04 MAY, 2015
By: Maria Popova
A courageous quest for nuance that liberates the different experiences of partnerships we have in the modern world.
“Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other,” Leo Buscaglia wrote in his seminal 1972 book based on the world’s first university course on love. Susan Sontag echoed this a few years later in lamenting the detrimental divisiveness of labels. It might be tempting to think that, four decades later, we live in a post-label society: that is, a society that has transcended all the categories into which we put people — race, gender, nationality, sexuality, political affiliation, basketball team preference — in order to avoid the intimate and demanding work of getting to know each other on a level beyond the superficial. And yet nearly half a century after James Baldwin admonished that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [or else] you are in trouble,” we still find ourselves in a world that constantly tries to tell us how we deserve to be treated through the arbitrary labels it bestows upon us based on fragments of our wholeness.
How we can begin to move past that is what actor and activist Maria Bello addresses with great courage and candor in Whatever… Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves (public library) — an exploration of “the beauty of the fluidity of love and partnership,” sprouted from her spectacular 2013 New York Times coming-out essay and titled after her twelve-year-old son Jackson’s response when she finally told him that she was in love with a woman.
Photograph from 'The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride' by Sébastien Lifshitz. Click image for more.
Looking back on the flood of moving responses to her New York Times essay and on her own lifetime spent as “a woman who was both ashamed and proud of her own truth,” Bello considers what a post-label conception of love and partnership might look like for a culture increasingly needful of such liberation from limiting labels:
At the time, I had no idea how many modern families and unconventional partnerships were out there. And I didn’t realize how many people did not have labels to describe themselves or the structure of their lives. So the phrase “being a whatever” came to describe them. According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, whatever is a pronoun “used to emphasize a lack of restriction in referring to anything.” And because I am not interested in restricting myself or anyone else with a particular label, I decided that I am a “whatever,” too.
Many people in our world today are having different experiences of partnership and aren’t sure how to label these different kinds of love.
[There is] a new conversation to be had about the labels society gives us and the labels we give ourselves.
Traditional labels just don’t seem to fit anymore. These labels are limiting the possibility for people to question more and become who they are meant to be. By asking questions and challenging our own beliefs, I feel we can update all of our outdated labels and realize that labels need to evolve just like people do.
Most of us have directly experienced, in one shape or another, the way in which labels demand that we settle for smaller versions of ourselves. The more specific they get, the more our expansive wholeness is asked to acquiesce to fragmented smallness — and that slippery slope of specificity, while meant to better capture our identity, ends up suffocating it. I, for instance, could be labeled a woman, then a queer woman, then an immigrant queer woman, then a Bulgarian immigrant queer woman, and so forth. And yet, while none of these labels are incorrect, the accretion of them tips over into being wrong — wrong for concretizing a handful of psychographic variables to the exclusion of the vast variability of all the more abstract traits and tastes and talents that make a complete person. At the heart of how labels impoverish our interpersonal imagination is a dearth of nuance — something Bello captures with elegant precision as she considers the questions that thinking about being a “whatever” opens up:
My romantic partner is fourth-generation African, so why can’t she call herself an African American? My cousin Marty has dark skin but is Italian, so does she call herself African Italian? Can a gay couple consider themselves Catholic even though they are excluded from the church? Is a man who is married to a woman but kissed a boy when he was 12 considered bisexual? Are all those historical heroes of mine who also had extramarital affairs bad guys?
Illustration from 'Grandma, What’s a Lesbian?,' one of the greatest LGBT children's books. Click image for more.
Remarking with warm wryness that “the person who claims to have all the answers is usually a cult leader, a dictator, or just a really pushy salesperson,” Bello argues that what is needed for this new conversation is a commitment to reframing those questions in order to discover what it takes to celebrate our singular experience and “embrace love, family, and partnership in all possible forms.” She recounts how one such pivotal question shifted her own experience as she began to fall in love with her best friend, Clare:
As I continued to look through my writing and photos, I came across a black-and-white print of a photo of my best friend and me, taken on the previous New Year’s Eve. We looked so happy and I couldn’t help but smile. I remembered how we had met two years before; she was sitting in a bar wearing a fedora and speaking in her Zimbabwean accent.
We had an immediate connection but neither of us thought of it as romantic or sexual. She was one of the most beautiful, charming, brilliant, and funny people I had ever met, but it didn’t occur to me, until that soul-searching moment in my garden, that we could choose to love each other romantically.
What had I been waiting for all of these years? My friend is the person I like being with the most, the one with whom I am most myself. The next time I saw her, in New York, I shared my confusing feelings.
