cross around my neck. It works for me to be open about it, but not bring it up all the time (some people are uncomfortable with it). If I had to deal with everyone I knew keeping “Corry the Christian” in the forefront of their minds the entire time they were dealing with me, I’d probably go nuts and say “can’t I just be an ordinary person like everyone else!” at some point.

I think what wears some people out is that their labels are so loud that everyone else makes them wear those labels all the time. Wanting to take off the label and be other parts of yourself for a bit isn’t being untrue to who you really are, it’s just wanting to balance your life between all the parts of your identity.

  pickypenelope wrote @

Thank you for your brilliant as usual insight Corry. I think this is a very big part of it. We’re all giant assemblages of stuff, when any one thing gets out of whack it’s just bad all the way around.

  annierose55 wrote @

I like this blog….I think will hang out here for a while. Hmmmmmm?

  pickypenelope wrote @

Welcome.

  DDA wrote @

You wrote, “I simply have never understood why it is necessary for folks to work so hard at othering other folks.”

Categorization and deciding if the things in a category are good or bad is a basic human skill; it applies to everything from finding food (“Things that look like this you can eat; things that look like that will kill you”) to not becoming food (“Things that look like this you can catch; things that look like that can catch you”).

Labels can be descriptive or prescriptive and mixing the two can cause problems; it is one thing to say you are a drummer (descriptive) and quite another to say that since you’re a drummer, you must have all these other qualities (prescriptive). At most, it becomes more likely that you will have qualities some/most drummers have.

What I’ve found is that a lot of people go from having a label to being that label; they begin to define their identity through the label. The label does from an adjective to a noun; they aren’t a gay person, they’re gay. Since their identity is bound up in the label now, they will defend it at all costs and that usually means deciding who is and who isn’t also that label as well as attacking those who don’t treat the label “properly.”

  pickypenelope wrote @

I would argue that no one chooses to turn their label into a noun, the people doing the classifying do. I’ve been working really hard against the tide when it comes to people being referred to as “transgenders.” I think it’s understandable to be defensive about how a label is treated when people will see you as that only. If you really think gay folks are in positions of power when it comes to language I respectfully disagree.


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