Identity & Play: My Life in Labels

Aug 3, 2016 | 2016 Summer - Labels, Articles

By Michele Spring-Moore

When I co-founded a social/support group for bisexual women in my Western New York hometown in the late 1980s, the statement I heard most often at meetings was, “I hate labels!”

This surprised me, as I’d never found labels limiting or prescriptive – I didn’t care what people called me, as long as it wasn’t heterosexual. I attributed the anti-label attitude to the streak of conservatism in our mid-sized city, which had a reputation for staidness more Midwestern than Manhattan. Our urban politics were fairly progressive, and we had an established “gay” community center board of middle-aged folks who helped elect an out candidate to city council but refused to start a support group for youth for fear they’d be accused of “recruiting” teenagers. As the very young editor of one of the oldest LGBT newspapers in the country, I had my paychecks signed by the organization’s board and had to cater to a diverse readership, so I learned to walk more in the middle of the road than was comfortable for me.

A few years later I U-Hauled off to grad school in the Rocky Mountains, where I met GLBTQ activists and feminist PhD students who immediately welcomed me into their gangs and taught me new terms from their studies in literature, film and theory of all stripes. It was a relief and a revelation to live in a smaller, more liberal city dominated by a university, where the artists and grad students had formed a Queer Nation chapter before I landed.

Performance art and political street theater were hugely popular in my new city, and it felt revolutionary to watch a troupe of radical feminist artists walk onstage through a curtain shaped like a gigantic vulva, years before Eve Ensler had inspired every female college student in the universe to monologue about vaginas on February 14. I loved hanging out with my buddy Jim as he strutted in white go-go boots and other mid-century mod drag at the only queer bar in town, and showing up at a protest to find several of our male friends in character as the Church Ladies, parodying the right-wing Christian fundamentalists who were launching their latest round of anti-GLB legislation in the Western U.S.

We were young – late 20s to early 40s – and labeling ourselves was part of the process, the protest – and the pleasure. People now tend to dismiss “identity politics,” but figuring out one’s identity and how that intersects with other oppressed groups’ concerns, needs and marginalization is vital. We noticed that those quickest to trivialize our words and work as “political correctness” were the privileged. As one of my favorite Chicana professors said at the time, “What about ‘humanly correct’? I’m a human being!”

While writing autobiographical poetry about coming out and hanging out with other young queers, I began to realize that I loved labels. For me they were handy tools, a verbal hankie code, shorthand to say to each other, “Hey, I’m one too!” Finding one another wasn’t as easy in the era when AIDS and silence equaled death, before effective drug cocktails had been created, as Ronald Reagan shuffled his homophobic way off the national stage and the senior George Bush moved into the White House. My response to “I hate labels” was to collect and flaunt them – “I’ll take as many as I can get!”, I wrote in a protest poem.

While preparing to read at one of Jim’s legendary queer performance and poetry evenings, I pulled from my dresser drawer a battle-worn white ACT-UP t-shirt with a Victorian-style photo on the front of two women kissing each other, and with a black fabric marker wrote on the back every label I embraced: Activist, bisexual, butch, byke, dyke, fag hag, feminist, genderqueer, kiki, lesbian… I concluded my slam poem and my shirt with ¡Poeta feliz!, which, if not idiomatic Spanish, was at least heartfelt.

One of the labels I carefully lettered on the back of my shirt was queer, apparently the most contentious term BLTGQ folks ever reclaimed, judging from the reaction then and now, nearly 25 years later. Although we never had an indepth conversation about it, I noticed that those who most vocally objected to the term were young gay and lesbian leaders of color, whom I thought would be most open to reclaiming harmful labels. But I’ve seen over the years that responses to labels are idiosyncratic, and we don’t know one another’s personal histories with various words/names until we do have those conversations, face to face or via social media.

On that T-shirt, I didn’t include one word that’s grown more popular over the decades to reclaim: slut. In the early ’90s, I was actively involved in local and national communities of self-identified sex positive folks, female and male, lesbian and bisexual, and took part (in a wallflowery, introverted way) in a couple of safe sex parties. But I never felt the need to claim the slut label when I was having sex with women, whether I was shouting stupidities at the stage when Susie Bright spoke in a rural queer bar or test-driving a strap-on for the first time.

I have a vivid memory of feeling simultaneously empowered and embarrassed about seven years later, when Robyn Ochs asked at one of her college workshops what labels we self-identified bi women were using, and I responded, “I’ve been identifying as a slut more than anything else lately.” I’d been having a brief, friends-with-benefits relationship with an older, long-time male friend – not exactly racy stuff, but his wife had just left him and I’d stepped into the breach, something my mother would not have approved of had she known he wasn’t yet legally divorced. Like many women my age, I was raised by women who preached that sex before, or without, marriage was a no-no; homo or queer sex wasn’t even on their radar screens, therefore not “bad” or “slutty.”

I’ve found that although I still like all the labels I adopted when I was young, they’ve evolved as I’ve matured, sometimes against my will. I still feel sexually transgressive when I’m being a peeping Tom/Tomasina, catching a glimpse of a hot older bear (OK, so I was staring – I guess that’s why he put up those kitchen window shades!), but in my early 50s, it feels more healthy and silly than slutty. I can’t take myself as seriously as I used to, which reminds me of another friend in her 40s in Boulder who, when I developed a crush on her, responded, “I just want to play.” So I’m adding playful to my list of labels, along with my latest: pansexual, multigender, girlfag and gnome.

I discovered the girlfag and guydyke identities several years ago, courtesy Janet Hardy’s book Girlfag: A Life Told in Sex and Musicals, and Girlfags and Guydykes on Facebook. This group defines girlfags as “(more or less female identified) persons who feel in one way or another like a gay man in a woman’s body. They are usually attracted to gay/ bi/ queer men and gay-male sexuality but are not limited to this and can be attracted to more types of people […] Girlfags can identify as cisgender, cisgenderfluid, transgender, or genderqueer.” While reading Hardy’s memoir, I began to re-examine my own life and recalled that the first person I’d been attracted to, at age eight, was a boy two years my senior who was willowy, delicate, sensitive, soft-spoken – regardless of his sexual and gender orientation, he would’ve been bullied in our neighborhood had his parents not moved the family to the Netherlands for several years. These days a boy a bit older than that would be labeled a twink in the gay male world.

I continued to fall in love with gay male friends, including the guy who was my bestie when we started college and came out of the closet. I’m still attracted to bears of all genders and orientations, and the older I get, the more I feel like a gay bear trapped in a female, 5-foot-4, soft-butch body. For many reasons, transitioning physically is not my cup of tea, and 99% of the time I don’t have what’s been labeled “gender dysphoria.” The solution I’ve settled upon came to me in a whimsical moment: I’ll call myself a gnome! The stereotypical garden gnome of European origin embodies the way I feel inside. I worried that I’d finally pushed the label envelope too far, but my closest friends have embraced the term because it makes them laugh, even if they can’t picture me in a belted tunic and a pointy white beard.

The key to my enjoyment of labels has always been to use them the way I like, rather than letting anyone else pin them on me. As I wrote this piece, I toyed with inventing a new one, as I’ve been unable to determine whether girlbears exist. Looks as if it’s time to create a new social media group!

Michele Spring-Moore is a (choose a label) in her early 50s who now plays with labels, gnomes, humans, cats and other creatures on the border of Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Northampton, Massachusetts. She blogs, bicycles and studies Spanish in her free time.

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