6 Nov 2009

What's in a name?

Don't let "labels" restrict you from being who you truly are, says Sharon Saw.

Last Sunday night was the finale of ‘I Have A Date With Spring’, a fabulous musical adaptation of an award-winning play. Aside from it being a totally fantastic show, it was particularly special to me because one of its lead performers was our Dharma sister (some prefer to think of her as a ‘brother’ though she doesn’t go for labels), Fang Chyi Chang.

I had known Fang for a long time, though not well, and had always enjoyed her singing performances. Her richly resonant alto voice is legendary and some say that when Fang sings, straight women can ‘turn’ gay.

She has been performing professionally since 1998 and she received her first nomination, in the ‘Best Solo Performance (Vocal)’ category, for the 2006 Cameronian Awards. In May 2008, Fang was nominated for ‘Best Set Design’ for her work in OKIKU: A Tragedy Untold and she is currently one of the Kakiseni Cameronian Arts Award judges in Malaysia.

She had been exposed to Buddhism at a very young age and has been looking for a group, which makes the teachings available in English. During the last two years, Fang started soul searching. Though she was successful in her career, she found something was still missing. During a TV shoot, she bumped into our retail outlet, Kechara Paradise, in a shopping centre and found out she had several friends in Kechara, our Buddhist organisation. She began freelancing work for us and not long after, she was offered a position as our Art Director and readily accepted!

In her role as Nancy, who was a night club singer, Fang danced, shimmied and sang her heart out in heels and glittering costumes. By day, she came to work with nail polish on which greatly contrasted with her casual outlook and brought much amusement to us. Ok, so we’re quite easily amused.

Why I wanted to talk about Fang today is because she is comfortable in her own skin. Many lesbians are caught up in labels – butch, femme etc. and I recently had a discussion about what we wear with a butch friend of mine. She said that she could not wear dresses as it felt very wrong. As I don’t identify with either butch or femme, I apparently fall into the genre of ‘andro’, which means androgenous. I don’t know if that label is accurate or not but I am equally happy to wear trousers or dresses, depending on my mood.

H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche has said that the labels we give ourselves limit ourselves and create our own suffering. Human beings have always had labels. Our whole world is defined by labels and it does create structures that are needed in society. Labels are neither negative or positive in themselves. However, labels can become negative if they restrict us from being ourselves.

Being gay, we are already breaking the so-called normal labels of society yet many of us hold so steadfastly onto our projected images. For lesbians, it’s usually being butch, femme or other, or wanting a butch or femme. I personally fell into the latter misconception myself.

In my hallmark coloured world, for the longest time, I had been in love with the idea of having a wildly feminine girlfriend. When I first met my current girlfriend, she would dress in cropped tops and dance the night away. Today, she’s more comfortable sans make up, in baggy t-shirts and shorts. And my dearest Rinpoche would always refer to her as a ‘man’! Sigh. Talk about breaking my own skewed perceptions!

Anyway, I had come to realise that I was creating my own issues with my fantasy which only existed in my own mind; I suddenly let go and literally felt a weight lift off my shoulders.

As for my butch friend who couldn’t bring herself to wear a dress, I asked her to consider changing her perspective. Instead of thinking I can only wear boyish clothes and can’t wear girlish clothes, she could try thinking I can wear anything but I prefer to wear boyish clothes. The issue is NOT to change what she wears but her way of thinking. After all, what are clothes but scraps of fabric? Then should she have to wear a dress in future for whatever reasons, it wouldn’t be any issue at all.

What we wear, what we drive, what job we have – all these are external factors we think define us but really, they don’t. We often let ourselves be defined by what society expects us to be, when it’s our inner self that defines us. And through changing this inner self, we constantly evolve to become better versions of ourselves.

Everything we think we cannot do is not because we cannot but because we do not want to. We create our own limitations by thinking we cannot, when in all actuality, we can.

Sharon Saw is a writer / editor at Kechara Media & Publications, which focuses on publishing the teachings of H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, a high incarnate Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. A selection of Buddhist and non-Buddhist related books from Kechara Publications is now available on Fridae Shop. You can follow Sharon on Twitter. This column will appear every other Friday.