Whew, while I never planned to put in some hiatus in October, I must admit it was nice to take a little break. But now, back to business!
At the beginning of last month, I went to the opening ceremony of Queer Awareness Month (QuAM) at Columbia University, and the keynote speaker, Rebecca Jordan-Young, gave a wonderful talk about how allowing aspects of identity to be defined in possibly overly narrow ways can be harmful to the individuals to which these identities are “applied”. And her insights into how studies on gender identity and sexual orientation in the past have used overly narrow selection criteria in the hope of improving observable differences between groups strongly suggest that the idea of a clear-cut biological mechanism that leads to a “female brain” or a “gay brain” may better be revisited.
Since then, I have been wondering again about where I fit into the “gay world”–or maybe better queer world, using the more general, and less easily defined term–and why people feel such a need to “label” others as well as themselves with more or less narrow and fixed categories at all? And here are some of my thoughts…
Even when I was growing up, I already had a fairly strong sense of not fitting into the mainstream. My parents did not feel any particular urge to play the “follow the fashion” game that seemed to have taken hold in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the German middle-class. A lot of my clothes were inherited from either of my three-and-a-half or five-and-a-half-year older brother, which, given the fact that fashion changed quite a bit between when they and I went to elementary and junior high school, was probably a tell-tale sign of either my parents not giving a damn about fashion or us not having a lot of money. And with young kids being somewhat consciously unaware of issues such as group pressure, my guess is that some of my class mates decided that my family wasn’t too well off… Please don’t get me wrong: that in itself certainly wasn’t the reason for me to feel “queer” (i.e. unusual or maybe even not-belong to the group), but is rather one example in which I differed but clearly one that increased that sense a lot. Even more importantly, my parents made it a point to tell their kids that, eventually and essentially, we were (and have thus learned to be) responsible for our lives. And while this led to a certain amount of friction whenever we had gatherings with wider family, I must say I am tremendously grateful that I was allowed to explore the concept of self-determination at an early age!
When it comes to applying labels to other people, one of the most important reasons I can think of for doing so is that knowing certain “facts” about someone I interact with might help me in forming more accurate expectations concerning future outcomes of those interactions. For instance, knowing that someone is married with children may suggest that, in a certain situation, this person is more likely to behave in a certain manner. In short, the added value of applying a label to someone else is gaining a (false?) sense of increased certainty when it comes to predicting someone’s behavior.
An additional reason is that different aspects of identity help in forming social groups, which usually leads to group cohesion and an increase in the willingness to share resources or defend other group members against outside aggression. On average, I might be more willing and likely to help someone who shares certain characteristics with me, such as being gay, compared to someone who is different. And naturally, this also requires me to apply labels to myself…
But this comes at a potentially hefty price: first of all, if I apply a label to someone and then have stronger expectations for that person’s behavior, my own actions will reflect or at least incorporate part of those expectations. For instance, if I assume that someone is superficial and not interested in a serious conversation, I may very well start a small-talk and then, surprise, all we will ever talk about are relatively superficial topics. And when it comes to personal liberties, which is a much graver thought, as soon as labels have been sufficiently fixed, such as what “being gay” means, other properties like rights or specific privileges and restrictions become attached to this label or identity. In the case of (e.g. gay) rights, this could mean that if someone does not fully fit the label, as with bisexual people, they may or may not be granted those rights.
For me personally, applying a label to myself naturally means that I can or will “identify” with the label and whatever traits, actions, beliefs, and values that are usually associated with it. In a way, this gives me added security because I do not have to question myself in every aspect of my life all the time. But on the other hand it may also restrict my liberty. If, for instance, I identify with being Republican, I may feel a very strong urge and motivation to publicly defend some other Republican, even though without the labeling (or shared identity) I would not do so based on the other person’s character or actions.
Additionally, I am wondering: how stable is my identity? Obviously there are aspects that are factual, such as that I was born in Germany, a historic fact, or that I am white/caucasian, something that is in all likelihood true for the remainder of my life. But besides some few identities that are unlikely to change (or even unchangeable), I would argue that the entire “rest” is up for grabs. And there are a lot of possible identities to choose from, usually depending on the context. I could for instance identify as a member of Columbia University, and more specifically as a neuropsychology researcher at Columbia, as a Harlem resident, or more generally as a New Yorker, as politically left-leaning but with strong beliefs in personal liberties and responsibility, as someone in their mid-thirties, as a dependently-employed worker, as an Apple product user, as a fan of Natalie Portman, and so on. The list of potential identities is endless, and in a way it seems that each of them both adds to my sense of self while at the same time taking away the liberty to be the opposite. To be clear: each of these identities is usually only helpful in the context of contrast, like being a New Yorker in midst of people from Texas. Being a white man in his thirties among fellow mid-thirty caucasians isn’t a very “helpful” identity at all. Otherwise we could all just identify with being human and that’d be enough!
In the end, I guess that’s why, just like Rebecca Jordan-Young, I like to identify as queer. It is a “label” with a relatively strong notion of what it adds in terms of my sense of self, allowing me to be different and unpredictable, but more importantly not restricting me in any direction (other than being absolutely and dead-center average). So, yes, I love being queer!
Clearly you’ve given a lot of thought to this topic. Moreover, I am glad and happy that you are comfortable with yourself. However, the constructs raised here could also be talked about in a larger context. For example, I don’t completely agree with the notion that labels, and in part identities, are only helpful in the context of contrast. I think they can be rich and descriptive, connotative of an achieved, evolving, or dynamic status/experience/personal definition etcetera. All this leads me to ask an overly vague question: how could one exist without using labels? To me, language, by definition, imposes an organizational structure on our lives. Can we live without them?
Keep up the thought provoking work!