Saturday, February 27, 2010

I Can't Identify You

(So, I'm realizing this is going to get long...I knew I was fascinated by this, I guess I just didn't know HOW fascinated until I got rolling.)

I've read a couple of interesting pieces on identity lately, that have really got me thinking about where identity comes from and how we are assigned identities. I've come to the pretty clear conclusion that authentic identity is self ascribed and not assigned by an outside source/person.

It's really interesting to ponder this in detail. On its surface, it's pretty straight forward. For example, I can't tell you you're gay. It's something you know/experience/come to understand about yourself. But when you examine it in greater detail "identity assignment" happens frequently, which we are all guilty of time to time. This identity assignment can come in so many look at the woman with locks and dark skin and assign her the identity "black" or "African American" without really knowing her heritage or experience. You meet a man who resides in an affluent community and ascribe the identity of that community upon him; based upon a concept you have formulated by previous interactions with people from this community or what you have been been told by others applies to them.

These are some pretty simplistic examples and really go hand-in-hand with stereotyping. Another type of identity assignment occurs when someone looks at a person they know and ascribes an identity to them, despite the protestations of the person in question to the contrary. Think about it in the context of someone telling you that you are not one of the identities you hold most dear. Imagine how that would feel; someone trying to define you, for you. I was trying to think of a basic example and what I came up with is this:

I identify strongly as a Midwesterner, having spent the first 25 years of my life in Indiana. However, I now reside in the South. If someone was to tell me I am now a Southerner, I would object---not because I see something inherently wrong with being a Southerner (I choose to live here now, after all) but rather my experience if that of a Midwesterner. This is a fairly harmless example, but I think the most common time that identity assignment occurs is when sexuality is involved. This includes phrases like "How does he have a girlfriend? He is SO gay!" "She's not bisexual, she's just experimenting" and etc. When you really think about it, this is pretty heinous and certainly not something I want to engage in any longer.

In exploring identities, I've learned some really interesting things. (And I know much of this seems obvious, but I like writing it all out and sharing my learnings.) For one, everyone values different identities with different priorities and in different ways. For two, some identities are fluid and others are stable (depending on the person.) It's possible to change identities and that's ok (because, again, who am I to tell you who you are?)

Sexual orientation identities are particularly interesting to me, because they are so based upon the feelings/experiences/preferences of the person in question. (As opposed to my previous example of being a Midwesterner, if you haven't lived in the Midwest and don't have any roots in the Midwest, you're probably not going to claim that identity.) Having gone to a small, private university for my liberal arts education, I didn't get too much experience with Queer Theory and it's definitely an area I want to explore more. However, I remember having a discussion with Myranda about the "queer" identity. She was speaking about a classmate of hers who had identified as gay but then was in a relationship with a tanswoman, which challenged his identification. He did not feel comfortable identifying as a straight man. And Myranda explained to me that this is where the term queer comes in to be helpful for many of amongst the LGBTQ community. As explained by PFLAG: "Over the past fifteen years, many who identify as GLBT have embraced the word ‘queer’ as a self-affirming umbrella term, inclusive of all people who don’t fit social norms. Because of its gender-neutrality and implication of social nonconformity, many see ‘queer’ as a term that is both positive and empowering."

Myranda explained to me that queer was a term I could identify with myself, and that got me thinking...I've always identified at straight. It's just who I am, but I've also felt that it is a limiting term for my experience. (Namely I am extremely gay affirming.) I don't see my heterosexuality as anything right or natural for the human experience; I simply see it as where my life has led me. And I don't know that, if given a different set of circumstances (like not meeting Ronald) I would still be where I am in life now.

So is queer my sexual identity? I'm not so sure that I'd be ready to take this on. And not because of any kind of homophobia, but rather because I have lived a life, thus far colored by my heterosexual privilege. I feel it's not my place to take on this identity. I don't have experiences with coming out or the fear of holding hands with my partner in public or the anger of being personally denied a legal marriage. I guess, at this point, I would continue to identify as a straight ally, but it's still incredibly interesting to ponder.

I'm going to end on this quote from the first article I linked by Michael Urie of Ugly Betty who identifies as queer:

I've been in a relationship for a while now, and if you just met the two of us together we'd be ‘gay.' But that somehow means anything that happened before [we met] didn't count-and I don't feel that way. I know that some people feel that way. They were with women, but it always felt wrong. But it didn't for me. It felt right at the time. It didn't work out, but it also didn't work out with other men-many times. That's why ‘gay' never seemed right.


  1. Can we stop calling it identity assignment? It's more like an observation that may be incorrect, based on outward evidence.

    1. I disagree. You can observe that someone has red hair or is 6'1". You can observe that someone has dark skin and an effeminate speech pattern; you cannot observe that they are African American or gay. You're just making an assumption in the last case.


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