Our Collective Identity Crisis

There are many words I use to describe myself: Black, short, gorgeous (hell, if I don’t know it, who will?), creative, liberal, bossy (I am an Aries, after all).

But with stories about sexual and gender identity everywhere you look right now (from SCOTUS nominee Elena Kagan’s romantic preferences, to the controversial Newsweek article that opines that gay actors can’t convincingly play hetero characters, to Chaz Bono’s legal gender change, to the Courage Campaign’s petition to push President Obama to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year, to this mini-documentary that asks the question, “Should bisexuals disclose their sexual pasts to their partners?”), I realized today that I don’t actually think about those things when describing myself. I never add “female” or “straight” to the list. Not because I’m oh-so-enlightened and above it all, but because I’ve never been forced to. My life — in terms of gender and sexual identity at least — neatly conforms to the norm; I don’t have to identify myself because everyone else does it for me, and the result isn’t at all threatening.

But why are we so obsessed with “figuring out” other folks in the first place? Whether we’re trying to analyze why this politician is screwing around on his wife with this guy, or what that A-list star is doing behind closed doors, it seems that our culture is built around determining who other people are rather than who we are. So we say Kagan must be a lesbian because she’s 50, unmarried, favors short hair, and played softball once upon a time, and it’s her duty to tell us who she’s screwing because it will affect her decisions on the high court—what if she forces that gay stuff on us?! In a world where Usher and Nicki Minaj’s “Lil Freak,” and Kurt’s single ladies dance on Glee are all up in the mainstream, it’s easy to forget that, collectively, we’re still massively afraid of anything that we even suspect isn’t “normal.”

We’re may be afraid of what’s going on “out there,” but it’s a lot easier to gossip about someone else’s life than to look inward and figure out if the words we use to describe ourselves match up with our true identities. And goodness forbid that we should do any actual work on ourselves to make it so.

Do you think it matters what others are doing behind closed doors? What about what they’re doing in public? How do you describe yourself? Do tell.


If you like Kenrya’s opinion, check out the rest of her posts below.

Last 5 posts by kenrya

  • ak

    i’ve never thought about the issue of gender/sexual identity this way. i’ve always seen it through the lens of politics/activism and heard (and been annoyed) by lots of “i have a friend who is…so therefore i am…” i like this approach a lot. excellent, excellent, excellent.

  • Chardon

    I guess, I have never thought about myself. If I were single and not married; I would describe myself as smart, independent,and down-to-earth. I don’t think it really matters what or who people are. In the end we are unemployed, working poor, underinsured, and many other things that tie us all together, whether black/white, gay/straight. Who cares?

  • julie

    Personally, i think that questions of sexual preference don’t matter until it gets personal. I really don’t care if my congressman prefers to sleep with boys or girls, or if he/she is cheating (it’s their family’s problem) as long as he’s doing a good job in the office.
    But I do want to know sexual preferences/history of a person that i want to date. I think it is important for both partners to see sexuality the same way and agree on what’s norm and what’s acceptable for both (“norm” could be interpreted differently by different individuals). Sexuality is one of those “major” things that you have to agree on if you want a healthy relationship, like what city to live in, and if both of you want kids. If you disagree on such global topics, the relationship doesn’t stand a chance.

  • diane

    Hhhhmmmm, and Hi K!

    I get annoyed when people hide who they are – because they’re saying they’re afraid/not strong – and so they’d prefer to hide than be real.

    If they’re like that, I will ponder what else they might be afraid of…

    Politicians. Yeah there’s a breed. Here’s my recently formulated take on marrit polis: if you’ve got the kahones to think you can do it and keep it under wraps – I then do not want you in office because 1) you are delusional 2) you’re not trustworthy 3) you think way too much of yourself, and not enough of the consituency.

    To back up this I offer: Clinton, Edward, Spitzer, Pattersen, the NJ ex-gov, Hart, Condit. I could go on.

    Now some of them are plain arrogant (spitzer). Some got ‘caught’ because of a totally different circumstance (condit).

    But it’s all about hiding, not being comfortable, and thinking you can get away with it. Not in today’s world (JFK was likely the last one who did). Shall I start the star litany of idjits?

    Yes, these are hetero – but it would be no different otherwise. Barney Frank. Yea Barney. I don’t care. He’s proud. No problems.

    Kagan. I don’t give a rats arse what she might be – I do have issues with her not having had any sitting judge experience at all (and yes neither did other SCOTUS’ but that was long ago in a kinder, gentler world…)

    I totally agree with Jules, above, about being honest with the partner. Just be yourself, be truthful. If more folks did this, we’d have a lot less TMZ staff trolling around H’wood…

    But I also have one other thing to add: I find it amazing how many spouses claim they knew nothing. I think they’re fibbing, btw. I cannot believe you don’t know in your gut – I always did.

    When I describe myself, gender is not in play. There’s a lot more to ‘me’ than my femaleness, which I think becomes apparent anyways as you read/hear my self-description… one doesn’t have to list ‘it all’ for folks to ‘get who you are.’

  • I’m a black woman. That’s complex enough without adding more hyphens or slashes. I totally agree that people should be less concerned with other people’s identity and more concerned with their own. HOWEVER when it comes to being in an intimate relationship with someone, I think you not only have to look inward at yourself but also at the other person. What do they believe in, what do they like sexually, do they have a fetish that involves donkeys? You need to know.

    But I get your point. Great commentary. And thanks for shouting out Sociallicks.com’s latest mini-documentary 😉

  • Sarah

    I always hesitate to use words to describe myself — because they seem reductive and I don’t want to be reduced to a few words when I (and everyone else) is so much more than what they look like on paper. I suppose if you’re on match.com or something like that you have to describe yourself, but again, it forces a person to squeeze their identity into the confines of words. It’s like being buried alive. Unless you have all day to use thousands, maybe millions, of words to describe yourself, and others have all day to read your lists of words… I guess we all want to be heard, and seen, and understood, not passed over or ignored.

    Great ideas in this piece, K, always thought-provoking ♥

  • Tina

    I simply try my best to just view myself as constantly growing and evolving. I agree with Sarah’s post. Most of us go through different life phases, periods of growth/enlightenment, etc. and our definition of “who we are” changes right along with those tides, whether we choose to realize or not. I would guess we as consume ourselves with other people’s lives to prop ourselves up, have something to aspire to or not, or on the flip side to convince ourselves of our victim status (I don’t have ______, therefore ____). Like you said, basically avoiding the hard but rewarding work of looking inward. Great piece.