Label Me: Part 2

Matthew_B_Johnson

Part 1 ended with my reflecting on all the new types of labels I was learning about as I began my graduate program in Oakland, CA.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t exactly a fast learner. I was hearing new words, the meanings for which were as of yet unknown to me, but I was expected to know and use accurately and apply to the correct people.

Shit, I was still learning people’s names. It was difficult to keep it all straight.

To the credit of the majority of my fellow students to whom these new labels applied, they were patient with me while I learned. They offered gentle corrections, which, in turn, made me work harder to learn the labels and apply them to the right people. That, and many of these people became my friends.

Much like the experience with my friend Richard who I discussed in Part 1, I wanted to get the labels right because the people I became friends with cared about the labels with which they used to identify themselves.

However, not everyone was gracious about it.

My first semester, I had a brief encounter with someone who knew someone with whom I was having a conversation in the campus café (it was a small campus, so there was only the one café). In the course of conversation, this person mentioned, more to their friend than me, that they were a gender-fluid, demi-sexual person with “they/them” pronouns.

Before my first semester in the Bay Area, I was unfamiliar with the concept of preferred gender pronouns. It was something I worked to figure out as I desperately struggled to pass my critical theory class and my graduate writing and research class (the rough raft of my first major essay had so many corrections on it, I was convinced that I had been admitted into my graduate program by mistake, that the faculty would discover me for the fraud I was, and the administration would summarily and unequivocally kick my ass out of school).

Not knowing the terminology this person used, and given that so many of the people I’d met had been willing to explain things like to me (it seemed obvious that I was coming from place of well-meaning and genuine ignorance rather than intolerance…I hope), I asked questions.

“They/them?” I said. Having earned a Bachelor’s degree in English nine months prior (I graduated mid-year from U of A), using plural pronouns for a single person didn’t mesh for me right away.

And sure, in colloquial speech, we often use “they” and “them” to denote a single person while still accurately conveying the intended meaning. But it was still grammatically incorrect, and because I’d been training to notice things like that, my brain focused on it.

This person gave me a hard stare. “What part of gender-fluid didn’t you understand?”

“Well…all of it,” I confessed.

They rolled their eyes and got up to leave, but not before saying, “Typical heteronormative, cis-gender male bullshit,” with as much disgust as they could muster.

More confused than before, I turned to the person with whom I was already speaking. “What does any of that mean?”

She shot me a withering glance, which quickly shifted to a look of, “oh, you poor, dumb moron, you have no idea, do you?”

I did not.

I can happily report I have since learned.

But I have to admit to resisting to some degree. Yes, in part due to that lone experience, but also, I wasn’t sure why we needed so many labels.

Don’t get me wrong, labels are useful. Ever find a can of food without a label on it, so you set it back on the stockroom shelf hoping someone else will be able to divine the nature of its contents, but no one does, so months go by until finally, August rolls around, and that heated up mystery can accidentally rolls under the forklift and explodes, showering you and two other employees with…

Drumroll, please…

Expired cat food.

Who had expired cat food in the office pool? You’re the…big winner?

I kid, of course. “Guess what’s rotting” is a game with no winners.

But back to the matter at hand.

The easy part was learning what the labels were, though there was the occasional disagreement about what certain terms meant and what all they did or didn’t envelope.

The hard part was keeping straight which labels applied to which people. And, again, most people were aware of this, and if I got it wrong, which I did, especially at first, they were cool about it because I was trying.

Well…I was trying most of the time. Admittedly, there were times where I was having a bad day or I was overwhelmed by school work, and I was dismissive or even irritated when I did something like misremember someone’s pronouns and received subsequent correction.

I might be half-man, half-machine, but that half-man is still 100% human, subject to all the mistakes and shortcomings of the human experience.

Which brings me to the other side of the label coin.

I was frequently asked which labels applied to me. I wasn’t sure how to respond. Most of the labels I applied to myself in Part 1 were no longer relevant, and I was still figuring out the labels which most accurately encapsulated who I was.

Side note: I’ve often been asked, “What’s the hardest part of being in a wheelchair?”

And because I’m a smartass, I usually say something like, “Stairs. Soccer. The top shelf at Safeway.”

The honest answer is, after my accident, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was still in the process of figuring that out when I broke my neck. I had to start practically from square one to figure out who I was post-injury.

And despite a common misconception, “quadriplegic” is a medical diagnosis, not an identity.

What bothered me is, some of the same people who expected me to remember their identifiers began applying labels to me without first speaking to me. Or, when they asked, they had a set of responses they were ready to accept.

Anything outside of that was met with resistance, if not hostility.

For example, during a beginning of the school year BBQ for on-campus residents, a young lady came up to me and asked, “What do I call you?”

It’s a weirdly-phrased question, right? Was she asking what my name was? Was she asking for my gender pronouns? Something else? I wasn’t sure. So I asked for clarification.

“What do you mean?”

She glanced down at my wheelchair. “I mean, do I call you handicapped? Differently-abled? Handi-capable?”

My God, how I loathe the term “handi-capable.” And, look, I get the intention of the phrase. But every time I’ve heard it, it’s said in a way that suggests anything but capability on my part.

If I had my way, I’d scrap the phrase from our lexicon.

“‘Matt’ would be just fine,” I said.

She didn’t seem to process my suggestion to call me by my name.

“No, but I mean, how should I refer to your…situation?” she said.

Now, I’m annoyed. And yes, I’m annoyed despite knowing that she was coming from a good (well, good-ish) place, because she was seeing me as a disability, as a diagnosis with a predetermined set of vocabulary and ideas rather than as a person.

And I hated that vocabulary and the connotations those specific words evoked. I’ve hated them ever since my accident. I’ve hated them ever since I discovered that many people see a wheelchair and forget everything they know about human interaction. I hated the initial pity that often came with meeting new people, even though it was so rarely expressed verbally. Glances and body language often say more than our mouths.

I hated my labels, even the ones that applied.

I hated them because, even though I was still figuring out who I was, those labels didn’t accurately depicted me.

And I found myself in an environment in which labels, no matter how general or specific, carried a lot a social weight.

And in this instance, I was an asshole about it.

“My…situation?” I said.

She nodded.

“I’d prefer you not refer to it at all,” I snapped. “But if you have to, ‘crippled’ will suffice.”

She looked at me like I’d just suggested genocide.

I didn’t wait for a response. I left.

And because the BBQ was held on the campus’ central quad, I left slowly, because it’s hard to push my chair across a thick, grassy lawn.

I felt guilty for doing so after the fact, but that frustration took a long while to fade. That person, unbeknownst to her, had hit a nerve, one that I thought was scabbed and calloused-over.

How easily the tender parts of our psyches are damaged when we’re not expecting it.

I learned much from those experiences. I can also say, I probably still have a lot to learn. I can say with absolute certainty that I’m still trying to figure out who I am. I’m trying to use broad labels less, but I still find myself falling back on familiar-feeling identifiers.

The target, the answer to the question “who am I?” is ever-moving. Maybe writing this will help. Maybe it won’t.

Regardless, I hope I’m taking steps in the right direction.


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