Leading Article: Labels come unstuck

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The Independent Online
WHENEVER a government threatens to increase the price of petrol or cancel the construction of a by-pass, a hidden but powerful sub-species of human being is called forth by the car lobby. He or she is known as 'the motorist', as in 'the motorist is already paying too much' or 'the motorist has waited long enough'. The words suggest that millions of us can be defined by one of our most ordinary and least interesting attributes: the ability to drive a car. They ignore all the other extraordinary inputs to our personality - ancestry, upbringing, culture, interests, religious and political belief - which make us the people we are and influence the way we think. As the AA and the RAC see it, 'the motorist' will always be in favour of more and more roads and less tax on petrol. But people are, thankfully, more intricate than that: ask any 'motorist' whose back garden is threatened by a motorway.

So it is with most group labelling, whether by nationality, ethnicity, class, or religion. Peel back the label - British, black, worker, Catholic - and you will find the usual complexity of personality that can just as easily contradict the label as complement it. So it is with 'the gay community'. After a week of headlines following the trail of a serial killer in London, the unknowing heterosexual could be forgiven for thinking that homosexuality equals seedy nightclubs equals sado- masochism equals Aids equals murder. Prejudice and voyeurism are no doubt mainly to blame, but some of the wilder strands of a movement, which is part social and part political, are not entirely innocent either. Sometimes they seem to define gayness with all the subtlety of a Sun leader describing the attributes of Britishness. Being gay means many different things to many different people, and sexual orientation may not always be the primary criterion by which people choose to see themselves.