Liberating Labels

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Sermon #22 (2nd July 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Here at Essex Church, since the start of the year, we’ve chosen a different theme to focus on each month. For July, the theme is ‘Identity’, and I put my hand up to lead this service, initially thinking about sexual identity and gender identity in particular. This is partly a nod to next week’s Pride march taking place here in London next Saturday – where a bunch of Unitarians will be joining the march to proclaim our inclusive welcome – and partly looking back to the ‘Working on our Welcome’ training day a few weeks back, which focused on ways in which we Unitarians could be ever more hospitable to people who identify as LGBTQIA (and beyond) – that is, to spell it out – people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and so on. The list of letters has steadily grown in length over the years as the rainbow umbrella has kept expanding to include identities that aren’t so prominent, or even visible, indeed some of these identities might be ones you aren’t all that familiar with even now, and I know some people aren’t at all sure about the need for all these extra labels and letters. In today’s service I want to put the case that this proliferation of labels is a really GOOD thing – though if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology I can see it might seem a bit confusing [and – as an aside, though this is a genuine offer – if there’s anybody who didn’t make it to the workshop the other week and who would like a set of all our handouts getting you up to speed on current terminology on LGBTQ identities and ways to be a better ally let me know and I will make sure I get a full set of handouts to you.]

But first – let’s take a step back, and think about identity labels more generally. It seems to me that – by default – religious liberals have a pretty negative view of labels. The reading we heard earlier, about the truck driver who stopped to look at wild flowers, challenged us to see beyond the stereotypes which might come to mind on first hearing the label ‘truck driver’ and asked us to be wary about reducing complex and multi-faceted human beings by dismissively categorising them. And that reading was fairly typical of the sort of thing I came across when I was looking at what other Unitarians had to say on the matter of labels. Humans are infinitely varied and peculiar and if we try to pin them down and characterise them with a single label… then we are invariably going to do them a disservice. As we heard in the reading, if somebody tells us they are a truck driver, the only thing we know for sure about them is that they drive a truck.

Our second reading, about Cat People and Dog People, was perhaps a bit more playful and laid back about labels. But I think this reading reveals an important distinction: If someone says ‘I’m a Cat Person’ or ‘I’m a Dog Person’ this is generally a label they are choosing to apply to themselves. It suggests that – as well as having a preference for either feline or canine company – they do, at least to some degree, see some similarity between themselves and the personality types that are associated with Cat- or Dog- people. The label provides a useful shorthand for a few personality traits they see in themselves – and (for Cat and Dog People) that’s about it, as far as I can tell – maybe I’m wrong about this, I know how much people love their pets, and rightly so – but I’m not sure too many people would consider ‘Cat Person’ or ‘Dog Person’ to be the sort of label that is really central to their identity. Neither Cat People nor Dog People are particularly oppressed or marginalised – so they won’t need to organise a march through London any time soon to assert their dignity and fundamental rights.

In a nutshell, the message that I want to get across today is simply this:

– It is sensible to be a bit wary about labelling other people, or reducing them to a label, because this can lead to doing them an injustice and failing to see the fully-rounded human.

– However, if someone chooses to apply a label to themselves, they have almost certainly done so for a very good reason, and we ought to respect that, sit up and take it seriously.

– If we listen to voices from marginalised groups about why these labels matter we’re going to learn something which has a wider application when thinking about identity, and oppression on the basis of identity.

– No amount of labels can really capture the essence of any human being but labels can help us to reflect on our own identity, to connect with others who have similar identities and experiences, and also to notice and pay attention to the voices of people who are very different from us and whose identity and experiences we might otherwise overlook or even dismiss.

I want to introduce a concept here that I’m going to call the ‘Default Human’. This term is not ideal but I struggled to find anything more fitting – so bear with me and let’s see where it leads us. In very many spheres of life, here in Britain, and in much of the Western world, our media, our language, for many of us even our internalised ways of thinking, are biased in such a way that the standard model of the ‘Default Human’ is white, male, middle-class, comfortably-off, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, physically healthy, mentally well, and so on… (there’s a long list of characteristics we could add to this list but these are the big ones). I should say – if fate has dealt you that hand – if by chance you have these ‘Default Human’ characteristics – there is no criticism of you implied in all that follows. These characteristics are, in themselves, morally neutral. But to some extent, in our society, it is implied that these qualities are ‘better’ than the alternatives… This is, of course, a generalisation, and there will always be exceptions to the rule, but, in general, people who are a better fit to this model of the ‘Default Human’, who tick more of these boxes, tend to be more well-represented in the media, (their stories are more often told and their experiences reflected in TV, film, and literature), they tend to be more well-represented in positions of power and influence, and they tend to have an easier ride in life in various ways. This seems to be the general pattern, to some degree, at least.

