What's In A Label?

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Sex and Gender

2005 Second Web Papers

On Serendip

What's In A Label?

Sarah Halter

This is a repost, as a mistake occured in the formatting before. I really hope this one works.

I like the word "dyke." I like its history and its meaning: in four letters, it allows me to proclaim myself as woman, gay, and powerful at the same time. But my love for this label is problematic. As convenient as "dyke" is it allows me to put my feelings and urges into two little sounds I can't ignore the problems that arise when I try to define with language traits that are as complex as gender, sex, and sexuality. Looking at recently published gender theory, I see that labels have become anathema. In her essay "Inside/Out," Diana Fuss warns, "Where exactly, in this borderline sexual economy, does the one identity leave off and the other begin? And what gets left out of the inside/outside, heterosexual/homosexual opposition...?" (234). Thomas Laqueur, in his essay "On Language of the Flesh," says, "Woman alone seems to have 'gender' since the category itself is defined as that aspect of social relations based on difference between sexes in which the standard has always been man" (22) in other words, woman is defined by what man is not. And in his book The History of Sexuality, Michael Foucault warns against the transformation of thoughts to words, saying, "the Counter Reformation ... attributed more and more importance in penance ... to all the insulations of the flesh; thoughts, desires, voluptuous imaginings, delectations, combined movements of the body and soul; henceforth all this had to enter, in detail, into the process of confession and guidance" (19). All three of these theorists would warn that my word is not an expression of freedom, a proclamation, but a word with agency that can be confining and exclusive. I understand what they mean, but still this troubles me. Isn't there a way I can reclaim "dyke"?

If I am to argue that we can reclaim labels, first I think it's necessary for me to illustrate the repressive power of words. I will start with a counter-argument: I can't deny that words confine, especially in a climate as politically charged as today's United States. Fuss, speaking almost as a prophet from the early '90s, says in her article,

The language and law that regulates the establishment of heterosexuality as both an identity and an institution, both a practice and a system, is the language and law of defense and protection: heterosexuality secures its self-identity and shores up its ontological boundaries by protecting itself from what it sees as the continual predatory encroachment of its contaminated other, homosexuality" (234).

Fuss argues that words can be used in defensive ways to protect a system - a system that may need revising. Those in power (much like those in the Counter Reformation that Foucault mentioned) possess the ability to control with words. For example, today "pro-family" means "anti-gay;" Focus on Family, American Family Association, and Family Research Council are all powerful organizations that praise "traditional family values" while remaining stringently anti-gay and anti-feminist. The wars over "pro-choice," "pro-life," "anti-choice," and "anti-life" provide another example for power play in words. Here, it's not the battle for or against abortion that's important, but the way that those fighting the battle choose words to represent their side. "Anti-choice" and "pro-life" both imply that a person is against abortion, but these two words could not be more different. (Who uses these words, how are they used, what do they imply, etc?) Words should never be dismissed; language is an important commodity in power.

From Fuss to Focus on Family, we see that words and agenda are intrinsically tied. This is the danger in labels. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault, using the example of confession, demonstrates the danger in words: "An imperative was established: not only will you confess to acts contravening the law, but you will seek to transform your desires, your every desire, into discourse" (21). The danger with putting feelings, thoughts, and desires into discourse is it allows for the "policing of statements" (Foucault 18). So when I label myself as a woman or a feminist or a Christian or to return to the beginning of my paper a dyke, I give a word to the thoughts that swirl in my mind. And words, unlike thoughts, can be policed. A friend can hush me if I say, "Dyke," too loudly in an area with children. When I call myself a feminist at a lunchtime discussion, my mind may wander to women like Adrienne Rich or Dorothy Allison, but the person I'm talking to may think with distaste of feminazis or man-hating bra-burners.

In introducing the purpose of his book, Laqueur tries to address this problem with discourse and exclusion:

My goal is to show how biology of hierarchy in which there is only one sex, a biology of incommensurability between two sexes, and the claim that there is no publicly relevant sexual difference at all, or no sex, have constrained the interpretation of bodies and the strategies of sexual politics for some two thousand years" (23).

Laqueur warns against the ways we use language to describe sex or gender: no matter how we try to put our thoughts on gender, sexuality, or sex into words, we constrain our thoughts by making up rules. Laqueur probably believes that ideas of sex and gender are best left without words: rather than calling a man a man, let him/her be. Similarly, the words "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality," at their most basic definition, only allow for two sexual orientations, and leave out hundreds that float around the border. Also, these words leave little room for communication or a movement between them.

