Making Sense of This – Labels

Recently, I read Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender  (twice – yup that good!) and since then, I’ve had a lot on my mind. Well, admittedly, I always have a  lot on my mind but reading this text came at an aptly appropriate time. I’ve been grappling with words like “labels”, “identity”, “recognition”, “reality”, “acknowledgement” (different from recognition), “ownership”, and “desire” and this text just happened to put all these influential words in conversation with each other. Butler’s words, and subsequent discourses I’ve had about the text, said a lot of what I needed to hear and also hoped to hear. It’s been exhausting and cyclical to contend with and attend to these complicated thoughts. What follows will be my best attempt at making sense of this all. Most likely, I won’t resolve anything in the next ~1200 words and I’ll probably conclude with more questions than answers. But, that’s the beauty of wondering!


One quote in particular from the text has been ringing in my ears: “life histories are histories of becoming and categories can sometimes act to freeze that process of becoming”.  I might not need to say anything else about this quote. I could just leave it to simmer and settle with each person how they feel it best resonates with them. But, let’s think this through. Initially, (I’ll comment on this quickly because I could write forever about this) I understood this quote in relation to meaning and value associated with understanding how where you’ve been and where you’re going align. Basically, realizing for yourself what you’ve accomplished, experienced, and learned is instrumental to understanding who you are and why you’ve become this individual. Our experiences shape our future decisions and those decisions in turn shape us.

Moving on, in my interpretation of this quote, I regarded the word “categories” as synonymous with “labels”.  Writing about National Coming Out Day was my first stab at I grappling with the difficult but also empowering nature of labels.


Here are a few highlights from that post:

“We question “are our identities valid enough to be recognized on this day?” or “have we struggled enough to deserve to participate in National Coming Out Day?” Here’s where it comes back to labels. We decide the meanings we attribute to these words and then we judge. Why should one person who identifies one way fear so violently speaking their label? Owning their identity?”

“Our labels are both constricting and empowering when we first speak our truths. However, once society gets a hold of them, we’re leaving our words to be interpreted differently with each repetition of who we are.”


As I was reading Butler’s text, I was really caught up in this idea that all too often, our labels aren’t for us. Rather, they’re for others to make sense of or, frankly, cope with something that they perceive is different from the norm.  Lately, I’ve been feeling like labels and categories act to regulate the unfamiliarity that is associated with identifying as anything that is perceived as “other”  since we cannot locate other identities in the confining, typically binary, categories we are accustomed to. This is particularly interesting to me since many of my intersecting identities are both invisible and categorized as minority identities. [side note: I want to be careful here about how I represent and use intersectionality. I just want to note that the word “intersectionality” is often tied up in white feminism. Not a bad thing. I just want to consider and attend to thoughts about who is included and what assumptions accompany the use of that word.] In so many ways the responsibilities and opportunities available to us are aligned with society’s expectations for us based on our identities. This can have so many unintended and detrimental consequences.

And now, the question must be asked. To what extent do we really define our identities for ourselves?

Simply (although it’s not simple) all we really want is to be recognized for who we are. We have a desire to be acknowledged for who we are. Even the possibility of being seen for who we really are (maybe “becoming”) is desirable. What’s hard to grapple with is that for some people whose identities “violate” the norm their desire, and their wants and needs, are effectively put on trial. This trial, of sorts, serves to both normalize what is seemingly not normal and to assist or compel those individuals to ascribe to societal norms that most closely match their identity so they can gain access to services. I’m thinking here about transgender individuals who must submit to a diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder (GID). It’s really a way that others deal with what is unfamiliar to them.

Mental health is great example of this. Often when people seek out services for mental health they report feeling relived even if initially the task of seeking support felt insurmountable. I think this relief comes from knowing that what they’re not alone. The possibility of fitting in even through the act of feeling or being ostracized is comforting. The existence of a community is enticing and soothing. Even just the fact that someone “gets it” or “believes them” can be relieving. The anxieties they anticipated feeling often diminish with the presentation of a diagnosis or the potential for better days (maybe this is a different type of validation?). But, at the same time, I can’t help but think about how accepting, announcing, or even seeking out, labels and consenting to this type of “normalization” (as in, it’s okay to struggle with mental health as long as we can call it something) and this categorization is one way an individual’s desire (also feelings/experiences) are simultaneously tested and validated. It is ironic to me (but really I want to use the word infuriating) that the “reward” or “accomplishment” for successfully proving the reality of your experience by subjecting yourself to someone else’s conclusion that your desire, or even prior to that your struggle, is authentic and persistent enough, is to be granted a diagnosis that qualifies them as disordered.  In a way, and sort of on the other hand, this diagnosis makes the person “intelligible” and grants them access to services and allows them to function in society. Their life is now understood in society’s terms and that makes their life “okay”.  This text exemplified for me how exclusionary practices, ie. a diagnosis (I ALSO MEAN HERE LABELS AND CATEGORIES) can be masked as inclusive and even medically necessary. I am troubled.

And to my point about who defines our identities, all too often it feels like autonomy is taken away from an individual and a person’s life is qualified and determined for them by restrictive practices that are contingent on an individual’s desire being qualified by someone else! Like, we have to convince people in power that certain aspects of our life are REAL. Because, if they aren’t real then how can we “find” ourselves in this world?

Another question I have then is, what about those whose struggle isn’t as easily visible? By this I mean, what about the minority identities we haven’t even TRIED to ignore (or oppress) and “normalize” yet because we haven’t even recognized them (think like hierarchies of minority identities here)? So, for those individuals, the possibility of being recognized at all is the more pressing issue at hand. That’s a different struggle.  If those people can’t see themselves in our world (ie. media, books, music, etc.) and find their community and if their struggle has yet to be recognized how might this persistent inferiority and feeling of being “unreal” or unrecognized make their oppression, their struggle, their voice that much harder to see and hear? And finally (for now) how does our own self-recognition factor into all of this? If we cannot “find” ourselves in the categories currently assembled and a remaking of the categories doesn’t seem possible then our quest for existence, figuratively, must lay dormant until others determine our eligibility for recognition. If others, society, won’t recognize us then how much more impossible might it seem for us to recognize ourselves and feel confident (rather than shameful) about our identities and who we are?

So, back to that quote… if “categories freeze that process of becoming” how can we overcome this debilitating desire (I would even argue necessity) in our lives to realize our true selves and recognize and respect each person for who they completely are?

So many thoughts! So many questions! I’ll keep thinking about it…

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