Why I don’t “self-identify” as anything
December 31, 2011 § 12 Comments
Oh, look. It’s been nearly two months since I wrote about the language surrounding trans identities and existence, and it feels like it’s time to do so again. And, again, with this proviso – a critique is not an attack. But I believe that the sign of a successful movement/philosophy is that it’s always outgrowing itself, and I certainly thinking we’ve outgrown the phrase “self-identify”. Three reasons:
1. The most petty – to my ears and mouth it’s almost painfully ugly. The double sense of reflection – yes, I understand that the “self” is there to function as a sign that the world may choose to identify the person in question as something else – but really? “I identify with this group” – “I identify as Christian” – the “self” seems extraneous. A weak argument – I know. But it’s my blog, and I did have to get it off my chest.
2. The politically important – it’s a term that is almost always used to describe trans people, and trans people alone. Is this familiar to anyone else? The kind of trans-friendly writing that, nevertheless, uses simple “shes” and “hes” for the cis people and descriptions such as “Lara, 32, who self-identifies as a woman” for the trans people. Especially the trans people who aren’t men and women. “Sam, who self-identifies as “genderqueer””. I’m not trying to pretend that it’s easy to explain trans issues to a largely ignorant, often cissexist audience. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to have one rule for trans people and one rule for cis people. So, unless I start seeing sentences such as “David Cameron, PM, who self-identifies as male” then I think it might be time to start phasing this one out.
3. The personally important. This won’t be true for everyone, but I suspect it will be true for some. Describing a foundational element of who I am with the phrase “identify as” is an uneasy thing for me to do. The additional “as” we use in the context of self-reflection – it’s too close to an outsider looking in, the “identify with”. It seems to posit the speaker as someone with a metaphorical relationship to a group that they will never simply inhabit. That we reflect their selves within our selves but with a distinction drawn between the two: “I identified with her sorrow”, “I identified with those women”, “I identify as an androgyne”. It lacks the force, self-assuredess – the ownership – of “I am”. It makes me feel as though I’m asking permission, or as though I don’t have the right to know best the who and the what of myself. Whenever I hear “I self-identify” it strikes me as rendering my own unique way of experiencing sex and gender into a theoretical experience only. “I self-identify as neither male nor female” lacks the everyday reality of “I am neither male nor female”. It’s not only a personal consideration of how I feel myself to be – it’s the quotidian business of my life. And I want only to use language that respects and allows for that – not only for myself, but for others.
Going forward – well, maybe it can be some kind of New Year’s wish that “self-identify” gently peters out. I think it’s served its purpose. So let’s find something better to take its place.