I don’t recall how young I was, but I know I was very young when I expressed the notion that I wasn’t really a boy. But that idea was swiftly negated by my parents. I quickly learned that even expressing that thought would get me into some very hot water. So I began the work of pretending to be male, and the internal conflict began.
I was told years later that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, identifies me as “suffering” from Gender Identity Disorder. So I parsed the phrase: Gender is generally identified as belonging to one of two classes, male or female; Identity refers to which of those classes you identify with; and Disorder suggests that whichever one you identify with is the wrong one.
But in the world of work I identify as a writer. In the world of nations I identify as an American. In the world of religion I identify as an atheist. So if tomorrow I declare that I am no longer a writer, but now I’m a musician, am I told I’m suffering from Work Identity Disorder? No. In fact, if I say I always wanted to be a musician, wouldn’t some people admire me because I am “following my dream?”
Or what if tomorrow I announce that I’m dropping my ancestral identification as German and move to India and apply for citizenship there because that’s where I feel “more at home?” Would some accuse me of suffering from National Identity Disorder? (Or would they use the word ‘traitor?’) And what if I renounce my identity as an atheist and declare that I have found Jesus? Would anyone tell me I’m suffering from Religion Identity Disorder? Or would they happily welcome me into the fold? Why is it only gender identity that deserved space in the DSM?
Maybe it’s because social and public media love labels. Don’t they identity us by generation? Born in 1948? You’re a Baby Boomer. Born in 1978? You’re in Generation X. Born in 1988? You’re a Millennial. Born a decade ago? Generation Y. We don’t have choices.
We are first taught our identity by our parents and peers in much the same way I was taught what my gender identity ought to be. (Hell … the first question asked when we’re born is about identity.) But as we mature we discover there are alternatives, so we begin to question. With various levels of “push back” we’re free to explore our national identity, religious identity, and the like, but we get the message that gender identity is not a place we ought to explore.
A DNA test might reveal that the ancestry we thought was ours was inaccurate. A close look at the religion we were taught might show that we are more comfortable with the values and beliefs of a different faith. But gender? Gender is the ‘biggie,’ the bugabear that people find unsettling. Adopting a gender identity that feels right even though others don’t accept it is considered “unnatural.” It’s a “disorder.”
Which brings us to the problem that people of color, gays and lesbians, as well as the transgendered, face every day: the problem of having their entire cultural identity dominated by just one aspect, which is, in many ways, only secondary to whom we are. Others glom onto that one feature, and it gets blown out of proportion. It stands in the way of us getting recognized by and for the many other facets of our selves. It limits our ability to make an individual life and enable our individuality. So what can we do to stop this process?
There is no easy answer. Our identity is the central focus of our personality. To take control of it we must define ourselves, and we must remain consistently in control of that definition, even in the face of others who want to deny it.
On a daily basis, we define our identity by the actions we take, the people we ‘hang’ with, and the principles we defend. To control who we are we must consciously define our personal borders and our boundaries. We must decide what to advocate and what to defend, because if we don’t actively enforce the integrity of our identity, others will assert it for us. Simply put, if we talk the talk, we have to walk the walk. And if you walk like a duck and quack like a duck, pretty soon you will be recognized as a duck.
I am a writer. I am an American. I am an atheist. And I am a woman.