Yet more identity, gender and otherwise

Writing yesterday’s post got me thinking about what it means to identify as something. (Not for the first time, but that’s how it always is with thinking about big issues: you do it a little at a time, and when you feel like you’ve travelled down all available paths, you let it rest for a while and return back later to find new angles and corners to explore.)

A very justified question that frequently comes up when talking about gender identity is the following (with genders switched as appropriate): if I feel a sense of rightness when thinking of myself as male, what exactly is that feeling about, especially considering that I’m apparently able to think of myself as male despite the commonly held view that “male” in humans refers to someone with a penis, testicles, and probably XY chromosomes?

I don’t have a good answer. Thinking about it is like looking for the end of a roll of duct tape, only there’s no certainty there even is an end. I feel for the link connecting my identity to my concept of maleness and come up with traits or behaviors that seem close only to find that I can connect them to femaleness just as easily.
I just can’t connect them simultaneously to femaleness and me. So the circle remains a circle, and I’ll just have to roll with it.

(Purely in physical terms, I can vary what I visualize, and the connection to maleness or femaleness seems to strengthen and weaken mostly with general body shape – pretty much the features caused by/associated with testosterone-dominant vs. estrogen-dominant endocrine systems.)

Another line of thought about identity went down a more linguistic path and made me realize: there are at least two very different meanings of “gender identity”.

The first is identity as a felt experience, which I tried to describe yesterday. The second is gender identity as it is established in social interactions, i.e. “identifying as male” is what one does by introducing oneself by a culturally male name, referring to oneself with male forms of language (e.g. “actor” rather than “actress”), and checking “male” on forms. While factually usually correlated, they’re logically independent: a person can identify as male in the second sense while identifying as female (or some other gender) in the first. (And trans people usually do so for at least some time, prior to realizing they’re trans as well as before coming out in various situations and contexts.)

The second sense – public identity, for lack of a better term known to me – is what I mean when I speak of “living as a man” or “living as a woman”. (Which is linguistically unsatisfactory: every woman who lives logically lives as a woman, with and in a woman’s body, biologically female by virtue of being female and a biological organism. But such is the burden of life.)

The original meaning of identity is that of sameness: a = a, the person taking this test is the same person enrolled in this class, the person trying to board this plane is the same person whose passport was vetted, the person who left this fingerprint at the crime scene is the same person sitting in the courtroom right now.

Legal identity (another identity, connected to identifying oneself towards others, but not entirely the same, since people don’t usually introduce themselves by showing official ID) heavily operationalizes this principle via physical characteristics: rather stable and unique ones like fingerprints and DNA, but also more mutable and common ones like eye color, hair color, height and weight. Some of these features may connect to identity as a felt sense, but most do not – hardly anybody will feel a sense of connection to their fingerprints, and if someone was asked if they were still themselves if their fingerprints were to change, they’d very likely say yes (or “yes, but if I knew in advance what was going to happen, I might also be somewhat richer” if they’re a smartass).

Curiously, though, while identity as a felt sense is much more important to most people, it’s also a very inconsistent kind of identity. Presumably, none of the traits anyone thinks of when they think of traits essential to their identity were present when they were a baby, yet people speak of “when I was a baby” and not “when a baby existed that would later become me”. (Even though they might say no if you asked them if they’d still be the same person if all the traits they acquired since then were suddenly gone.)

There’s also no clear cut-off for when an identity happens in the first place: were you you when you were two, four, five, six? When you were ten?
Most likely, some character traits you exhibit now were already there at some of those ages – some possibly even when you were a baby – , but not all of them. The beliefs you hold most dear were not ones you were born with, probably not even ones you developed very early. Children have a sense of identity, but the sense of identity you had when you were a child likely contained few of the things your sense of identity contains now, and lacks others. Identity is largely an illusion: your identity has changed in so many ways that its original meaning of “sameness” cannot apply.

Gender identity as a felt sense connects to this exact concept: the traits I perceive as part of my identity are the traits which cannot change if I am to stay the same person (in some fundamental, insufficiently-defined way that various people define somewhat differently, but that pretty much everyone has some idea of).

Public identity is further removed from the original concept of identity. Switching from referring to oneself as an actor to referring to oneself as an actress (or the other way round) can hardly be considered such a big change that one’s fundamental sameness is violated.

And in case that wasn’t complex enough, there’s also identity in the sense of being identified by others: does the childhood friend you met in the street identify you correctly? Does the victim of a robbery correctly identify the perpetrator in a lineup (in the vast majority of cases, the answer is no)? Does your romantic partner still see you as the same person they got involved with after years of a relationship? Do your parents think you’re not the child they thought they knew now that you made life decision X, or came out to them as Y?

The answers might not match up with your felt sense of identity, your public self-identification, your legal identity, or all of the above. They will be rooted in what the person in questions believes important for sameness – if the childhood friend knew you back in your punk rock phase, and now you are a bank teller looking very official and business-like, they might not view you as the same person even though they believe that you are piloting the body punk rock you grew up to be, because the trait most important to them to define you by back then was punk rock. The victim looking at the line-up might remember the perpetrators menacing scowl as the most salient feature, and misidentify the person looking most pissed off as the perpetrator because the actual perpetrator stands in front of them with a smooth, relaxed face. Your romantic partner might have fallen in love with a trait you don’t have anymore, and your parents valued you for a belief you’ve recanted, or a way of life you’ve strayed from.

And if a cashier identifies your gender correctly, believes that gender is immutable, and does not believe your sameness if you give them your old ID with an old photo, that’s rather inconvenient when trying to buy booze.


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