Why We Cannot Force Labels on Others

I have discussed why labels are important in the past, and regardless of anything that you are about to read here, I still believe that they are. We do not exist in a society that is beyond labelling yet – identifying as queer or transgender or black or Muslim still affects the way that you go about your day, the way that people treat you and the way that you are viewed by society.

But that being said, there is another trend that I have noticed when it comes to labelling individuals that I think needs to be addressed.

If you have been following following celebrity news lately, you might have noticed headlines such as, “Sam Smith Comes Out As Gender-Nonbinary” or “Sam Smith Reveals He Identifies As Gender Nonbinary“. Now, for those of you who might not be aware what non-binary identities are, what this would essentially mean is that Sam Smith identifies as neither male nor female, but rather, as a third gender that exists (as you might expect) outside the binary. Many non-binary people prefer to be referred to with pronouns that are neither masculine nor feminine – in other words, they do not wish to be called “she, her” or “he, him”, but as “them, their”.

This is not what Sam Smith actually said in his interview with the Sunday Time.

What Sam Smith said was that he’s “as much woman as he is a man“, and he then proceeded to explain how he enjoys dressing up in women’s clothing and heels. The closest that Sam Smith came to identifying his gender was when he stated that he “[didn’t] know what the title would be”. He did not actually use the words “I am non-binary” in the interview, and he did not ask to be referred to using gender-neutral pronouns; more than anything, he seemed to express a desire not to be labelled at all. And yet, despite this, Sam Smith has been labelled by People and Vogue as non-binary.

Something similar has been happening to singer P!nk for years now as well. All over the internet, you can find people arguing about P!nk’s sexual orientation, and some, such as Perez Hilton, have even identified her as bisexual. Yet, P!nk has never made any active attempt to label herself at all. In a 2012 interview, P!nk discussed what dating was like for her (before she was married to a man), stating, “I wasn’t gay, but all my girlfriends were. So no, it wasn’t a big deal for me, but when (a tabloid) comes out and says, I just said I was bisexual, it’s like what? That wasn’t my truth, and I like truth. I like absolute truth.” And yet, regardless of this, you can still find her identified with the label ‘bisexual’.

Now, on the one hand, I understand why some people might want to identify Sam Smith as non-binary and P!nk as bisexual; both of these identities are seriously underrepresented in the media. So, as a result, people who do identify with these labels want to be able to see themselves in others, particularly in celebrities who they look up to and admire. It’s a bit easier to do this when the celebrity in question actually identifies with your label, and lives with all the same stigmas and experiences that you do as a result. It’s easier to know that your identity exists and has value when you can see someone who is loved and respected and powerful identifying with it as well.

But the problem with these two specific instances is that neither individual has claimed the label that is being put on them.

Choosing what label you identify with, particularly when it comes to gender and sexual orientation, is a very personal matter; nobody else can choose it for you. You need to decide what feels most natural for you, what you think best reflects your experience. And if you do not feel comfortable adopting a label, even if it does reflect your experience just fine, then you should not feel forced to adopt it.

Perhaps Sam Smith is non-binary, or the way that we might think of non-binary anyway, but even if he is, he should not feel forced to accept that label just because others think that he should. He should be allowed to come to the conclusion himself, to decide what he feels best reflects his own experience without anyone else telling him how to feel or identify.

And, meanwhile, for those of us on the outside, we should not try to decide what someone else should or should not identify with. If someone tells us that they identify as bisexual, or non-binary, or as no label at all, then even if we do not agree with their choice, it is not up to us to tell them how they should identify themselves. That is their decision to make, based on how they feel and how they wish to be perceived and understood.

And at the end of the day, you need to make the decision of what you’re comfortable with. Live your truth, whatever that might be, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you are any more or less valid because of the word that you use to describe your experience. Because, as much as labels are a useful tool in helping us to sum up and explain our experiences, at the end of the day, they are just words, with all of the limitations that that implies.

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Queer Representation in Children’s Media

When I was a little girl, one of my absolute favourite things in the whole wide world was Harry Potter. (Oh, who am I kidding? That’s still true today.) The books. The movies. Everything. I loved it. I ate it up like a proverbial fat kid eats cake.

