I had a bit of an epiphany the other day.
I recently had occasion to host a group of non-cis, non-heterosexual people in my house for a few hours. It wasn’t a group I would naturally be drawn to spend time with – I guess I’m far too traditionally-minded to seek out such companionship. But I found myself having a very pleasant time nonetheless. These people were simply fun, each one in their own way. And so the experience gave me pause. Why was I quite comfortable on the one hand, and yet uncomfortable at the same time?
Each one of those individuals had a very different and unique personality. Their style of humor, their thought processes, their likes and dislikes were apparent. In a very real sense, in that way they were no different than anyone else that I know.
And yet, each one of them rather blatantly crossed over one or more of the lines I grew up to expect, that separate people into what I might have previously called “natural” groupings. Each one had chosen to identity some aspect of their being outside of those norms: gay, transgender, non-binary, demisexual, omnisexual – there were more labels present in that group than individuals.
Here was that epiphany I mentioned: I realized that I was enjoying these people without any particular concern for those labels that they used about themselves. Those labels might be useful in the individual case, if I had wanted to understand the person at a deeper level, but they made no difference in the moment of simply being with them and engaging them intellectually and emotionally.
As I pondered this, I further realized what used to make me so uncomfortable around such people: I couldn’t pin them into one of only two bins: female and male, with all the normal heterosexual expectations and affections and clothing and actions that come with it.
So essentially I realized that I could enjoy each person for exactly what they were, without trying to figure out which bin to fit them into. Or, put a little differently, without trying to assign just one of two labels to them. Instead, the labeling space was much, much larger – so large, in fact, that it becomes easier to simply abandon the labels and appreciate them as people, not as regards their proximity to one of my exactly-and-only two preferred labels.
A few days later, I happened to be in a women’s beauty store with my wife, and as I waited for her to select the lipstick shade she wanted, the most curious person showed up next to us, also looking at lipsticks. They were about six feet tall, in rather high heels, fishnet stockings, Daisy Duke shorts, a halter top with maybe C-cup breasts and extremely prominent nipples showing through the fabric… and a very manly mustachioed but made-up face, topped with a cowboy hat.
My old-school conservative brain immediately started to try and figure out, are we looking at a biological male in women’s clothing and falsies? Or a biological female on testosterone? Honestly, the cues were highly confusing. Prominent breasts and nipples and general female body shape, but with a mustache and rugged male facial features.
But in about three seconds, a second thing occurred to me: I really didn’t care. At all. I was intrigued by what I was seeing, but almost as fast as it started, I abandoned any need to pin a sexuality and gender onto this individual.
And I also realized that I was surprisingly comfortable in this person’s presence – which I am sure I would not have been just a couple months ago. If anything, I was intrigued and curious, but quite willing to pay very little more attention and go on with my day. If anything, I would have wanted to spend time talking with them to understand them – not to judge or shun them.
So in just two events, I discovered that my label-happy brain had set aside its normal process, and that was somewhat transformative.
Well, all this has me thinking hard about labels. In particular, what is it about humans that we seem to need labels? What is it about today’s LGBTQ-friendly younger crowd that (a) loves labels in a mind-bending explosion of variety, but (b) is utterly unconcerned with labels at the same time?
I’ve been working through “Faith After Doubt” by Brian McLaren with some friends for the last couple months, and I believe his thinking about the pattern of human maturation – along with its analog for spiritual maturation – applies here. Some of Richard Rohr’s work in “Falling Upward” applies here too. In the earliest stages of our lives, either physical or spiritual, there is a rather strict duality inherent to us, and also used to instruct us. Things are either This, or That. They’re either X, or not X. Our young brains are still learning how to identify things correctly, and there’s a natural compulsion to categorize, to identify, to label.
If you’ve ever spent any time around a toddler, and they trust you enough to freely interact with you, you’ve probably been bombarded with questions that all are some form of “What’s this?” And in all likelihood, giving the answer “I don’t know” is entirely unsatisfactory to them. As the adult, you almost feel compelled to avoid uncertainty in your answer.
In the same way, it seems to me, when we interact with a spiritually-young person, we’ll get bombarded with “identify this” questions, and just like with a toddler, not having the spiritual answer is frowned upon. So even for the complex, grey-zone questions, we tend to pick sides on every topic, rather than saying “well, I don’t really know, and I’m not sure we CAN know.” Somehow it feels dangerous to admit there are unknowables.
