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I'm quite sure I picked up the wrong one on my way out the door....

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Understanding Identity as Both a Binding and as an Exclusionary Force

What is your identity?

What does it mean when someone asks who or what you are?

How do you answer them in a single word, a single phrase, a single sentence?

Perhaps how you answer is dependent upon who asks you and what context or situation you are in at the time.

If you are being asked this question while attending a Church, you might say you are Greek Orthodox or Catholic, or Protestant or Baptist, let's say.

If you are asked who or what you are outside of a voting booth, you might say you are a Democrat or a Republican, or an Independent.

If you are, let us say, attending an ethnic festival, you might say that you are Greek, or Lebanese or wherever mother country your descendants harken from.

And if you are a newborn baby, your mother or father will speak for you and say that you are a boy or a girl....and that is who you are.

But who one is, is so much more than just being a label or a conglomeration of labels  One is so much more than simply a concatenation of these things.  One is more than simply a "Girl" who is a "Democrat" whose ethnicity is from "Greece" and who is "Greek Orthodox".

The idea of who we are may seem simple enough an understanding at first glance but the more we think about ourselves, the more complex and unique we come to find we are.
 
The concept of identity has always fascinated me.  Being transgender makes me even more aware of identity and in trying to answer the question of myself as to "Who am I?"

Even when one takes on a label of an identity, there are a myriad of "sub-identities" within that identity.
In the transgender community, who one is becomes even more stratified as now one can be known as being "pre-op" or "post-op", a cross-dresser, a transsexual,  a drag queen, gay, straight, bi, cis-gendered, queer..... and the list goes on and on.

As in any culture, identity becomes a means to categorize a person with a "stamp" which brands them, binds them or excludes them from a group of people.  Identities bring people who are the same together and also serve to become a target for discrimination or hate by others who don't identify with the grouping.

Solidarity and strength arise from identifying unique aspects within each of us which fit into a larger general grouping and aligning us together as a single unit.   "The Greeks", "The Blacks", "The Jews", "The Gays", "The Lesbians", "The Transgenders".  We align because it is comfortable, or because we feel included, or perhaps because we can find sympathy in like individuals where sympathy does not lie elsewhere.  We align religiously to promote our beliefs and ethnically to defend our heritage.  This can lead to violent bloodshed and war when an entire country identifies against another country whose people identify in solidarity themselves.

But there is an even darker side to all of this... The downside of groups coalescing for an identity cause comes about when we band together.  When we group together, we often ISOLATE others either passively or actively and aggressively as a result through exclusion.  When groups band together, then these groups must consider how they will be perceived by others who are not part of that group, not part of the heritage, not part of the initiative and movement which the group may be undertaking as part of its charter mission.

When a group isolates another, whether it be purposeful or not, it can promulgate fear by those who may feel threatened by the emerging alliance.  Those outside of the group may ask.... "How will this group alliance affect me? my family?  my religion? my life?"

We have seen this countless times before in all likelihood.....

*  An established Italian Neighborhood sees immigrants from Brazil moving in and setting up homes and businesses in their neighborhood.

*  A predominantly White Neighborhood begins to see Black and African American individuals moving in

*  A country such as Oman or Afghanistan or Iraq sees western value systems, media and lifestyles moving in and making inroads at changing the defacto standards of an entrenched and established way of religious life.

Fear of change.  Fear of the loss of power within an establishment, brought about by an uprising or movement into those established set of norms by another group which identifies to different values, races, religious beliefs, or human and civil rights creates anger and violence and resistance by the established norm.

An established grouping may believe that their identity is being threatened, infiltrated or over-turned by another and in many cases of civil war, this is so very true.  Identifying as a person... as part of a grouping, can be a powerful thing.  It can lead to great and positive changes, whether subtly achieved over many decades of passive integration or it can lead to bloody civil wars between the two regimes.

The key to both sides successfully integrating their identities is held in part by communication and a willingness to educate each side.  We must understand that for another viewpoint to be empathetically received by the opposing camp, we must be sure to equate our own needs, our own issues and our own struggles in terms which the other side can understand in relevant perspective.

In the realm of being transgender, how can a person who is not, understand what lack of rights, lack of services and lack of justices exist?  They are not living our life and the thought would never arise in their minds because it does not concern them that they these issues could exist.

A cis-gendered person, for the most part, will not have concept that a transgender person could be fired from their job for simply being different, or that they could be denied housing and accommodations.   They will not likely know that a transgender individual could be arrested for using a public accommodation not compliant with their gender marker on their license.  What becomes worse is the fact that they may not be able, in the state they reside in, to change their gender marker on their license because of a myriad of monetary, health or personal reasons.   And although they may be living their life and, for all intensive purposes, be perceived by the general populace as the gender they are living in, still be unable to legally secure rights of that gender.

The reality and the sobering fact is that many who identify as transgender, whose identity is as the gender opposite to their birth gender, are unable to live their lives freely as a result.

In attempting to garner what would seem to be basic human and civil rights, a plethora of fears from cis-gender groups arises.  Lack of understanding regarding what it means to be transgender causes unknowledgeable minds to race wildly imagining such things as men dressed as women able to use women's bathrooms and dressing rooms as a means for perverted sexual acts.  Fears that religious normative values will be torn down and the country whittled away to the point that accommodations for others will lead to God's wrath unto them and to us as a nation.

The reality, however, is in the perspective and the eye of the beholder.  A religious sect may in fact be against making accommodations to what they believe is a group that will undermine the word and teachings of their God.  I say "Their God" because each religion has it's own morality basis and its own teachings.  Yet, as a country which was founded as a secular nation and with secular governing principles, there must be consideration for all in terms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which honors the right of religious belief to the individual without allowing those who hold those beliefs to be allowed to undermine the equality of human and civil rights in the process.

In short, we must ensure that we respect the rights of individuals to their own identities and to afford them the same human and civil rights as anyone else.

To achieve this, it will be necessary to educate as best we can....by setting an example, and through deed and action.   We must set the stage, as every race and ethnic group in the past has, through hard work and example, and through our tenacious, steadfast, constant and consistent positive visibility within the community.

If a person becomes known in their community for the good person they are, for the deeds they have done, rather than by the label they would otherwise, without knowing them, be given,  then that person is a progenitor for change.  That person may stop being labeled as, "Hey, look at that transgender person!"  and, rather, be known as, "Hey, that is a person who I have come to know.  She is a loving and caring person who cares for ALL of our community needs and cares about each one of us..... and she is my friend!"

An identity creates a label for us.  Labels can create unity for a group with a common mission and vision to form.  Unity can create power.  Power can create change.  Change can create fear.  Fear can breed violence and war.

When unities are formed, we must take care to be visible as a positive force, as an empathetic listener to the needs of those outside and a bridge to include others rather than exclude.  It seems a simple enough recipe, but the history of the world, of the various races and ethnicities who have been trying to integrate for millenia on this planet, offers us the wisdom and words that "Change Does Not Come Easily".

A successful progenitor to change is the person who can do so by building bridges to connect both sides and not simply by digging the chasm which separates and leads to violence, fear and war.

1 comment:

Nicole Amie said...

The key is empathy. We must be able to understand how we, no matter what makes us unique, affect those around us. Too many times all we can see is how we are being affected by others. That causes us to react rather than to interact, resulting in strife instead of cooperation. We become rejected instead of respected.

Thank you for such a well thought out and well written post.

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