I got another tattoo yesterday afternoon – my 6th – at a parlor in downtown Birmingham. My artist’s name was (we’ll say) Alex. For about 2 months prior to me walking into his shop and getting inked, we had been communicating via email, exchanging ideas and booking a date.
It took about 2 hours (not as long as I expected), and I had two friends there with me. We were in a small, black-and-green room on the second floor of the studio where the tattooing process was underway. We all chatted, our voices rising and dipping above and below the incessant buzzing of the needle, and I learned a good bit about Alex; he loves tacos and horror movie classics but can’t stand truck drivers. He probably learned far more about me than he cared to, quietly listening as I offered endless details about my job, bunny rabbits, ritto love, and crippling left-handedness. During the session, I relayed to one of my friends that, during the work week, a co-worker had (to my delight) likened me to her nephew — remarking that, physically, I resembled him. My friend laughed and congratulated me; Alex appeared to be listening but said nothing.
After he’d finished inking my right arm and had sanitized/bandaged the area, me and my small posse trekked downstairs into the lobby and I checked out at the front counter. I asked him a question as I was adding a tip onto the receipt and, over the noise in the room, he couldn’t hear me clearly.
“I’m sorry, ma’am? Wait — SIR! I.. don’t know.” His eyes got big as he fell quiet. I laughed good-naturedly. “Ohhhh Alex.. either is fine. Honestly!”
Related: A co-worker actually flagged me down Friday afternoon and asked me, very directly, about gender pronouns.
“You said ‘hey lady!’ when I called you on the phone the other day,” she began, “and I honestly didn’t know how to respond to you.. like, do I say ‘hey girl’ or ‘hello sir’, or..? Do you have a preference?”
I appreciated her candidness. “Honestly? I get a kick out of it when people use male pronouns — I definitely prefer them — but I have no expectation of getting those, because I know that I don’t look like a guy to most people.”
She surveyed me for a second, and then lifted her eyebrows. “Honestly? I don’t know what you’re going for, exactly — you DON’T look like a grown man, sorry — but you definitely look like a teenage boy to me.”
Score. She made my DAY.
Just for kicks, let’s hear from the audience! What say ye, folks: boy or girl?
Boy, girl.. as you might recall, I’ve officially decided to identify as “other”, finding the term “gender-neutral” more palatable and less painful to read, think about, and hear than the words woman, female, she and her. It’s a little unrealistic (“BUT YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE, and you have to choose ONE! Honestly, you can’t REALLY even “choose” because you’re born one of the two ways and THAT’S what you’re stuck with”), and maybe it’s stupid of me, but it’s how I cope. Anyways, other; that’s me.. and then, continuing to follow this loosely-related stream of consciousness, a friend’s recent blog post got me to thinking about how we all label and categorize ourselves (and in great detail; in ways that go far beyond simply identifying as male or female or other) and how we then relate to others via similar categories, labels, and shared beliefs/backgrounds/interests. We have finally arrived at the actual premise of this post, so let’s talk about all of that for just a minute.
Me; Jace. How would I label myself?
Jace is.. other.
Okay; remove transgender and gay. Now what is Jace?
Jace is.. agnostic.
Okay — remove agnostic also. NOW what is Jace?
Remove all of that; and?
Liberal. Maybe a democrat.
Remove those. And?
A musician, writer and skateboarder.
Remove all of that — now what’s left?
An animal-lover; a vegetarian; left-handed; 108.6 pounds; hazel-eyed; short-haired; tattooed and pierced; outdoorsy; natural; loving; thoughtful; conscious; inquisitive; imaginative; sensitive; increasingly brave; alive; breathing; flesh and blood; human.
So, for me, that’s what that particular stream-of-consciousness ultimately led me to: human. I went from pulling myself out of large, broad categories (encompassing gender, orientation, religion and politics) to extracting myself from some pretty defining hobbies, pursuits and passions. I then proceeded to peel away the physical descriptions of myself, eventually moving onward to character and personality traits, and FINALLY reduced myself to the very basics (flesh and blood, with a functioning heart and set of lungs) and then I found myself, long at last, to be just this: human.
