Sunday, 18 March 2012

Claiming Identity

When it comes to who I am and what that means, one of the things I struggle most with is the idea of legitimacy.

Claiming an identity can be very important within marginalised communities - it gives individuals and groups something to rally around, something to take strength and comfort from, something to claim for their own in a world which often doesn't allow them very much. It can be an extremely empowering, life-affirming thing - maybe even in some cases literally life-saving. The discovery of a community of people, no matter how loose - a local meeting, an internet group, a social event - can make all the difference between feelings of isolation, freakishness, and despondency and those of strength, belonging and hope. Sometimes all it takes is a word, discovered by mistake or by desperate search, a word which you feel describes you, something you maybe didn't know was even possible.

I know for myself how important this process can be, and how much of a difference it can make to one's sense of self. I'd go as far as to say it is crucial. Obviously I can't speak for people other than myself, but that's been my impression within marginalised communities. I also know how damaging it is when people falsely claim a marginalised identity. The man who posed as a lesbian in order to run a lesbian news site, for example, and who hosted the man who posed as a young lesbian kidnapped by Syrian security forces. That incident blew a hole in the credibility of blogging as a whole, which is as nothing to the betrayal felt by the people who these men purported to represent. There is something disgusting about members of a privileged community posing as members of a non-privileged community, whatever the reasons behind it. It is hurtful to all manner of political causes, social entities, support communities and individuals whether involved with these things or not.

So where does that leave someone who hovers on the borders of identity? I am personally invested in a number of marginalised identities, and I have often found solace in identifying with these labels, engaging with the work of others who share them, and attending events where I know people who claim a particular identity will be welcome and sometimes even make up the majority. I find this a huge comfort in times of stress and pain. But I can't help feeling guilty about it at the same time, particularly when my identity is in flux.

For example, I no longer feel comfortable in woman-only spaces, where once I might have sought solidarity. I feel uncomfortable in LGBT spaces, where I am frequently read as something that I'm not. I feel desperately uncomfortable in Jewish spaces and in spaces where I engage in discussion about mental health, as in these places I feel more than anywhere else that I am claiming something that is not mine to claim.

I worry about the implications of claiming any identity for myself. I feel like I need something, because I am so clearly not the default setting for human being - straight, cis, male - and something in me needs to acknowledge that, and acknowledge it robustly. But I can't let that acknowledgement destabilise pre-existing communities that are based on shared identities that I don't necessarily share. I feel a kinship with some of these communities, an affinity, but do they feel it with me? There is, as I said previously, something disgusting about members of a privileged community claiming the identity of a non-privileged community, and as someone who routinely passes as cisgender, straight, monogamous, non-Jewish and mentally healthy, I feel like some of that disgust would legitimately fall on my shoulders if I claimed otherwise.

On the other hand, I wouldn't apply these strictures to other people. If someone tells me they belong in a certain space, then they belong in that space, no questions asked. I wouldn't delegitimise them, although I would myself, in the same way that I would never shame anyone else for not having the 'right' body shape, whilst I frequently shame myself. I subscribe totally to the idea of self-identification. If you say you are a woman, you are a woman, no matter how others read you or what your biology is. If you say you are bisexual, you are bisexual, no matter how many people of any gender you have had sex with, or how many people tell you it doesn't exist. But there is something holding me back from allowing myself the same flexibility.

There is a part of me that suspects that it is my wavering mental stability which stops me from claiming whatever identity I want to claim. Perhaps my sense of self worth is not high enough to legitimise my wholehearted embracing of a marginalised identity - which is damaging enough for me, with my supportive loving family and supportive loving friends. I wonder how many other people are out there, people with far less privilege and a much more fragile support network, if any - I wonder how many of these people are denying themselves community and warmth out of some sense of illegitimacy. I wonder if we're thoughtlessly excluding these people by the very words that we use for ourselves, the very identities that we construct and rally around. What is strength and hope for us is, by one more turn of the screw, isolation and devastation for others.

1 comment:

  1. There's plenty of us, I'd imagine. Thank you for writing this.

    Personally, I claim some identities to myself (and my good friends) but avoid the spaces, out of fear of causing problems or confrontation. (I regularly get IDed as male and am invisibly disabled).

    Anyhow, thank you.