Saturday, January 23, 2016

On the Uses and Limitations of Labels

"The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath." [Mark 2:22]

A few things have me thinking about labels. Some of it comes from having just read Drawing the Line by Carrol Clarkson, wherein language and how it is used gets discussed quite a lot.

A lot more comes from this being an election year in the USA.

I recall when I first starting coming out as a gay man. Obviously "gay" was a word I knew, but never wanted to apply to myself. When I my faith and sexuality finally met on friendly terms, I had to start to think about what that word meant as applied to me. I had some notion of what it meant to other people (and I learned more as I came out more!), but how did it apply to me? I decided, more or less, that it simply meant that I was physically, emotionally, sexually attracted to other men. Beyond that, I could claim possession of some of the stereotypical attributes (disco, Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell, modern dance) while deciding that I was not going to fit into other stereotypes (drag, Doris Day, Liza Minnelli, interior decorating). I also learned that there were sub-subculture labels that I didn't know before that fit me (bear), and then I had to decide how that label settled on me.

As a young man, I wore the label "conservative" very comfortably. I knew I was a Christian and the conservatives were the ones who most easily and comfortably wore that religious label, so I went with it. Throughout college and into seminary, I also found myself not quite going all the way with that label. I kept trying, but then ended up hanging out with the liberal kids. In the end, I found myself saying things like, "all my liberal friends think I'm too conservative and all my conservative friends think I'm too liberal." (This may still be happening today, come to think of it.)

Then, as I came out, came to understand sexuality slightly (who ever fully understands it?) better, I began to feel my views on all sorts of things shift. This shifting continued happening until one day, at a stoplight on Koenig Lane in Austin (I think the Guadalupe intersection---yes, this is one of those kinds of memories), I sort of startled myself and said, "Oh my goodness, I'm a liberal!" Twenty years later, I still wrestle with what that actually means.

As you might sense, I find myself explaining my terms a lot. When I say I'm a "German Lutheran farm boy," I find those things all bring up images with which I may or may not identify. When I say I'm a "middle aged, gay, performer and writer," middle aged is easiest to understand and it still has some argument attached to it (but, seriously, I'm sorry---I'm not going to live past 100, maybe not even very close to it, so I'm safely middle aged and, equally sorry, so are a lot of you wanting to argue the point).

As this political year begins to heat up, it's interesting for me to watch people on the right argue about whether a candidate is a "true conservative" and people on the left wring hands over what to do with the word "socialism."

And somewhere in all this musing about labels, the words of Jesus, quoted at the top of this post, came to mind. Obviously, it's not a direct application, but let me see if I can help you across my synapse jump.

Some years ago, a friend (who shall remain nameless) really latched onto being a liberal. The title became such that it felt to me like she was reading any and everything labeled "liberal" so she would know how to be the liberalest. I began to make jokes like, "if someone would label televised puppy executions as liberal, she'd be all for it."

I see this sort of thing happen with other labels. I've seen people come out as gay and then try to learn how to "be gay," like studying how to play a role in a theater production. There are ways that the dominant culture still, after 50 years of "women's lib" and sexual revolution, tries to teach us how to be men or women---"real men do this, real women do that."

And here's the thing. All these labels are useful. They help us communicate who we are, some of the ways that we move in the world.

On the other hand, while the labels are there to help us define ourselves, the definitions are not there to shape us. I mean, of course the labels shape us to some extent. Saying "I'm a Christian" or "I'm gay" has an accumulative effect on me and it shapes me. But the moment that I start start looking for all the ways that I can fulfill those labels, I can begin to lose myself, too. Is there a gay "orthodoxy" that says I must make such and such choices, must present in this or that way? Yes, there is. Can I become so doctrinaire as a Christian that I lose sight of loving my neighbor and start denying the Reign of God at hand? Absolutely.

The labels, like the Sabbath---or even more broadly, the Law---are there to help us. They are helpful to us. But we are not there to help the labels. They can only define us so far. To serve the labels in that way is to make them idols, molding ourselves to their inanimate dictates.

I believe we are freer than that. I believe we have to be freer than that.

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