Coming out as a lesbian at age 35 presented myriad issues to deal with. Not only were my family, friends, and community pressuring me to explain my decision (or "awakening," as I like to call it), but I was also expected to find something to call myself.
I had been in a married relationship with a man, and mothered three children while living in the suburbs, so I was familiar with the labels that society had imposed on me: Wife, Mother, Homemaker, Soccer Mom. They were ordinary terms—customary and comfortable. Coming out added a whole list of new labels; most of them were completely new terminology to me. What was I? People in general immediately wanted to label me bisexual. Bisexual was easier for them to accept than if I had just one day decided to live my life as a lesbian (that was far too threatening of a notion). But I wasn't bisexual. I didn't feel bisexual. I identified as a lesbian, but for some reason being just a lesbian wasn't good enough.
"You don't look like a lesbian," people would say. I was a femme lesbian. I was a lipstick lesbian. But I wasn't—those labels came with rules attached and I didn't fit the rules. I wasn't only attracted to butch women. I wasn't only attracted to other lipsticks.
Often when the subject of labels comes up in conversation, I find many people gravitating to the notion that ideally we would not need them and that labels don't serve any purpose other than to divide people. Contrarily, as much as labels can be seen as divisive, they also classify and unite people together in ways they may not have been united otherwise.
Young children are taught to classify and understand people, places, and animals recognizing their similarities and differences. This allows them to determine sameness and safety. Dogs and cats are animals, but a cat is not a dog. A lion is also a cat, but not the same as a domestic kitten—an important distinction! As people grow, they continue to categorize and classify people around grouping them with those who share physical attributes, common cultures, and interests.
The most privileged of all groups, white heterosexual males, label themselves within their group. Gather a group of straight white men together and they will begin to classify and divide themselves. Where do you live? What do you do? What church do you attend? Are you a Duck or a Beaver? What fraternity did you belong to? Who's your favorite NFL team? What do you drive? Divide and label, and the men with the most in common will build friendships and have camaraderie beyond what they might have with the others.
Without a doubt, labels can be viewed negatively—and certainly they are if used to discriminate and cause harm. There is a difference between choosing a label and being forced into one. But without labels, how would we find those with whom we share commonalities and like beliefs? Portland's queer events—such as the Pride Festival—certainly wouldn't draw the same group if it weren't labeled as such. We label others and ourselves in part because we want to feel acceptance; and others with whom we share a common bond or identity generally accept us. We do this for the same reasons that children are taught to classify, for sameness and safety.
This is true even within a group of people as diverse as the queer community. As much as we crave acceptance into the general population, we do our own dividing within our group and assimilate ourselves with others who are like us. Years ago labels were necessary to recognize possible mates or sexual partners in a straight world, and labels have always been an intricate part of the gay community. Butch, femme, top, bottom: These were terms that dictated dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, and sexual preferences. Certain rules were followed in order for gay people to find other gay people. Today, there is a wide array of labels to choose from that classify just about every preference one can think of. In fact, there are so many letters in the abbreviation describing our community (GLBTQIA), I often need a Google search just to figure out what it currently stands for.
Being a lesbian with a partner while raising three daughters in the suburbs, I often feel as though I travel between two worlds and two communities. I have many roles and many labels, and often need to shift between several or blend a few together. I'm still Mom and Homemaker. I'm Wife, but now to a woman (who is somewhere between Butch and Femme, leaning toward Sporty or Chapstick). I'm always Lesbian, and proudly wear that label at all times. I butch up when necessary; usually I wear lipstick. Sometimes I'm a Dyke; sometimes I'm a Doily Dyke (Wiki that,) based entirely on my mood or what shoes I may be wearing at the time. Labels aren't unlike sexuality itself, ever changing and fluid, dependent on where a person is, or how they feel in that particular moment of their life. I embrace my labels as much as I embrace who I am, and how I choose to live my life. Without labels and their descriptions we would travel through life without identification of others and ourselves, lost in an abyss of sameness searching for a safe place. And most importantly, it would be nearly impossible to find the good gay bars.
Kathryn Martini is a writer, photographer, and part-time waitress living with her wife and children in the scary suburbs of Portland. Her blog can be found at recoveringstraightgirl.com.