Wednesday, October 08, 2014

No labels

Social media can be fascinating. Or weird. Well, probably usually both at the same time. Sometimes, though, it leads to unexpected places and ideas that aren’t as simple as they seemed.

Like labels, for example.

Someone I know on Facebook “Liked" a post from a US-based group of RWNJs (well, they ARE…). That’s the only reason I saw it (and, I presume, a similar situation must be how the non-RWNJ person saw it).

The post was a link to story on a rightwing site about Raven-SymonĂ© rejecting the label “African American”, and it included a YouTube video (above) of her talking with Oprah Winfrey about it.

The Facebook post made me think of one of Roger Green’s recent posts about a political discussion about race on Facebook and how civil it was.

In the discussion on the post, Roger commented:
“…at least some of the people I know personally BELIEVE that not talking about racism IS engaging. It’s those ‘race baiters’ who stir up conflict where there would otherwise not be conflict…”
That’s what I was thinking about when I read what the US RWNJ page that shared the link added: "Well said! Time to tell the race baiters to get packing... Oprah's facial expression was priceless.” So, after reading that I knew what was coming when I followed the link, and it didn't disappoint me—at all. It positively dripped white privilege and wilful blindness to the complexities of race in the USA. And general ignorance, too, but one expects that.

However, I then went directly to the video on YouTube, and the whole thing became something entirely different.

The YouTube information tells a far more complex story. Raven-SymonĂ©, it turns out, rejects ALL labels, including gay—funny that “Conservative Tribune” didn’t mention THAT, isn’t it? Anyway, the rightwing site tried to make it all about race when, in fact, her sentiment is broader than they implied (to suit their ideology, of course).

I’ve heard this same rejection of labels from many young LGBT people—and it frankly baffles me. I grew up in a much different time, when people who were LGBT had labels thrust upon them, always negative, sometimes deeply derogatory. We took those words and made them badges of pride—fuck the straight bigots who thought they’d make us feel badly!

Meanwhile, we worked hard to make the world a better place, one with social and legal equality for LGBT people. And we succeeded—slowly at first, but now to the point where full equality in the major countries of the Western World is imminent. We made this happen by being out everywhere, every time, and that was what made the difference.

But now we find younger people who reject labels, who demand the right to fall in love with either gender and to have that respected. People like me—who fought hard for LGBT people to be treated as human beings—automatically respect the right of people to define themselves, and yet, I struggle to accept this new reality.

Part of that is because in my day we had to choose sides. There was no nuance, no equivocation, no context or complexity: One was either gay or one wasn’t. Nowadays, young people demand to be accepted as people who may sometimes love someone of the same gender, and I cannot relate. At all.

At a very basic level, I feel betrayed. I didn’t fight all those years for LGBT freedom, and I didn’t endure being called “fag” (among less savoury terms) just so that young folks could refuse the freedom to identify as gay. There’s a part of me that thinks that these “don’t label me” types are ingrates who have no fucking idea what we endured to get where we are today.

But, then, I take a breath. I think about them and their reality. Most of those young people have never lived in a place or time where the basic human rights of LGBT people aren’t protected somewhere. Gay singers and actors have been everywhere, and gay politicians, too. They don’t know—as I have—a world in which being identified as gay could cost them their homes, their jobs, their family or even their lives. To them, being in a relationship with someone of the same gender is just something, whereas to us, it was everything.

But there’s also this: Why the hell did I go through all that pain, endure all that personal cost, if not to win the freedom for people to be themselves? I cannot pretend to speak for others of my generation, but, for me, my sacrifices mean nothing if today’s young people can’t choose to reject the very labels we fought so very hard to protect.

I honestly don’t know if I can ever understand or accept young people’s rejection of labels—at the moment, I kind of doubt it. But I defend in the most strenuous terms their right to reject the very labels I fought to protect. Freedom means freedom, even when I cannot begin to understand how it’s exercised.


rogerogreen said...

Except...when racism and homophobia slaps down some young anti-labelist, the old farts like you and me will be there protecting them, and pointing out that we are not quite a post-racial, post-sexuality society. Not yet...

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

And that's our job, Roger. I think we're supposed to make sure they know (and hopefully appreciate) where they came from, but I also think that our role is also to help them bridge that gap between ideal and reality. We've seen the world at its worst, and we've helped show how it can be at its best. All we need to do is provide a safe harbour for our young friends when the world is shit, then help re-energise them and send them out to finish the business. I didn't say this in the post, but helping energise them to finish the work has got to be our greatest challenge—and gift.

rogerogreen said...

BTW, I think this is somehow also tied to the rejection of the term feminist by young women, as though it were merely a term of anger. But seeing how AMAZINGLY society is, I think it should be embraced. And by men, too.

rogerogreen said...

From Cosmo, of all things: My problem with this "new black" train of thought... is that it suggests that excluding any talk of race or connection to a racialized identity somehow nullifies oppression. But that couldn't be further from the truth.

It also assumes that the embrace of a racial or ethnic identity is inherently negative, and that acknowledging our differences somehow narrows our connections to, and understanding of, one another. In short, the "new black" mentality assumes that assimilation is what we should all aspire to http://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/news/a31861/raven-symone-oprah-race/

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

I agree with that, and feel similarly about people rejecting gay as a label of self description. I think that things like race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation OUGHT to be non-issues and people OUGHT to be treated equally as human beings. But saying we're all equal as human beings doesn't make it so, and, in my opinion, ignoring parts of who we are in order to assimilate doesn't gain either equality or freedom from oppression.