On the Content and Importance of Identity

I am misunderstood all the time.

People think I am a middle-aged lady — I can tell by the way the whole world suddenly started calling me “ma’am” a few years ago. But in reality, I’m a youthful hipster 😉 who likes obscure indie music, will take a road trip anywhere anytime, collects surrealist erotica, and lives for poetry slams and late-night philosophy debates.

People invariably think I’m straight, but I love women and barely like men.

People think I’m conservative, not because they’ve heard my views, but because I just have that look. A mousy little straight-girl look, no matter how punk rock I try to be.

Because of my age, people think I have kids. They think I’m interested in PTA meetings, casserole recipes, SUVs, botox, Sex and the City and eradicating dandelions from my yard. That is not me.

Growing up as a girl and a woman, people thought I’d like stuffed animals, diamonds, stiletos, babies, chasing boys, dreaming of my wedding day, having my appearance appraised, and being catcalled. I didn’t like those things. They thought I’d hate bugs, snakes, getting dirty, shop class, camping, backpacking, whisky, computer programming, and women. I did like those things.

I deal with this like most adults — especially women — do. By cultivating friends of all ages who both know the real me and who nourish my spirit with their smart, weird, wild, youthful, eccentric personalities. Communing with them. Doing what I like, whether or not it’s appropriate or expected. I just had a lovely holiday cocktail party with more of these friends than I realized I had.

My ex used to joke that he felt “like a lion” and yet no one could tell he was a lion. He said it like he knew it was silly and he knew that everyone was special and unique and misunderstood and that it was just part of the human condition. Many times, in our years together, he said: “I can’t wait to be an old man.” He claimed he was interested in growing old gracefully, doing what he wanted, shedding pretension.

Much is made of identity these days. Once the purview of sex and race and sexual orientation, identity is now of paramount importance for everyone. Are you a demisexual ex-Christian Green Party bigender heteroromantic belly dancer? Better get that tattooed on your forehead before someone fails to notice and address you with the pronouns and lingo that have been designed to validate that. Being overlooked could be triggering.

Funny, I just realized that 15 years ago my ex and I had a friend with a string of identities like this whom we roundly made fun of for it.

I stopped by an event sponsored by my school’s LGBT organization recently. The first thing that happened was that I was asked for my pronouns. The second thing that happened was that I got seated at a table full of young lesbians who did not want to be women. They were “theys” and “hes” and “zirs” and everything but young women who love women (even though, for what it’s worth, they all looked like completely unmodified regular women with short haircuts). Funny how transgender people are supposed to be a tiny minority of the population, and yet they seem to be crowding out all other identities. Were rooms full of lesbians 75% transgender twenty years ago, and just afraid to say so? Somehow I doubt it.

But I guess it’s to be expected from 15- to 20-year-olds. They’ve merely moved on from hippies and valley girls and geeks and goths — so passé — to the identities of today.

For a while I’ve been struggling with the sneaking suspicion that identity is 100% immature narcissistic bullshit. Since when is it a human right to insist that everyone, everywhere “get” the real you and to coerce them into changing their behavior and language to prove that they get you? Since when is it even important?

That said, I understand why minorities, women, gays and lesbians “identify” as such. But in these cases, it’s never been about getting people to stand up and applaud for it, or even to know it for the sake of knowing it. It’s been about finding ways to deal with a lifelong, externally-imposed, material struggle that only other members of the group can truly understand.

These identities are unavoidable because they’re externally imposed. Without structural oppression, there would be far less motivation for people with these realities to spend much time claiming them as identities.

There is content to the claim that someone is female, black or gay.

There is no content to the claim that someone is transgender. The claim is purely self-referencing.

The content of being a woman is: having a period, risking pregnancy, being raised to be helpless, and being a member of the sex class more likely to get raped.

The content of being a black person is: having your natural hair called dirty, being followed by store clerks who think you’ll rob them, seeing figurines in antique stores meant to make you look foolish, and being more likely to be beaten by the police.

The content of being gay is falling in love with someone of your sex.

The content of being transgender is saying you’re transgender. The content of being transgender is getting other people to understand that you’re transgender. Circular. A flooglebinder is a flooglebinder.

Or, to put it another way, the content of being transgender is saying you’re the other sex. And what’s the content of being the other sex? Having a period, risking pregnancy, being raised to be helpless, and being a member of the sex class more likely to get raped. And needing to gather with women because of those shared experiences.

Oh, wait. Not that stuff, I guess.

Just, you know, being a woman. “Because I said so. And no, I won’t tell you what the content of that experience is. Because I can’t do so without relying on sexist stereotypes. But trust me. Woman is something. Just not something you women would understand.”

This is why my ex would not give up activism to save our marriage. For most people, activism is an extra activity, easily parted with if something important is at stake. But there is no transgender without activism. Women still bleed even if no one notices. Gay people still fall in love with members of their sex even if no one notices. But there isn’t a way to be transgender that doesn’t consist of signaling that to other people and placing a claim upon their interest in it.

And the content of transgender is not hating sports, or liking pink, or being sensitive and nurturing, or being interested in men (because that’s not the content of being female).

Because those are sexist stereotypes.

And because if you did that stuff, you’d just be you, like everyone else who does that stuff, not transgender you.

Transgender identities are not externally imposed, like those of other groups. In fact, they can only be imposed by the transgender people themselves. We have literally no other way of knowing except being told.

