On the Importance of Labels

As promised, this post accompanies the Christian Feminist Podcast’s first episode, “Introductions and Intersections (Part 1).” (You can find the show notes here, and the episode here or on iTunes.) In that episode, recorded over a year ago now, Victoria Farmer, Shelah Woodruff, and I discussed what being a Christian feminist means to each of us, and we talked about our responses to Bettina Tate Pedersen’s “Christian Feminist or Feminist Christian: What’s Feminism Got to Do with Evangelical Christians?” (from this collection of essays on Christian feminism and academia).

One thing that stood out to me from that discussion was that, in various ways and at various times, each of us (as well as Pedersen) had indirectly received the impression that being a Christian and being a feminist are incompatible, or had been told so directly. I particularly remember one university professor declaring in a seminar that “Christian feminist” is an oxymoron.

Pedersen writes about frequently encountering the question, “Can a Christian be a feminist?” Her essay, like our introductory episode, is an effort to justify claiming both labels.

Demonstrating that these identities are compatible is part of Pedersen’s goal in publicly self-identifying as a feminist while teaching at a small Christian liberal arts college, just as it is part of the aim of the Christian Feminist Podcast, as well as of this blog. We expect to encounter some opposition, and in some ways we welcome it, since it provides the opportunity for dialogue. (We especially welcome questions that show an openness to dialogue.)

At the same time, it is frustrating when I am told point-blank that I am not who I know myself to be—for example, that I either must not really be a Christian or must not really be a feminist.

Experiencing this sort of frustration has made me more wary of rejecting or ridiculing the labels that others use to describe themselves. As Dianna Anderson wrote a couple years ago about Denny Burk’s telling Rachel Held Evans that she was not an evangelical (although she at the time explicitly self-identified as evangelical), “When we tell others that the labels they have for themselves (their identities) are not legitimate and that we have a better understanding of their identity than they do, we tell them that they are only able to contribute to the mass of human symphony in a narrowly defined, often inauthentic manner.”

Failing to listen to and to acknowledge the labels that others use for themselves can be more damaging than some might realize.

“You can’t be Christian and be a feminist.”

“You can’t be a woman and have a body that was assigned male at birth.”

“You can’t be called to be a pastor and be a woman.”

“You can’t be a conservative Christian fundamentalist and be loving toward people of other worldviews.”

“You can’t be a Muslim and an American.”

“You can’t be gay and be a Christian.”

(I don’t mean to suggest that all of these are equally damaging statements or equally difficult positions—not by a long shot—but that these are some common examples of these kinds of statements.)

The danger is that “you can’t be both X and Y”—things that you know yourself to be—if repeated often enough might start to sound like “you can’t be.” You shouldn’t be. Your existence is wrong.

That’s a message that not many of us would consciously want to send anyone. That’s why this kind of rhetoric, which denies the validity of others’ descriptions of themselves, should be avoided whenever possible. (I’m not talking about instances of cultural appropriation, which is itself a damaging practice. But that’s a topic for another time.) Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should not ask questions of each other—at least or especially where those questions are expressly invited—or that we should not speak the truth as we see it. But I can try to ask questions and hold discussions in ways that leave space for listening to how others see themselves and that do not imply that they must be lying about who they are or that their very existence is impermissible.

A few weeks ago, I attended a panel on bisexuality, held by the Southwark LGBT Network in observance of Bi Visibility Day. One of the panelists, Jacq Appleby (co-founder of the group Bi’s of Colour), gave a powerful description of confronting assumptions that her identities as a bisexual woman, a Christian, and a person of color could not co-exist. Black people, she said, are assumed to hate gay people. Religious people are assumed to hate gay people, and vice versa. And people of color face prejudice in both LGBT and religious spaces. So how could she be all three at once? It is as if she is being told to do the impossible and stop herself from being who she is: “Being bisexual, being a Christian, and being Black is me,” she said. “It’s not just a parts of me. It is me. It’s in my flesh and bones. And I cannot stop being who I am, and if I did stop, I’d be dead, really, because it is who I am.” (You can find a video of Jacq Appleby’s panel segment here, and videos of the other panelists here.)

I think, too, that respect for the labels that others use for their identities needs to extend to respect for nuances within those labels and to their choices in how to most honestly live out those identities. For example, in the Q & A section of this panel, the panelists unanimously affirmed that LGBT people who are not out shouldn’t be or feel forced to come out, as if they were obliged to so for the sake of the “community” or the “movement.” It’s a personal choice, made in varying circumstances. However, the panelists gave more disappointing responses (to my mind) when one questioner explained that she preferred the term “queer” to “bisexual,” and that she understood that labels like “queer” or “pansexual” are often chosen by members of the younger generation. There seemed to be a consensus among the panelists that such nuances within the label of “bisexual” are unacceptable—we owe it to the community and the movement to all use one label in order to be more visible and recognizable. However, as my aim in identifying as pansexual is to be honest about myself, I will continue to use the term that seems most accurate to me, according to my current understanding. (I’m just using this as an example of the permissibility of nuances within labels of identity, not as an example of emotional distress on my part.)

Or in terms of variation in people’s choices as to how to live out their identities: Sarah and Lindsey at A Queer Calling have faced some, including other LGBT Christians, who have dismissed their commitment to celibacy with a flippant disbelief. But respecting their celibacy as their vocation and their conscious, adult choice is a part of affirming them as fellow Christians and fellow human beings.

So let’s respect the identities of others. Let’s listen to the descriptions that they give to the flesh and bones of who they are.

photo credit: quinn.anya via photopin cc (cropped and resized)


  1. It’s nice to see you writing! It seems simple enough when a person self-selects a label, based on his/her understanding of what that label will communicate to others, then someone hears their label selection and interprets it based on his/her understanding of what that label is supposedly communicating. Rather than attacking someone’s label selection, it would make more sense to ask “what do you mean when you call yourself a _______________ (christian feminist, for example)?”

    Respecting people should include giving them freedom to self identify, and asking them to clarify that self identification.

  2. I look forward to your treatment of cultural appropriation. It must take a very acute discernment to cultivate a respectful stance towards others’ self-labeling, and at the same time to avoid condoning the misappropriation of cultural identity. But I am confident that you will handle the issue fairly and thoughtfully.

    1. Mostly, by cultural appropriation, I mean something like what is being parodied in “I Am Africa” in Book of Mormon–the exploitation of another’s identity as an exotic commodity (usually this is people in a position of privilege exploiting the identity of people in a position of lesser privilege along whatever axis is in question). Questioning this exoticism and commodification seems very different to me from the damaging impulse to make another person prove that they are, for example, “Latina enough” or “gay enough” to claim their own identities. But you are right that this difference may not be obvious to everyone at once, so if I write a post about cultural appropriation, I will try to make that distinction as clearly as I can.

  3. Yes. Love the energy and articulate approach you bring to the subject. The cover article in last month’s issue of Harper’s is Silencing Women. The author marvels at the baseless confidence and vitriol with which her memories of sexual abuse/harassment/misconduct are attacked via a commenter on the web. As people we bestow on ourselves a vast entitlement to define others, while kicking against anyone else daring to define us as other than we imagine ourselves to be. It’s so easy (and human, I’m sad to say) to discredit, disparage and demonize those with whom we disagree. To want to force-fit them into labels of our choosing, not theirs.

    1. Bryn, thanks! That author’s experience sounds terrible, yet, like you say, sadly typical of human interactions. I know I’ve demonized others. But maybe learning how to stop ourselves from doing that, or at least having the desire to become more loving, is another facet of human nature. (We can hope …)

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