Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Labels: Which to wear to Christmas?

I came out as queer in 2009. The reason this subject has been on my mind lately has everything to do with the use of labels, my family, and the holidays.

For several years I’ve applied several labels to myself without problem. In 2005 I took on the label of liberal. In 2007 I took on the label of feminist. These labels I wore with pride, and they seemed to fit me comfortably. When I came out as queer, however, the taking of that label felt different to me. It was an appropriate label, but it just didn’t feel the same.

It was when I started coming out to people that I decided against the term bisexual and went with queer instead. However, when getting to know new people, I didn’t always use the term queer. It wasn’t that I felt ashamed of my sexuality, but openly applying the label with new people was a challenge for me, one that I didn’t seem to face when discussing the topic with people I had known before and had then come out to. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that it has something to do with the fact that the nature of the labels is different.

When I say that I’m a feminist, people may make assumptions about my attitude and my sexuality, but they also make assumptions about my ideas and my politics. When I say that I’m queer, people only have my sexuality to make assumptions about, and that hits a lot closer to home and is a lot more personal than when people have other things to assume. I’ve made a lot of progress in being comfortable with the label queer, and I’m wearing it a lot more freely than I did at first. But being at home with my family for winter break makes me feel like hiding again.

My sister is the only person in my family that I’ve deliberately come out to. I never did come out to my parents directly. They know because they found out who I’m dating. Since my sister and I have been home from college, I’ve talked to her about a plan I had come up with, one that I wouldn’t actually undertake. I wanted to come out to the rest of my mother’s family on Christmas Eve, before dinner, after the prayer, and after someone, as always, asks, “Any announcements?” I would tell my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins something catchy like, “I’m here, and I’m queer!”

When I mentioned that idea, my sister cautioned me. She said that maybe queer wasn’t the best word choice. She said that some of my relatives may not understand what queer meant and that they might think that I only liked women. Although I disagreed with the tone of the statement which suggested that having people assume I was strictly attracted to women was somehow worse than liking men, women, and everyone in between, my sister did have a valid point.

There was an incident a few years ago in which some family members started talking about one of my second cousins. He is the only of three brothers who hasn’t gotten married and had children. He still doesn’t even have a girlfriend. My family discussed how, perhaps, he was gay. Several family members seemed unwilling to even consider the idea, appearing rather put off by the thought. At the time, the incident made me uncomfortable. Remembering it now makes me hesitant, especially considering that my mother’s family is rather religious, although not overbearing about their beliefs.

As the holidays approach, all I can think about is how my mother’s family is aware of some of the labels I wear, but not all of them. It doesn’t seem fair. The only reason I choose to wear labels is so that people who know me can have a better understanding of who I am. Labels are identifiers and are not static. Labels should evolve. New ones should pop up and old, inaccurate ones should fade out when a person changes. Can my family truly know who I am if they aren’t aware of a label that is important to me? Is it fair of me to not tell them something that might make them uncomfortable, even if I want to be open? Thinking about this, I need to decide which ones I’ll be wearing to celebrate the holidays this year with my family.


Stef said...

Sorry for the long comment. :)

Is it really important that everyone know? I mean, yeah it's an important part of who you are, but there are lots of private things people do that are important parts of who you are (things like fetishes come to mind), but do you tell everyone about them? For example: Furries, Spankos, etc, or even cutting or other methods of self-mutilation...

Also, I feel your cousin's pain. My family thinks that the most important thing in life is being married and having children - two things that I don't know if I necessarily want. I am nearly 24, and have yet to be in a serious relationship (fifth grade courtship excluded) and on Thanksgiving it was brought up. One of my uncles and I had this convo:
U - Do you have a boyfriend?
Me - No.
U - Do you have a girlfriend?
Me - No.
U - Good. I was starting to worry.

I don't consider myself bisexual or a lesbian, but the reaction still doesn't sit comfortably with me.

Amelia said...

Long comment appreciated. :)

For me personally, it is important that at least my family knows. I just have not yet worked up the courage to be open with them about my sexuality.

