You call a thing into existence by giving it a name.
You have a name.
You answer to your name until the day you think that maybe your name doesn’t suit you, or maybe it’s not your name so much as the words, labels and expectations that have, until now, been associated with your name.
You might be four, 12, 15, 19, 22, 25, 38, 42 years old. Something happens. Or Someone. You feel something. You sense you’re different. You sense that there are other words, words that affect your understanding of yourself, how you have defined your identity and what you believe is the trajectory of your life and what’s expected of you. Not that you care about expectations, but you are taken aback by this understanding of yourself. You start to use new words in your thinking about who you are, what you are.
You have conversations with other parts of you, to figure it out, figure out how to be with this identity that increasingly needs to be visible, to be out, to be. Part of that internal conversation includes words, names, labels that you’ve only ever seen in passing, only ever heard whispered. Maybe there are multiple words, labels, names: gay, lesbian, homosexual, transsexual, butch, boi, femme, queer. You try them on, say them out loud. You show off a label, identity. You’ve arrived!
Or you’re afraid and instead hide it. You have nightmares. You’re not that. You push it away. You don’t want those words. You don’t think you want to use those names for you and you don’t want to be associated with any label because you don’t believe a whole person can be contained in a label that’s a short cut, or a silly stereotype. Or you don’t think you can be this new thing that seems to be emerging in you. You don’t want to be or feel what you think you might be or feel what you think you feel.
But let’s say that you want those words, names and labels in your life. You’re going to use them as starting points for finding your new people, finding your bigger tribe, finding others like you and maybe finding love and finding places you could belong and people who get you. People who accept you. You’re going to use these words, names and labels as a (non-committal) starting point because you’ve come to see how a name can confer power and be powerful; how a name can set boundaries when boundaries are needed, how a name draws a line when a line needs to be drawn. You get that identity is not a fixed, permanent self, but for now, this is important, this declaration of your name, your label, your identity in this time and place. But in some places, you’re not allowed to use the name.
In Ontario, as part of the provincial government’s new anti-bullying legislation, students in publicly funded schools are going to have the right to call their anti-homophobia clubs The Gay-Straight Alliance if they want to. But that is proving controversial.
In Ontario, Catholic schools are publicly funded. In Ontario, the Catholic School Board has come out against the proposed legislation and allowing use of the word gay, lesbian, trans, bi, queer in the name of anything. In Ontario, the Catholic School Board — and other religious groups — has come out against use of the words, labels and names that people use when discussing homophobia, and the words, labels and names that people who experience homophobia use. In Ontario, the Catholic school boards have come out against naming a club or group in a school designed specifically to deal with homophobia. They say the legislation infringes on their religious freedom. They say they don’t want to focus on bullying on one group. And they think that the legislation is not good for Catholics or for others. The legislation is needed because currently, principals have the right to veto what a student group chooses to name its anti-bullying group. (I promise I won’t touch on the issue of religious schools receiving public funding. I won’t.)
If you can’t say it, does it mean it goes away?
Does a thing without a name exist? There are people who do not want young people to know anything: not about difference, and most certainly not about sex, not about contraception, not about diversity of opinion, of beliefs, of ways of being. What’s that new saying? Don’t tell, don’t teach.
If some students are brave enough claim the name, label or identity of lesbian, gay, queer, trans, or questioning and want to build, support, participate and name a club Gay-Straight Alliance as part of an accepting and tolerant school that helps to create a safe space for them and their straight peers to navigate the process of understanding difference and commonalities, let them.
If straight students want to build, support and participate and name a club Gay-Straight Alliance as part of an accepting and tolerant school and put effort into creating an anti-homophobic club and work toward ending bullying, let them. The name is important to the students, and since it is an issue within the broader student body, let them name it. (And maybe next year, they can work to end a terrible bullying trend called Kick-A-Ginger Day that’s infected North American schools.)
Gay-Straight Alliance clubs might not end bullying. But it names what students are working toward. Maybe they can teach the adults a thing or two, including naming a thing for what it is, facing up to reality. Talking about what’s hard to talk about. Like ending bullying. Confronting institutionalized homophobia.
I am a lesbian and I approve efforts to imagine a world without bullies.
I am a lesbian and I approve the efforts to effect changes in people’s behaviour that will end bullying in all its manifestations.