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.




§ 12 Responses to Why I don’t “self-identify” as anything

  • Lysana says:

    I see “self-identifies as bisexual” far more than for other sexual orientations, so I’m with you on that phrase from my own angle. It belittles the identity in question from my perspective, especially since it tends to be applied by others.

  • Having just recently used it 😉 on the TMW site, I’d offer one defense. Self-identify as opposed to others-identify/ied. This seems to me to be the crux. Trans people need to make clear that they own the right to their own identity, and in this baffled world in which we live, most cisgender people are going to struggle to understand that this identification may not be the same as the conclusion they may draw – from the outside, as it were. It is to make clear this right, and the notion of potential difference between what the world ‘out there’ might decide for me and what I ‘inside’ know to be true that the term exists?

    Perhaps it will/can disappear – once the world outside abandons its belief that it has the right to make – and impose – assumptions on us?

    • cnlester says:

      It’s a tough one. I think what changed it for me – it feels as though if I use the phrase “self-identify” that implies that the world’s “identification” of me (which may not fit) is somehow valid in some way. When someone sees me as a woman they haven’t identified me as a woman – they may perceive me as a woman, but they’ve failed to identify who and what I actually am. “Identify” as a word implies (to my ear) some level of judgement/correctness/knowledge: “they identified the suspects” “he identified the salient argument” – and is, therefore, not the best fit when discussing a cissexist misapprehension of trans people.

      Sorry – does that make sense? I haven’t had my coffee yet. Perhaps I hope that part of the way we can get the outside world to abandon that belief is to calmly but firmly set them to rights right from the start.

  • Natacha says:

    Yes, and awkward phrase at the best of times. We need to find another way of using language which doesn’t automatically put us at a disadvantage.

  • Sarah Lake says:

    I’ve never understood the ‘self-identify’ thing either although I talk in those terms sometimes to move things on when I’m met with total incomprehension of a different viewpoint. I don’t know what ‘gender identity’ means except to describe an accumulated social experience. Otherwise to me it’s a bit like saying ‘I believe in god’. You create this abstract homunculus thing in your mind and then you insist to all who will listen that you believe in it. Being social animals I guess we kind of make a pact that we will all vest our homunculi … whether god or self-identity … with similar attributes. Then we can discuss the finer details of those attributes endlessly and in doing so refine them into a comforting shared vision which becomes endowed with a totemic semblance of reality. That’s kinda what often goes on in online forums 😉

    The only thing I’ve ever been certain about concerning my own transness is that I was born male-bodied yet have always felt an overpowering need to be perceived as female. This is not debatable. I just have. For the record a major constituent of this is sexual. I have always felt a strong need to experience sex as female though in the past I often felt a social pressure to play this down in case it fed ammunition to the morally constricted likes of Dr Blanchard or J. Michael Silly for their description of me as a pervert. Actually I do think it goes beyond the sex act. Not only does it embrace how Joan Roughgarden describes sexual signalling as having become co-opted for regulating social organisation, there also seems a powerful need in my own case to be perceived as female for no immediately apparent reason. I can only conclude that the imperative for sexual reproduction has resulted in an innate need in most people to be perceived as one sex or the other and to perceive others in a similar binary fashion.

    I know this may be seen as anathema from various viewpoints such as:
    – It’s not about passing (being perceived). It’s about my gender identity
    – it’s not about body sex. It’s about my gender identity
    – It’s not about sexuality. It’s about my gender identity
    – It’s not about binary because my gender identity is neither.

    However the following statement is true for all of the above: “I experience a strong need to be perceived as other than my assigned birth gender” … No?

    If there’s usually a strong neurological trigger to be perceived as male or female then, just as with people who are left-handed or ambidextrous, why should this trigger not flip unexpectedly sometimes or be experienced in varying degree from one individual to the next or even be altogether absent? This absolutely conforms with the growing acceptance among neuroscientists that neurodiversity is far greater than previously imagined. The inability to accept such an apparently value free and simple explanation conforms sadly with the historical pressure in societies to confer high moral value on superficial demonstrations of neuroconformity.

    Such apparent neuroconformity may have been felt to confer an advantage in a past characterised by conflict and antipathy between different societies. It is no longer necessary to maintain such an illusion.

  • […] lester has written a blog: ‘Why i don’t “self-identify” as anything’ which prompted me to put my own thoughts on the […]

  • @ Sarah – just to pick out one thing from your post there…the concept of ‘passing’ has been one which has made NO sense at all to me at any stage. It completely disempowers the individual and gives it to others. Makes their judgments supreme and mine worthless. Its one of those ‘red button’ concepts to me, hated personally as much as ‘that’ word. I only ever wanted to ‘pass’ as one thing – me.

  • When I’m doing talks on the complexities of biological sex and gender I don’t expect my ausience to be able to go straight into e.g. “Kate is a woman” when they look at Kate and see a masculine-bodied person, so I tend to to start with “Kate experiences herself as a woman,” and then move them on to the point where they’re thinking about what that means (my talks, overall, encourage people to question the reasons why we label people as one sex or another). I prefer “experiences” to “identifies” because it says something solid and real about what life is like for such a person and it’s not as easily dismissed as a flimsy notion probably amenable to psychotherapy. It forces audiences to confront that person’s experience as a significant factor deserving of respect. In my experience, cis people find it relatively easy to go from there to the conclusion that a person’s own experience should be accorded greater weight than the perceptions others might have.

  • maddox says:

    This is extremely well laid out – each point gets better and better.

    #1 I was like, hmm ok it’s your blog.