And maybe that’s fine for responding to the young questioner. We have to get established in our thinking before we can begin working with nuance. But should we stay there?
So as I consider my interaction with this group of queer individuals, I see two interesting things existing simultaneously in opposition to one another: each of them had selected labels for themselves (THIS one was bisexual and demiromantic, THAT one was transmasculine, another was cisgender but demisexual, and so forth) but the one thing they all agreed upon was that those labels were merely informational, subject to change, and only to be used to aid in understanding, not to be used to discriminate or isolate. So the labels were inherently inclusionary.
By contrast, with my upbringing, labels were almost always used to establish boundaries and reject the nonconformist. The labels were inherently exclusionary.
I’m reminded of Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 13:
11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child. When I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now abide faith, hope, love—these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Catch Paul’s sentence: “When I became a man, I did away with childish things.” It’s tied directly to the maturity of love.
When I think about labels, then, and how they might tie to love (and by love I don’t mean romance or sexual activity, but instead by how we treat others and bring them into relationship) – love is inclusionary, not exclusionary. There are times, to be sure, where “love” means boundaries. But when I think about how we typically apply boundaries, it’s very exclusionary: we want to create and enforce spaces within which we’re comfortable, where otherness can be rejected and excluded and especially to be used to help differentiate US from THEM, to build our tribe’s sense of self and superiority. It feels loving for those of us within the tribe – but we don’t spend much time thinking about the true welfare of those outside our tribe.
Think about the definition of “queer” for a moment. These days it’s almost exclusively used to refer to gender and sexuality, but the root definition, before that change, was (from Webster’s Dictionary) “differing in some way from what is usual or normal.” “Usual or normal,” of course, establish a binary: it’s either normal or it’s not. But consider how Britannica discusses the term “queer”:
“Queer theory argues that academics and activists rely on and reinforce dichotomous notions of sex, gender, and sexuality within their work. These binaries may be male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual. Queer theory problematizes these binaries by arguing that they reify difference and hierarchy and, as a consequence, reinforce the notion of the minority as abnormal and inferior (for example, homosexual desire as inferior to heterosexual desire, acts of femininity as inferior to acts of masculinity). Thus, queer theory is a call to transgress conventional understandings of gender and sexuality and to disrupt the boundary that separates heterosexuality from homosexuality. Instead, queer theorists argue that the heterosexual-homosexual division must be challenged to open space for the multiple identities, embodiments, and discourses that fall outside assumed binaries.“
Essentially, “queer” is all about anti-binaries. Put differently, it rejects simple categorization. But even when a complicated categorization – or labeling – has been achieved, it’s still largely irrelevant to how we treat someone. They’re people. End of story. They either deserve our love as individual human beings, or they don’t – we can’t discriminate who we extend love to. Perhaps you’ll notice that as I’ve been speaking, I’ve been using the words “individuals” and “people” and “person.” I refuse to call them “transgenders” or “queers” because those are also categorizations that are used to separate and boundary-keep and isolate ourselves. I’ve seen the same, and I agree with it, about using the phrase “enslaved people” instead of “slaves.” They’re people, that by circumstance were enslaved by others, or are queer, or are transgender, or in general are (a) people that are THEN (b) something labeled.
The Bible addresses categorization many times. On particular word is προσωποληψία (prosópolémpsia), for which various translations use the word “favoritism” or “partiality” or “respect of persons.” There are four verses using this word: Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 3:25, and James 2:1, and they address the relationship between different people groups (Jew versus Greek) or different economic status (enslaved versus masters). Many other New Testament verses – and many of them Jesus’ own teachings – also address how we’re not supposed to change how we treat people due to our perceptions of them.
Why do we categorize or label people?
At the core, it’s a very natural thing. Our brains optimize processing by looking for patterns, and comparing incoming data to existing patterns. It’s a very functional system that allows for rapid response to new information. Instead of starting from scratch with new data, we can look for pattern matches.
This process happens from infancy; this article in the Trends in Cognitive Science journal discusses the process – and also the pitfalls it can cause in stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Our brain uses this categorization process to place us in groups or categories, to give us a sense of safety and security inside our own group – but it also unfortunately enables us to put others into groups of “the other.”
