Identity is a powerful thing. The more we grow and evolve in life, the more we tend to gain clarity about “who” we are. Some of us find confidence and solidarity in labels: Gay, Strait, Bisexual, Pansexual, Queer, Trans, Nonbinary, Man, Woman, Black, White, Latina, Asian, Deaf, Teacher, Doctor, Nurse, Student, Activist, Artist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Pagan, Atheist, and on and on. There are so many identities we can embody and several that can define us all at once.
Often, labels can help us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. This is especially true for minorities and marginalized groups. A simple label can give a person a sense of community, liberation, and something to stand for. Our identities often drive what we want from politicians and social campaigns. We go as far as to label our political stances: Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, Independent. The very thing that can bring people together can also divide us, creating an Us vs. Them mentality.
Some people don’t like to label themselves at all. Not their sexuality, not their gender, not their race, not their belief system, not their politics. People who prefer not to fit into any one category may find themselves being pressured to choose a side, or to fit neatly into a box that everyone can readily understand and, consequently, judge.
Labels can change over time. A person can go from being an Atheist to a Christian to a Buddhist. A person can go from being a woman to gender-fluid. A person can go from being conservative to liberal. Few people stay in the same boxes their whole lives. We are creatures of change.
I think labels can be valuable. They give us a sense of self and purpose. But I also think fitting into a box can be limiting. When it comes to politics, many (not all) gay people will take a stand for gay rights and social acceptance. Many (not all) women will stand for women’s rights and feminism. Many (not all) immigrants will stand for other immigrants and refugees. But it can create a problem when people only take a stand for their own identities.
If people who are not directly impacted by the struggles faced by the LGBT community, the deaf community, people with developmental disorders, people with mental illnesses, Black people, Hispanic people, etc, aren’t as educated or involved, what does it say about political movements? If our politics are mostly driven by personal experience, how can we expect others to step outside of their own experiences to understand our needs?
I think we need to challenge ourselves to step outside of our own labels. I think sometimes our politics need to transcend our identities. And I think the way we do that is by educating ourselves on the experiences of people who are different from us. Otherwise, we’re stuck in our own bubbles, surrounded by a group (some smaller than others) that understands our struggles and our fight, remaining as unaware of our neighbors as they are of us.
I think it’s important for us to know ourselves. But I also think it’s important for us to build bridges by knowing about others, too.