My identity: let me show you it

24 05 2008

For a long time, identity has been something that’s really interested me.  When someone asks in a generic sense, “what are you?” or “how do you identify?” what do you say?  (Really.  Let me know in the comments; I’m curious).  I first became interested in the topic in terms of regional identity (for example, I think being from certain places such as New York makes you more likely to identify with your city, whereas being from some countries may make you more likely to identify with your nationality, and being from certain regions or ethnic groups may strengthen the sense of a regional identity).  But this morning, I was thinking about sexual identity, a topic I’ve been focused on a lot lately in grappling with some of the issues related to gay rights in the developing world.  For once, however, I wasn’t thinking about the problems of identifying in the first place, but for those of us who do identify happily as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, about how important that identity is.

To answer my own question, the strongest identities I claim are being Southern and lesbian (which also encompasses being female).  If pressed further, I’d say I’m an academic, a humanitarian, and multilingual.  You’ll notice that my race doesn’t come in there (I’m white) nor do my ethnic origins (European mutt).  I think we tend to claim identities that make us unique in some way, have a strong sense of group belonging, or are particularly important in our lives.  Being from the South makes me culturally unique, and in some ways I’m proud of that heritage (with the obvious big fat disclaimers).  Being a lesbian is a similar strong point of identity for me because it’s something I haven’t come in contact with a lot, and every time I come into contact with lesbian culture I feel a strong sense of belonging and group identity.  The other three things I mentioned are just things that are very important in my life.  I’ve been in school for the past eighteen years (and like it), human rights are a huge issue for me and what I plan to do for my career, and languages are my strongest passion and something I also expect to integrate into my professional and personal life.

I’d guess that for people who come from racial and ethnic minorities, that’s more likely to fall on their list.  People who have careers or qualifications that are important might consider those things part of their identity (scientist, computer expert, doctor, musician).  People who are a little more dedicated to an art form might claim that as an identity (actually I’m really surprised at myself for not putting “writer” or “cook” down – perhaps some reflected insecurities).  Those whose beliefs fall more neatly into a recognised system may include their religion as an identity.  Straight people, on the other hand, are in most cases unlikely to immediately say “I’m straight!” when asked what they are.

I think this is a bit of an obstacle when we’re trying to explain why sexual identity should be everyone’s choice, and everyone should have equal rights – we want to say that straight people are included in that, but it’s harder to conceive of how straightness is important in someone’s life and an important part of identity.  I think, though, that perhaps the problem is that we just label things differently.  If I think about what my gay identity involves, it includes a number of things – whom I’m attracted to, with whom I form relationships, what “family” means to me, with whom I have sex, what group I fit into/how I associate, and how I see myself as a woman.  I think that the same things for straight people may come up in their strong identity markers, just in a different way.  For example, to many straight women, being a mother or wife may be the most important identifier (not that lesbians can’t identify this way too, of course, but in the context of a heterosexual relationship it’s the relationship to one particular man that is important to the woman, or to the child of that one particular man, which means that the relationships do relate in some small way at least to the sexuality).  Maybe some straight women identify strongly as a sex worker, or as part of some group that consists of straight women (I have no idea what that would be, but work with me here).  Maybe they identify as feminists, and a big part of feminism for a particular woman is how she relates emotionally and sexually with men.  

Anyway, I have no idea what my point is.  Thoughts without a conclusion: it’s what I got marked off for in tenth grade English.  There will probably be more on this later, but I am curious – how do you identify?


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4 responses

24 05 2008
lis

This is a very thought-provoking question.

The most common identities I tend to give, I suppose, are as German, Scientist, Buddhist, Queer. In that order.

I think the German is a bit of a self-defense mechanism. I live in an area where most people aren’t from very far away. I didn’t go to school here (and as we have 5 universities in the county, it is a safe bet to say most adults here did) and I have no family here. My accent is just noticeable enough and while I certainly don’t look as “exotic” as somebody from the Middle East or Asia, I do stick out a little bit. Enough so that most people assume I’m not from here. I’m also very proud of my heritage and my family. I know what it means to be German and I’m happy that I am.

Scientist is probably also a bit of a self-defense mechanism. The offense in this case being that I am female (and to boot, relatively young, pretty and blonde). I get a lot of people who assume based on my appearance that I’m a generic dumb blonde and I don’t like it. I went through a lot of work to earn the title of Scientist, and more specifically, of Astrophysicist and Linguist. It is very validating to me when people assume that I will give them a fluffy answer and I can respond “No, I’m a Scientist.” And I don’t mind admitting it.

Buddhist is a bit by default. Whenever I tell people that I am a Buddhist, they always tell me that I “make more sense” now. I am a very zen-like person and very sensible. I don’t tend to get angry and I carry out a lot of my religious sensibilities into every aspect of my life. I don’t push it on anybody but at work “my way” has become known as “The Buddhist Method”. (And it’s thus far been quite efficient, so nobody is complaining)

Queer is also because of my general behaviour.As you eluded to, it is a slightly odd subculture. It does impact how I see myself as a woman and how I interact with people. When people press me about my sexual definition (I don’t know why, but in my experience, any kind of bisexual response is very curious to most people who haven’t had any experience with it before) I usually tell them “I am about 80% lesbian”. Which is accurate. Oddly, I get treated differently from most men once they know me and the women don’t seem to be bothered one way or the other. I also tend to make jokes at my own expense on a regular basis (because OH MY do I fit some funny stereotypes sometimes) and I’ve observed guys tend to be comfortable in situations like that when they realise that any remarks I may make about being attracted to women are done so in all seriousness. (also, they think it is great I can join them in the “Is she hot?” game)

I’m sure there are more beyond that, but those are definitely what came to mind first.

25 05 2008
Nicole

I am a pansexual, genderqueer wingnut Vermonter writer. Not in that particular order. Also Irish-Italian – though I’m also a European mutt, it’s that those are the strongest influences.
I’m sure I’ve told you that I like the term of pansexual – all the pleasure of bisexuality, but with added flexibility and none of the negative connotations. (Is it just me, or do I sound like I’m selling something here? Hee.)
And of course we’ve had conversations about gender. I like being in the gray area between male and female, though it can be alienating. I tend to confuse people. But maybe that’s another thing I like about it…
Wingnut is a phrase my sister came up with. Or someone close to my sister. To me, it means eccentric. Weird. And no matter what labels I take on, “normal” probably won’t make the list.
Vermonter! The longer I’m away from Vermont, the more I understand the ways that growing up there shaped who I am. It’s been about 4 years since I’ve lived there, but it’s always going to be my first home.
And you know about the writing part. <3

25 05 2008
Sasha

Well I just found your wonderful blog through the comment you left on my blog and I had to say hi! I LOVE your writing and I’m definitely hooked. I totally agree with you on the identity issue. I used to say things like, “I’m a dancer, a grad student, half Samoan and half Romanian.” But as time goes on, I feel more and more like just saying, “I’m a lesbian” and leaving it at that. Because I feel as if that label alone encompasses so many wonderful things and if someone still wants to get to know me, beyond that, than they’ll find out what else I am. It’s sort of like a take it or leave it qualifier: I’m gay, if you’re cool with that we can move on. If not, have a nice life.

Well anyway, love your blog and I will be reading it all the time from now on! :)

19 06 2008
Convulsion

Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

cheers, Convulsion!

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