Labels and assumptions – and single stories

Pride parade in Uganda

Pride parade in Uganda

This blog has been surging up in me all day –more like festering, actually. It started with a Facebook post by one of my friends of a small group of courageous Ugandans having a Pride parade. Recently Uganda has passed laws that have made extreme penalties for homosexuals. These folks were risking a lot to openly declare their support for same sex relationships.

At the same sitting I came across a CBC article by Neil MacDonald talking about the power of words and their interpretation. He was referring to the name Redskins as a football team and how that carries a stereotypic racial connotation that is insulting and degrading to North American native people. He also, in the article listed all the initials that are now used to label in some way people of various sexual persuasion – LGBTTIQQ2SAA – or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, 2-spirited, Allies and Asexual.  Are there any letters left? And does this really even include everyone? Can anything as complicated as sexual identification or feelings be reduced to a single letter or word? One single story to determine who we are?

I suspect that each person has their own sexual personality, as unique as any other part of them. No label or initial can adequately or accurately describe that. We are humans. Humans are all sexual (or perhaps asexual) but that is the extent of the categorization that I think can be made. What individuals do with their sexual feelings, as long as it is consensual and respectful, is their own business and really ought not to need a label. So can we get rid of all these restrictive labels, please? Give us back the alphabet.

In Uganda, there has been a lot of public propaganda against homosexuals, generally initiated by American-based, right-wing, Evangelical, Christian groups. Gays are depicted as people who chose their orientation and who are out to convert others to their depraved sexual practices. How silly is this? Yet, even the Ugandan government has reacted to this position by passing the recent draconian laws.

Now this presents a bit of a problem for me. Because as much as I abhor this position, just like I don’t think homosexuals should be labeled, I don’t want to label all evangelical Christians as hateful, bigots…or all Ugandans as intolerant. Unfortunately, however, our human tendency is to pick a descriptive label and then make general assumptions about an individual based on the label.

I am a male, white-haired, senior, Canadian physician. Describing me as that will help pick me out in a crowd from a young native woman. So using words descriptively has a purpose. But please don’t make any assumptions about who I am as a person based on that description. I might surprise you. (There was also a video on Facebook of three 70-year-olds dancing with a caption suggesting how awesome it was that they still wanted to dance, let alone to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.)

It was refreshing to have our recent election campaign in Ontario not even mention that one candidate for Premier is lesbian. No one cared. It was not an issue. She, herself, identifies publicly that way but it is not a label that pertains in any way to her abilities as a politician. And she won a majority government.

To end my afternoon I went out on my balcony to have a drink and watch a wedding unfold by the waterfront in front of my apartment building. Guests were arriving, all dressed up. Kids in suits and girls in party dresses. A big white limo drew up. The minister stood waiting for the couple to arrive. Bridesmaids walked down the aisle. There were flower girls. Everyone smiling.

Time for the bride to arrive. Out of the limo arose a young woman in a white strapless dress. She slowly walked down the aisle and stood at the front. Then another woman and her father got out of the stretch limo. Another bride. He walked her down the aisle and kissed her on the cheek and presented her to the other woman.

Two bridesI had assumed this would be a wedding with a bride and a groom. I was wrong. These two women exchanged vows with their friends and family supporting them in this commitment. The ceremony ended with cheers and applause.

I was surprised and reminded that I had made assumptions that were subsequently upended. I don’t know this couple but I wish them well. I am so glad to live in Canada.

Now this isn’t just about sexuality.  It refers to all labels that we might put on people, reducing them to a single story. In a Ted Talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story” (linked below…i highly recommend it), an African woman, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says ” The single story creates stereotypes and the problem of stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete… the single story robs people of dignity… It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

P.S. As a result of my rumination today, I am going to try to be aware of when I am consciously or subconsciously labelling anyone, reducing them to a single story. I know I do. We all do. I am going to try to stop.

One thought on “Labels and assumptions – and single stories

  1. Thanks John, for sharing your reflections on labels and assumptions. I grew up in the “evangelical sub-culture”. We were often labeled “religious fanatics”… hardly a compliment! What a relief to know that evangelical Christians may be recognized for more than the “single story” of gay-bashing, hateful, religious bigots. Another story is their commitment to radical love and social action, regardless of people’s stripe or label. Evangelicalism traces its origins to the so-called Great Awakening in 18th century England, which combined spiritual renewal with a commitment to social action. It inspired people like John Newton (slave trader turned abolitionist) to write the famous hymn Amazing Grace, while campaigning tirelessly along with William Wilberforce against slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce was responsible for steering anti-slave trade legislation through the British parliament. The movie Amazing Grace, http://www.amazinggracemovie.com/, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006 tells their story. This kind of dangerous love could cost you your life! (And I’m not talking about unprotected sex!)

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