People are afraid of labels, even when the labels fit them perfectly. What happens when you call a racist person racist? They’ll probably start crying, after calling you the n-word. What happens when you call a homophobic person a homophobe? They’ll probably start crying, after calling you a faggot.
Donald Trump, who accused Mexicans of being rapists and drug-pushers, claims that he is the “least racist person there is.”
Roseanne Barr, who called Valerie Jarrett the baby of “Muslim brotherhood” and “Planet of the Apes,” claims that she is hurt that people think that she’s a racist — even though she apologized for being racist, then blamed Ambien, then… Well, you know.
The fear of labels often distracts us from our harmful behavior. We are conditioned to fear labels more than the impact of our thoughts or actions. This is what often prevents people from acknowledging their behavior and working towards fixing the problem. This is the reason that homo/transphobia is difficult to unlearn.
I had a friend — let’s call her Samantha — who has a homophobic boyfriend. She often laughs at his homophobic Facebook posts, then she defends him whenever someone calls him “homophobic.” While Samantha does not directly participate in her boyfriend’s homophobia, she allows his behavior to go unchecked.
Is Samantha homophobic? Absolutely.
Will Samantha be offended if someone called her homophobic? Abso-fucking-lutely.
I’m not proud to say this, but I am still working to unlearn transphobia and years of internalized anti-queerness. Yes, I am a self-proclaimed transgender ally. Yes, I am a proud queer person. However, I’m human. Therefore, I’m flawed. Learning not to see labels as an attack helps me to genuinely acknowledge my mistakes and attempt to rectify them.
In 2012, I was an openly transphobic piece of shit. I called people transphobic slurs and purposefully misgendered them. Whenever someone called my behavior what it was, transphobic, I felt attacked. When I felt attacked, I was not receptive to listening to what the person I offended was saying.
Years later, I realized that I was no different from the racist people I argue with over the internet. I, too, defended my harmful behavior by claiming that I have the freedom of speech. I, too, defended my harmful behavior by calling people sensitive. I, too, defended my harmful behavior by calling myself a free-thinker. Nothing set me apart from the type of people I write think pieces about today.
Today, I’m receptive to listening to how my behavior impacts people, but I’m still unlearning transphobia and internalized anti-queerness. No, I don’t go out of my way to harass transgender people or feminine gay men, but I still have to check myself.
For example, last week, I impulsively tweeted “My mangina is shaking,” in response to someone tweeting good news about their career. I didn’t think anything of it, not until that person replied, “Arkee…” After that, I realized how my impulsive, fool-hardy tweet could offend many transgender people. Genitals are not specific to gender; therefore, using the term “mangina” ignores many transgender people. This is transphobic.
I would hate to call myself transphobic, but I would also hate to use behavior that reinforces harmfulness to transgender people.
I say all that to say this: people can grow up. When we grow up, we’re able to see things in ways we weren’t able to before. However, when we get caught up in labels, we distract ourselves from personal growth.
I would hate to consider my behavior transphobic, but if I think like a transphobic person, that’s exactly what I am. Unlearning problematic behavior starts with reflection, not a fear of labels.
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