Now, I don’t know how familiar you, the reader, are with Harry Potter. Maybe you’ve never seen the movies or read the books, and you just have a basic understanding of it being about wizards or some shit like that. Maybe you’re more like me, and have the entire text of the books tattooed onto your soul. But I’m just going to assume that you’re a little closer to the former, just for safety’s sake, because I want to draw your attention toward a brief, seemingly unimportant scene in the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which was released when I was nine years old. Trust me; that bit will become important later).

Near the end of this movie, two male characters are revealed to have a close friendship (if I’m spoiling anything for you here, too bad, the movie’s been out nearly fourteen years now). These characters in question are Remus Lupin, a werewolf, and Sirius Black, not a werewolf. At one point, shortly after a reunion scene between the two of them that involved close hugging, the moon comes out from behind a cloud, and Lupin begins to turn into a werewolf. At this point, Sirius grabs hold of Lupin and tries to get through to him, saying things like, “this heart is where you belong, this heart!” indicating Lupin’s own chest.

Now, what about any of this matters, you might be asking? This is just a meaningless, nothing little scene that establishes nothing besides the fact that Lupin is turning into a werewolf, right? Well… yes. Yes it is. But at the age of nine years old, when I first saw this scene, something got confused along the way in my head. I think it might have been something about Sirius screaming about hearts as he held Lupin close. What I’m trying to say is, when I was nine years old, I seriously, genuinely thought that Sirius and Lupin were a couple in the context of the movies. And I’m not talking about “shipping” them (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the lingo, that’s geek-talk for thinking that two characters would make an amazing couple, even if they are not actually romantically or sexually involved in the actual text). I mean that I actually believed that they were “together”.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. In the Disney movie “Mulan” (which came out when I was three years old; I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw it, but it was probably around then), there is a character simply called “the Matchmaker”, and I was completely convinced that that character was a drag queen. Maybe it was the heavy make-up combined with the fact that she accidentally draws a goatee on herself later on in the movie. Maybe I just didn’t catch onto the fact that it was a goatee made of ink, not hair. I don’t know, for some reason, when I was a kid, I was simply convinced that children’s movies were much more progressive than they actually were.

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens did I discover that Lupin and Sirius are not actually a couple in the context of the story, they’re just good friends, or that the Matchmaker was actually intended to be interpreted as a cis-gendered woman.

Now, the reason why I interpreted these characters this way could be manifold. It could simply because my parents did not try to hide the existence of other sexualities and genders from me as a kid, and so it simply made sense to me that, if these people existed, they would exist in my media as well. Or maybe it all has something to do with the fact that I personally grew up to be bisexual; maybe whatever it is that has hardwired me to be queer automatically made me search for role models in my media as early as three years old. I don’t know what the reason is, all I know is that I can now make people laugh with the funny “I genuinely thought Lupin and Sirius were a couple” story now.

But, personally, I think that the fact that I thought this way as young as I did is important to a discussion that we have been having in our media lately: namely, is it okay for children to be exposed to queer characters in media?

Actual queer characters (not just the ones I’ve made up in my head) have been confirmed in some children’s media lately, possibly the most famous example being LeFou in Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Yet, LeFou sort of ended up being a disappointment to both sides of the argument. Parents who disagreed with queer representation in children’s media refused to take their children to this movie because they didn’t want them exposed to a message that they thought could potentially be harmful. Meanwhile, audience members who wanted to see explicit queer representation got little more than a split-second dance scene between two men, hardly confirming or denying anything (after all, even as a nine-year-old, I would have known that two men can dance together without being in love with each other).

Since then, we’ve had character after character in children’s media (including Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok and Yellow Ranger Trini from the Power Rangers movie) either hint at potential queerness, or be marketed to the audience as a queer character, while never actually coming right out and saying, “hello, yes, I am actual queer character, pleased to meet you!”

In other words, this media can bring in an audience that desperately wants to see actual, confirmed queer representation in mainstream, children’s media, while simultaneously appeasing the parents who don’t want their children exposed to that gross, gay stuff.

But, end of day, really, what’s wrong with exposing children to the existence of queer individuals?

