Labels and Why They Matter

The first is obvious: every identity comes with labels, so understanding identities requires first that you have some idea about how to apply them…. the second thing identities share: they matter to people. – Kwame Anthony Appiah

I have a trans woman friend who has helped me realize the complexity of identity.

At first, I thought of identity as a personal or psychological construct. By construct, I mean “an idea or theory containing various conceptual elements, typically one considered to be subjective and not based on empirical evidence” (OED).

But this is too simple. Personal identity is constructed within a context. The context is important for shaping, defining, and confining personal identity.

So identity is an interdependent interaction of social roles and ideas with our own personal and psychological construct.

Labels are part of the defining and confining element.

Why Gender Identity Matters

In sum, identities come, first, with labels and ideas why and to whom they should be applied. second, your identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave; and, third, it affects the way other people treat you. Finally, all these dimensions of identity are contestable, always up for dispute: who’s in, what they’re like, how they should behave and be treated. – Kwame Anthony Appiah

Notice that “your identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave.” Think of the times we are told, “Little girls don’t act that way.” Or “big boys don’t cry.”

Now ask the question nobody is supposed to ask, “Says who?” Who says boys can’t try and girls can’t play with trucks? Well, who decreed it?

The patriarchy sold it to society, and now it is a social construct. By patriarchy, I mean “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it” (OED).

Yes, patriarchy is a real thing. And yes, patriarchy is bad. “For centuries, writes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group.” Do I really have to tell you that this is wrong? That is why I am a feminist.

Identity also “affects the way other people treat you.” I was happy that 2021 saw Kamala Harris sworn in as the 49th vice president of the United States. It took so long because, until recently, women were not considered capable of leading. But the role of women is slowly changing.

But the LGBTQ+ people are still struggling to improve “the way other people treat” them. And of these people, the trans community is the least accepted.

“This ongoing and unslowing epidemic of violence committed against transgender and gender non-conforming people continues to climb and claim the lives of too many each year in the United States and across the globe” (GLAAD).

Transgender

Gender is a social construct that assigns people roles, tasks, responsibilities, and expected ways of being in the world. – Kathryn Gonzales and Karen Rayne

Biological sex is not the same thing as gender identity. This is the hardest thing for some people to understand.

Biological sex is not something you choose. You are born with male or female genitalia. Some are born with both.

Gender identity is one’s own internal sense of who they are. They know this to be true regardless of what others say. This is also something they do not choose. They are born that way.

Gender identity is not just a masculine and feminine thing. It is more complicated. I will have to deal with nonbinary next time.

Now, in a small minority of people, their biological sex and their gender identity do not match. These people are known as transgender.

Helpful tip: Do not use transsexual, that is offensive (Planned Parenthood).

Nonbinary

Nonbinary: A gender identification outside of the two-gender, binary system that many cultures recognize. – Kathryn Gonzales and Karen Rayne

Dictionary.com defines nonbinary as, “noting or relating to a gender identity that does not fit into the binary male/female division.”

From a very young age, I was aware that I did not fit in. I struggled with my identity.

My biological sex is male. And my sexual attraction has always been towards females. And my gender expression, the way I want to be perceived in the world, is male. So I am a straight white male, right?

From the moment I saw the yin yang symbol, I identified with it. I have a tattoo of it on my arm. The yin (black) refers to the feminine, and the yang (white) refers to the masculine.

I have occasionally explained that I am a man in touch with his feminine side. I have certain characteristics that are feminine. I have known this for years.

It was only by reading Kathryn Gonzales and Karen Rayne’s book that I realized that I am nonbinary. I am the yin and yang.

I have it easy. I “pass” as a cisgender man. My sex is male, my orientation female, and my expression masculine, though lately I have been tending towards androgynous. My preference of pronouns are they/them, but I am fine with he/him and she/her. Until I first post this on February 4, 2021, only my wife, son, and my friend Jessica knew.

I could have hidden it forever. I am only coming out to support people like Jessica who have it much harder. Until we walk in another person’s shoes, we really have no idea what they go through.

Buddhism Explains Nonbinary

According to Buddhism, we are reborn again and again (SN 15.1, MN 120). Some of our previous births or biological sex were opposite from our current sex. That means we could feel like we are in the wrong body. This gives us a possible cause for gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is “A concept designated in the DSM-5 as clinically significant distress or impairment related to a strong desire to be of another gender, which may include desire to change primary and/or secondary sex characteristics. Not all transgender or gender diverse people experience dysphoria.”

Since we have all been biologically men and women, it seems rather likely that sometimes our gender, the way we feel, may be a mixture of both. This is how I feel. I have both male and female characteristics. I am neither 100% male or 100% female. It is likely that some of these are karmically linked to my previous lives.

Straight for Equality

But to us, identifying as an ally isn’t a label—it is a term of empowerment. It is a state of being, an explanation of who someone is, and where their values lie. – PFLAG National

I am straight, that is, heterosexual. But I am also an ally to those who are not like me. Let me explain what being an ally means. I will be using some material from the booklet “Guide to Being a Straight Ally.”

“Allies want to learn.” I know that thinking about gender can be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be. It is important to understand those who are not like you. It is called loving one another.

“Allies address their barriers.” You may have a roadblock to being openly and actively supportive of LGBTQ+ people. Facing it might teach you a little about yourself.

“Allies are people who know that support comes in many forms.” You can show support “through the language we use, conversations we choose to have, and signals that we send.”

At work, I wear a badge that identifies me as an ally. I am a Buddhist partly because it is a religion that supports LGBTQ+ rights.

“Allies are diverse.” There’s no one way to be an ally. Do what you can to support LGBTQ+ rights. Stand up for what’s right. Do the right thing.

Get the Free eBook: Guide to Being a Straight Ally. https://pflag.org/publication/guidetobeingastraightally

References

  • American Psychiatric Association. “What Is Gender Dysphoria?” Physician Review by Jack Turban. November 2020. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gender-dysphoria/what-is-gender-dysphoria
  • Appiah , Kwame Anthony. The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018.
  • Gonzales, Kathryn and Karen Rayne. Trans+: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You. Washington DC: Magination Press, 2019.
  • Planned Parenthood. “Transgender Identity Terms and Labels.” Accessed April 4, 2022. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/gender-identity/transgender/transgender-identity-terms-and-labels