I Don’t Identify, I Am
Posted by Aleo Pugh
April 4, 2017
As a person who has spent the last few years desperately trying to divorce who I am from who I’ve been taught to be, the role of language in identity formation has become increasingly apparent. It was on a trip during my senior year that I was first prompted to think about the language I used to describe myself. A friend and I were leading a forum on sexuality and gender, and for the ice-breaker, we had folks share their name, pronouns and their gender and sexuality if they felt comfortable. As more people shared and we moved around the circle, a pattern quickly became visible. Every person who wasn’t cisgender or heterosexual qualified their chosen terms with “identify.” Meanwhile, cis hetero folks would just say “I am ______” and keep it pushing.
Now, maybe this isn’t a huge deal — there are certainly more pressing issues, but I believe language encapsulates the most latent parts of our psyche. There is no escaping the inflections of language and what is means for inscribing cultural hegemonies. Because of this, I personally refrain from applying “identify” to myself, mostly because I find it delegitimizing, but also because using language intentionally can be a powerful way to contest normative cultural scripts.
When I think of identity, I think of something deeply intrinsic and personal. People’s identities are typically reserved for close friends and family members and can be compartmentalized when needed. I understand identity as an internal sense of self which can often be a basis for community, but it exists mostly in more private sectors. Being, however, is constant — it can’t be quieted or excised because it is a fundamental part of how one moves through the world.
This whole “identify” business bothers me those most when applied to transgender and gender non-conforming people. For some reason, the term “male-identified” has come into favor at my school and I absolutely hate it. First, it’s based on this antiquated understanding of gender. While people are slowly coming to understand gender as a social construct, sex is still maintained as having at least some degree of truth to it. However, sex is also a social construct, but merely in a different way. “Male” and “female” are terms that people use when they want to be scientific or biological, so terms like “male-identified” suggest a failed attempt at inclusivity (another term I hate, but it accurately characterizes what’s being done here). While someone may not be “biologically male or female,” tacking “identify” on the end of it is somehow supposed to be an inviting and communicate an attempt at trans inclusion. What this really does is reinscribe a binary, with trans people identifying as their gender and cis people being their gender. This is literally the same thing as calling cis people “real” and implying or stating that trans people are somehow “fake” or less authentic versions of “the real thing.” Its fundamentally the same transphobic principle, but using different language.
There also this differentiation between “gender” and “gender identity.” Again, cis people have genders which are legitimate and real and trans people have self-authorized creations. I don’t take issue with the word identify itself, in fact, I think it can be really affirming and less constricting. Identities usually have some degree of flexibility to them while being can feel rather immutable and permanent. My issue is the clear distinction, assigning a realness to cis people and falsity to trans and gender non-conforming people.
I had never broken things down to the degree of looking at the way that we talk about our identities as gendered and sexed individuals. I appreciate your fresh perspective over the matter.