I know that I’m probably not a convincing example of someone who grew up exposed to this in my media and turned out fine, considering the fact that one of the major fears of including these characters in these movies is that it will somehow turn their kids gay. But at the same time, to that, I say two things: 1) I don’t think that I “became bisexual” the moment that I heard Gary Oldman screaming “this heart is where you belong” to David Thewlis. I sort of think that being bisexual was somewhere in my genetic code long before that. And, 2) at the time, when I was a young, pre-pubescent nerd wearing a lightning bolt scar drawn onto my forehead with eyeliner, I actually didn’t think anything of this quote-unquote ‘relationship’. I didn’t think that it was weird that Sirius and Lupin “were a couple”. I mean, yeah, at the time I decided that they were my favourite couple in the series, but that was mostly because this was movie three and the only other couples that I had to choose from were all parents (which, to a nine year old girl, was gross).

You know those stories that you hear of a little kid asking, “what are gay people?” and the parents explains it calmly, to which the kid goes, “oh. Can I go play now?” Yeah, that was pretty much just my reaction to these movies. I didn’t linger on it. I didn’t hate it or think it was gross, or even really decide that I was going to grow up to be in a same-sex relationship, just like Lupin and Sirius. I just saw it, thought it was kind of romantic, the way that Sirius tried to pull Lupin back from being a monster just like some sort of Beauty and the Beast, and then I moved onto the awesome werewolf fight scene and the flying broomsticks and the supposed devil worship. Truth be told, if this wasn’t an argument that we were having now, and if I hadn’t been wrong in my interpretation of the film, I might never have thought about any of it ever again.

So when people nowadays discuss the potential “dangers” of including queer characters in children’s media, I always go back to that nine year old girl who thought nothing of the possibility that two wizards were also a couple, or that the Matchmaker was openly a drag queen in ancient China. None of this bothered me as a kid, none of it even phased me. Perhaps it would have if I had told the adults in my life how I had interpreted these characters and they had laughed at me or told me that I was wrong, but no one ever did that to me. No one ever told me that queer characters didn’t belong in my media, and so I simply assumed that queer people belonged everywhere. Being informed on these matters, being allowed to think about them and interpret them freely, made me more open-minded and accepting, not only of queer characters, but of queer people in real life, and eventually, of my own queerness as well.

It wasn’t until I grew up did I discover that others disagreed with me. And, to this day, I still don’t think I understand why.

Acting Like A Lady

“Oh, come, come, sweetie. Don’t say those words. Ladies don’t curse.”

“Ladies sit with their legs closed, sweetie.”

“Ladies wait until marriage to have sex.”

“Real ladies don’t wear too much make-up, lest they lead the boys on and give them the wrong idea.”

“Real ladies don’t kiss other girls, because that’s not the right way to get a boy’s attention.”

“Real ladies like girly things, like make-up and shopping and gossip. They don’t enjoy sports or comic books or science fiction.”

Honestly, I could go on and on with these, but I don’t think I have to. Because I think that (especially if you were born female), you’ve heard at least one of these statements before, and probably countless others.

This idea of “being a lady”, being a proper, well-behaved young girl. Some people still say this to children of the genetically female persuasion. Some people still say this to grown women. I know I’ve heard it many, many times; very recently, in fact, I’ve received the complaint that swearing is “not lady-like”.

And I think that many people will defend this idea of enforcing “lady-like” behaviour in girls simply because it’s “proper manners”. Look at the example of telling girls that they need to sit with their legs closed: of course we need to tell girls that, because girls, more frequently than boys, wear dresses and skirts, and it simply isn’t polite for children to be giving you a view of their underwear.

Except, A) children engage in a lot of activity that isn’t polite because they’re children, and B) young girls are also capable of wearing pants, and young boys are never told that they need to sit with their legs closed (for more on this, look up ‘manspreading‘).

And, in fact, a lot of these behaviour that we tell girls to engage in from a young age really have nothing to do with manners. There is no etiquette-assigned reason for why we can’t wear dark eyeshadow or visible foundation. Polite conversation does not particularly care how many sexual partners you have had, so long as you are not going into lengthy detail about them at the time. And there is most certainly no manners-related reason why girls can’t kiss other girls, whether they are doing it because they are lesbians, because they are bisexual, or because they are simply curious and/or experimenting.

