Well, you can start by not calling me the “other Mr. Payne,” lady. I like to think that both Messrs. Payne stand on equal footing, even if my income can’t really support that notion. But that’s not the point of my story.

You see, I identified myself to a stranger as the husband of a dude in a completely boring and uneventful exchange with my cable provider. The label I used to identify myself encountered no resistance or mockery.

Preppy and I have encountered so many situations over the years where referring to each other as “husband,” or the fact that we share a last name, has been met with raised eyebrows or hostility or remarkably bizarre personal questions. The cable company lady’s non-response reminded me that it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that we’re gonna be anybody’s first time anymore.

It appears the labels we’ve chosen are starting to stick.

When one writes a blog, one must then tag the post with keywords, which helps readers search for relevant content. You write a thousand words on the history of egg salad, tag it with “egg salad” and “history,” and egg salad historical buffs all over the world will flock to you.

I enjoy tagging, because I’m a very pro-label person. I’m aware that’s not a popular standpoint, because labels can marginalize people and nobody likes that. My buddy Scott, the transgendered author and performance artist, has built an entire career educating folks on how you can’t label him.

I tried real dang hard to be open-minded about that, but in the end I’ve just labeled him “My buddy Scott, the transgendered author and performance artist who doesn’t like labels.” He has become defined by his resistance to definition.

Back when Preppy and I were trying out churches, I fell in love with an Episcopal parish that was very polished and ornate. That sense of formality was enormously appealing to me. I wasn’t interested in a just-folks minister who tells everyone to “Just call me Marcia.” 

When it comes to who has God on speed dial if I need answers, I’d prefer reaching out to someone I call Reverend or Preacher over Marcia. It just sounds wrong to me, like when I hear a nine year-old call his parents by their first names. If I’d ever tried calling my father “Cleve” when I was a kid, there would have been dire consequences.

Authority figures have labels, like “Dad,” or “Senator,” or “Mistress of Pain,” as a sign of respect and a nod to tradition. And darn it, I think it really helps clear things up for people if you can give them a few keywords to associate with you.

I read an interview with Dr. Laura where she said that she’s all for same-gender domestic partnerships, but believes the institution of marriage should be protected. I assume she’s referring to the institution which allowed her to divorce her first husband after she had an affair, then live with her boyfriend for nine years prior to their marriage.

The argument Dr. Laura hypocritically presents is one we hear a lot, that we should let go of the word and focus on the rights. But labels matter, y’all.

When you tag yourself, you’re sending a very specific message: Married. Gay. Southern. Christian. You’re choosing to take the accepted definition and declaring to the world that whether your usage supports or defies their understanding, you are officially that thing.

That’s how the definition expands and reforms over time — through usage. If it happens enough, a label that once would have been seen as ridiculous or provocative is now just the greeting which leads to a lovely evening watching a Julianne Moore movie.

 


Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at www.topherpayne.com

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