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?