I’m sure this is not news to most of you. Many of you will, I’m sure, instinctively reflect on your own relative advantage and disadvantage in comparison to the ‘Default Human’. But – almost as an aside – I want to share just one example which illustrates how this ‘default’ causes real, material, harm which most of us might be totally unaware of. In an article entitled ‘The World is Designed for Men’, published two years ago, a product designer called Kat Ely wrote about the issue of seatbelts and driver safety. The ‘Crash Test Dummy’ – the full-size doll which is strapped into cars for testing – is based on the ‘Default Human’. The Crash Test Dummy is the size of the average MAN. For years manufacturers have overlooked the fact that the average WOMAN is smaller, and this makes a difference in terms of where to put the belt and how effective it is. Just a few years ago some high-end manufacturers started testing on both sizes and discovered that cars that were previously getting five-star safety ratings when tested on man-size dummies fell to two-star safety ratings for women. Female drivers are 47% more likely than males to be seriously injured in a car crash. There are real, material, consequences to us holding this image of the ‘Default Human’ which isn’t really representative of humankind’s true diversity. It’s not just about overt discrimination from an ‘Old Boys Club’ (or even ‘Default Humans Club’) holding the reins of power. It’s also about the effect of us holding this ‘Default Human’ image, which can invisibly influence such things as car safety, drug trials, tool design (all these examples are from the same article) and many more things besides.

If you are not white, male, middle-class, comfortably-off, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, physically healthy, mentally well, and so on (there are many other dimensions we could include) then there are likely to be significant aspects of your life experience which aren’t well-represented in the media, which rarely get reflected back at you in stories on TV, and which aren’t always talked about freely in the street, or down the pub, or over tea at church.

If our experiences aren’t visible, it can feel like we’ve been forgotten or ignored by society, It can almost feel as if we don’t exist and that our reality doesn’t matter to anyone. If we never get to hear about other people like us, we can feel isolated, or we might have feelings and experiences we can’t make sense of alone. If our identity is treated as invalid we might feel pressured to conform or to hide away. If some aspect of our identity isn’t sympathetically represented in the media or in public life, this might stir up ill-feeling against us, and may well lead to bullying, abuse and violence. It might even enable the authorities to get away with neglecting or scapegoating us.

People sometimes – quite often, in fact – ask the question ‘why do we need labels at all?’ Or say ‘surely we’re all just human in the end – can’t we just treat everybody the same?’ And both of these approaches sound quite reasonable – they’re coming from a good place. But actually treating everyone exactly the same doesn’t always end up with a fair result. People have all sorts of different needs, and are facing different challenges in life, and taking into account their life circumstances can help us to do right by them. You know Transport for London have been trialling the badge (a literal label!) for people with invisible disabilities saying ‘please offer me a seat’ – a bit like the ‘Baby on Board’ badges – to make an analogy to this, if somebody else tells us their labels, gives us a little clue as to who they are, it can give us a better insight into what life is like for them, and then we can try to be a bit more understanding or hospitable once we have grasped that information. We often talk about the ‘Golden Rule’: ‘Do to others what you want them to do to you’. But this assumes that other people would like to be treated the same way that you would like to be treated and that isn’t always the case (often for very good reason). Actually, though we ARE all equally worthy of love and kindness we’re NOT all the same. And bringing our differences to light helps us to truly SEE each other and live together in right relationship. Perhaps a better formulation of this rule for life, sometimes called the ‘Platinum Rule’, is: ‘Treat others the way they want to be treated.’ And that requires us to pay attention to who people really are and what their lives are like.

A good friend of mine described chosen labels as ‘hard-won expressions of selfhood’. As Audre Lorde puts it, in the word son the front of your order of service, ‘If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.’ In a world where the odds are somewhat stacked in favour of the ‘Default Human’ it can be an act of courage and defiant resistance to proudly claim and proclaim your identity. And giving yourself one of these labels can be the first step in finding and connecting with kindred souls who share the same identity, and similar life experiences, finding a sense of solidarity and comfort, and a larger community where together you can gather the strength to stand up and be seen and heard.

I would like to close with a short prayer, using words adapted from the Unitarian Universalist minister Marta Valentin, which acknowledges the great gift of human diversity, and asks for help to see the unseen and hear the unheard, as we strive to live as an ever-more inclusive and welcoming community in which every human life – and label – is fully appreciated as part of the unfolding of God.

Let’s just take a moment for this prayer now.

God of All Love, Source of All – we human beings
have emerged as a world of rainbows
refracting your magnificent image
and we sing our praises in your honour.

There are many in our city and our wider world
who are lost, hurt, and dying – unseen.
There are many who dare not speak,
many who speak and are not heard,
many who wish to speak and have no words.
Help us all, to gather in community,
worship together, sit at the table as one,
and overcome the misconceptions that divide us.

In this world, which daily challenges our existence,
the inner strength that allows us to hold our ground
enlarges with every resolution
to speak on your behalf,
to honour the divinity within ourselves,
and to give witness as children of your light.

May this strengthen our resolve to build, right here,
an ever-more inclusive community of welcome for all.


Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: