I’ve mentioned a few times over the last few weeks that I’ve been thinking more and more about identity, what it means, why we love or hate it and how it shapes our relationships and the ways we interact with the world.
In some ways, I love the word. On the surface it allows for flexibility and ownership of oneself. However the more I’ve thought and talked about it the more I’ve realised that actually, identity controls us more than we control it. In Istanbul last year, one of my lecturers said something that stuck with me;
cis-people have gender, queer people have gender identity
All of a sudden, identity was not something that you necessarily chose or owned but something that was impressed upon you because you’re “different”. This has struck me again and again over the past months as I meet new people and make new friends. For anyone who’s been doing that recently, you’ll also have realised that new people form opinions about you, opinions which then change and alter and solidify as you get to know each other better.
A great way to learn about the type of identity your friends attribute you with is to ask what sort of dog they think you are. On the weekend a friend of mine told me she thought I was a terrier. A small, wire-haired terrier with long legs. I’m not on a mission to find out what kinds of dogs other friends of mine would describe me as, because I feel like the answers would probably vary wildly. Why? Because I have a lot of identities, a lot of sometimes conflicting and sometimes contrasting identities. And this results in some amusing asumptions and occasionally unique views into how trapped an individual can get in their identity if they’re not allowed (by themselves or their friends/families) to escape or alter those identities. Personally, I think I’m a sleek, elegant afghan, with my long brown locks and my stately stride. When I tell the friend that thinks I’m a terrier she just laughs and tells me I’m wrong, but at the same time she’ll be the first to own my private school educated background, inner eastern suburbs upbringing and white, middle-class, university educated privilege. So how did I become an inquisitive, hyper-active and attentive terrier in her eyes?
Generally, people think I’m older than I am. To the extent that despite the fact that he’s slowly balding, directs a private engineering consultancy and is engaged with a mortgage, most people think I’m older than my brother (who is 3.5 years older than me). People have been assuming I’m older than I am for years. In fact, since I was very young, so I’m hesitant to assume it’s some inherent maturity on my part. Although that’s mostly what people attribute it to. Part of me, finds this whole thing very scary and unsettling. Does it mean that when I’m 80 everyone will think I’m 90? Does it mean I’m boring and “mature”? Are people more likely to assume I won’t be interested in something based on their assumption about my age? On top of this however is the contradiction of my friend who thinks I’m a terrier (energetic, curious, sticking my nose in everything, hunting rabbits, charging down fox holes) also assuming I’m older than I am… so am I actually an old terrier that likes hanging out by the fire?
The reason why identity has been so much on my mind recently is because of the variety of identities I have and how when the collide, people get confused and disoriented.
My horse riding friends box me in the “rough and ready, trail riding, slightly bonkers” corner, until I competed at TopTeams showing and scrubed myself and my pony to perfection. All of a sudden I was confounding their view of who I was. My family have me pegged as a loud mouth, hard to control, extrovert, they can’t imagine why I have a reputation among my nursing buddies for being serious and speculative. My circus mates see me in stripes, making silly faces and falling about laughing. They would hardly recognise me dressed for the office or presenting organisational statistics to a national Rotary conference.
So what does all this matter? Who cares about whether my new friends misinterpret my identity and box me one way when I’m really the other? Well for me, it doesn’t matter, I take huge pleasure in confounding and confusing. I love being the perfect housewife, baking treats one day and the flash-mob leading, sparkly onesie clad dancer the next. But for some people, identity is essential for self-esteem and for others it’s a trap.
I was talking to a friend last night about young queer people and their common need to be easily identifiable, to fit into a stereotypical box in order to prove who they are and what they stand for. For many of these young people, overt identity protects and promotes them and gives them a sense of boundaries and possibilities. For others, identity is a trap, a common example of this is cultural identity, being pegging into a certain space based on cultural background. When you don’t fit that identity or have a multifaceted or unusual complementary identity this can be really constraining. While shocking and confusing people is something I love, it can be very difficult for others.
I don’t think the process of writing this article has given me any answers. Although the process of thinking and talking about it has helped the development of my concept. Maybe feminaust readers have more examples of how identity has been helpful or hurtful in their lives…?
Image taken from lubart‘s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License.
Identity shapes our ways of interacting with the world. We all want to be liked, and mostly we all want to be