In this post, I’m contrasting a more conventional outlook on identity (identity as trait) against another way of thinking about it (identification as an act). The first one is mostly fine to fall back on as a useful simplification, but there are also times when it can lend itself to problems, which is why I think it’s sometimes worthwhile to shift into another mindset. Note this post was written with orientation/sexuality/gender identity in mind, and whether it’s more broadly applicable is a question I leave to your judgement.
Identity as Trait
I’m using “identity as trait” to describe a particular way of understanding what “identity” even is in the first place: under this view, it’s an inherent personal characteristic. This would be the perspective which says everyone “has” a sexuality, and so picking a sexual orientation label is merely a matter of discerning what that sexuality is. Identity labels are understood as names assigned to each type of identity essence, and that essence needs to be assessed for the right properties in order to be correctly matched up to the right label.
This is a really, really common way of thinking about identity, and challenging it is difficult because one of its most opponents is far worse. So for people who find this to be a comfortable viewpoint, any alternative may look like a threat: an attempt to tell them that their identity isn’t “real,” isn’t important, or doesn’t deserve to be respected.
Unfortunately, at its extremes, identity-as-thing can lead to its own problems.
Identity essentialism is one I’ve spoken about a lot, although not always under that name. I’m using “essentialism” to refer to ideas about supposed essential, immutable characteristics of an identity, which all people in that demographic supposedly share. Essentialism can be considered the ideological backing behind practices of identity policing or prescriptivism.
Definition wars are sometimes just identity policing en masse, although it’s not always that simple. In the ace community, as with many communities, there’s been quite the legacy of bickering with each other over how best to describe what asexuality “is,” what any of the identities related to it actually “are,” and how to define them “correctly.” Part of all this emerges from intracommunity concerns about getting crunched out of the definition themselves, so I don’t blame people for being invested. Where these conversations go wrong, I figure, is when they try to resolve these issues while also trying to keep definitions narrow, definite, and singular — angling to isolate that one essential characteristic instead of making room for multiple, varied paths to identity.
In addition to the above, identity-as-trait can also lend itself to identity stress. By “identity stress,” I mean the product of internal, psychological pressure to get one’s own identity “right,” elevating any doubt or ambivalence into stress about about the risk of getting it wrong. Identity stress can be found among many communities, but it’s especially fostered by emphasis on the absolute technical “accuracy” of labeling.
Identification as Act
In order to get around problems like these, I figure sometimes it can be useful to step back and re-figure identity not as a trait, but the outcome of an act. If identification is understood as an act — specifically, a communication act — then that has the potential to open more space without necessarily undermining meaning. Allow me to explain.
If identification is understood as an act, then identity words are tools, and identification means the use of those tools. What do you need your tools accomplish for you? What do you want to do, and which are the tools that best enable you to do that? Not every tool will be useful to your own personal projects, even if it looks like it should. I can’t tell you how many different times times I’ve encountered some identity label that’s meant to describe some part of my experience, figured, “yeah, I guess narrative matches a part of mine,” but still decided it didn’t have any use to me. Sometimes there’s just not anything it could accomplish for me that I’m actually interested in doing. In this light, identification is not a question of “true” or “false”; it’s a question of use and purpose.
If identification follows from a subjective assessment rather than a set of external criteria, then it necessarily calls for autonomy. Other people can’t necessarily know what would be useful for others. Other people can’t see directly inside their soul and take a direct measure of what lies there. Rigid rule-based criteria for these things becomes nonsensical.
If identification is an act of communication, then using identity words and symbols represents a contextual choice. In some contexts, we may be talking to someone who’s not already be familiar with our preferred vocabulary, and so we fall back on other words. In some contexts, we may be talking to someone who cannot be trusted with a fuller picture, and so we fall back on a safer way of presenting ourselves. In some contexts, introducing certain words might only provoke confusion or unwelcome questions, and so we weigh the risks. In this light, “inconsistency” (or variation) in acts of identification can be accepted as a natural aspect of communication, and so identity-as-act has the potential to resolve discomfort with describing ourselves differently moment to moment.
If identification is a choice and that choice can vary, then long-term identification can be thought of in terms of repeated re-use. Think of this like blazing a trail: if you walk the same path often enough, then over time, that path forms a trail — a “story” in its repetition. Yet a trail is not a railroad. You are not bound to it. Each re-use is voluntary. If you find another route that works better for you, you can choose to walk that one instead. And if your choice of route depends on the weather that day or whether you feel like taking the scenic route or any other factor, you can alternate among several different paths, too.
If identification is a choice, not a rule set by an inherent essence, then sharing identities with multiple people means we need to affirm multiple narratives of identity. There can be no one specific trait-based definition to rule them all. Identity labels can be used to communicate feelings, priorities, boundaries, desires, relationships to individuals or to community, identifications or disidentifications with a particular narrative, and more. We don’t need to try to pin down only a single master narrative and then regard every deviation from it as an aberration. It is unrealistic and short-sighted to hope for some kind of precise distillation of clones — because sharing an identity does, in fact, mean sharing.
What that an act of identification is — what that really is — is a choice to connect ourselves, as if by a string, to a much larger web of instances wherever those same words have been said, a choice to position oneself relative to others who do the same, an invocation of every other invocation of the word. Our personal reasons for that choice will vary, our relationships to these words will vary, our personal narratives will vary, and those little ripples and variations in the pattern, in speaking style, in specifics, in stories, are how we know we’re talking to another person and not just speaking to a mirror.
Leave behind the mentality that says you can be “technically” XYZ without your say so. There is no “technically.” No technicality can bind you. There is only your autonomy, your judgement call about whether something is worthwhile to communicate about yourself in that particular way.
When that person comes to you, hands cupped, beseeching, asking for your word of authority on what they themselves “are” or what to call themselves, I hope you will close their hands and tell them that you will not take what is rightfully theirs. That the decision must be their own, and that they have your welcome, not your dictum.