So an essential component of early learning is looking for patterns in the incoming data. The brain then reinforces those patterns with each new experience, until the response is nearly instantaneous.
So when we see, for example, a person with obvious breasts, our brain instantly identifies “female.” When we see a mustache, our brain instantly identifies “male.” Skin texture and musculature are also clues; smooth and rounded are usually female; rugged and lumpy are usually male. Clothing is more subtle, perhaps; high heels and fishnet stockings are usually female. Cowboy hat? Maybe harder, but usually male, so secondary clues are needed, such as hat color, or other clothing.
So, obviously, when I saw the individual looking at lipsticks with us, the clues were very contradictory, and that was a source of potential stress.
Because along with the identification of male/female comes a cultural set of expectations on how to treat that person. Or more to the point, the difficulty in immediate identification didn’t give me much-desired clues. So in the absence of clear understanding of this person’s identity, I didn’t automatically understand the necessary interaction. It wasn’t simple. I wouldn’t know whether to treat them as male or female.
And therein lies, I believe, the major point of stress for many people in dealing with queer persons. People want simplicity, easily-understood response patterns and expectations. It feels like an imposition on them to be required to figure out how to treat someone. Having to ask another person’s preferred pronouns imposes personally. It would be far simpler to see a pair of breasts and say “she/her/hers,” or a mustache and say “he/him/his.” But breasts and a mustache? Nope. No such simplicity is suddenly possible. Same thing with a total lack of cues in an androgynous nonbinary person.
And so, the labels break down. The easy and convenient binary is gone.
In its place, I would suggest, is the requirement to love.
And love, as Jesus defines it for us in hundreds of unique yet well-synthesized ways throughout the Gospels, is self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. And I don’t mean “what WE think would benefit them,” because that’s not self-sacrifice; that’s self-serving. Sometimes – often – love means truly respecting someone else’s labels and choices for how they need to be approached, even if – especially if – it’s inconvenient to us.
So in that abruptly transformative moment in the presence of a handful of queer people in my living room, something toggled in my brain: I suddenly didn’t need the simplicity of my own preferred labels to feel comfortable. I could enjoy these beautiful people, each of them far more unique than I’m used to encountering. It required of me a lot of flexibility, and also curiosity about how each of them preferred to interact. A lot of that I could gain by simply observing. Some of it required me to completely set aside my inherent desire to pick either an “interact with a male” or “interact with a female” rule set. Instead, I had to be thoughtful and careful in each interaction.
There’s an interesting side effect that I can see from interacting with queer people, by the way. As I’ve been more attentive to other people and their emotions in the last few years, I’ve heard more and more stories about the difficulty women have in male-dominated spaces, because they’re accustomed to hypermasculine men running roughshod over those around them. It’s a consequence of men having rule over social interactions for millennia. They get to set the rules, and expect women to abide by those rules. Men are generally free in male-dominated situations to treat others poorly, specifically by not really caring how their interactions affect those around them. It’s part of being “manly,” unfortunately.
So in this new era with many queer people, an interesting thing happens. Queer people are intimately accustomed to paying careful attention to how their companions desire to be treated. What labels they use. What permissions they give for touch and personal space. It requires a level of personal humility and tolerance that “manly men” are unaccustomed to giving – or would actively resist giving.
In the past, I used to wonder why so many women seemed more accepting of queer people than did men. I encountered very few men willing to tolerate queerness. I used to see it as a failing of women, but now I’m changing my mind and see it as good and desirable. That’s because I am beginning to suspect it has a lot to do with women feeling unsafe around self-interested, domineering men who are unwilling to be instructed by others, or to have others place requirements on their interactions. Basically, they willfully and aggressively ignore boundaries. But in a certain sense, accepting queerness is all about honoring the boundaries that others set.
So it perhaps isn’t surprising that women would be natively comfortable in these queer spaces: they finally have encountered people, while even if they don’t share the value systems, know they are safe around them. For the most part, queer people are simply more willing to honor boundaries.
Put a bit differently: queer people are better at showing a Biblical kind of love towards each other: treating others how they would wish to be treated, and accepting and cherishing others despite differences and shortcomings. It’s exactly what Jesus described in John 15:12-13: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” It doesn’t have to be actual dying on a cross – it’s a million small deaths, daily setting aside our personal preferences and comfort, for the sake of those around us.
And perhaps it all starts with rethinking our relationship with labels.