You can only bury your identity for so long. There will always be people around you who say that labels don’t matter, or that how people perceive you doesn’t matter, and while that certainly sounds sensible and logical, it kind of adds up to bullshit.
We all want to be seen for what and who we are. Even if what we are doesn’t conform to the package we might present with (especially if what we really are doesn’t conform with the package we present with), we still have a desire for people to see the real us.
Pragmatists can argue all they want about how it’s what’s inside that counts, and that our happiness shouldn’t be determined by other people’s acceptance, and that you shouldn’t worry so much about what other people think anyway, but those people can shut the fuck up. It sucks to interact with the world and cringe every time you are mis-named or mis-labeled or mis-gendered. It’s an involuntary reaction. You can’t control your discomfort — even if you try to internalize those feelings, a glaring red buzzer goes off in your brain every time someone gets it wrong.
Think about that time that dude you worked with called you the wrong name and then you were too embarrassed to let him know, and now every time he sees you he still gets it wrong — are you cool with that? Or does it bug you every. single. time?
Even more simple than that — don’t you get irritated when you give the Starbucks barista your name and she writes it wrong on your cup? No seriously — do you brush it off or do you tell everyone about it for the rest of the day?
Being seen — really seen — is a basic human need.
We all need an identity. Of course part of that identity is what we do in life, the kind of person we are (our morals, our spirituality, our driving force), and a variety of other things, but at the core of our identity are our gender and sexuality (or at least terms that define those in some way).
I don’t think that gender and sexuality are necessarily more important than other aspects of our identity, but because they impact how we relate to others in terms of psychosocial interactions, they tend to be the focus of how we define ourselves. It also naturally follows that because these are the first two identities assigned to us at birth, they end up being attributed as having primary importance.
It’s understandable then, why this is so problematic: The attributes that are at the core of our identities — name, gender and sex — are chosen for us, rather than by us.
Obviously it might be a bit impractical to avoid assigning any of these identities until children reach puberty, but it would certainly be an interesting societal shift if at age 13 we could all have a re-naming ceremony where we decided for ourselves what and who we are. Even that doesn’t satisfy me completely — I think identity can be fluid. I think maybe it should be fluid. In the space of an eighty-year lifetime, why should we be expected to be static beings? Why must we be content to stay in our boxes?
With each label we are assigned as babies, there comes a set of expectations. This means that we are moulded by those expectations, rather than left to grow into who we really are. Even something as simple as the choice of a name can change us because of how those around us make both conscious and subconscious assumptions associated with our moniker. People (think they) know the difference between a Brad and a Brody and a Matt, or a Judith and a Jenny and a Muffy.
So even if labels shouldn’t matter, the reality is that we’ve already been labeled — wanting to re-label ourselves so that people get it right is a pretty natural reaction to what is already an unnatural situation.
For some, making changes coincides with physical transitioning which helps their bodies match the label that they identify with. For others, making changes is not so simple. Not everyone can (or wants to) fit into a normative box. Just because someone is male or female doesn’t mean they will fit into a straight-edged box of how society defines what is male or female. In many cases, a person isn’t going to fit into either binary label. And really, what is the point of setting that as a goal anyway? If we are going to define ourselves, why feel constricted by how society defines those labels?
I suppose the most obvious answer to that question is that labels only work if the person you’re communicating with knows what they mean. That’s certainly been the criticism that people have levelled against they/xe pronouns. I think that’s a lazy excuse. Every day we apply and use unique labels for the people we meet — their names. We don’t say, “I’m sorry, it’s too complicated to call you Dave. I’m going to call you Steve, just like I use for all my friends. Calling you your own name is too much work to remember.” We learn our friends’ names, and when we meet someone new, we don’t assume that their name is Steve — we ask — and then use the right name from then on (unless we’re complete jerks).
The fact that some people are more complicated in the sense that they don’t fit established labels only makes them unique. But we’re all unique. We all possess unique characteristics that make up our character and identity, and people remember those unique characteristics. You know that Bob is your friend who loves show tunes, and that Becka is your friend who loves grapes but only the seedless kind.
When we ask the people around us to use the correct labels or names to identify us, we’re asking for no more than what we all do already for the people we care about: For them to know us and see us for who we really are. By asking, we’re just pointing out that yes, this is a thing that really matters to me. It’s not asking for special treatment — it’s something you should already be doing for someone you care about. It’s just pointing you in the right direction.
When you refuse or ignore your friend’s request to acknowledge their real self, it’s a pretty fundamental rejection. You’re saying, “you’re not worth it.” It’s like telling your friend that you’re allergic to peanuts and they keep offering you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every time you come over. Quite frankly, if you do that to me, I’m going to decide very quickly that we’re not friends. That’s not me being ‘picky’ — that’s you being a crappy friend.
And who needs crappy friends?