Back in the 80s, when I was twentysomething, there were labels that kept me safe. They were part of my identity: Lawyer. Daughter. Straight.
There were labels that scared me: Dyke. Lezzie. Queer.
And there were labels I longed to become: Writer. The Love of Someone’s Life.
I didn’t realise back then that to win the labels that I longed for, I had to embrace the labels that scared me.
Some labels can be useful. They can give you your place in the world.
When I told people I was a lawyer, I got a certain respect - it meant I was rational and reliable. (Though it also made be the butt of lawyer jokes in some circles!)
When I thought of myself as a daughter, that gave me some rules that I could follow and a sense of belonging within my family.
Turning up as straight allowed me to fit in with the dominant culture - of boy/ girl alternate seating at dinner parties, of dancing in public without hassle because the person I was with was a man, of planning my life in terms of church community, wedding and children.
The labels were useful - but only up to a point. I began to feel I was playing a role, trapped inside these labels. And I felt miserable inside.
Those other labels that scared me seemed full of malice and contempt. They were the labels that others used against women who loved women to keep them somehow less than human. And I was afraid of being the object of scorn, hatred and abuse.
So I hid my true feelings. I hid myself.
But we can’t just turn off our hearts. When we put a lid on our feelings, we also stifle everything else. We stifle our ability to live life.
I had terrible acne, a stammer, chronic back pain. And I often hid away from the world in my flat, stuck in a deep, dark funk.
At that time, I had plenty of boyfriends - and plenty of other men queueing up in the hope of becoming my boyfriend.. I felt fond of some of them and even thought I was in love with one special boy. But I was deeply unhappy and lonely.
I’d never had the experience of falling completely head over heels breathlessly passionately and overwhelmingly in love with someone.
And when I did - well, of all the darn things: It turned out to be with a woman.
When I allowed myself to forget the scary labels and all of society’s contempt and hatred they carried, I saw only Lizzie (not her real name) and how warm and delightful she was, how she made my heart sing and how much I could be my full self with her. I loved listening to her voice, and making her laugh to hear that soft breathlessness. I loved the way she looked at me with her blue-grey eyes.
We were just two people in love.
Was that really so scary? So evil? So worthy of hatred and contempt?
It was just Lizzie and me.
Without labels, anything is possible.
In the end, being with Lizzie, straight didn’t matter any more. Dyke, lezzie, queer didn’t matter.
And when I kissed her, it set me free.
The journey from that kiss over the last 23 years has brought me the labels I so longed for.
I became a writer and I’ve left the law to work part time in a social funding enterprise.
Lizzie and I did not go forward together in this journey but some years later, I met my current partner, Angie. I am the love of her life - as she is mine. We’ve been together for 20 years and were civil partnered 5 years ago.
But I am more than just a writer or Angie’s great love. I am Chinese, Malaysian-born, British, a storyteller, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a Breaking Bad fan… Yes, and also a queer, a dyke, a lezzie, sometimes a butch, sometimes a femme, always a woman who loves women.
All these labels are useful at one time or another. And sometimes not. I no longer need to feel safe inside any one of them. I can pick and choose which one I fancy at different times and different contexts. I can invent other labels as I need to. None of them alone fully defines me and I revel in that fluidity.
What’s your label? Or perhaps, like me, do you have more than one?
How helpful - or stifling - are labels in your life?
Do we need them? Or are we now living in a post-label world?
View Yang-May's talk here
By Yang-May Ooi
Yang-May Ooi is a lawyer turned bestselling author and storyteller. Her second novel Mindgame is the first (and only) Malaysian lesbian thriller (Hodder & Stoughton 2001). She lives in London with her partner, health blogger Angie Macdonald. Yang-May blogs at www.StoryGuru.co.uk.
TEDxCoventGardenWomen will be held on 7th December 2013 in Covent Garden, London, shedding light on the issues facing women and brainstorming creative solutions to address them. This event is part of the TEDWomen global conference held on 5th December 2013 in San Francisco, including a great line up of speakers and live entertainment
At the event, Yang-May will be telling her coming out story “Rebel Heart: How Small Acts of Rebellion Can Create Poweful Change.” The video will be available online after the event and will be posted here on Planet London so please check back to hear the full story of the kiss that changed her life.