“No. I left the church when I was seventeen. I have not joined anything since. I had to go away someplace and get rid of all these labels and find out not what I was, but who.” – James Baldwin, in a 1986 Fresh Air Interview, on whether he thought the gay liberation movement was important to him.
I love his point about labels. They screw everything up. We put the label on first and dress people in the clothing that comes with it, defining people from the top down, rather than the bottom up.
It makes life simple, but it doesn’t lead us anywhere closer to a mutual understanding of each other or the problems that plague us.
I find my own thinking constrained by the limits of labels often. It’s embarrassing. It stunts our discourse, and it’s an insult to the complexity of human experience. I got a chance to talk to Theodore Olson a couple years ago as he was fighting the California constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Olson was George W. Bush’s attorney in the Bush v. Gore case and was considered by Bush for a Supreme Court appointment. My knee-jerk reaction is to plant myself on the opposite side of any fence we might find each other walking along.
But Olson’s views on the gay marriage debate are among the most intellectually challenging and enlightening I’ve come across. He made the best case for gay rights that I’ve ever heard. That conversation served as another reminder for me to keep my ears open, to seek out conversations with those I’m inclined to blow off, because people are a lot more interesting when you peel the labels away.