…and his name is Trystin.
Labels. Names we give to generalizations that we attach to people so that we can easily digest them like swallow-able pills. Using my experience with the three that light up the title of this very blog (black, gay, artist) let’s take a look at the uses and abuses of “the label”, shall we?
Of the three, this is easily the first label that was bequeathed upon me. I mean, it’s a no-brainer, right? As clear as the skin on my face. Black. Also known as “not white”. White people get the jobs and black people get the shaft. This is more or less the vibe I got from my Southern-bred grandparents and, to a lesser extent, from much of their offspring (my parents, aunts and uncles). Perhaps the most interesting part of this is that I am an ethnic puree of African, German, Native American, and another unclear caucasian source that is possibly Irish. That, of course, is of very little consequence, because genetic make-up is secondary to physical appearance when race labels are involved.
Fortunately, my life experiences were in direct opposition to the “anti-white” way of thinking and thus it never stuck. Those life experiences include, of course, the racial cornucopia that is my family, as well. I got that one’s skin color should not be a factor in who is an acceptable acquaintance, friend, lover.
The second part of my Black Saga kicked off not too long after the first, this time the focus being less on what I was and more on what I wasn’t…or should be. It was brought to my attention by various children on the streets, classmates, and a handful of lackluster relatives that being black wasn’t simply a color, but also a complete “YOU”-in-a-box, encompassing fashion, religion, demeanor, interests, manner of speech and all sorts of things so you don’t have to come up on them on your own!
Much to the dismay of many, by the time this wave of pressure washed ashore I had already formed the foundation of an albeit young, but strong and individualistic personality. A personality that was not tough, sports-oriented, or sexual enough to be “black” and so I was pelted with questions like “Why do you act so white?” or “What’s wrong with you, white boy?” for years and years. It was in high school, when an enormous football player singled me out with this sort of talk, threatening me and whatnot, that I became decidedly anti-label. In my angry rejection I rebelled against anything that was seen as “black” or “white” or “male” or “female” or “old” or “young” and decided to form my own opinions on the individual. Taking it a step too far, I also rejected anyone who seemed to have given into their label. The stereotypes. The whole thing infuriated me and I swore that I would be my own thing and make sure others knew that it was okay to be, too.
Then this came along. And by “came along” and I mean “came out” because it was most certainly bouncing around in me since I could feel romantic feelings.
Always socially awkward when it came to prospect of love, I was a slow bloomer. Raised and schooled Catholic I was taught that homosexuality was a sin…a mortal sin…but due to my War on Labels I didn’t really care about what they had to say. I remember thinking during one class, “If it turns out I was gay, that’d be fine. Because I’d be so much more as well. It’s just another piece.” Keep in mind I had been crushing on a dude from my Art class and two from my theater crew at this point so there was no “if” about it.
In 2006 I met a guy who made me feel like no one else did. Awkwardly I expressed these feelings and -POOF- I had a boyfriend. I was g- No. That was a label and I was against those to the point of having a complex. Seriously, people. A bristly chill of anger would creep over me if someone called me “black”, “white”, “mixed”, “Pennsylvanian”, “male”, “American” so when the “g” word (and everything that goes with it) became something that could be associated with me, I freaked out. But on the other hand I was so happy that I found love that I had to tell all my closest friends and family and coworkers and teachers that I was…an individual person who “had a boyfriend.”
And when I was forced to label myself; when someone cornered me with a “Trystin, what are you? What do you consider yourself?” Once I’d responded things like “I am Trystin” or “A guy who is in love with another guy” more times than they would accept, I would satiate those label-hungry beasts with “bisexual” for while it was a label it didn’t come with much assumed cultural and behavioral aspect other than a shroud of confusion and the general idea of “not being able to trust them”. I could handle that.
Let’s not forget those times I was accused of “not understanding what it’s like to be gay” because I didn’t go through “enough pain” or I didn’t “lose enough.” You know the stories where kids come out and they get disowned or lose all their friends or get mixed up with the wrong gay crowd or bullied then rebel in a sexual fabulous frenzy. I sorta bypassed all of that and thus, according to some, I missed a key chunk of what being gay means.
Now today if the question of my sexuality ever comes up, I answer with a matter-of-fact “I’m gay” and that’s that. What changed? What broke through the bonds of my operant conditioning and anti-label zealotry?!
Find out after the next section.
Truth be told, I was going to leave this out. Why? Because it kind of went against everything I said about labels up until this point. Then I decided I had to keep it in…because it kind of goes against everything I said about labels up until this point.
I was raised in a sporty family. Basketball this and football that. Meanwhile, I spent my free time escaping into a magical world of imagination through my drawings. From a very young age I was “the creative one”, “the artist”. This followed me through grade school, high school, and continues into today. It was a label…and I never had a single problem with it. Here’s why:
First, the artist label in itself is an anti-label. To me it was always a symbol of one’s creative individuality and ability to sidestep society’s mainstream views and ideals to the beat of their own drum. It was a label that allowed for such a spectrum of interpretations that I never once considered it for what it was. A generalization.
Another difference between the “artist” label and the labels of “black” and “gay” is that actively being an artist is a choice; something I had power over sharpening, honing, and ultimately delivering to the world. My race and sexuality, not so much. My skin color is there for all to see 24/7 and unless I want to live in a romanceless Hell, lurking in the shadows from those I’m close to, there’s no way I was going to keep my homosexuality hidden.
So that’s how I justified my OK-ness with being called an “artist” and my aversion to being called “black” or “gay”. But in my OK-ness with one and not the other two, appeared the fatal flaw in my perception of the situation…
In the Dark Ages artists certainly existed. They would make paintings and things that were in line with the powerful hand of The Church. Were they to produce something that diverged from the hyper-religious mainstream they would be punished. Potentially severely. Excommunicated. Killed. For producing something different.
The general idea of an artist in 433 AD Holy Roman Empire did not include such lovely thoughts as individual thought, going against the grain, and forming one’s own beliefs about things. Such traits fell under the label “heretic” and “Off with his head!” followed shortly after. From there I thought, “What if I was labeled ‘heretic’ instead of ‘artist’?” Suddenly, the very traits I enjoyed, positive and open, have become a negative means for which to generalize and persecute me. Suddenly, the “artist” label seems an awful lot like the other two and my avoidance of acknowledging them starts to seem an awful lot like fear; a lack of acceptance of those parts of me.
Do not remove this label under penalty of law.
I realized that my war on labels was more or less as effective as completely ignoring their existence in myself. And, taking the “gay” label today especially, ignoring the label pretty much makes it look like I’m ashamed of the label…that being gay is wrong. And in this absolutely crucial time for same-sex rights it’s all hands on deck or nothing at all.
Labels can suck. They tend to come as these neatly wrapped sets with all sorts of parts that society has deemed inseparable from the trait itself. Like black and “droopy pants”, “ebonics” and “unprovoked violence”. Like gay and “limp wrists and lisps”, “sex-pervs”, and “crimes against nature”. The fact of the matter is that in rejecting these labels so completely because of the parts attached I was also rejecting my total embracing of those parts of myself. That’s not to say I was ever ashamed or afraid, but that I spent all that time avoiding them completely when I could have been out there saying “I’m gay!” and then proving to the world that myself and people like me were more than many people’s image of us.
It was a gross miscalculation , founded on the frustrations of a child and left to build, now something that I have made a point to override and rectify in these past years.
I suppose that if this post had a moral, that moral would be to embrace yourself completely; to share yourself completely.
Or even better…
Define your label, don’t let it define you, and then give it to the world.