Label, Label, Label

June 3rd, 2008

by Monica F. Helms Monica’s Picture

“Yer a cute girl.”


“I’ll let our mechanic take a look at this.”


“You still have a penis?  Then you’re not really a woman.”


Yes, in order to communicate as a human being, we need to label things to give other people a better understanding on what it is we are talking about.  If it weren’t for labels, we wouldn’t find the right foods in the grocery store.  We have to have labels to take the correct drugs, in the correct combination and at the correct time.  Harsh chemicals need labels to keep us from thinking we can use them in our mix drinks.  Labels not only help make our lives easier, but safer.





I’m sure the label “trannie” has a different meaning for an auto mechanic then it does for a transgender person.  However, there can be a bit of confusion when the mechanic is also a transgender person.


This need to label everything extends to labeling people.  If you thought about it, it would take you a long time to write down all the labels associated with you over the course of your life.  For those who believe that life starts at conception, then you can say you were labeled a “fertilized egg,” all the ways through to now being labeled “an old codger.”   Are you part of a family?  Then you could be a parent, father, mother, brother, sister, child, sibling, aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew, and in some cases, all of those.


Because of how important labels are in our lives, it is the mindset of all humans that everything has to have a label and it seems that the label they give that object is the absolute defining one as far as they are concern.  It doesn’t matter that the object has a different label for it in every language on the planet.  “My label is the right one, damnit, because I’m speaking English!”  Okay, no one really says that, but I get the impression some think it.


It appears to me that humans have a natural undying urge to label people and put them in various boxes for their own benefit and not out of respect for those people.  Because of that, many people think that you have to accept the boxes they put you in because they say it’s the absolute defining label for you.  This inflexible mindset has the most profound affect on the transgender community, affecting our core identity on a daily basis.


This being a highly patriarchal society, gender labels hinge on the present of a penis, or the lack there of.  “Iffin’ ya got one, yer a man or a boy, and iffin’ ya don’t, yer a girl.”  (Notice the word “woman” doesn’t even factor into this patriarchal way of thinking.)  This is so strongly engrained in our DNA that there are a lot of trans people today who have bought into this patriarchal garbage hook, line and sinker.  Some people seem to think that they get to decide what label you get saddled with based on a four-ounce body part no one in public should see.  The person’s gender identity or expression has nothing to do with it.


If a person wants to label me something, does that mean I have to live with their decision?  Will I die if I’m called a man?  I’m not talking about transgender hate crimes, which can result from people who hate those because of the labels they assume we have.  Labels by themselves cannot kill me, nor am I stuck with living my life based on what labels others call me or think of me.  Labels cannot harm anyone else either, yet, I get the impression all the time that a label can destroy other people’s lives simply by its existence.  I have not seen that happening to anyone as of yet.  Maybe some labels have C4 attached to them.  Does that mean terrorists will start using label for IEDs?  “Incoming label!”


Let me pick a label out of thin air to use as an example.  Let’s see . . . how about “transgender.”  No one ever talks about that label.  In some languages, the word “transgender” translates to their version of “transsexual.”  (See: and try various combinations.)  When reading a translated description of a transsexual murdered in a Spanish speaking country, I noticed the label “travesit” or “travesits,” a derivative of “transvestite,” is used a lot.  To them, it’s not a derogatory label.  A prime example of this is the name of the trans advocacy organization in Argentina, called “Asociacion Travesits Transexuales Transgénero.”


There has been a successful movement by LGBT people to reclaim and embrace the label “queer.”  Hate groups can no longer use queer as a slur to most of us, so they used other labels for their nasty comments.  I doubt there will ever be a movement in the American transgender community to reclaim the label “transvestite,” especially since many transsexuals don’t even like the label “transgender.”


I have read reams and reams of web pages on why the label “transgender” is such a harmful word that should never be used, none of which can be substantiated.  This stems from the widely accepted definition of the word, “transgender,” which serves as an umbrella term for ALL people who have or are currently crossing the gender lines, either permanently or temporarily.  When use that way, some groups don’t like the idea of sharing space with people who are not labeled like them.  One person once told me, “Define the label, but don’t let the label define you.”  Some people must think this label defines them, yet they have full control over all of this.  In my opinion, by getting upset with something like a label relinquishes their control over their own identity and gives that control to others.


Some people also based their hatred toward this label on the fact that a 100 year-old crossdresser supposedly invented it, which makes it flawed.  She didn’t invent it, but she used it a lot.  Sadly, when it comes to the origin of certain labels, history gets blurred and changed far too often.  History, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.


I have also read where the label “transgender” should be used in certain context, but not in others, and that we all have to abide by this hard, fast “rule.” in the use of this word.  Why?  It’s just a label.  I read where one person said that if a crossdresser did not go out into public, then they were really not a transgender person.  Where did they get that?  A label only means something to those people who seem to be obsessed with treating them like battering rams, swords, or poisonous insects.  “No!  Don’t go into the transgender light!”  Too late.


