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.


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