So, all of this considered, why do we tell girls this? What does “acting like a lady” really mean?

Well, if I’m gathering information from the above examples, a “lady” is quiet, innocent, virginal, takes up very little space, doesn’t attract too much attention, feminine, and heterosexual. In other words, she is the quintessential passive, submissive woman living under the patriarchy.

And allow me to take a moment to say, “fuck you” to that noise.

Because here’s the thing: women should be allowed to be whoever they are. They should be allowed to make noise without being worried that they will be rejected by society as “unfeminine” if they do. They should be allowed to take up space. They should be allowed to curse and wear make-up and kiss girls and boys and whoever the fuck they want, no matter who gets the wrong (or maybe right) idea about them.

And they should be allowed to do all of this, while still being accepted as valid human beings, rather than the horror stories that we try to steer our children away from.

Because, end of day, what we should be striving for our children and for, ultimately, everyone, regardless of gender or age, is that they have the ability to be who they are. And maybe some of us do fit into the mould of the “lady”; maybe, my nature, some of us are quiet and passive and not the greatest fans of sex or sexuality. But my point is that, while that should most certainly be accepted, so should the opposite. Nobody should feel forced to become anything they are not because society says that they should. Nobody should be pressured to “act like a lady” just because they happened to be born with a vagina. Because not all of us were born as “ladies”, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t women and, more importantly, people. That doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve respect, or acceptance, or to be taken seriously.

So the next time that you most to correct someone else’s “un-ladylike” behaviour, question yourself; is this behaviour really “un-ladylike”? Or is it merely the behaviour of a different sort of lady?

And, please, never feel guilty for acting in a way that comes natural and hurts no one. A lady can do whatever the fuck she wants, because the beautiful thing about us ladies is that we are all, each and every one of us, different.

The Love of Monsters

As Halloween approaches, everyone is getting prepared in the fairly typical ways. We’re all fine-tuning our costumes, decorating our houses, and, if you’re anything like me, watching a lot of horror or monster movies.

Personally speaking, I’ve always been drawn to horror movies – or, really anything with a monster in it. And, more than that, I’ve always been drawn to the monsters themselves. I didn’t just love vampires and witches and shape-shifters – growing up, I wanted to be one. My whole life, I’ve been obsessed with these stock characters of film and literature, but it’s only really been recently that I’ve found myself questioning – why? What is it about these characters that draws me – or, more generally, that draws us to them? I mean, there must be something, considering we have a whole day (or, for some, a whole month) dedicated to them.

The stock-answer that many have come up with is simply that we as a species enjoy being scared. Being scared produces adrenaline, which leaves us with a nice “whew-I-totally-escaped-that-killer-even-though-there-was-no-actual-danger” feeling afterwards. But, truth be told, in my case at least, I don’t think that fully grasps where my obsession with these characters comes from. I mean, sure, if I actually met up with a vampire in real life, I’d probably be crumbling to my knees and begging for my life (seriously, it wouldn’t be very pretty), but I’m well aware that the chances of that actually happening are pretty slim. And yet, that doesn’t stop me from turning on Lost Boys or Interview With The Vampire – and not just in October either. I’m talking about a year-round obsession here. A year-round obsession with something that, supposedly, is intended to scare me, but by my 111th-viewing of Lost Boys, it’s sort of lost its initial edge.

So why do we keep going back to these figures?

Well, the next answer that I could think of for this would be that monsters often symbolize for us the forbidden, but I’d even take that a step further – monsters symbolize transgression.

Ever since childhood, the monsters were the only characters that I saw on screen that were allowed to transgress.

Witches, for example, are often represented, not only as strong women, but as unashamedly strong women. Women who keep only female company (interpret that how you will), and who don’t worship the Christian God, and who forego the act of having children. Women who are learned and down-to-earth and free with their bodies and their sexuality. There’s a reason why many feminists identify strongly with witches.

