Today’s “think piece” is not revolutionary, but it’s one I have a lot of opinions about. I explain in the post why I felt I wanted to add my own words to this already much-discussed topic, but I’d like to start with a note that I do briefly mention depression and having suicidal thoughts, so if you need to take a pass on this one please do. It also contains a little of my characteristic ridiculousness though.
Edit, July 2018: This is one of the hardest posts to make a decision about putting up again, because the comments on the original made some very important points that I had always meant to go back and address. Thus I’d like to say that this piece doesn’t capture all of the nuances of this issue, and there is a lot of other conflicts surrounding labels.
Hands up, folks, if you’ve heard the words “Labels are for clothes.” Ok, keep your hands up if you agree with that statement. If you’ve got your hand up, literally or metaphorically, I’m hopefully about to make you think, and more likely piss you off. (If you’ve got your hand up literally, thank you for entering into the spirit of this post.)
Firstly, let’s get this straight. You don’t mean ‘labels are just for clothes,’ do you? Because if you meant that, you would be against the small sticky labels on Amazon parcels which allow them to get to your house. You’d be against the paper wrapping around tins of soup that tells you what the fucking soup is. You’d be against the glittery tags under the Christmas tree, telling you which presents are for you.
So, what you mean, if you say labels are for clothes, is that you don’t like it when people come out and tell you that they’re gay, asexual, trans, bipolar, or schizophrenic.
People have written about this far more eloquently than I ever could. However, despite all those wonderful, powerful, coherent words, the message clearly isn’t getting across. How do I know that? Well, when I was in a clothes shop last week, I saw this:
Sometimes, it is the loudness of the words that gets attention, so this is me adding my voice. Why? Because something inside me hurt when I saw that t-shirt. The rational part of me knew it wasn’t a personal attack on me or my identities, but another part of me curled up in a small, sad ball, and yet another part got angry.
I’m going to put this in as simple words as I did when I sent this photo to a friend the other day: labels are NOT for clothes. Labels give us community and resources and a way to break cycles of heteronormativity and not talking about mental illness.
I make no secret on of the fact that I’m queer, or that I’m depressed. These things affect my life every. single. day. To me, it’s important that I talk about these labels: they’re key parts of my identity and without them I’m not sure I can quite explain who I am.
It’s not that I’m nothing but my sexuality, but if I don’t talk about it then people will assume that I’m straight – because that is the narrative society tries to present – and I don’t want people to assume I’m straight. It can range from the knowledge that until people realise that LGBTQIA+ folks exist we’re simply not going to gain the basic human rights we deserve, to people not seeing this core part of me feeling quite uncomfortable and often ewwy. I also try not to define myself by my mental illness, but I am not sure I can explain the relief when a psychiatrist told me that I did have symptoms of depression. It was almost as though it gave me permission to be ill, a word to explain to people why I wasn’t well: why I needed time and medication and help.
Often, in my opinion, people who say that we don’t need labels are those who have never needed labels. They’re people whose identities have never deviated from the “default setting,” and thus they’ve never needed a label to describe themselves to the world. They see themselves in media, and aren’t constantly forced to wonder am I broken?
I realise that I’m focussing on mental health and sexual orientation in this post, because these are the places I have most first-hand knowledge and thus opinions about. There are hundreds of others: people of colour, plus size folks, people with chronic illnesses… all of these are used as stereotypes and caricatures in media – when they’re represented at all. This isn’t ok.
There are many things in the world today that aren’t ok. There are many things in the world that are more important than words on a t-shirt, but the words on the damn shirt don’t help.
You see, these words suggest that we live in a world where people don’t need labels. Nothing could be further from my experience. While trying to figure out my sexuality, I was told not to feel forced to label what I felt, but I wanted to. I felt like a child in a sweetshop, giddy with delight at the selection of names and labels and identities for me to try on and play with. When I was sinking deeper into the black hole of my mental health, I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe everyone felt like this, and I was just weak and a failure of a human being because I couldn’t cope with it.
Having labels help me make sense of life. I understand that not everyone needs labels – and, I’ll admit, it’s taken me a while to get used to the fluidity and changing nature of mine – but I do need labels, to define myself to the world. So don’t you DARE tell me that the label in someone’s t-shirt can make them feel ashamed of their body shape but I can’t paint the words queer as fuck on my cheek in rainbow glitter because I “don’t need a label.”
So, clothing companies, if your t-shirt says #LabelsAreForClothes, that says to me that you don’t understand that we’re not living in a society where labels are unnecessary. I’m not saying we’ll never get to that point, or that it would be a bad thing to do so, but until told otherwise, people will assume you are straight, that you are cisgender, that you are mentally well.
Until these things stop being sold to us as the norm, I’ll be spending my money elsewhere.