But do you see how we label and categorize the hell out of ourselves without even REALIZING we’re doing it? How we contort and conform our bodies (and MINDS) so that they’ll fit nicely inside of these many, varied boxes? It’s almost like creating a Venn diagram, with a circle denoting a person’s characteristics, beliefs, identifying adjectives and the like, and then seeing which part of their circle overlaps with someone else’s circle. Once you’ve identified the “shared parts” of the circles, you’ve found it: your common ground. Your own personal set of brassy armor against “other.” Here’s an example:
Apparently, all that Donald Trump and I have in common, using the information provided, is that we’re both human. Moving along.
Let’s take this a little further.. this classification removal game.
You’re a girl. Age: 13. In your 7th grade PE class, it’s not a rule or a policy, but it’s generally and widely understood that girls play volleyball or walk track indoors and boys are routed outside to play football. You nervously tell the teacher one morning that you’d actually rather play football, and they look at you kind of weirdly but say “Okay.. sure.” Liberated, you dash outside, kicking up the grass behind you as you speed your way through it, all the way across the lawn to the playing field. The boys look at you in a way that makes you feel like you’re not supposed to be out there, and one of them – who is named Dylan – throws a football directly into your face, almost breaking your nose (and thereby dispelling any speculation that your fear was unfounded, or that you had only imagined it). Guess what? Girls, boys.. they are ALL “other” to you, kiddo. And you, my darling, are “other” to them also. They know which side of the street they naturally fall on — which group they, by social design, belong to. Meanwhile, you’re creeping curiously along the solid yellow line, solo.
Next up, you’re a christian. Congratulations! A mega christian, at that.. one who is very involved and active in their religious community and devout in their own personal studies, habits and prayers as well. Religion isn’t just another “label” to you; it’s a pervading theology that directly influences and impacts your whole entire lifestyle. So, naturally, you hang out with the other christians, because they’re moral/decent/well-behaved and like-minded.. as you are. But wait; get this: years down the road, you suddenly dip out of religion, critically fragmenting all of those superficial, jesus-based relationships that you enjoyed so much, and you then, purely out of necessity, take a dive from the deep end and join the lively, bubbling sea of atheists, buddhists, wiccans and etc. They’re accepting, but you don’t exactly identify perfectly with any of them, either (because, while you certainly no longer believe in the portrayal of the christian god or the veracity of the bible, you DO speculate that SOME kind of divine entity exists.. otherwise, how could the earth, outer space, laughter, the concept of beauty, the science/chemistry of love and etc all “just HAPPEN”?), so you’re now existing on another plane, in another dimension, on this whole OTHER level of “other.” Where are your peeps? Beats me, boo. You’ve gotta keep looking.
Politics. Here’s where you’ll surely find your home. Are you a democrat or a republican? Trump or Bernie? It’s a pretty simple question, right? So #basic. People generally gravitate towards one or the other.. but what if you don’t really take the time to research political matters and figures (like you should) and find yourself unpersuaded, unconvinced and undecided, lazily straddling the red, white and blue fence? Well, then you’re out this round, too. Plus, people think that, by failing to vote, you’re doing a country a disservice, so bravo, kid. You’re winning fans and commanding respect all over the place.
Orientation. This is a good one. A real good one. You live in Alabama – smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt – and you’re a transgender gay person. Are you kidding me right now? Poor thing. Have you tried cheaptickets.com? Might be able to find a discounted ticket to elsewhere-ville. You’re better off just about anywhere.
Football — who’s your team? Auburn or Bama? NEITHER? WHAT?! Do you watch football at all, EVER? Okay, that’s super freaking weird, but how about baseball — soccer — basketball — competitive bowling — TENNIS? NOT EVEN TENNIS? We’re benching you, mate.
The list goes on and on. People search for something relate-able in others (which makes sense)..
Oh, you mountain bike/frequent coffee shops/play poker/skateboard/knit/shop at trendy stores only/watch the Walking Dead/support our troops/purchase vinyl/eat vegan/meditate/bowl competitively/take pictures/play ps4/prefer Target over Walmart/bake from scratch/shop at Whole Foods/have five children/monogram the shit out of everything? ME TOO! You’re so in.
and then they feel safe. Not only is there now a go-to conversation starter omnipresent in the mix at all times (“let’s talk about kids/being vegan/snowboarding in Switzerland because we’re rich enough to do that every year”), but there is also this comforting sense of “us” and its natural outgrowth: the opposing “them.” It (categorizing/labeling/grouping) literally creates a group (or pack) mentality.