Labels have their place in our community, as long as people don’t get married to them.  When a person commits to using one label over another, they have a tendency of spending a lot of time defending their decision and chastising those who don’t use the label in the same fashion they do.  This is where those extended comments occur on certain postings, most of which are not on subject.  This reminds me.  Are you aware that trans people are masters at trigonometry?  They like to go off on tangents.  Pythagoras must have been trans.  (That was my intentional tangent or this article.)


To me, labels are part of my “activism toolbox.”  Like other tools, I use a label to perform a certain job and when I’m done with it, I wipe it off and put it back in the tool box.  I have found that when talking to some people, they understand the word “transsexual” better than “transgender,” so that’s the tool I use.  With others, I have to switch their use.  I also use “transgender” as an adjective and not a noun, like the words “transgenders” and “transgendered.”  Transgender American is a good label for me.  But, no matter what I use, I’m not married to that label like others seem to be, nor do I let it define me.


This is a subject that will be hashed over long after I’m dead.  Some people will insist that a label is “evil,” while others will spend gigabytes of web space trying to tell others what labels are to be used, for which people and under what circumstances.  Seems a waste of time.  The only label that really means anything to me is “Monica,” since I paid money for it.  And, the best time I like hearing that label used is when my girlfriend calls me to bed.  At that moment, I could care less what other labels people want to attach to me.


“Coming, dear.”

9 Responses to “Label, Label, Label”

  1. Monica Helms Says:

    Do you know how to use the shift key?

    Trust me, I have no desire to get your version of “it,” whatever the hell “it” is. If “it” is the label you like, then you have every right to use “it.” Have a wonderful life.

  2. Pauline Says:

    Smile “Your on candid delabeler”.

    Pauline de Labeler

  3. Sarahjane Says:

    Some people need to separate and categorize their neighbors into convenient ‘boxes’ or ‘label’. It’s like their ‘instructions’ on how to relate to others. If we observe and see someone as a male then we will use one defined ‘instruction book’ if you will; and the other ‘instruction book’ is for any female. But some can’t deal with those who can’t be put into the ‘male’ or ‘female’ box; because that’s all he can deal with. He’s the one who can’t think outside the ‘boxes’ which overflows to how he relates to his neighbors.

  4. Callie Says:

    I may not like labels, words people apply to me, but I certainly need terms, words I use to describe myself. I need words to speak who I am, to make myself visible beyond the expectations of heteronormativity.

    But labels have limits because they are always based on some degree of ignorance; they describe how others fit in our taxonomy, not how others know themselves.

    I have often asked transpeople to explain who they are without using the word “Not.” Too often we use labels as crutches and end up with a negative identity, one based on the claim that we are “not like them” and “not like those others.”

    The more we try to positively state the nuances and details of our own identity, without resorting to quick labels as identity props, the more we begin to value not own our own complex nature, but also the complex nature of others.

    Words are symbols, and like any symbol, they are not equal to what they represent. Meaning lies not in the word, but in the spaces between the words where reality exists.

    When we use words to cast those shadows of meaning, we have terms. When we use words to paper over that nuance, we have labels.

  5. Monica Helms Says:

    Your information and explinatuions has helped to enhance what I have wrote and what others have said. Beautifully written.

  6. zythyra Says:

    Wonderful post Monica!

    At times I have found various labels to be helpful in understanding myself, and also in finding community; musician, Jew, activist, anarchist, agnostic, pagan, spiritual, artist, vegetarian, male, female, gay, bi, faerie, transgender, androgyne… to name a few.

    It isn’t necessarily the labels that I find constraining, it’s the assumptions that often accompany them. When I feel boxed in by the label, it’s best to discard it.

  7. Shari Miller Says:

    The main issue I find with labels is that they are rarely defined to everyone’s complete satisfaction. They are used to differentiate one person from another, and all too often value judgments are placed on that differentiation. Based on one label or the other, that judgment leads to the conclusion not only of difference but a perceived superiority/inferiority, and this is unfortunate. All too often these perceptions are just that – superficialities, and in the long run are immaterial to the grand scheme of things.

  8. Shari Miller Says:

    The main issue I find with labels is that they are rarely defined to everyone’s complete satisfaction. They are used to differentiate one person from another, and all too often value judgments are placed on that differentiation. Based on one label or the other, that judgment leads to the conclusion not only of difference but a perceived superiority/inferiority, and this is unfortunate. All too often these perceptions are just that – superficialities, and in the long run are immaterial to the grand scheme of things.
    We are who we define ourselves, and we cannot allow others to define us because there will always be misperceptions.

  9. Shari Miller Says:

    Another thought: When we use labels, don’t we try and place limits on people, including ourselves? Even the most basic and fundamental labels don’t fully describe who we are or what our hopes, dreams, aspirations, and core identity truly are.
    At our innermost core of our being, labels fail to describe us, and so, we are who we are if we allow ourselves to touch that inner core. And when we can reach that point of self-knowledge, we are free to love who we love without putting any labels on others when we can look for the inner core of others.
    Easy? No. Threatening? Sure it is.
    But if we allow others to define us, we are relinquishing control of our lives to others, aren’t we? I would submit that when we get beyond labels, and accept one another as they are that we’ll all be a lot happier, won’t we?
    I think so.

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