Labels. We love them enough to sew them onto our cheap clothes, symbols of status and wealth. We hate them enough to bristle when applied to ourselves, especially by others. And especially without our consent or input. For instance, my mother has a strong Scottish accent, yet she hates it when people refer to her as a Scot. That label is hers and hers alone to decide. Labels might not perhaps be the right word; it is of course loaded and it is clearly not neutral. Yet how are we to make sense of others, but more importantly of ourselves if we do not, to some degree, apply some identities?
I am going to get into trouble for this blog, I can just tell. Lots of block capitals and gifs of crying babies are no doubt winging their way through cyberspace as we speak. And I shall do what I usually do when faced with rudeness, I will bin and block. But identities matter to me. They define us to an extent, if we want them to, if we let them. And in that definition perhaps we find the sense of belonging we crave.
There are few label, if I might revert to that word, that I resent, for they are true and they are part of who I am. Not the sum total of it, of course. But certainly the labels reflect elements of myself and I am ashamed of none of them. Some labels, applied by others in anger and contempt, simply fall off as all badly affixed labels do. Eventually. Perhaps the gist of this argument lies in the details.
One identity that creeps back over and over is that of Gay Man. That is what I am. I am proud of it, proud of the struggle that lies behind it, the courage and the love and memories. I am from time to time asked to tick a box, identifying myself for the purpose of Equal Opportunities and it is with joy that I join my box. There were times not so long ago when no-one would have asked and when identifying as such I would have attracted replies ranging from “It’s just a stage,” to “Have you never tried it with a woman?” assuming my identity was so superficial that thrusting a vagina in my face, so as to speak, would solve the problem.
So some labels fit, and we chose them and show them off, little trappings of emotional luxury and proud status. And others apply labels that do not fit and we reject them, and sooner or later they fall by the wayside as they are not ‘us.’ But what happens when we wish to apply an identity to ourselves that is shared with others, and when that is not accepted by those we seek to self-identify with? This can be a source of pain. And it becomes an issue of power, the power to self-identify versus the power to reject and exclude.
I am thinking perhaps of those who are transgender, for whom identity is called into question from an early age. I do not truly understand what that must feel like, though I am sure it is both difficult and painful. I am filled with admiration and passion for those who struggle with this.
My own life is coloured by such conflicts of identity. For instance, I hold dual nationality. I enjoy this fact. I enjoy the plurality of belonging to two states, thousands of miles apart. I am comfortable with this, as I hold a beautiful blue and golden passport with whom none can argue. However when a deeper definition of nationality and belonging is applied it can be harder to hold steady.
When I was 22 I adopted a new faith, and 28 years later I still struggle with myself to truly feel at home in that community, truly part of it. Likewise, it took me several years to explore and settle down into a definition of ‘coming from Yorkshire,’ due to my place of birth, but not residence. And this is a little unstable still, and for that reason overly dependent on the acceptance of others.
I also have the issue of labels being applied without accepting them. “Ah, you are an Essex boy!” I have heard a few times. This identity has been conferred on me, and unwanted, as I live in Zone 6 of the London Underground system. I am no more an Essex Boy than I am….well, any other identity that I am not. Recently I did decide it was time to call myself a Londoner, after many years of living in erm….Essex. But London is where I feel at home, even if I often play the game of imagining life elsewhere.
But the issue that is truly troubling me at the moment, pressing on my throat and making me gag, is the identity tag ‘British.’ Obviously Brexit has stoked this one up. It has shone a light, as glaring and unwelcome as a prison search light on how I identify my nationality. I have always felt European. I grew up in Luxembourg, to Scottish parents. I was born in Yorkshire. The blue and yellow flag was big enough to encompass all of my identities. Now the pieces of that jigsaw of identity have been thrown in the air and other people, who do not know me, I feel are getting too much input into how these pieces are put back together. And the truth is there is one label that absolutely does not fit me and which I must return to sender. That is the concept of being British. I accept with happiness that I am English, through birth and residence. The two parts of England that are close to me are East Yorkshire, and London. And though in the past I might have fought the identity, I now understand that I am a Scot, through family and blood. What I do not feel remotely comfortable with is the Union Flag, the United Kingdom, being a ‘Brit,’ with the artificial fusing together in the form of a fosilised political union of my two countries. I view them as separate and distinct. I am no closer to Wales and Northern Ireland than I am to the Republic of Ireland or to France. And uncomfortably I also view the land of my birth and the land of my ancestors in conflict at present, with issues of power and widely differing world views. British? No. 100% English and 100% Scottish is how I am feeling at present. This is my personal view. Feel free to send me pictures of crying babies though…..
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