One reason it is important to me for them to know is that there have been times when family members have made comments that assumed that I am heterosexual. These comments made me uncomfortable not only because their assumptions about me were false, but because if I can help it, it would be nice to help my family realize that heteronormativity isn't the best path to take in discussions (as hard as that may be for them to process).

Also, my attractions, although mostly kept within the realm of my private thoughts/desires, are not strictly private in my mind. Anyone who is ever around me knows of my attraction to Andrea Gibson, just as, say, a hetero woman might casually bring up her attraction to someone like Brad Pitt around friends/family. Keeping my sexuality secret would mean not being able to be open about things like that in certain situations involving certain members of my family. Only because I am not heterosexual. And that, to me, does not seem fair.

I am sorry about that conversation you had with your uncle. Marriage and having children are private matters, and the idea of either or both may not suit everyone (and no one should have to explain why they are/are not getting married or having children). It really is annoying when people try to force their own ideas about the topics onto others.

Kaitlyn said...

"Can my family truly know who I am if they aren’t aware of a label that is important to me?"

This is a really important question you're asking, and in response I would ask if the label itself is really the key issue. You carry that label, "queer," because of who you love and are attracted to, right?
What if instead of announcing that you have taken on this word, you share with your family the new person you have in your life, and why that person is so important to you? Talk about their gender...or don't.
Let them know about the big stuff: love. new experiences. beauty. Labels will emerge...and they will fall away, like you said. Good luck. I hope your family can see that the labels you wear are important yet impermanent, while the impressions that people leave when they touch are lives are as living and solid as stone.

[I ID as queer too; My parents call me a lesbian, but I like to leave myself more open:)

Saranga said...

Congratulations on coming out!
I used to use the term bisexual, then on my blog I have recently changed it to queer, because my understanding on that word, at least in the circles I move in on the internet, allies with other people's understanding.
If I used the term queer to rl people they wouldn't have a clue what I meant, so I use bi, if I have to use anything. Altho mostly I just mention that I think some woman is hot.
I hope your winter celebrations turn out well for you.

Amelia said...

@Kaitlyn: Thanks for the comment. I have considered just introducing the new person in my life to my family, but in that situation, it would take some explanation to get my family to understand how that person is different from other people I have dated in the past.

I like your suggestion of talking with my family about other "big" things in my life and letting labels emerge, but I think the problem for me is feeling as if I can do just that. I think it would be difficult. So maybe the problem is not just the label, but being able to be honest and open with my family. Maybe the focus on the label is just one way of identifying how I feel that I cannot always be open with them. Hmm. This will take some more thought on my part.

@Saranga: I think that if I wasn't attending the college that I am, I would still only use the term bi for myself, although I would likely not use any term, just to avoid the hassle.

Devin! said...

(Hi Amelia it's Devin from the C-Store and German class at Knox! Haha hi :D)

"Labels are identifiers and are not static. Labels should evolve. New ones should pop up and old, inaccurate ones should fade out when a person changes."

This part is the reason why I have trouble sharing labels with other people. I feel like once I tell someone one thing, they will have a hard time understanding that it can change. Regarding sexuality, my mother has a hard time understanding the fluidity of it--like I was talking to her about how I thought some boys were cute a couple weeks ago or something silly like that, and her first reaction was something like "oh does this mean you're going to stop liking girls?" The only label I've ever told her is bisexual (because getting her to understand queer/pansexual and how there's a lot more to sex and gender than just male and female would be a difficult task) but she has a hard time even getting that, because everytime I talk to her about a girl she jumps to assume it means I'm a lesbian and everytime I talk to her about a boy she hopes I'll be straight. (She has a weird acceptance/understanding about my sexuality--she is fine with the fact that I like girls and boys but wishes I'll settle down with a nice boy anyway.)

All this rambling is to say that LABELS ARE TRICKY and I understand the difficulty of getting family to understand your labels and what they mean. I still have trouble being open with some of my friends at Knox (most of them are straight), which I really need to work on too...