I now feel that I have properly expressed the danger with words after all, Fuss, Foucault, and Laqueur have all made compelling cases against labels. But I still like the word "dyke," so I will turn to the end of Fuss's article for support. She admits here that while breaking from language and the rules of language sounds attractive, "It would be difficult, not to say delusionary, to forget the words "inside" and "outside," "heterosexual" and "homosexual," without also losing in this act of willed amnesia the crucial sense of alterity necessary for constituting any sexed subject, any subject as sexed" (239). Fuss says that even without words, the sense of being "Other" remains. This is why I like the word "dyke." I like what it means to me. I like the history of activism and feminism that has allowed me to use positively a word that was once disgusting and derogatory. In "We 'Other' Victorians," Foucault says that he understands this: he says, "we are conscious of defying established power"(6), and later, "Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming age of a different law, slips easily into this discourse on sexual oppression" (7). Foucault acknowledges that there is a siren's call that leads us to desire to "reclaim" the word dyke (or lezbo, or queer, or fag, or bitch, even). But, he argues, the problem exists not because I, a twenty-two year old college student, want to reclaim this word, but because of the history of sexuality - a history that has put words like this (that has put sex, something that shouldn't be in words) into discourse. And yet, I'm not convinced. I still like the word "dyke," I whisper to myself. Is this just stubbornness?

A classmate of mine once said that when we have a discussion in class, not only the visible students are present, but hundreds of unseen people are also floating around the edges. Whether these people are boy/girlfriends, old roommates or teachers, they are those who have shaped our thoughts, our opinions, and the ways we interpret words. When someone says "pro-choice," a well-groomed liberal arts woman may (or may not) think positive thoughts of a feminist who owns her body, but the girl sitting right beside this young woman may think about killing babies. I return to the idea I mentioned earlier: feminism to me is Adrienne Rich, but to others it is feminazis. This is because when I speak, I will always my ghosts, my history, my nationality, and my family around me, and these personal experiences will also shape how I hear words. But isn't that the point of being human? Even if we don't speak, even if we just grunt and motion to each other like Neanderthals, we will always bring our feelings and desires into any human interaction. And even if I didn't know the word for "other," a feeling of being different can remain.

I believe that when I say the word dyke, I make a statement of power. I express my feelings in words. I don't believe this word does anything but express how I feel. Others, like Foucault, will inevitably argue that I am playing into the hands of those who want to use the words against me. Foucault says, "As if in order to gain mastery over [sex] in reality, it had first been necessary to subjugate it at the level of language, control its free circulation in speech, expunge it from the things that were said, and extinguish the words the rendered it too visibly present" (17). But if I shouldn't let people put my thoughts into discourse and then police me, why should I let Foucault control my thoughts and words? I don't want Foucault's laws, arguments, or philosophies to control me any more than I want to be controlled by the state senator who thinks homosexuals shouldn't adopt children. I feel just as constrained by the President who's against gay marriage as the classmate who says that I shouldn't call myself a lesbian because that "labels" me.

Furthermore, when we put thoughts into words, we create existence by saying the word "dyke," a dyke can exist. Foucault's argument is that you couldn't police the homosexual until you called him, her or it the homosexual. But would things really be so much better if this desire wasn't transformed into a label? Labels give us existence. Before the word "homosexual" came into existence, the Texas law against sodomy could not have existed. But organizations that fight AIDS for gay men would not have existed, and neither could groups like the HRC, PFLAG, NOW, or the Intersex Society of North America. Gay Pride Festivals parades that celebrate sexuality in any and all forms are now yearly experiences for cities. How many generations of lesbians had to marry men because there was no word to describe what they felt and no public acknowledgement of their existence?

In an ideal world, we could move away from labels. There would be no "norm" and no policing of thoughts, and people could simply exist as they are. But we don't live in an ideal world, and as Fuss says, "The dream of either a common language or no language at all is just that a dream, a fantasy that ultimately can do little to acknowledge and to legitimate the hitherto repressed differences between and within sexual identities" (239). Perhaps I fight on "their terms" when I refuse to fight for the abolishment of all labels, perhaps I use words that senators and presidents can use against me, but I'm willing to do that because words can give existence. Words are difficult because they can be used to leave people out or deny freedom, but I'm not comfortable throwing these words - and their histories - away because of a few problems. I don't want to forget suffragists or gay rights activists so I can let go of their words.

I have spent this entire paper trying to illustrate why words are important, and perhaps this was my mistake. Maybe it's not my acceptance of labels that's the problem, but my view that words are all-important. If I dare to contradict myself (didn't I say in the beginning of this essay, "words should not ever be dismissed"?), perhaps I arrive at a new idea: words aren't as important as they seem. Labels are not perfect, but it's the implication behind these labels that cause the danger. There, behind the meaning of words, is where people are left out and insides and outsides are created. There is where policing begins. What if I could say that I'm a dyke, but suggest that's not all I am and not every woman who loves women has to call herself a dyke? What if I didn't give the word that much power? At the risk of sounding glib, perhaps we need to worry less about words and more about how we use them. And maybe we can move toward a world in which we use labels without letting them define us. [an error occurred while processing this directive]