by Kim Kelly

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LOVE, SEX & LABELS

Labels are great in the supermarket. How else do you find your preferred soap powder among the thirty-seven different brands in the soap powder aisle? How else could you tell Spam from No-Name corned beef? But labels don’t belong on people.

As the fabulously commonsensical Wendy Harmer recently wrote on the business of being human: ‘labels are at best useless, at worst tragically destructive’.

I couldn’t agree more. Labels on people never tell us how it is. For example, while I have one gay son and one straight son, there’s little that’s straight about my straight son and my gay son is so straight that, if he didn’t look remarkably like me, I couldn’t be sure he was mine.

Those labels, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, aren’t ones I use unless I specifically need to refer to someone’s sexual identification – and that is a very rare thing. Generally, other people’s sexuality, like what they read or eat in bed, is none of my business. I might wonder fleetingly, hm, is she a vegemite toast and crime novel kind of girl? But because such a wonder is a dim-witted waste of my own head space, I let the thought go quick as it came.

When my kids were young, I had a neighbour loudly proclaim – in the street – that her ‘gaydar’ was never wrong and she’d bet my gay son was gay. I remember looking at her askance and saying: ‘He’s ten years old. He’s still playing with dolls. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t had sex yet.’ This woman was an accomplished academic with personal life-experience of the pain that prejudices surrounding sexuality can cause, so it really was a WTF moment on several levels, but it illustrates how casually we fling around labels – like they mean something.

I’m so superficially ‘normal’ even my shoe size is average. I can make my way through my little world over here utterly unremarked upon, unless I’m wearing a nice frock. But even I’ve felt the sting of a label.

This might sound petty, but bear with me for a moment. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that, now and again, a book snob will refer to my writing as chicklit or romance, or that as a not-book-snob, I find those labels largely redundant. If a reader tells me they found one of my stories romantic, or loved the emotional journey I sent them on, I’m thrilled – this is pure gold for me. But if a reader disparages my work for its romantic and emotional elements, it hurts. It always hurts.

And here is the serious bit: it hurts so much that I once considered making plans for not waking up the next morning because one person too many, someone on quite a high horse, in a position of power, told me that my work was worthless because it was ‘just romance’. This is a tiny glimpse of how devastating a label can be, especially when it’s chucked about recklessly and uncaringly – by those who have no freaking idea what they’re talking about.

Imagine then, how it must feel to be a person whose sexuality is disapproved of. If I really, really wanted to, I could change my writing style and my literary concerns, I could choose not to write about love, but I wouldn’t be me anymore; I would be faking it, and I would be miserable. Your sexuality is something you can’t change, though, just as your gender is something only you can truly know. You can put on the suit in the morning; you can apply all the lipstick and mascara you like. But you carry you around in your heart all day long, as you carry all your love.

Being told that your love is not good enough is a wrong and hurtful thing for another person to say to you, no matter what you’re wearing – and no matter what their excuse is for being a bigot. Your love is everything that is wonderful about you, and it’s the one thing that no-one will ever do just the way you do, or as beautifully as you will if you’re allowed to grow and glow inside your love, inside the best of you.

If we need a label to categorise people at all, let it be the only meaningful one there is: are you one who chooses love, or not?