On labels (for books and for people)

Over on tumblr, alphaqueer asked:

I’m not sure if you’re open to questions, but I was wondering: what do you think about novels being labelled a “lesbian novel” or a “gay novel” simply because the primary love interest isn’t straight?

My response:

hellomynameisI’ve thought about labels my entire life, because for a long time I wasn’t comfortable with being called “Asian” or “Asian American.” For a long time I simply wanted to identify as American, since I’m a naturalized citizen (I immigrated to the USA when I was three years old so I had to go through naturalization) and I wanted to be treated as any old regular American. If others insisted on a modifier, I preferred Chinese American, because Asia is a giant sprawling place filled with different nations who have long complicated histories. “Asian American” was not an identity that made a lot of sense to me, as part of a Chinese family growing up in a 98% white community in Colorado.

However, after a while, it got really tiring correcting everybody and telling them this. Believe me, I tried. Also: I came out. Then I had to deal with being called gay or lesbian or bisexual or (more recently) queer. For a while I didn’t want to have any labels applied to me about this either, because I thought (addressing a hypothetical stranger who was attempting to label me): What does it matter? And what business is it of yours? None.

I’m not sure when my perspective changed, but I think it was a gradual change that involved me letting down my defenses. A lot of my personal resistance to labels was due to the fact that I was trying very hard to understand who I was as an individual, and I disliked it strenuously when others made any attempts to limit my identity. As time passed and I went through a lot of therapy (seriously — I’ve had years of therapy because I’ve been clinically depressed several times), I gradually became comfortable with who I am. And I realized that who I am has nothing to do with what other people label me as.

Those labels that other people apply to me are their attempts to understand me. But my sense of self is independent from others’ categorizations of me. So these days, I don’t care what people label me. They can label me whatever they want, because I am still the person I am inside.

This is what I think about labels, and it also applies to labeling books. Whatever label is used to describe a book does not change what’s inside the book. It’s an attempt to understand it and to categorize it — that’s all. Furthermore, I’ve come to understand that labels can be useful, because they can call out to others who are interested in the things those labels identify.

If a book is about a same-sex relationship, I think it’s perfectly fine to call it a lesbian or gay book, but at the same time, it’s important to remember that the book is more than the label applied to it. The label serves a purpose. But don’t let it do more than that. The label is not all there is.