I visited a local high school a few weeks ago and listened along, sitting on a metal chair in the back of the library, as the pledge of allegiance was recited by each student and teacher when, for the first time EVER, it hit me: it is important to deeply appreciate freedom and it’s nice to be proud of your country, yes.. 100%.. but it’s also so instilled in us, from early school years onward, that America is different/better/best that we, consequently, view all other countries and peoples as the “other” — and this other sometimes takes on an ungrounded, and totally unfounded, malignant outer-layer. I know for a FACT that some of us even view them (these other countries and peoples) as being less important, less civilized or inferior SIMPLY BECAUSE they are arbitrarily existing underneath this heavy blanket of “other.” At least, I know that I was trained, via public school and the media, to view the world that way (us versus them), and I am certain that the majority of people actually do. You hear “Europe” over the radio or television and you probably associate it with adjectives like classy and artsy. You picture a different class of sophisticated, refined people perusing around town in eco-friendly cars and rolling down the countryside on adorable, basket- boasting bicycles. I, personally, picture quaint and winding cobblestone roads gently interrupted by villas, cafes, and tiny shops that sell rare wines and aged cheese. You can probably picture that pretty easily, yourself. You see the word Australia in a newspaper or magazine and you probably imagine kangaroos, crocodiles and koala bears. Right? Am I right? Do you remember Steve Irwin? And then, at the other end of the spectrum, you hear the newscaster broadcasting about Pakistan on FOX news and all you can really think is scary.
But, good, bad or ugly, they’re all “other” to us, aren’t they? THEY aren’t like US, and anything happening to them — however bad, terrible, and awful — well, it’s far away. It’s a distant tragedy that ISN’T hitting home (it isn’t affecting OUR people), so it’s not a concern. ..how fucked up IS THAT? Our callous and heartless disregard for anyone grouped in the overwhelming category of “other.”
As I’m becoming more aware of what’s happening inside of me (as in, I’m feeling myself growing, catching up and syncing up with all of these recent, internal changes), I’m slowly waking up to what’s going on all around me as well. I’ve realized that we are all programmed to shuffle, willingly, into these groups, classes and divisions, and that it’s total bullshit. These regulated, zoned off areas (or “communities”) — whether real and tangible or completely imaginary, held together only by an idea — are what make us feel comfortably tethered to one person or group and, simultaneously, separate from the other person in the same room.. the shopper in the mall on the OTHER side of town.. the person driving the nicer car, or the person driving the janky-ass car; the country with the plummeting economy, the presidential candidate with beyond-questionable morals, or the well-meaning pastor knocking on door after door every Saturday morning and passing out tiny little pamphlets that he prayed over that same morning and which he truly believes will fix everything for you.
We separate ourselves via categorizing and then seal ourselves off with adhesive labels. It’s constricting, living in such cramped conditions, and it’s all downhill from there as you miss out on countless positive, enlightening experiences and meaningful relationships.. all because of false mindsets and bullshit barriers. We’re all people; flesh and blood, lungs-breathing and heart-beating people, with differing feelings, preferences, hobbies, beliefs and outlooks. And those differences shouldn’t be points of contention. We’re all correct and okay just the way we are. We are important.. every single one of us. The poorest and the most well-off; the most cultured and the absolute dumbest; the skinny guy, the fat guy, the pretty face, and the not-so-pretty face; the insanely talented, the practically void, the devoutly religious and the lazy unsubscriber. Whether you’re a being who’s got it all figured out and who is sailing smoothly along or you’re struggling your way onto the struggle bus and feeling cursed, calloused and clueless all the while.. you’re all okay, you’re all important, and you are all incredibly valuable.
So, in a quick summary format:
We’re all of equal worth and value. Treat everyone with respect; love everyone unconditionally. Similarities and shared interests can provide a great platform for bonding, but as you create bonds, beware of also creating this insane entity of “other” which belittles and maligns people and so easily closes off the doors to understanding, friendship, and mutual appreciation.
We’re all unique. Appreciate the differences; don’t despise them, and don’t use them as a reason to shove someone off into some kind of “other” category or, by the same token, as a bullshit reason to back off into an obscure, senseless and imagined “other” category yourself.
Orbiting the fuck away from “other”,