Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On Labeling and Identity

I know our lovely little blog has been on hiatus a bit, but I'd like to initiate a conversation on identity, labels, and boxes. By "labels and boxes" I don't mean office supplies, but those organizing features that so many seem to need to fix to everyone in order to understand the world and put people in their proper category.

To begin, a some background and an anecdote.

As many of my fellow blogistas and those few that know my true identity are aware, I started dating the lovely woman named Teacher Poet about 9 months ago. This was the first female I had dated, and, of course, questions arose about my identity. Who was I? A lesbian? A bisexual? A heterosexual who happened to fall in love with this one woman? Over the course of these months we have been together, my particular philosophical/theoretical training (you know, feminism, gender studies, and the "posts:" post-modernism, post-structuralism) has caused me to shirk any kind of label in relation to my sexuality. This is because I look at most forms of identity as changing and in flux, and I don't think that who you date determines a thing about you. in other words, actions do not always equal identity (because how could they?).

Now, I do realize that not claiming some sort of label has all manner of implications for identity politics. We often need these labels in activism to decide who is marginalized, and therefore whose rights we are fighting for. You know, defining group identification and all that. In that case, I would gladly claim a label for a political purpose. If, for example, me standing up and saying, "I am a lesbian" gives me more, um, credibility (?) in fighting for gay civil rights to, for example, get married, then so be it. In general, though, I do not want to be referred to as a heterosexual, a lesbian, or a bisexual. Identity is in too much of a state of fluctuation for me to worry about such things. And what does it mean to be in one of those labels anyway? Again, we get into some complex issues regarding identity politics and tricky definitions.

So, recognizing that my decision to not claim any kind of label except in very specific cases has all kinds of implications and problems, I still stick behind it. If anything, the label "queer" fits very nicely, because from what I've heard it implies that you don't link sexuality to identity, you don't worry about which categories your behavior fits into, etc, etc, etc. That discussion is probably best for another time.

When I arrived at Cornfield U about 6 months ago, I was open about the fact that I was dating a woman to my fellow classmates, but I was also just as open about the fact that I do not like to claim labels for myself and why that was. Today, however, I discovered that despite the fact that I tell people why I don't want to be put in a box, they have put me in one anyway. I was just having an afternoon snack with a few girls in my program when they told me that they had told someone I was a lesbian (long story as to how that came up).

Now, let me make myself clear: I am not, not, not bothered by the fact that I was called a lesbian. What bothers me is that despite the fact that I have made it clear to these women that I do not claim a label (and WHY!) they still put me in a category based on the fact that I am dating a woman (a very wonderful and beautiful one, by the way :-)). They decided what my identity would be based on their own definitions. They put me in my proper box (and perhaps they did it because that is how they have to see the world. But why does it matter? It always makes me suspicious of people's motivations when they have to identify who's "gay" and who's "straight."). Part of me wants to say that perhaps we need a different classification system, one where there is a term that sums up my philosophy on identification and such. However, that wouldn't address the issue I am bringing up, would it?

My reason for posting this anecdote is to try and get a conversation going about identity and identity politics. I realize that I have raised many issues in this entry, and not all of them are particularly well fleshed out. How, for example, is my choosing to claim/not claim labels hurting/helping the LGBTQ community? How does this factor into identity politics? And am I just reading too much into all of this? :-)

Happy discussing.