Who you are: Society, Labels, and the people they belong to

‘Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?’

I didn’t know who Danielle LaPorte was when I saw the above quote this morning (turns out she’s a Canadian author and motivational speaker), but like every quote that rings true, it both spoke to me on a personal level, and also got me thinking about the novel I”m reading at the minute: Annabel by Kathleen Winter (another Canadian, as it happens).

Annabel is about a boy growing up in Labrador, Canada, in the 70s and 80s, a boy who is unique, who was born a hermaphrodite, or ‘intersex’ as I’m led to believe clinicians now prefer to call it. There is such a raw openness to Kathleen Winter’s first novel that I actually struggled to put the book down this evening long enough to write this. Wayne, born with both genitalia, underwent surgery shortly after birth and was raised a boy by his parents, but he was always different. There was a girl inside: Annabel. I haven’t finished reading the novel yet (but at this rate, it won’t be long!) so I cannot say for certain what happens at the end – Will Wayne succumb to peer pressure and remain the boy he outwardly appears to be, or will his inner self win out? Will he assume the identity that ‘Annabel’ so wishes to become? Will he remember who he was, before the world told him who he should be? I’m looking forward to finding out.

I mentioned the story to a friend this morning and she said, ‘That’s an unusual subject to write about; is the author a hermaphrodite?’ I have no idea about Kathleen Winter’s private life, but she has a girl’s name and clearly identifies herself as female. There is nothing more to it and the question didn’t need to have arisen at all.

But therein lies my point: What’s the deal with labels?

Is society to blame?

Everything has a label these days, many of which still have strong connotations. People are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual , muslim, black, white, emo, nerd, hermaphrodite… It seems people are never just ‘people’ any more.

But do we need labels? Do you need to know what type of person sits next to you on the bus on your way to work or school? Do you need to know that your neighbour is gay? Or that the guy who undresses in a cubicle at the gym is a hermaphrodite? It seems to me that society isn’t happy unless everyone fits in a little cookie-cutter sub-society. As if one global society wasn’t enough and we all have to be inspected and grouped together in a commonality, however remote.

As a gay man, I don’t feel I fully fit with the stereotypical ‘gay’ category that society has thrust upon me. I don’t sing or dance, I don’t love shopping, I don’t drink cocktails before 9pm, I don’t bleach my hair and I don’t, like, say ‘Oh my God’, like, all the time, etc, etc, etc. And I’m not the only one. Does that make us any less gay?

Everyone belongs to a category, whether they’ve asked for it or not.

Will it ever be possible to overcome the labels that have been sewn into the fabric of society? Does it make you feel more secure being in a box, or knowing that others are in their respective boxes? My seven-year-old niece, back in Northern Ireland, when I was talking to her about the old Northern Irish ‘Troubles’, once said to me, ‘Why can’t everyone just play nice?’

Indeed.

Labels aren’t good; they teach that ‘different’ is wrong, that if you’re not in the ‘right’ label, you are somehow less of a human being, regardless of the local society you live in. The sooner we stamp out labels and stereotypes, the sooner we, as a world, as a ‘global city” can get on with the lives we were born to live, not the lives society has imposed upon us.

As W.C. Fields said, ‘It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.’

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