We began the long, painful, wonderful process of trying to figure out what our relationship was supposed to be.
Even so, the tyranny of “supposed to be” warps the very asking of those questions, including that of what a “partner” really means in the modern world — something that circles back to the challenge of being labeled by the outside observations of others rather than by the inner truth of our experience. Bello writes:
It’s hard for me even to define the term partner in my life, but others would try.
For five years I considered the closest thing I had to a partner to be a dear friend who just happened to be in his seventies. He was a former producer and studio head named John Calley, and I spoke to him daily until he died. We both loved books and, being seekers in life, always worked to understand ourselves and the world more.
What seems imperative is that we decouple the notion of a “partner” from evolutionary biology’s implication of “reproductive partner” — a primitive definition that doesn’t even begin to capture the kaleidoscope of nuance that partnership has in contemporary life. Bello addresses this by examining the further narrowing of that definition:
I have never understood the distinction of a “primary” partner. Does that imply we have secondary and tertiary partners, too? To me, a partner is someone you rely on in your life — for help, companionship, mutual respect, and support. Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with? I have two friends who are sisters, have lived together for 15 years, and raised a daughter together. Are they not partners? And many married couples I know haven’t had sex for years. And yet, everyone thinks of them as partners.
My feelings about attachment and partnership have always been unconventional. Jack’s father, Dan, will always be my partner because we share Jack. Just because our relationship is nonsexual doesn’t make him any less of a partner to me. We share the same core values, including putting our son first.
Our partners are often revealed at times of crisis — when life throws its curveballs, only true partners show up to catch them. Bello, who was nearly killed by an undiagnosed parasite she had contracted while doing humanitarian work in Haiti, reflects on how that episode clarified the question of partnership:
At one point during my illness that summer, I thought I might not survive. But the people who were at my bedside every day at the hospital were all my life partners: my mother, Jackson, Dan, my brother Chris, and Clare.
Clare rarely left my side and called every doctor she knew to help figure out what was wrong with me.
Illustration from 'Heather Has Two Mommies,' one of the greatest LGBT children's books. Click image for more.
Shortly thereafter, Bello came out to twelve-year-old Jackson, who issued the heartening proclamation after which Bello’s memoir is titled: “Whatever, Mom… love is love.” Indeed, embedded in this exchange is the very thing that makes Bello’s book significant — a vibrant testament to the idea that in every realm of human rights and equality, what is needed isn’t merely tolerance but acceptance, wholehearted and unconditional. And this begins with the values we bequeath to the young, be it through parenting in the literal sense or through a kind of societal parenting by the heroes and role models of the culture we live in — the indirect parenting of personhood that happens through what legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead called our “spiritual and mental ancestors.”
And here is the beauty of it: We can choose who our spiritual parents are by choosing whom we admire and whose advice we heed — in fact, we are being parented all the time in the larger nest of culture, which incubates our values through direct and indirect guidance from those in the public eye. This is why it is both so courageous and so crucial for people like Bello to speak out and reaffirm the values of social justice and equality — and what more intimate a frontier of justice than the evolving definition of what a modern family is?
The label of “partner” as only your sexual partner is outdated. An updated label of partner might be anyone who is significant to you in some fundamental way. The definition of the family is changing, too, and I hope it’s working to bring people together with a new respect for different kinds of relationships. So I would like to consider myself a whatever, as Jackson said. Whomever I love, however I love them, whether they sleep in my bed or not, or whether I do homework with them or share a child with them, “love is love.” … Maybe, in the end, a modern family is just a more honest family.
In the end, it comes down to not letting others define us — a commitment demanding, above all, that we do as young André Gide aspired in his diary: prioritize being over appearing. Bello reflects on this gargantuan task and the urgency at its heart:
The old ideas of love, marriage, children, and happily ever after just don’t apply to most of us. I have come to see that the labels that other people might give me about my partnerships, family, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and spirituality do not define me. I am only concerned with the only labels that matter—the ones I give myself.
All I hope is that we all keep questioning our labels, get rid of the ones that hold us back, and hang on to the ones that shine light on the beauty of who we really are.
Whatever… Love Is Love does precisely what it promises to do — question the labels we give ourselves, not for the sake of simplistic and static answers but in a noble quest for nuance in the dynamic act of answering. Complement it with Susan Sontag on how labels limit us, Diane Ackerman’s superb natural history of love, and modern love patron saint Edie Windsor on love and the truth about equality, then revisit history’s most beautiful love letters by “whatevers,” including Virginia Woolf, Margaret Mead, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
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