It’s an odd thing, identity. You can have legal documents that prove it. It can, unfortunately, be stolen. One thing I firmly believe, however, is that it cannot be touched. Not in the truest, most pure form of the concept. Your identity is your own, and nobody can knock it.
Imagine, for a moment, a world of automatons. Everyone looking, sounding and acting the same. Hideously dull, isn’t it? This is why, when some balk at the term “diversity”, I feel a great swell of pity for them. To exist entirely in an echo chamber and a mirror simultaneously would be immensely boring. The world doesn’t work that way. Life doesn’t work that way. If it did, evolution would grind to a halt. Life relies on diversity in order to evolve and progress. To me, the greatest source of diversity among humans is found in the core of every person. Their identity. Every person is truly unique and it all comes down to their identity.
So, what makes up your identity? Let’s begin with the most obvious. A name. They’re important, after all. You come to know someone’s name and they know you’re talking to them when you address them. Seems simple enough, yet we can share names. I know plenty of ‘Davids’ my own age, yet have only come across a handful of them in my own teaching career. Names come and go in popularity, just as they can come and go by choice.
We’re given a name at birth, but some choose to change their name legally later in life. This can be for a number of reasons, all of which are relevant only to the person making the decision. Being happy with how you are addressed is important to our sense of identity. Introducing ourselves by name is our first point of contact with another human being. You never start a conversation with “Hello, I’m an engineer, my name is Ryan!” We want people to know our names, to know how to address us. Nicknames are, of course, an extension of this. Names that we’re happy to be called by certain friends. It’s also why name-calling can actually be more hurtful than we sometimes let on. It’s a name we’re not happy to be called and it feels like a dismissal of this first point of human contact. While this might seem like I’m making a point that contradicts my assertion that your identity cannot be touched, it is my firm belief that it is how we deal with others that determines the strength of our identity. You and you alone get to decide on your name. If someone calls you something other than your name, ignore them. They may think they’re talking to you, but you know they are not.
‘Dead-naming’ is when someone addresses a transgender person by their former name. It is a particular source of strife for the transgender community, especially when done deliberately and maliciously. The excuse sometimes thrown about is “You’ll always be (blank) to me.” Well, here’s the thing; you don’t get to dictate other people’s identity based on your perceptions. That person’s identity is theirs to determine and theirs alone, just as yours is for you to determine. Addressing someone correctly is a basic act of respect and it isn’t difficult. Remembering their pronouns isn’t actually all that hard either, but in the case of a genuine mistake, the important thing is to correct yourself as swiftly as possible. If your friend comes out to you as transgender or non-binary, show them you respect them.
My gender matches my sex. That’s my identity. There are some who feel that how other people identify with regards to gender and sex somehow impacts them in turn. The fundamental truth is, it doesn’t. When someone identifies as a gender that differs from their sex, it does not effect the identity of anyone else. My gender matches my sex and I am attracted to other people of the same sex. I identify as homosexual. If a transgender person identifies as homosexual too, this does not take away or lessen my ability to identify as homosexual. Facets of identity are not some finite resource that cannot be shared. There’s plenty to go around, and someone sharing a trait with you does not diminish you in any way.
We’re fortunate to live in a time when our understanding of human sexuality and gender is expanding (though sadly some seek to drag our understanding backwards). We’re giving voice to aspects of both sexuality and gender that previously went unheard. Just as a few examples, we’re affirming the concept of asexuality, where before we might have ignored it. We’re making the distinction between pansexuality and bisexuality. We’re beginning to recognise the spectrum of gender and accepting that some people are non-binary. I think this is a rather exciting time to be alive, and I only have pity for those who can’t see it. The concepts of sexuality and gender are as complex as life itself, and we’re only beginning the exploration.
Anyone who knows me will know how much I value empathy. As I said, my gender and my sex are the same and I am attracted to other men. That’s a big part of my identity. I can, however, more than accept that this is not how everyone identifies. As we’ve established, the very idea that everyone should identify the same as everyone else is not only absurd but downright dull.
Empathy, the ability to put yourself in the place of another and begin to understand how they feel, is vital when it comes to respecting the identity of someone else. I am not transgender, but I know plenty of people who are. I have not gone through what they have, but I can make an effort to understand. I don’t see any point in trying to distance myself from someone just because they identify differently to me in regards to gender. To attack someone over it just seems ludicrous and spiteful. That’s why, whenever possible, I make the effort to stand up for my transgender friends the same way I would for my other friends in the LGBTQ community when they are attacked. I stand against anyone who would attack others for simply identfying differently.
Why do some people attack others for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer? Why is it some people see someone who differs from them and think them a threat, even when they aren’t? The answer is simple. Fear. Our ancestors learned that some things that are different might try to hurt you, and sadly, some people today still hold to this instinct even when it isn’t necessary. They are afraid that the existence of one identity will somehow eclipse or erase their own. If you hold fast to your identity, it cannot be touched by anyone. If you seek to dictate to others how they should identify, well, you can expect them to hold fast to their identity too. There’s an old phrase that really needs to come back. It’s ‘live and let live’. Imagine a world where, upon meeting someone who identifies differently to you, instead of putting up our defences or trying to change them, we said “That’s fascinating. Please, tell me more.”
Naturally there are other aspects to identity and the truth is, everyone has their priorities when it comes to this. Some people hold the country of their birth as being the core of their identity, whereas to some it’s simply a geographical happenstance. To many, the colour of their skin is very much linked to their sense of identity, whereas many hold their religious beliefs to be paramount when it comes to defining who they are. Most people are proud of being something, and this is usually the fundamental source of conflict between us as a species. This raises one final question; is it okay to be proud of your identity?
Answering such a question could merit an entire blog, but if you’ve made it this far into this particular blog then I’ll be mercifully brief. Ultimately, yes, I believe it is okay to be proud of your identity. I am proud to be gay.
However, being proud of any aspect of your identity does not mean having to attack others for a part of their identity. All too often, the ones who cry “Am I not allowed to be proud of who I am?” are the ones simultaneously attacking others for being themselves. Too often, the right to be proud of yourself is used as an excuse for attacking others. Well, it doesn’t wash with me. If the strength of your identity rests solely on attacking others, that isn’t pride. It’s paranoia. Someone moving into your area who is different to you does not constitute an automatic threat.
I’ll leave you with that phrase that really does need to be used more.
“Live and let live.”