Small. Plump. Short yellow bill. Grey-brown body. Bold black & white stripes on the head. Sings in short clear whistles followed by buzzy sounds.
I’ve been interested in birds since before I knew I was gay. I’m that girl who lugs around binoculars on walks and stops in her tracks when she hears the flutter of wings. I’ve spent hours learning the particularities of bird songs, brow lines and beak length.
You can love birds in general, but when you learn how to identify a particular species – when you learn what makes it unique – you can love that species more… well… specifically.
And then when you see one member of that species, one specific white-crowned sparrow, and are able to notice what sets it apart from the other birds that share its name – maybe a slightly more warbly song, or an especially bright forehead streak – it can make you feel like you really see that particular creature.
Sometimes on my morning walks, when I see a bird I don’t yet know how to identify, I give it a placeholder name, like “blue-backed stumpy” (which ended up being the much more beautifully named Red-Breasted Nuthatch). In those moments I feel like I’m Adam in the Garden story, trying to capture the uniqueness of each animal with words.
To name something or someone well is to bless them. And there are times my own name, or the ways I’ve revealed myself, have been spoken back to me with tenderness and love, like a blessing. I’m sure it’s an even more powerful experience for my trans and non-binary friends who are choosing or changing their names into ones that harmonize with their true selves, as Wendy examined last week in her blog.
But as much as names and labels can feel like blessings, they can also be curses, or leave us feeling misunderstood and unseen.
For example, I could be accurately called “homosexual,” but that label feels as cold and lifeless as Homo sapiens, like I’m pinned on a tray for clinical examination. The fact that, for the past few decades, the word “homosexual” has been primarily found on the lips of Christians who don’t think I should be married to my wife… well, it doesn’t really do the word any favours.
Yet I’ve also seen the opposite experience happen in the Generous Space community – how for some, hearing a word like “asexual” defined for the first time can be like opening a window and letting in fresh air when they thought they would never know how to conceptualize that part of themselves, much less meet others who “got it.” That one word, that one name – it unlocks a whole community full of resources and knowledge. There is a deep resonance; they are known and no longer alone.
The word “gay” resonates for me like that. It’s cracked open new worlds of community and love and understanding for me. Yet when people hear I’m gay and mistakenly think they know everything about me from that word – when they treat it like my species and don’t see the particularity in the way I wear it – then the same label brings me pain. I’ve also learned that there is perhaps no word that is more complex in terms of its dramatically different blessing-or-curse effect on various people in our community than “queer.”
Names and labels are helpful when they connect us to others who share those names, and information relevant to those names, and when they ring true deep down in the core of our being. They become unhelpful and hurtful when they limit, stereotype or overgeneralize our identity.
There is a poem by Galway Kinnell called “Saint Francis and the Sow” that I love, where Kinnell imagines Saint Francis’ interaction with a pig, how he takes time and uses all his senses to really know her. He writes, “sometimes it is necessary/to re-teach a thing its loveliness,” and when I read that line, I know it’s the purpose of my life. To deep-down-see a created thing, a bird, or a pig, or even more, a human created in the image of God, and to say to them, “You are unique, and wow, are you ever lovely, even if you don’t know it yet. What words and names can I use for you to help you feel seen and known and loved?”