The Problem with Labels

Labels – that is the terms such as ‘crossdresser’, ‘transsexual’, ‘heterosexual’, ‘lesbian’ or whatever – are wrong. They are a device that is meant to make it possible for someone to be immediately pigeon-holed. If you can give someone a label, then you can find a particular set of reactions that can be used when you are dealing with that person. A label is actually a device to inform and encourage prejudice.

Let me offer this quote, without comment – it comes from an issue of Shade, The Changing Man (a damn fine comic – unfortunately now defunct) by Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo:

“I mean, if two women have an affair, does it automatically follow that they’re both lesbian? No, it just follows that they’re doing something lesbian. Maybe this whole sex thing’s a verb and not a noun, and that’s why people get so confused.”

I crossdress. That is to say, I wear clothes that are generally accepted as belonging to the opposite sex. I also attempt to put across a female image – I wear make up, false breasts and jewellery and I wax my legs and chest. So, as far as things go I would have to say: yes, I am a crossdresser. If you want to be all latin about it, you could even say I was a transvestite.

Now, if someone were to say to you ‘so and so is a transvestite’, what would be the first image would spring to mind? I have to say that I would be very surprised if anyone were to say anything other than The Rocky Horror Show. Okay, maybe some people will say Eddie Izzard, but, I’d be willing to bet that vast majority of people will mention Frank and crew.

So, if the first image most people get is one of Frank N. Furter in stockings and high heels, making a man to relieve his… tension, what does this say about the image that conjures up about transvestites? We are glammed up, lascivious, bisexual (at best) sex fiends?

I have absolutely nothing against glammed up, lascivious, bisexual sex fiends, but it’s not me. As far as I am concerned, the labelling system has broken down and just placed another, huge, hurdle between me and somebody who I am trying to get to understand me.

I suppose that you could argue that it is a starting point. But, it’s like someone saying that because you are a female heterosexual, you like performing fellatio. It’s total crap. To reduce everything down to one or two words is simply insane.

Even with the crossdressing world, there is some argument as to what the terms mean. Some people think that a transvestite is some one who wears female clothing for relaxation and to feel feminine and a crossdresser is more fetishistic and gains sexual gratification from getting dragged up. Others (myself included) think that the term transvestite has the more sexual overtones (probably due to Rocky Horror – I know that’s where I get the feeling from).

The best ‘labels’ that I can apply to myself are ‘Ellen’ and ‘Stephen’. Ellen when I am wearing feminine clothing. Stephen when dressed in a masculine way. I think that, as labels these are much better. They are tabula rasa – they hold no preconceptions based upon sexual preference or whether I am likely to prefer tea or coffee (tea, white, no sugar, thanks). They are, in fact, holes that need filling with information. If the person is at all interested in you, then they will be eager to fill those holes.

The way to avoid prejudice is to avoid labels. If you can’t label someone, you can’t insult them. This works if you are a queer, a dyke, a spic, a yid, a nigger, a tranny or a nazi. Work out who someone is based on who they really are, rather than on what a single word tells you about what you think.

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