    #2 hit a chord with me – indeed there is a double standard, which is prominent in friendly and non-friendly pieces. It gives a natural escape route to those who wish to belittle us as not “really” X gender, more like just trying very hard. And it certainly lessens the pang of reality when stated as “I feel like X” rather than “I am X.”

    #3 I am amazed you could pull this off.

    On further thought, however, I must provide the counterpoints. Some of the newer words and language are so murky and undefinable or multi-definable, that it does become necessary to use “identify as” as a sort of approximation to what we really are. For instance, I am transgender, I am neutral gendered, I am neither man nor woman. But I “identify as” neutrois – because neutrois is just a word to me and to others, and it does not (as of yet) hold a concrete stationary meaning, it is not a reliable nor a relatable concept, so I can only approximate myself and your perception of me to it.

    • cnlester says:

      And I’m afraid that I have to parry your counterpoint 😉 Do excuse me.

      I think that that argument holds water only insofar as we would agree on two points – that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are reliable and relatable concepts, and that we can and should continue with the vague concept of a Platonic ideal of gender.

      I think one of the main victories of feminism/queer theory/gender studies has been to show that man and woman are not reliable constructs – that they rely on historical context/class context/racial context/age/ability/disability – you name it, it affects the way in which we relate to those words. They have no stationary meaning, but only achieve meaning through their placement. And I would contend that words such as ‘neutrois’ are the same.

      In terms of Platonic ideal – oh dear, this is where I get my ranting hat on. And the book is going to have a lot of this in it. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we locate a concept of/category of gender/sex outside of ourselves – the “Real” that we hold ourselves up to. So, when you say “I can only approximate myself and your perception of me to it” – where is this “it”? Do we agree on the “it”? Who holds the definition and location of “it”?

      I think we need to flip this equation. People come first. You are the concrete presence of “neutrois” – the word exists to serve you, and not you to illuminate it.

  • Nat says:

    I know several people who work in sexual health or sexuality-related academic research fields. There ‘self identified’ is primarily used as a differentiator for terms that are defined by researchers or organisations as covering entire groups – say ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ for “people who are attracted to (or have sex with) members of the same sex or gender”.

    If a researcher identifies people (respondents to their survey) as ‘gay’ based on that, they’re going to be identifying a much larger group of people than if they only covered people who explicitly identify themselves as gay in their responses (and this language really does come from analysis of research surveys and equalities screening forms). So that is the difference, a label/description identified from a series of responses (or observed be behaviour) by the researcher, rather than explicitly identified by the individual by ticking or writing in the specific word.

    If you work in sexual health, you’re usually interested in behaviour, like men-who-have-sex-with-men rather than ‘self identities’ or identities assigned by researchers or dictionary definitions. Self identities only become relevant when you’re attempting to engage with people through community outlets like the gay press, or you’re trying to be sensitive to straight identified men who nonetheless have a lot of risky unprotected sex with other men.

    This is particularly relevant when you’re given research or activism funding grants. I might be given a grant to work for/with ‘transgender people’ (or maybe ‘trans people’, depends on the funding organisation), which I would then define as widely as possible, probably covering “anyone who transgresses or transcends society’s rules and roles around gender”. Of course I would also be dealing with a lot of crossdressing, genderqueer and transsexual people who very adamantly don’t self identify as ‘transgender’ (or trans) for various personal or political reasons.

    The same is true for ‘bisexual’ organisations – it’s a hell of a lot easier to get a grant to work for ‘bisexual people’ than to get one that explicitly covers queer, pansexual and asexual identified people too, so you define your funded term in the widest possible sense, refer to everyone you want to cover as ‘bisexual’ throughout, but differentiate people who actively identify as bisexual (or other labels you cover) by talking about ‘members of the community’ and ‘self identified’ bisexuals.

    So there are a number of practical (and political) reasons why researchers, sexual health workers and grant-funded organisations use the term ‘self identified’ to differentiate from other methods of identifying a person’s sexuality (or gender).

    However I do very firmly agree with you that we should stop using this sort of academic researcher language when we’re not writing research or funding proposals. “People who self identify as transgender” should not be appearing in our resources, “people who identify as trangender” is usually fine – or “transgender people” if you’ve already explicitly described who falls under your definition of ‘transgender’.

  • misswonderly says:

    Only just realised that this blog is linked to an email address i seldom use these days so have missed the way this conversation developed:

    @CN: ‘I think what changed it for me – it feels as though if I use the phrase “self-identify” that implies that the world’s “identification” of me (which may not fit)’

    I exactly get this. How can ‘self identify’ ever be anything other than ‘I’m going to self-identify in a way which is legible to your expectations’.

    ‘Expectation’, as homed in on as the key by Julia Serano, is perhaps the word missing from this discussion … although Jo says:
    “Perhaps it [identification] will/can disappear – once the world outside abandons its belief that it has the right to make – and impose – assumptions on us?”. Assumptions = expectations … no?

    @Jo: “the concept of ‘passing’ has been one which has made NO sense at all to me at any stage. It completely disempowers the individual and gives it to others.”

    The thing about ‘passing’ is that we know it’s something which happens and countering it with an abstract like ‘gender identity’ doesn’t work for me any better than denying any reality about life by claiming it’s against some invented god’s will. Saying most of our expectations about other people’s gender are invented and unnecessary on the other hand works very well for me. And this is something I’ve experienced in myself simply by associating with other trans people. Everything about my upbringing made me imagine the commonly accepted gender expectations were innate but imperceptibly I simply stopped having the same expectations and this is now my ‘natural’.

    The problematic [or actually very simple] area to me is sexual orientation because there we hope to have our visceral expectations met … or at least I do.

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