By Jake Consing, Philippines.
Imagine a world devoid of labels.
Imagine if no one was “straight,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “bi,” “pan,” or “ase;” where would we be?
Well actually, even the term heterosexuality is a recent invention. Prior to 1868, the term heterosexual did not exist. This was until heterosexuality itself was defined by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his book “Psychopathia Sexualis” as an “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex.” This was, as writer Brandon Ambrosino puts it, only “until 1934 that heterosexuality was graced with the meaning we’re familiar with today: ‘manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.’”
In the past, while sexual behaviors and acts were labeled, there was no attention paid to the sexual orientation of the agent in question. However, while heterosexuality was once seen as an unnatural sexual appetite, throughout history and post the Roman empire, homosexual acts have been vilified and disparaged. Before homosexuality, the only word we were referred to by was “sodomite” – sodomites who burnt Sodom and Gomorrah to the ground, sodomites whose acts of love were seen as abominations in the eyes of God, sodomites who were tortured and killed on the streets, sodomites who were stoned to death by God’s people. For the longest time, this is what we had: a term whose closest synonym was sin.
Language is powerful in that it constructs the social reality in which we live; the world is only understood through its meanings which are transmitted through and created by language. This is why labels are important, because they carry with them power – the power to shape and control the perception, and thereby the reality of people. This is important because, for the longest time, gender minorities have been excluded from institutions of power and language.
It was the cis-gender straight man through the media he controls, through the education system he runs, through the religion he preaches, and through the politics he governs who imposed on us the labels of sodomite, faggot, and gay that for years have been used to disown, deny, and discriminate us. This is not only true for the LGBT community, but also for women as well. For millennia, the word “woman” has been associated with submissive, meek, and inferior. Even words that are associated with women like “slut” and “pussy” are often negative in their connotation. This was because those who controlled the systems of meaning and who still control meaning are the patriarchy.
Furthermore, labels are categorically exclusive in that they are defined by difference; one thing is something because it is not another thing. The terms faggot and gay were used to separate the gay community from the straight majority. This separation was used to exclude and to vilify people like us; to exclude us from the system of normalcy and equality. This is contrasted with older, more ancient societies like those of Greece and Rome that recognized all forms of love and attraction, where the difference between a straight and gay man was a matter of lifestyle, not of discrimination.
However, this is not to say that labels are inherently bad. Labels allow people to better understand themselves, and they allow communities to form around shared identities. What is bad, however, is the dark structure of power from which these labels emanate and by which they are defined; It is the patriarchy that has continuously excluded women and gender minorities from systems of power and institutions of meaning-making.
But not all hope is lost. Throughout history, meanings can and do change. While women were seen as weak a hundred years ago, many nowadays see them as strong, independent and empowered, and while LGBT people were seen as unnatural abominations, we are now seen, at least in your part of the world, as people. This is because of the power of reclamation. We have reclaimed the word gay, we have reclaimed the word slut; we have looked into the face of the patriarchy and told it to go fuck itself. This is because of the work put in by thousands of women who marched on the streets to claim their right to vote, by the hundreds of LGBT people who rioted in Stonewall against police violence and harassment, by the millions of people worldwide who marched in pride, and who continue to march. When your very identity is assaulted, to just stand proudly with it is in it of itself a form of protest. It is through standing tall and unphased by the labels society throws at us that we reclaim those labels.
While I used to run away from being a faggot, now, I run toward it. This label is my identity. This label is who I am. This label is me.
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