There was a time when I could simply say “I’m Mennonite.” That is what I was. It was my religion, culture and ethnicity wrapped up into one tidy package. It was as real to me as my gender and first name. But now, having left the denomination of my youth behind, it is really difficult to buy-in to a new identity or at least not to the extent of feeling a significant attachment to the distinguishing title.
We live in a great identity crisis. We might celebrate more identities than ever, and yet somehow along the way, we have lost the very meaning of the words that we use to define these identity categories.
What is an identity?
An identity is a word used to distinguish one from another. Or a statement of what we are in comparison to the whole group. Are you Catholic or Protestant? Black or white? A Republican, Democrat or Independent? And whether it is identity or not has much to do with the emotional weight that we place on these categories and terms. In other words, blue-eyed is certainly a category that some of us belong to, but is not currently an true identity marker.
There are also various kinds of identity, there are those inborn or assumed—Charlotte, due to her inherited genetics, is Kankanaey, and would be no matter what she believed about herself or if she prefers that another term be used. Then there are those types of identities that are less about our immutable being and more about what we are doing. By contrast, trucker or truck driver is an identity, and even comes with a license to prove it, but it is not something that is actually written in a CDL holder’s DNA.
Identity is never something we can select for ourselves. I can claim to be a Dill Pickle and even legally require the moniker be used in reference to me. But this is never going to change what other people will perceive me to be. Identity is something that others construct, with us, and not only a thing that we independently choose for ourselves. Put another way, a rose by any other name is still a rose and even if we paint it blue. And blue does not become yellow because we switch the color identity labels either.
Our “I am” identity…
I’m sexually attracted to the female form and this has dictated my priorities and activities throughout the years. But, as important as it is to me, I don’t tout my ‘straight’ preference as being my identity. I am many things, but my sexuality is not something to hang my sense of who I am on. There are no hetero pride parades for this reason and no need to fly a special banner in front of my house to announce my preferences either. Sexuality is not who we really are.
So, when someone says “I am gay,” my mind always must go to the question, “you are a sexuality?” The reality is that this identity is about far more than what they do in bed. It is about the community or lifestyle and an identity built around being their status as an exception. Being “gay” is just as much about the social aspect as the orientation. It is not just something you only do in private. No, it requires a public display and solidarity with others like you. If it were simply about sex there would be no parades or neverending need to be legitimized by others. Identity is bigger than the individual.
And trans is simply the next level. Those calling themselves “trans” may (in direct contradiction with their biological gender assignment) self-identify as a man or a woman. But those who are truly male or female simply are and there is no need for hormones, reconstruction of genitals or to exaggerate gender stereotypes with weird provocative displays. On the other hand, no matter how much surgery is performed on the body of a ‘trans’ person they will always be trans. The more trans people try to force others to recognize them (despite our own eyes) the more they will stand out as being different. Which is truly the point.
Identity is about our distinguishing ourselves from the larger group. It is also about what is the most important thing to us. If a person were ask who I am I would probably start with my given name. That is where I am oriented in society, as a product of my parents, and also gives others a shorthand to address my person. Then I might mention my role as a husband and father as those things are currently the most meaningful parts of my life. Of course, also in the mix is my religious affiliation and occupation. Sexuality, while very important, wouldn’t even make the top of the list.
Furthermore, there is no need for anyone to defy their own eyes or be forced to recognize anything about me against their will. Identity is not only about what I declare. A large part of real identity is what others recognize with no coercion. If I had to demand that my son call me daddy or that my wife appreciate my bad cooking the same as she did the work of a master chef, would their bending to my will really make me any more legitimately those things? No, it would certainly not! It would make me a bully and look very insecure.
The Identity Gambit…
Special identity is a way to gain advantage over others. In the past it was about having the right privileging title or family pedigree. Now it has become a no holds barred fight between various victim categories. But in both cases it was about unearned respect, about people who did not do anything noteworthy enough in their lives to be recognized and thus invent illegitimate reasons why others must genuflect to them. These frauds are enabled by those who have twisted morality and a corrupted political system.
People can lie about their identity for many reasons. Impersonation of a police officer, for example, gives a person false authority and ability to manipulate the unsuspecting. Or stolen valor, in the case of those who, for attention, dress like and pretend to be a military veteran. Sure, the act is usually off, since these posers don’t have the requisite qualifications, but it fools enough people that they get the payoff of the true identity—or at least until caught. Then again, prancing around and pathologically pretending to be a girl is now extremely lucrative for some men.
Pretending to be a doctor or airline pilot is something children do innocently and yet it would be silly to legally recognize this as not to make them feel bad. True identity is not an act or a costume we put on.
Identity is powerful. For example, a person calling themselves a “gangsta” or “thug” is declaring a whole package of behaviors and dress styles. It is a choice as well as a habit, they could change and yet their momentum is in a particular direction. They have been conditioned, for years and years, by culture and peers, to assume this posture towards the world.
There is some truth to the statement, “you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” We have many things instilled in us, accents to tastes, but this is not written into our DNA and doesn’t mean it is an “I am what I am” excuse. We will send children to speech therapy if they have an impediment rather than let them be their true selves. We can and should modify things that an identity is built from. This notion of a genuine self that can’t be changed is ridiculous.
Right now there is a Ukrainian vs. Russian war. The narrative we’re being sold is that there is a vast difference between the two sides—that this is a fight between freedom and democracy or authoritarian rule. We are told the Russians are barbaric and cruel, the Ukrainian’s heroic and capable. But both are from the same Kievan Rus origins, speak a dialect of the same language, and truly have much more in common with each other than they do with us. Furthermore, the regime in Kiev is hopelessly corrupt, and had been shelling those trying to escape this rule for years prior to the Russian invasion—it isn’t a distinction worth dying over.
The reality is we are not bound to identity, especially not to those that are more about what we are currently doing rather than our actual being. We choose our divisions as much as we are born with them. Sure, we can’t help what side of a border we are born on nor if our personality traits are judged as being masculine or feminine. But we can decide what is most important to us. And, more importantly, we can pick identities that are greater than sexuality or gender. We must reject this idea that we can’t change or improve while also accepting what we are and were born to be.
Many people get off from being contrarian and offending others, they especially enjoy being able to force others to go along with their language games. But, in the end, their ‘preferred pronoun’ is a distinction without a difference. We will remain what we are no matter how we dress it up or how much we compel others to go along with the delusion and falsehoods we peddle. It is only in our spiritual transformation, in finding a bigger purpose, that we can be free from needing the approval and attention of others.
More and more I have no identity to cling to outside of being who I am. I am what I am and don’t need to hide behind a special label or find my place in the world. While many in my religious past hold conference in search of their identity and as many converts in the tradition in which I currently participate tout the Orthodox adjective in the manner some do they/them pronouns, I have little interest in joining them in this inane competition. St Paul, in Galatians 2:38, would have us shed our divisive identities for a joint identity in Christ.