More than just a label

LabelsKeeping support meetings fresh and interesting for the people who come can always be a challenging proposition, particularly when the group is well established.  You tend to find people migrate to their familiar friends and cliques inevitably form which can make the group seem intimidating or unwelcoming for “nervous newbies” when they first come. This month at the Stratford upon Avon meeting I support, I thought I’d try something a little different, just to mix things up a little, based on the perennial hot topic of “labels”.  The reason for this being that we not only get a number of helpline calls on this subject, but I knew of two people who were coming were struggling to understand the various labels they were coming into contact with.  Far from an ideal situation and one that was creating other problems diverting from the core issue.

In the end, Wednesdays group meeting had five “newbies” to welcome.  So, after everyone had settled down and got themselves drinks and munchies, I split the meeting into two groups, distributing the newbies among them, dimmed the lights and put up a screenshow……..

“More than just a label….”

Cue the groans.  “Hey, you can’t pre-judge a whole evening on just 5 words, stick with it.  I think you’ll find there’s something for everyone in this.  It will certainly get you thinking and talking” I said as I distributed handouts, pens and post-it notes.

The idea behind the presentation was pretty simple, each slide had a written profile of a person next to a blank outline of a body. No pictures, no clues as to gender, just the words of the profile.  Everyone would then get 2 minutes to write a word on a post-it and then attach it to the blank outline.  No guessing, just based on the profile that was presented.  The persons picture would then be revealed in the next slide and we would share thoughts on the labels we had attached, discussing any that people wanted.  Five slides in total.  The next slide was a blank outline with some hints on writing a personal profile.  Five minutes in total (after all, who knows more about being you than you ?) I would collect them up and then redistribute them among the group for another two minutes and then present for discussion.  Crucially, this was all anonymous, with no judgements.  The presentation then ended with a slide containing each of the common words used within the trans community and then an open discussion as to what each of these words meant to our group.

If you’re interested, you can download an updated version of the presentation here.  (I’ve updated it based upon the conversations we had in the group)

There were some interesting points that came out of our groups meeting that evening

  • It’s really difficult to label a person with just one word !
    • It was interesting to hear the discussion on this point and how it developed.  Initially, people were hesitant, “its unfair”, “how can I ?” were common observations.  It got even harder when everyone’s personal profiles were distributed.  People suddenly became aware that they could potentially upset someone in the room, through the choice of an inappropriate word.  Fortunately, two of the more established group members chipped up at this point and asked “why would the words we choose be negative ?”, another chimed in and asked “if we’re finding it difficult to choose one word to label people we either don’t or barely know, why do we get hett up on one word to describe ourselves, without seeing the damage it can cause ?
  • No-one labelled any of the personal profiles as trans*
    • Kind of weird – it would have been an easy label to attach.  When I pointed it out though, one person commented “you said we could only label based on the profile the person shared and they didn’t say that about themselves”  To which someone quickly replied, “I’m also all those things too, I guess, those are the things I would like people to recognise about me as I do myself.  The trans label, it’s as unimportant as male or female.  Its only part of who I am not the whole.”
  • Trans people can be unaware of their communities Icons, community, history and culture
    • Three of the profiles I showed were of leading trans people through the ages.  People who were either leading activists, public figures or supporters of our community and rights. When we talked about these people though, the conversation seemed to fixate on “who are they ?”, “why have you picked those people ?” or even “That person doesn’t know anything about me, or my struggles, why do they feel they can speak on my behalf ?”  Izzy, one of the new girls stepped up to the plate on these points though and asked “We want to feel we aren’t alone, that we’re part of a community, but look at what we do to those people who put themselves out there on our behalf, shouldn’t we be supporting them ?  These people are clearing a path out in the real world, so that I can lead my life more easily in the open.  They deserve everyone’s respect, but especially my thanks ”  Not everyone agreed with this, but for me, I really thought this was a positive, outward looking perspective, which I really admire in people.
  • Trans people often don’t even agree on the definitions of the labels themselves
    • Oh my golly, if you want to cause confusion, try to get a group to agree on a common definition of labels.  We spent almost 10 minutes talking about this, going round and round before Ester, one of the quietest people you could ever wish to meet stood up and had the following conversation with Michelle
      • Ester :- “If even we can’t agree on this, what’s the point ?”
      • Michelle :- “But they’re critical.  Doctors use them all the time to prescribe our treatments”
      • Ester :-  “are you a doctor ?”
      • Michelle :- “no”
      • Ester :- “So why are you worried then ?”
      • Michelle :- “What if they use the wrong word and it prejudices their diagnosis and my treatment ?
      • Ester :- “Tell them they’ve got it wrong and to try again.  they’re labelling themselves as Doctors not infallible”
      • Michelle :- “That’s easier said than done”
      • Ester :- “nothing worthwhile ever is easy.  Being you shouldn’t be one of the things that is hard though”
      • MIchelle :- “I’m not going to win this am I ?”
      • Ester :- “No dear, if you want a label, try tea lady.  Milk with sugar please”

After the slideshow, a few people came upto me and thanked me for the presentation.  Three of them thanked me for the talk, Sarah even said “thanks for making me concentrate on me and not the label used by others to frame my transition”.  I’ve since had some emails too.  My favourite one said

“Thankyou for this evening.  I had become so fixated on what label to attach to myself it was affecting my health and ability to be happy with myself.  I was quickly becoming consumed with what am I, thinking I needed it as part of my identity, but after hearing everyone tonight, I realised that I could let that go finally and say, I’m me and concentrate on being me.  I like that”

It takes a lot of trust in the group to do this sort of thing and for people to share, but I’m glad I felt I could do it and that people joined in. I can honestly say, I’m really privileged to know such wonderful people, who are prepared to take a chance and support each other.


2 thoughts on “More than just a label

  1. Really interesting exercise, thank you, although unfortunately the link to the presentation doesn’t seem to be active for me. 😦
    By the way, I was really taken with your “My Story” but couldn’t find a way to comment on it directly. Full of honesty and, as I found when I contacted my local Police about trans issues, Jill shows that they are well more versed in these issues than many would have us believe.

    1. Thankyou so much Tish, that’s so kind of you to say and again thank-you for pointing out the issue with the link. It’s not you, I had to leave it off the initial posting, which I did on my phone, but I’ll upload it later today when I get home and get access to my computer.

      Love and Strength

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