On Friday, I came to work determined to lock down some key messages for changing attitudes around sexual violence and left thinking about identity. It was a recurring theme throughout the course of the day as we organized our ideas and thought about how we wanted to express them. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? How does the way we define ourselves determine how we treat others? We just couldn’t get away from the power of identity, and I’ve been pondering mine ever since.
Mostly, I’ve been thinking about the F word (no, not that one). Feminist. How it’s become what I’m known for in my social circles and what it means to exist within that label. Of course, it’s a term I readily embrace, but it also allows others to read their own interpretations into my identity. Their understanding of me becomes based on that word and what it means to them, instead of who I really am and what it means to me.
The funny thing is that when I first fell in love with the principles of feminism, it wasn’t because I was looking for a label. It was because it gave me a framework with which to articulate what I’d thought and understood long before I had the language to pin it down. I’ve always felt what it means to be a woman in society at odds with who I really am; I can’t fit into that box and, more importantly, I don’t want to.
So, it was liberating to be able to take all these things inside of me out to examine in a greater context, and know that so much of it was a universal experience. It was comforting to realize that I was allowed to value women, to value myself, instead of constantly undermining, and competing, and failing to live up to impossible expectations (or failing to remain within the limitations placed upon me). And once I had the tools to value myself, I began to learn to value others.
That’s what brought me to CCASA. Feminism and my understanding of it to be a force for change and social justice. Recognizing that wanting equality as a woman means embracing equality across the board, regardless of race, religion, or sexual identity/orientation. Knowing that violence exists on a continuum that begins with seeings others as inferior. Having that knowledge is where it all began.
So that’s one label, and one story behind it; a part of my identity, but not even close to the whole picture. The important thing is that I get to decide how I define myself, what these labels mean to me, and I recognize that the first step towards respecting others is to let them do the same for themselves. To listen to their stories, to let them tell me who they are, so I can understand the person behind the label. And to keep listening and learning until we all get to a place where we don’t need labels at all.