By Julie Morgenlender
Our world is filled with assumptions about labels. We like to assume that we know what labels others apply to themselves. We all do it to some extent, and it becomes a problem when we insist on it, when we don’t accept the labels that people have chosen for themselves.
Now, some people prefer not to use any labels at all. Personally, I like the labels. I like the community that comes with them and I like having shorthand ways to describe certain aspects of myself. What I don’t like is the prejudice that so often accompanies them. No matter how anyone feels about labels, though, I don’t think it’s up to anyone but the individual to choose them. Or not choose them. Whatever they want. Too bad society doesn’t tend to work that way.
Something that surprised me was the realization that the way people label folks with chronic illnesses and disabilities is similar to how people label folks who identify as bi+. When I date a man, people label me as straight. When I date a woman, I am labeled as gay. When I walk down the street, I am labeled as healthy. When I use a wheelchair, I am labeled as “something is wrong.” (Interestingly, most people still don’t think of me as “disabled” when I am in a wheelchair because they think I look too young and healthy to be disabled, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Do you see the pattern?
That’s right. The pattern is that other people are labeling me, and ignoring the labels that I’ve chosen for myself. As a bi person, I hear that I’m really gay and not ready to admit it, or really straight and just looking for attention. As a disabled person, I’m told that I just need to try harder or try new treatments, or that I’m “a faker” who is just looking for attention or to scam government benefits. After all, if they are monosexual, then I must be too. If they are able to recover from an illness or temporary disability, then mine can’t be permanent. They use their own experiences to label me. And it sucks.
I hear about this constantly in both the bisexual+ and chronic illness communities. We state, “I am _____” and someone else says, “No you aren’t” as if they know. As if it’s their place to label us.
I used to hide from this type of response. No more. As someone with a supportive family, supportive friends, and general safety, I now try to speak up for the community as well as for myself as much as I can. I try to combat ignorance with truth and information. I won’t change everyone’s attitudes, but if I can change just a few, maybe tolerance and acceptance will become infectious. Maybe just a few more people will accept us for who we say we are, with the labels we give ourselves.
Julie lives in Massachusetts where she serves on the board of the Bisexual Resource Center, volunteers with a chronic pain group, and is working on an anthology about living with chronic illness. Information about the anthology can be found at chronicillnesstruths.com