Why labels matter

When I first realized I was gay, a lot of
people said to me, “You shouldn’t call yourself ‘gay’;
you should say that you ‘struggle with same-sex attractions.’” As if I were a straight person who just wasn’t
very good at being straight because of these weird attractions. Even today, people will sometimes ask me,
“Why is it important to have a label like ‘gay’?” Or “bi” or “ace” or “trans”…? Why do we need labels at all? To answer that question, let’s turn to the
famous fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen. Evidence suggests that Andersen was probably
bisexual. If he had grown up in today’s world, there’s
a good chance he would have at least identified as part of the LGBTQ community. But in his day, identifying as gay or bi simply
wasn’t an option. Those labels didn’t exist. Andersen was single his whole life, and his
own experience of difference and loneliness is reflected in his stories. He wrote “The Little Mermaid,” for instance,
around the time he learned that a man he loved was going to marry a woman. That explains why in his version of the story,
the mermaid’s prince marries someone else, and the heartbroken mermaid dissolves into
foam. But if you want to understand why labels are
so important for some people, including but not limited to many LGBTQ people, look no
further than another Andersen story: The Ugly Duckling. You’ve probably heard some version of The
Ugly Duckling before, but there’s a good chance you’ve never heard the original version. And even if you have, there’s an important
aspect to this story that you might never have noticed. So let me read you an abridged version of
the original story, and as you listen, imagine the Ugly Duckling as an LGBTQ child,
and pay attention to the significance of labels in the story. At the end, I’ll offer a few thoughts on
what it all means. So the mother takes them to meet some of
the other ducks, including an honored old duck… So at this point, the duck meets some wild geese
who are killed in front of his eyes by hunters, he narrowly escapes dogs, and eventually
he takes shelter in a cottage with an old woman, a cat, and a hen. But he doesn’t go with the swans, and when
the water eventually freezes up, he very nearly freezes to death. The story ends with this: He finds acceptance with this new community,
and his final words in the story are… Did you notice the importance of labels in
the story? When I was a kid, I only heard this as a tale
for late bloomers—something like: “Hey, maybe you’re ugly or unpopular now as a
kid, but when you’re an adult, you might become
a beautiful swan everyone looks up to.” And sure, that’s a piece of it. But there’s a deeper level here. This isn’t just a story about growing up;
it’s a story about finding a place to belong. This baby swan grew up in a family of ducks,
and his mother, by trying her best not to label him as different, unintentionally condemned
him to a life of misery. Because without a label—“swan”—to
explain why he was different, the default assumption was that he was just like everyone
else in his family—a duck. But even when he tried his very best, this
baby swan could never be a duck. Just like he could never be a hen or a cat. Things he longed for would always seem strange
to them. Things that came easily to them would not
come easily to him. It wasn’t until he found the right label
for himself—to recognize that he was a swan, not a duck—that he was able to find his
community and begin to thrive as himself. This is why it’s important for people to
have access to labels if they want them. Because when there are no labels, people tend
to assume that others’ experiences are just like theirs. Taking away the labels of “swan” and “duck”
just causes these ducks to assume that every waterfowl is a duck. In a society without the labels “gay”
and “straight,” people tend to assume that everyone is straight. As a young man, I felt horrible about myself
all the time, because I was really bad at being straight, and I didn’t know why I
was so different from all the straight people around me. It wasn’t until I found that label “gay”
that I could say, “Oh! There are other people like me!” and could start learning what it meant to
be a good gay person instead of a terrible straight person. That’s why it’s so important for someone
to be able to say, “Oh! I’m autistic.” “Oh! I’m transgender.” “Oh! I’m a swan. No wonder I was so terrible at being a duck. Because I was never a duck.”

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