Labelling Ourselves and Others

Chalice lighting

We gather together here today
Each with a path that led us to this moment
Bearing the strengths and the scars of our journeys
Each of us longing to be known and accepted and loved as we are
By the light of this flame
May we come to see one another clearly
beyond the labels we wear and the categories we fit
And once seen, may each one give and receive acceptance
Understanding
And love

Reading: 'Ticket' by Charles O. Hartman

I love the moment at the ticket window—he says—
when you are to say the name of your destination, and realize
that you could say anything, the man at the counter
will believe you, the woman at the counter
would never say No, that isn't where you're going,
you could buy a ticket for one place and go to another,
less far along the same line. Suddenly you would find yourself
—he says—in a locality you've never seen before,
where no one has ever seen you and you could say your name
was anything you like, nobody would say No,
that isn't you, this is who you are. It thrills me every time.

Reading from Gayle S. Rubin

Our categories are important. We cannot organize a social life, a political movement, or our individual identities and desires without them. The fact that categories invariably leak and can never contain all the relevant "existing things" does not render them useless, only limited. Categories like “woman,” “butch,” “lesbian,” or “transsexual” are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary. We use them, and they use us. We use them to construct meaningful lives, and they mould us into historically specific forms of personhood. Instead of fighting for immaculate classifications and impenetrable boundaries, let us strive to maintain a community that understands diversity as a gift, sees anomalies as precious, and treats all basic principles with a hefty dose of scepticism.

Message

labels.jpg

Today is the beginning a new three-month theme. The title is ‘labels’ - the kind that get applied to human beings and tend to define us and to separate us from others. In the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring how we get labelled and categorised, why humans tend to label one another, how it can be helpful, how it can be damaging, and some of the huge ramifications this tendency has in our world.

As we start - I’m up here talking to you. That has to do with the fact that I’m the minister. We all get labelled in many many ways throughout our lives. Some, we resent. Some we embrace. Some we shed. Some we wear forever.

When I was born, I got my very first label. I was called a male. In that one moment, much of my life was defined and many avenues of possibility were shut off. I would not wear dresses, put on makeup, or be a nurse. I would not be a wife or a mother or a sister. I should be good at sports and bad at cooking.

It wasn’t long after being labelled male - before I even went home from the hospital - when I was labelled Jewish - this wasn’t just your usual kind of verbal label. It was a permanent and very intimate kind of label if you know what I mean. My family also labelled me as a son and a brother and these few labels were among the first I really became conscious of.

It wasn’t until I went to be with other children in preschool and school that it got more interesting - and more challenging. My parents and my teachers labelled me as smart. That felt good - at least at first. Later, that label would become a burden. It became an expectation that I would do well at every scholastic challenge I faced. When I didn’t do well, it could only be because I wasn’t trying hard enough. In other words, I was lazy.

Early on in school, I got one of my first really painful labels - fat. I was a chubby child. That’s a label that stuck on hard. Even at the times in my life when I have been relatively thin, I have still been unable to get the fat label off. It stayed with me - painfully - no matter what the reality was. Along with being overweight, I was bad at sports. I was one of those kids who got picked last when teams were being chosen for anything athletic. We didn’t have a specific word for ‘bad at sports’ but there might as well have been. It was a very clear label and it was one that was very difficult to wear as the preoccupation of other boys turned heavily toward athletics. In school, when I encountered children of other races, I also realised that I was white. It would be a long time before I’d start to realise the full implications of that label.

When I reached the stage when my peers and I all categorised each other and ourselves as jocks, druggies, greasers, popular, and so on, I was not really any of those. I was one of the kids who didn’t do sports, studied hard, and didn’t have a lot of friends. In some ways, lacking a label was probably harder than having a label that didn’t fit quite so well or that was confining. Not having a category indicated that I didn’t belong to any of those groups. It meant I didn’t belong to any of them and that I wouldn’t - without some great effort of self-transformation - be accepted by them.

At some point, I managed to stumble into the school chorus. There, I found a bunch of other people who didn’t fit in very well either - people who welcomed me. I was a chorus geek. I didn’t mind that many saw that label negative. It didn’t matter that it was a label of derision. What mattered was belonging. It wasn’t long before the overlap between the singers and the actors in my school led me to be a theatre geek along with being a chorus geek. Now, I had my people. I had a place where I belonged.

It’s interesting to think of the labels that I might have had but didn’t yet realise at the time. I would later be labelled straight. There were no out gay kids in my school. There have to be clear differences to have a label. Similarly, I wasn’t labelled middle class or privileged yet. Nearly every student in my suburban school would have fit those categories. Those few who weren’t middle class and privileged didn’t have the power to create labels for the others. It takes power to label other people.

When I went off to university, I was labelled a pre-med - an odious term for those of us wanting to become doctors. Getting accepted to medical school was a very difficult thing - the applicants vastly outnumbered the available places, so we pre-meds were intense students. Grades were all that mattered. The competition amongst us was fierce.

Those are just labels I wore into my late teens. Eventually, I became a University Graduate. I went to graduate school and got PhD. I was then a scientist. I wear the labels of husband and father. My wife and I bought a home and became Homeowners. I got a job and advanced and became a manager. Later, I advanced further and became a businessman. I left business and became a student again and then earned this label of minister. When I came to the UK, the label that became very obvious to me and others was - for better or worse - American.

As we all became more aware of the diversity of gender identities, I recognised that I wore the label of cis-gendered. That forms part of a set of privilege labels alongside straight, white, middle-class, and the labels that come along with higher education.

Some labels have stayed the same. Some have changed. Once, I was a child, then a young man, then middle-aged, and now, I have begun to wear the label of old. Throughout my life, the labels I’ve worn have marked aspects of who I am and often how others have seen me. These labels were rarely precise. What is young? What is old? Some I wore with pride. Some I resented. Some I left behind. Some have accompanied me my whole life. Some labels have impacted my life significantly.

The labels of educational attainment I wear have served as a kind of calling card that gave me an instant credibility in many situations. It was credibility that I did not necessarily deserve. A PhD in biology does not necessarily make me a better minister, but that label smoothed the way. Being labelled American in this country brought me some enemies and condemnation. Being labelled bad at sports made me feel like an outcast - a feeling that has eased but never fully disappeared.

The impact of labels is vast and complex and we will look carefully at aspects of that influence in the weeks to come. Labels have power. They can unify, they can divide. They can oppress and they can privilege. They can clarify and they can obscure.

One thing I would like to leave you with is the question of the impact of labels on community, such as our community here. Community is built on relationships - many individual strands that, together, create a beautiful, sustaining, fabric that holds us. Labels can help relationships form when they lead us to conclude that someone is like us. They can prevent relationships when we use them to assume that someone else is too different to approach - when we assume that my label and your label don’t fit.

I want New Unity to be always a place where we do the hard work of seeing past the labels people wear - knowing each other for who we are really rather than how we have been categorized by ourselves or by others. Paradoxically, our labels can help us see past our labels. The labels can be the beginning of conversations rather than the end of one.

After today’s gathering, I like to encourage you to create and put on a label or a few. And then talk to each other about the labels you each wear. Did you choose this label or that one? Do you resent them? Do you wear them with pride? How did those labels change your lives? In doing so, what can divide us can begin to unite us. What can keep our understandings of each other at a surface level can help us to understand, to have compassion, and to build love.

May it be so.

Closing Words

We each carry signals that suggest who we are
Labels that clarify and confuse in equal measure
In this place, let us move beyond the simplifications
Beyond the false characterizations
May we know and understand one another beyond our categories
And accepted and loved for who we truly are