Vampires are often associated with sexuality, due to that whole penetration-exchange-of-fluids thing. Sometimes, such as in Bram Stocker’s Dracula, this sexuality is merely supposed to be interpreted as deviant-outside-of-wedlock-not-for-the-purposes-of-conception-sexuality. Sometimes, such as in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, this sexuality is supposed to be interpreted as same-sex-sexuality. Either way, vampires are usually allowed to operate under rules that society restricts humans from, and these rules are often sexual in nature, or at the very least carefree and fun, rarely producing any serious consequences (unless you count getting staked through the heart as a serious consequence).

And even for the monsters that are a little bit less fun to imagine yourself as, they still force us to operate by rules that society restricts us from. Stories of possession force the possessed to reveal sides of themselves they never would have. Zombie stories quite literally force us to imagine what we would do if there was no society to restrict us. And good, old-fashioned werewolf stories are, as we all know, supposed to explore the more animalistic side of humanity.

Growing up and watching these movies, the heroes were all pretty much one-note: strong, tough, fearless, quick-witted, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men or emotional, nurturing, white, heterosexual, able-bodied women. They weren’t really allowed to stray much in their character from story-to-story. The monster, however, could be anything. And now that I’m older, I know that the reason why the monster could be anything is because the monster is supposed to be disgusting and terrifying, and through their transgression, they have earned their punishment. But nonetheless, along my journey into becoming an unashamedly feminist, bisexual woman with mental illness, I had these monster movies to identify with.

And, I mean, yes, it’s a shame that Nancy gets hospitalized at the end of The Craft, but isn’t she just so badass before she does?

And, yes, it’s always sad to read about Carmilla being murdered at the end of Carmilla, but until then, she’s fucking awesome!

And truth be told, I think this touches on the reason why many of us enjoy monsters stories: because many of us relate to the monster. Even if it’s just some small part of us, no one feels like they completely fit in, and no one feels universally beloved and valued. Therefore, when we see a character that is literally hunted down for who they are, we can relate. Because many of us have at least felt as though we are expected to shave off parts of ourselves to fit into society’s mould.

Therefore, we take one of two approaches to the monster: we are saddened by their ultimate downfall, or we take comfort from the knowledge that they had to be destroyed for society’s own good, just like those parts of ourselves that we rejected.

But, for me, these monsters will always hold a special place in my heart because of that sense of identity, that shared feeling of being hunted down and hated by society. And I mean, sure, I understand that they went a little too far when they went to the lengths of murder, and I understand that they earn their punishments because of that, but still, it’s all a fantasy, right? It’s still fun to pretend, just for a little bit, that you do exist in the media.

And that isn’t to say that representation isn’t improving in the media. It is, especially as we continue talking about it. And hopefully, in the future, young, feminist, bisexual girls with budding mental illness will be able to see themselves in the media without that exact character being punished for who they are. Hopefully, we will reach a place in society where the hero is allowed to transgress just as much as the monster is.

But until then, the approach of Halloween gives me an excuse to settle down with a good book or turn on the TV, and catch up with my old friends.

Why You Should Not Have to Rush Coming Out of the Closet

The first time I came out of the closet, I was sixteen years old and very, very not ready.

Before I was sixteen years old, I had crushes on other girls, of course, but it wasn’t until then that I had my first crush that actually stood a chance of going anywhere. She had been in one of my classes, a girl so unlike anyone who I usually hung out with. She didn’t get along with any of my friends, and we didn’t often see each other outside of class. So what this essentially meant for me was that, for a good hour every day, I was distinctly reminded of my own difference, and then outside of that, I had to go back to pretending that I was something I wasn’t.

And, perhaps to make matters worse, my group of friends at the time had, for some reason, gotten into the habit of religious debates during lunch. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the most peaceful way that we could have been spending our break, but what can I say, we enjoyed argument. One lunchtime, these debates centred around the issue of homosexuality, and whether or not it was a sin. Having just finished my class with the girl I liked, I sat there, listening to my friends trying to decide whether I was going to hell or not, and without really meaning to, I broke in and screamed, “how do you think I feel about all this? I’m bisexual!

And at that point, all I could think was: well. I guess I’m the bisexual girl now.