Edited to add, for clarity, after a discussion in the comments:

A male with gender dysphoria is invisible and doesn’t become a transgender person (or a “woman,” if you like) except via simply making it so, by announcing their identity to the world and requesting it be recognized, which is always to some degree activism. Without a constant reinforcement of it via activism, they can’t have an identity as such.

Transgender = transgender. Like being goth.

Except that goths do have an official music genre.

 

Advertisements

10 thoughts on “On the Content and Importance of Identity

  1. “But trust me. Woman is something. Just not something you women would understand.”
    I love this.

    I’m confused, though, by your concept of identity. How is being female, or black, or gay externally imposed? Do you mean the stereotypes associated with those categories? The dangers? I’m autistic, and female, and I experience those as biological. I don’t care much about how people perceive me so long as they don’t structure the world in such a way that I find it very difficult or impossible to participate (which, unfortunately, they often do). But that’s accommodation of differences, not validation. Are you talking about validation? (Of course, if we had universal design/accessibility, it wouldn’t matter if I were autistic, or female, so then identity – and the medical documentation it often requires – would be irrelevant. I could just do my thing.)

    I’m also confused by “For most people, activism is an extra activity, easily parted with if something important is at stake.” I guess that means it isn’t a survival issue for most people?

    I *can* see how trans activists get caught up in being accepted as trans, instead of just focussing on reasonable accommodation for dysphoria and other medical issues, and how much that is a trap.

    Not trying to derail. I love your writing. You just confused me a bunch this time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I’m confused, though, by your concept of identity. How is being female, or black, or gay externally imposed? Do you mean the stereotypes associated with those categories? The dangers? I’m autistic, and female, and I experience those as biological.”

      OK, I see what you’re saying. Yes, these identities are biological, but as you allude to later in your comment, they are biological *differences* from someone else (a dominant class, to be exact), and it’s that difference, and the social treatment it invites, that makes identities matter to people. People don’t so much identify as, I don’t know, blue-eyed, because it’s common and isn’t being targeted for discrimination.

      If an island consisted solely of people we’d call black, and they had zero experience with white people, oppressor or otherwise, they likely wouldn’t call themselves black — would they even notice they were black in any significant way? And they certainly wouldn’t have to organize around being discriminated against in employment or not finding their shade of makeup in the store. This analogy breaks down severely because in reality white people are dominant on a global scale and are well known about and manage to interfere with all sorts of independent races and groups of people, so frankly it’s hard to picture not knowing about white oppressors.

      Being autistic may be a bit different, because maybe it affects your navigation of the world regardless of how people treat you, but I don’t know enough about that to comment so I won’t. Certainly though, as you suggest, if the world were set up to accommodate you, it would be less noticeable.

      As for activism, a woman would still experience being a woman and a gay person would still experience being a gay person if they didn’t become politically involved about it.

      But a person with gender dysphoria is invisible and doesn’t become a transgender person except via simply making it so, by announcing their identity to the world and requesting it be recognized, which is always to some degree activism.

      Like

      • Thanks for replying. I need to think about it some more. But I disagree that trans-ness is just an identity, at least for some people. For those with dysphoria, it’s an invisible disability, like autism or bipolar disorder, but hopefully something they can make a full recovery from. I agree that labelling the dysphoria “trans” makes it more of an identity than a medical condition, but it’s a response to a medical condition at least some of the time, and unfortunately transitioning is considered the treatment of choice right now.

        Trans activism also reminds me a bit of incest survivors, who often go through a phase where we need to tell everyone in order to feel accepted, when otherwise people wouldn’t know.

        Like

  2. Give them enough time, and I think you will start seeing people coercively assigned trans. There’s already a lot of trans activists and supporters who assume anyone sufficiently gender nonconforming must actually be trans; the trans child phenomenon is the most stark example. And a number of women-hating trans activists declare that any gender critical woman must necessarily be a closeted trans man. There’s a transgenderist stinking up GenderTrender right now saying that about Gallus Mag, like she’s never heard that before.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “For a while I’ve been struggling with the sneaking suspicion that identity is 100% immature narcissistic bullshit. Since when is it a human right to insist that everyone, everywhere “get” the real you and to coerce them into changing their behavior and language to prove that they get you? Since when is it even important?”

    THIS. Oh, this, so so much.

    One of the things that has always annoyed me so much about the “trans” community/activists is their insistence that they have some kind of “right” to have people see The Real Them, or to control how others see them. They have some kind of “right” to have their exterior match their interior. What makes them so special, then? Why do they have some “right” to be taken at face value and immediately treated exactly the way they want to be treated, when no one else has that right? How many people do you (or they, for that matter) know, male or female, who are always seen and treated exactly the way they want to be? How many people in this world think their physical bodies exactly match their interior selves, and don’t have any part of those bodies that they feel awkward or unhappy about?

    Do they honestly think that women walk around in some kind of bubble where no one ever ignores us, dismisses us, or treats us poorly? Do they honestly think that no woman looks at her body and wishes it was different, more reflective of their inner desires? Do they honestly think that no woman is ever treated in a way that doesn’t match our own vision of ourselves?

    I don’t think they do. Notice none of them say they want to be treated and seen “like a woman.” (They whine and cry when they’re treated the way women are actually treated.) They want to be treated and seen as Their Special Glorious Selves. This isn’t about being female, it’s about getting attention and being seen as more special and important than everyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s