Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Remember chanting that as a child whenever the class bully derided you with harsh adjectives? Even though this adage has been around for decades, it holds little truth. Words can and do hurt deeply.
A recent discussion with a friend got me to thinking about labels. Labels we give ourselves and other people give us. There seems to be no limit to the amount of words we will use to describe ourselves, and how we sometimes embrace and allow these characterizations to define who and what we become.
It’s like we all have our own electronic label maker. Everyone in our society gets affixed with a descriptive tag. We use them for physical and mental illnesses, political leanings, religious beliefs, racial differences, personal wealth. Some of these can be very painful to the person on the receiving end.
I even label myself. Gay, democrat, liberal, pro-choice (not pro-abortion). I choose to call myself “gay” even though the literal meaning of that word doesn’t really apply to my personality. I’m much more contemplative than jolly, but “homosexual” sounds too clinical and “queer” makes me sound like an oddity.
Choosing a descriptive title for my romantic partner is a much harder task. Do I call him my friend, lover, spouse, partner, roommate, or boyfriend? I have many friends, so surely he deserves a more meaningful label than that. “Lover” sounds sexual, “spouse” rings hollow since we can’t legally marry, “partner” implies a business relationship, “roommate” carries no affection, and “boyfriend” only sounds appropriate for younger couples and has a temporary sentiment.
How to choose? Well, it depends on the situation really. I wouldn’t call him “lover” or “boyfriend” at the local mechanic shop; I don’t like confrontation and it’s also a matter of personal safety. I would call him “partner” when talking to a physician or “boyfriend” when conversing with friends, reassured that they wouldn’t care either way. I am looking forward to the day when I can refer to him as my spouse and have it come with all the rights that are normally associated with the word.
It’s easy to let labels define who we are, even to the point that we only want to associate with people who share the same ideals and beliefs that we do. Since labels are obviously here to stay, maybe we should more carefully consider how we categorize ourselves and others. It’s easy to forget, but “human” is the most important label of all.