Suffice it to say, I shouldn’t have come out that way. Not that anyone judged me or anything; I went home and I told my family, and I answered any questions that my friends had, and I tried to work out what all this meant for me, but the problem was, I had done all of this way too early. I found myself concerned that everyone was looking down on me now. Nobody ever called me a ‘dirty slut’ for being bisexual (not to my face anyway), but I figured that everyone was dismissing me as one now (full disclaimer: no woman should be judged or demeaned for the amount of sexual partners they have had, I’m just trying to describe how I felt at the tender age of sixteen). Nobody ever laughed at me or called me names, but I figured that they probably were. I didn’t feel comfortable showing affection toward any of my straight female friends, because I didn’t want them to think that I was flirting with them.

People did tell me that they thought I might be faking it, either for attention or to look edgy or different, and there was a part of me that agreed. Because, truth be told, I didn’t know that I wasn’t yet. I knew that I had had crushes on girls, but what if those were just flukes? What if I had just fooled myself into thinking that they were crushes because I wanted to be different?

The best way that I can think to describe it is to say that it was like I had ripped off a scab before the wound had fully healed.

A few years later, when I was eighteen years old and my dating prospects had long since gone up in smoke, I found myself wondering why I was even bothering to be out of the closet. I distinctly remember thinking that it would be better if I just went back to what I called ‘factory settings’; just call myself straight, pretend it was all a phase, and live without the assumptions that society places on bisexual girls for a while.

It was another year or so before I was comfortable coming back out of the closet, and challenging these assumptions by being my awesome, loving, passionate, open-minded, happy bisexual self.

Now, why am I telling this story, you might now be asking yourself? Well, for one, October 11 is National Coming Out Day, and two, I wanted to illustrate, for straight and queer people alike, that coming out of the closet is not always an easy thing, and not just for typical reasons that we hear about. I mean, sure, there are most certainly plenty of queer people, youths and adults alike, who are stuffed into their closets by judgemental parents or a closed-minded community, sure, but in my personal experience, I didn’t have any of that. For the most part, my family and my community were fairly accepting of me. I am privileged enough to say that I didn’t risk being disowned by my parents or thrown out on the streets, and I know not everyone has that same opportunity, but coming out of the closet was still mental torment for me.

One of the things that we don’t seem to talk about very often is the way that our society forces us to internalize certain ideas. Of course, I knew that I wasn’t flirting with my straight female friends (most of them weren’t even my type anyway), but society has sort of given us this image of the queer woman as predator, the queer woman as a threat to straight women, that I was worried I’d be perceived as that. And there was a part of me that knew I wasn’t making up my bisexuality because I knew that I had experienced it, but at the same time, there was a part of me that wasn’t sure because society had told me, time and time again, that bisexuality doesn’t exist, you’re either straight or you’re gay, end of story.

But sometimes, it really doesn’t matter what you know to be true. If society tells you enough times that something is wrong, then it’s always going to feel wrong.

And that was what I hadn’t come to terms with the first time that I came out of the closet: I knew who I was, but I didn’t understand what that meant.

And I know that there are a lot of queer youth out there who feel guilty over still being in the closet. There are some circles who perpetuate this idea that, if you know you are queer and you have not told your friends or family yet, then you are lying to them. But the thing about coming out of the closet is, that’s sort of something you need to be absolutely ready for. And I’m not just talking about being ready situationally. Because you are going to deal with awkward questions from time to time. And you are going to deal with straight people who seem to have never met a queer person before and have no fucking idea what to do with you, even if they’re alright with you in theory. And, worse than that, you are going to deal with internalized assumption about what being queer makes you. Violence notwithstanding, you can deal with almost anything from other people, but only if you are strong enough in yourself and in your own identity that you know when they are wrong.

So if you’re still in the closet, then please, don’t feel any guilt over it. You are not lying to your family or your friends by not telling them that you’re queer. You are protecting yourself. You are giving yourself time to build up confidence, to understand who you are and that the way that society might view you isn’t always correct. There will always be time to come out of the closet when you’re ready (and trust me, you really should; it’s great out here), but there’s no need to rush out there and risk damaging your self-esteem in the process.

Because there is nothing wrong with you. You are brilliant, and you are full of love, and you deserve every chance in the world to give that love to someone amazing. And it is completely understandable if you don’t see that in yourself quite yet, but you should. Give yourself some time, reconsider every negative stereotype that society has placed on you because of your queerness, and then show the world how amazing you truly are.