Playing the identity card: Why respect for self-identification matters

For our Mental Health Month series, Karen Pollock explores how some identities are seen as more valid than others, and the harm this causes to marginalised people. 


Recently, there have been a number of attempts to define, or redefine, various identities beneath the queer umbrella. As we move from broad-brush definitions which lumped together everyone as other, as gay, or in some cases, as simply aberrant, we need language to describe the reality of people’s experiences. However, alongside this ever-growing precision of language, and flowering of the importance of lived experience, so too a resistance to certain identities is flourishing.

It is important not to dismiss the roots which meant queer spaces and identities were intertwined with a need to exist on the margins. Earlier this year, my fellow curator Angel wrote of the history of the Stonewall and Compton Cafeteria riots. One of the common features of them is that they were not (as is often claimed) “gay” bars. Instead, they were marginal spaces, areas which those deemed normal were uninterested in, and so which others, those who were other, could occupy. Gender diverse people, trans people, gay people, lesbians, sex workers, people of colour, those marked in some way as deviating from the norm, carved out spaces to be themselves. In these spaces, multiple identities existed, even whilst the outside, wider society preferred to give them just one broad label.

As history is rewritten, as history is always rewritten, it becomes a story of how one identity rose up and fought for a space out of the dark corners. The identity which was allowed to do so was the one which shared the most in common with “normal”- white cis gay men. This is not to ignore or erase the very real dangers cis gay white men faced, and still face in a homophobic world. It is an observation of how multiplicity and difference were themselves ignored and erased.

Alongside this ever growing precision of language, and flowering of the importance of lived experience, so too a resistance to certain identities is flourishing.

It is important to remember that whilst words may change, identities rarely do, by which I mean that there have been aro, or ace, or non-binary, or demi people since there have been people. They may have used different language to describe themselves; today’s twink might be yesterday’s chicken hawk, but the identities themselves did not come into existence with the invention of the internet. The queens of the first part of the twentieth century knew their identity and defined it differently from “rough trade”.

Going back even further, we know people who saw themselves as ‘other’ existed, but often, modern labels are meaningless since we do not know which form of otherness we now identify they would have chosen for themselves. Would Oscar Wilde call himself bisexual? Would James Barry have described themselves as a trans man? We can never know, even if their very existence denies the argument that the multitude of identities are some modern invention. What we do know is that their otherness had to be hidden, that to name themselves, fully, and openly, would have (and in Wilde’s case did) lead to punishment and exclusion from society.  People were denied the right to claim their identity fully, and this denial caused great harms, to those whose names we know, and whose names have been lost to queer history.

Yet now we have complaints about “alphabet soup” or, as in the comments here, insistence that the world has become too complicated. Why can’t everyone just be gay, or lesbian, or – if you insist – bisexual. What is the T even doing there in the first place? Why do you have to keep adding letters?

It is important to remember that whilst words may change, identities rarely do.

If we move from simply defining everyone who does not fit the norms of allocishet society as other, if we give some identity, then in doing so, presumably, we have already recognised the importance of allowing people to claim their own identity. A gay man is not an invert, or mentally ill, or suffering from arrested development from the anal stage of Freud. Instead, they are gay, an identity which has meaning for them.

Moving from pathologisation, from othering, from being mis-defined, and erased, allows people to be themselves. This matters; every single person on the planet benefits from knowing, and being known as, their authentic self.

“Gaywashing” unfamiliar identities, or talking about gay sex, gay clubs, gay culture, when you mean something much wider leaves many people feeling their identity is not valid. This can be exacerbated by the same old jokes constantly being trotted out, as if some identities are meaningful and deserve respect, and some do not. Remember that 100 years ago, “gay” was an identity that did not exist; it only gained meaning as brave people identified with the term. Being able to be that authentic self brings better self-esteem, and wellbeing, whilst having to hide it, or pretend to be something one is not, causes psychological and emotional distress.

People were denied the right to claim their identity fully, and this denial caused great harms, to those whose names we know, and whose names have been lost to queer history

This month, our theme is mental health, and there are a lot of structural and societal changes which need to be made to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ people. However, one of the changes which would immediately improve the mental wellbeing of so many queer people would be for those within the communities (and it is plural, there are many queer communities not just one) to extend the respect they believe they deserve to other identities. If it matters to be identified as gay, or lesbian, or trans, then it matters to be identified as bi, or ace or non-binary. It might seem a small thing, but it only seems a small thing if your identity is not currently called into question, or mocked and constantly ignored.

Imagine if every time you mentioned one facet of your identity, society said that it simply did not exist. Or laughed at you; “How can you claim to be a Geordie, there is no such place as Newcastle”. No matter how much you insisted, showed them famous Geordies, photographs of the city, offered to show them the Castle and the Tyne Bridge – imagine if they still insisted that you had invented being a Geordie? “Ahh you mean a Makem” They respond, “Sunderland exists, everyone knows that, so why are you trying to confuse things talking about Newcastle, there is one North East city already, so why do you need another one?”

Being able to be that authentic self brings better self-esteem, and wellbeing

What do you think this would do to your mental health? The initial frustration might give way to anger. You might decide to campaign, to raise Geordie awareness, write angry letters every time the news media described Alan Shearer as being from Sunderland, argue with people that you were not being included when you get described as as a Makem. However, anger can be toxic, especially if it repeatedly ignored and pushed down. Unresolved anger causes stress, increases anxiety and can lead to depression. Even if our thwarted Geordie is not the type to get angry, they may feel that it is unsafe to be themselves, they may withdraw from spaces, become isolated, believe that if they want to be accepted, they have to pretend to be something they are not.

I hope you can see the parallels from my example. It is a simple thing to say “I respect your identity”. If you do not understand, or have never heard of a term before, it is even easier to Google, or if appropriate, ask what a word means. Turning away from dismissal, embracing difference, genuinely believing diversity is a good thing, would be a huge leap forward in improving the mental health of so many people. It doesn’t even cost anything – the only requirements are empathy and an open mind.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)

One thought on “Playing the identity card: Why respect for self-identification matters

Have your say!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s