How do we identify? (And...should we?)
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
We are who we are...and so much more.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: WorldPride 2019, NYC
In June of 2019, in anticipation of World Pride, the New York Times ran an online article called “Tell Us Who You Are.”
“How we define ourselves,” reporter Michael Gold wrote, “feels like an essential act in a world that often rushes to define us first.” After a brief summary of the ways in which identity is morphing beyond traditional binaries, the article stated: “The New York Times wants to know how you identify yourself.” The reader was then invited to fill out an electronic form using 10 or fewer words, beginning with the phrase: “I am.”
After several minutes of deliberation, I wrote:
“I am a Jewish American lesbian feminist woman artist.”
I clicked the Submit button. The Times app then generated a rainbow-tinted box enclosing that sentence, which it saved to my phone’s Photos folder. The article indicated that I could share the image on social media using the hashtag #WhoIAm.
The image remained in my Photos folder for all of Pride Month. I never shared it.
This was not for want of pride, nor for a lack of true identification with those six words. My hesitation stemmed from a lifelong resistance to branding myself with labels of any kind—even those that arguably describe my “identity” to a T.
It’s a subject that I find myself still pondering a year later.
Labeling is a human tendency: we stratify things in order to understand them. But the word “identity”—and more specifically, the word “identify”—has taken on new dimensions over the past few years. As time goes on, I find myself becoming increasingly unsure as to whether those dimensions are expanding our horizons or imprisoning us.
How to find out? Let’s start with semantics.
The word “identify” has three distinct uses. The first, “to identify,” is a transitive verb that means, according to Merriam-Webster, “to establish the identity of.” We often hear TV detectives say, “We’ve identified the victim.” This means that they’ve determined certain facts about a person: name, address, age, height, etc. Demographics. Statistics. Descriptions. In short: they know who that person is.
The second use, “to identify with,” is an intransitive verb meaning “psychological orientation of the self in regard to something (such as a person or group) with a resulting feeling of close emotional association.” To “identify with” carries implications of empathy. It’s a unifier. It says, I see you. I feel you. I understand you.
There’s a third permutation of this verb that hasn’t yet made it into the dictionary, but is becoming increasingly ubiquitous: “to identify as.” It forms the answer to the grammatically problematic but increasingly significant question: “How do you identify?” Often, this question relates to sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and can be answered with phrases such as, “I identify as bisexual,” or “I identify as non-binary.” The question invites an array of responses that represent a widening spectrum of sexualities and genders. And I agree with Mr. Gold: it is important that we have the power to define ourselves, and it’s also important that we respect and honor the ways in which other people define themselves.
But I’ve begun to wonder if we’re limiting ourselves by cramming our identities into increasingly specific boxes. I wonder if rushing to label ourselves before others have the chance to label us has made us more defiant, not more defined. I wonder if we’re preventing ourselves from identifying with by insisting on identifying as.
When the New York Times asked, I answered: I identify as a Jewish American lesbian feminist woman artist. So why did I decline to share that definition of myself with the world?
Because I am so much more than that.
In middle school, I was the “smart one.” I was also athletic, artistic, and any number of other things, but in the eyes of my peers, I was booksmart, and that defined me. When I reached high school, I was finally able to show my friends that I was more than just a walking brain, but something about that early experience of pigeonholing stuck with me. It gave me a permanent chip on my shoulder when it comes to labels.
I may be one thing, but I’m not only that thing. I may be six things, but I’m also ten other things. I can even be two opposing things at the same time. I can’t possibly limit my identity to six or ten or even a hundred words.
I resist labeling myself because it frees others to make assumptions about me—and those I cannot abide. Just because you know something about me doesn’t mean you know me. Just because I’m a Gemini or a liberal or a cat person doesn’t mean I’m two-faced or elitist or I hate dogs. And don’t even get me started on the word “millennial.”
The basic characteristics that make up the bones of my identity do not encompass its entirety. To claim that they do would be like claiming that a skeleton can survive without flesh and organs. Identity is so much more than demographics.
When I first came out, in the mid-2000s, I tried for a while to avoid claiming a sexual identity. I’d dated men for several years, but in my early 20s, I began to realize that I was more drawn to women. Words like “fluid” and “pansexual” had yet to make it into the zeitgeist, and I found it nearly impossible to talk about sex, romance, or dating without having to define who I was.
“Oh,” said a young woman I met at the time, “so you’re bi-curious.”
“No,” I said, offended. I was so much more than curious.
“So,” she intoned skeptically, “what are you?”
After a few years of fielding that question, I finally admitted to myself that I was, and always had been, attracted to women, and that I wasn’t—and never really had been—attracted to men. So, I thought, I guess that makes me a lesbian.
It was less a coming-out than a coming-to. I wasn’t deliberately hiding from the world; I’d been obscured from myself by a thick curtain of socialization. But the act of identifying myself by my sexual orientation felt foreign. I hadn’t changed: I had simply gained a clearer understanding of myself. And yet, suddenly, at age 23, I was something. I was a member of a group. I required a label.
“Gay” is an adjective. “Lesbian” is a noun. It’s a strangely gendered semantic difference. Lesbians often use the word “gay” to identify themselves—perhaps in a nod to gender parity, or maybe because “I’m gay” rolls off the tongue more easily than “I’m a lesbian.” (Just ask Ellen.) “I’m gay” is what I say when the subject comes up in conversation. I’ve even proclaimed it onstage. But each time I say it, I still experience the tiniest remnant of cognitive dissonance.
There are other words I could use if I prefer. In fact, there’s now an absolute panoply of words that can be used to describe sexual orientation. I recently learned a new one: “sapiosexual.” This term is apparently used to categorize people who find intelligence sexually attractive.
Well, okay. But do I really need another label to add to my list?
#WhoIAm. It’s not something I’ve ever been able to explain in a sentence or two. Perhaps that’s the appeal of “How do you identify?” It’s a more specific question. It doesn’t say, Tell me about your essential self. It says, Give me a few descriptive words that are important to you.
The example answers to the Times’s question contained a colorful array of characterizations. “I am a gay, Jewish-American, millennial, fitness-obsessed journalist,” wrote Michael Gold. Others included, “I am a tall lesbian editrix from Nebraska,” and “I am a gay, black, movie-obsessed roller coaster enthusiast.” I love the creativity of these responses. They show us that the identifying words we’re often prompted to choose aren’t our only options.
In fact, there are innumerable options. I can identify in relation to others: I’m a daughter, a friend, a lover, a mentor. I can identify through my careers: I’m a writer, an actor, a singer. I can further identify within one of those careers: I’m a playwright, an essayist, a poet, a songwriter, a blogger. I can identify using my hobbies (knitter, baker, reader) or my affinities (Anglophile, book collector, music lover). And of course, I can identify in relation to broad social categories: I am a Jewish American lesbian feminist woman artist.
But what does all this self-identifying do for us? Does it help us understand each other, or does it only overemphasize our differences?
Maybe we should begin this new decade with an intention to unify more than we stratify. Maybe we should focus less on identifying as and more on identifying with.
I’m not saying that our self-definitions are unimportant. On the contrary—our identities are far too important to be reduced to a handful of words. Besides, we all have one very important identity in common: we are human.
Perhaps, when asked who we are, we should all begin there.