French lesbian activist Élisabeth Chevillet looks at the politics of labels: confronting them, owning them, and why avoiding them can be a privilege.
The other day, my friend Nadine said she was thrilled that I’m as much of a label lover as she is. She meant it as a compliment, but I felt like an impostor. A label lover? I never saw myself that way.
At first, I had mixed feelings, because I don’t like to put people in boxes that suffocate them. But then, I got it. My friend meant the way I label myself. She meant me shouting from the rooftops that I’m a lesbian.
Labels are everywhere
For me, labels are all about turning a weapon into a tool. It’s about countering a slur by owning my narrative. It’s about empowerment. You want to call me a dyke? Well, be my guest!
If you love being a lesbian, it doesn’t automatically make you a label lover. For me, it’s not about love, it’s about pragmatism. Labels are everywhere, whether I like it or not, so I’m better off living with them.
People are sick of labels
Lately, people around me are sick of labels. They think we are human first. They think we are holistic beings with a universal common ground. They think we are complex and ever-changing, and that labels are dangerously restricting. They think we should love instead of labelling each other. And I think they are right.
Of course they’re right. We should embrace our differences. We should view diversity as strengthening rather than weakening our societies. We should treat people equitably to achieve human peace. Of course we should do all that—but we are not there yet.
Avoiding labels is a privilege
While some of us are busy imagining a perfect, label-less world people are dying. George Floyd is dead. Marielle Franco is dead. Dinah Gonthier is dead. Malte C. is dead. So if we need to imagine another world, we also need to deal with the reality of things.
Right now, the reality is that avoiding labels is a privilege. As a white person, I can choose to think about the fact that other people are handled differently because of their skin color. And I can choose to look away—it’s a huge privilege. For me, antiracism is a choice. For Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), it’s a necessity.
It’s the same for lesbians and every marginalized group. I think conceptualizing lesbianism, and therefore calling ourselves lesbians, is necessary to fight lesbophobia. That’s why our individual existences are highly political. Calling ourselves dykes is an act of resistance.
Reclaiming our identities
Unfortunately, avoiding labels doesn’t make the boxes in our heads disappear. For anyone belonging to a marginalized community, it doesn’t matter if you label yourself or not, because if you don’t, someone will do it for you. Mainstream society will remind you where you belong.
You will be reminded that you’re a woman. You will be reminded that you’re a dyke. You will be reminded that you’re a BIPOC. You will be reminded that you are trans. You will be reminded that you are fat. You will be reminded that you are poor. You will be reminded that you are a person with disability. You will be reminded that you are old, and you will be reminded that you are sick.
These reminders aim to silence you because you don’t fit in. So aren’t you better off reclaiming your identity? Then maybe you’ll notice: owning your narrative feels simply amazing.
Check your privileges
Labels are weapons and tools: they can hurt like hell, but they are also very useful. Beyond the self-empowerment factor, they can help us to check our privileges and feel the related discomfort, to empathize and to be better allies.
I am cisgender, I am white, I am thin, I have a non-disabled body and a middle-class background. In other words, I am very privileged—while people who don’t belong to those categories are often discriminated against. And to tackle discrimination, labels are necessary.
Look at France. We pretend to be color-blind. We pretend that white people and BIPOC are equitably treated. As French citizens, we are supposed to be united under a single national identity regardless of our country of origin or ancestral roots. As a result, our public policy excludes racial information from databases. The French color-blindness is obviously a lie. Not only does it not smash racism, but it also makes it impossible to track it. France would need race-based data to fight systemic racism and, therefore, labels.
Being a dyke is a blessing
So am I a label lover? I think it doesn’t matter. But I do love labelling myself as a lesbian. Here’s why. A long time ago, my lesbianism was buried in shame. I was scared to death to not be seen as normal. I was threatened with being beaten up because I loved another girl. I saw the disgust on people’s faces.
That time is over. What used to be a slur has now become my greatest pride. For me, “lesbian” is the label that brings our community together. It is the safe word that connects me with my lesbian sisters and lovers. For me, being a lesbian is a blessing. Thank God for making me this way.
Élisabeth Chevillet, French lesbian blogger and activist, is a board member the EuroCentralAsian Lesbian* Community.
You can read her other blog posts for Ylva Publishing here: www.ylva-publishing.com/author/elisabeth-chevil/
Follow Élie on Instagram: @eliechevillet
Merci, Élie! C’est exactement ça.
I entirely subscribe to Elie’s views. And thank her for articulating them so clearly.
Elie thank you for your perspective. While talking on the phone, a 91-year old woman asked me, “Karen how do you know that you are a lesbian?”. As I considered my answer, I remembered a comment from Jae. She said that you have to be careful when making a joke because unless someone can see and hear you to evaluate facial expressions mistakes can be made. So instead of being facetious, I told my friend that even as a young girl I knew. I didn’t have the words. As a child, I felt lost at times because I didn’t have a frame of reference for my thoughts/feelings. Labels help us understand ourselves. Labels give us a launchpad for more exploration of concepts. A declaration of ourselves to those around us also helps destigmatize the labels. Karen L. Worden, left-handed, liberal, lesbian