Labeling and Seeing

“See ME.”

I saw those words on a crime procedural show once; not the usual method of enlightenment, I admit. I watched one episode, which happened to be about the murder of a trans youth. In the show the phrase was a clue, but I’ve taken it to mean rather more: don’t see what society tells you to see — see the person who’s really there.

Whenever we humans encounter someone new, we put labels on them based on what we see. I might look at someone and think: Black man. For some time now I’ve tried to break this mental habit, since that man’s color should not necessarily be his defining characteristic. But now I’ve seen that this runs deeper still: I shouldn’t necessarily use “man” either.

We’re a naming species, and we hand out mental labels for just about everything. Looking around me as I scribble this, I see objects I can label: Keyboard. Pillow. Squirrel. This isn’t wrong; naming is the bedrock of communication, after all, and one of the things that traditionally makes us human. But people are not objects. People have a will and an agency of their own, and have the right to make names and labels for themselves… or the right to get rid of labels entirely.

Still, most people, me included, don’t give each other that chance. We put names to all things, and the first thing — before race, before age, before any other characteristic — is label the other person by gender. Man or woman. In my own personal case I blame this on my gonads, which want an answer to a simple question: is this person good for sex? Spurred on by this demand for information, the eyes report, the brain decides, and the gonads either lose interest or go into overdrive. Other categorizations follow, of course — young/old, dark-haired/light, etc. Regardless, gender is the first.

Lately, with my new associations and new contacts, I’ve been meeting people who don’t fit the woman/man binary. The gonads therefore inquire and are confounded. The brain is troubled too, trying to make sense of what the eyes are saying, trying to fit the person in question into one box or the other. It falls to my heart to calm them all down and say, “This is a person. It doesn’t matter if the person is male or female, or good for sex, or whatever: all people are worthy of my respect. I try to see the Holy in everyone.”

Not everyone tries that. Once, years ago, before I was quite so up on all this, I saw a gender-ambiguous person walking through a fair. Two men behind me saw this person too. “What was that?” one of them asked? The other answered with a smug insult. Because they could not put a name to this person, that person ceased to be human in their eyes. Note the question: not “Who was that?” or even “which?” but “What?” Just an object. And it was an object they felt they could insult with impunity.

Beyond the insults, people can get downright angry when their labels fail them. And with the power of a majority behind them, or at least that of a minority with the silence-that-implies-approval from the uncaring majority, these people translate their anger and confusion into violence. In the procedural crime drama that taught me “See ME,” the transgender girl was killed by the outraged father of her boyfriend. [Note: in earlier versions of this essay, I used the inaccurate and inappropriate term “transgendered.” I’ve corrected it now, but I didn’t want to sweep my mistake under a rug.] And that was only barely a fictional outcome, nor was it a thing of the past. Violence against transgender and transsexual people is devastatingly common, and has been for generations. At least these days trans folks and the compassionate who ally with them are beginning to resist, but the violence goes on.

Yet as I see it, that which is holiest and which is most fundamentally natural is not so easily labeled either. The Divine Force — which is self-named as I Am What I Am — has more than one aspect. The One Who Is has ten trillion categories of aspects. Existence is far harder to label than a trans person, or anyone genderflung, or in any way or form Queer. The One is vital, alive, perpetually changing and turning; Immanence is flux itself. All labels, including all the ones I’ve just tried to use, simply slide right off. The One can be — in fact, is — everything, all at once, and defies neat descriptions.

So those who kill anyone who doesn’t fit the nice neat categories in the name of the Christian god would also try to kill that god. Those who would kill trans people because they are “unnatural” would try to rip apart the Nature of All Things. In fact, they do this every time they kill anyone transsexual or transgender, for The One Who Is is in them all. Or the killers could learn; let’s hope they could learn.

To all of you out there who don’t easily fit into the boxes try to put you in… to all of you who hate the labels pressed down on you, or try to break loose from the categories… to all of you for whom “See ME” cuts to the heart of who you are:

You have a friend in a very high place. You have someone who sees you, exactly as you are, exactly as you are made, exactly as you want to be — someone who loves you for it, and will never ask you to change. Someone who is one of you.

Know that: the most powerful force in the universe is one of you.

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