Theories of Who We Are
Identity politics is the struggle to articulate who we are in the face of dominant cultures that try to erase difference. These politics don’t function like party politics—left/right, Conservative/Liberal/Green/NDP etc, instead it is about community, self-identification, and power dynamics in representations. One of the biggest changes in academia in the past 20 years has been its embrace of issues of identity politics and the way it has changed our view of art, literature, and media.
I write about this in the context of an individual’s struggle that I have witnessed recently. The battles are waged by people I relate to personally, but their challenges enter the public sphere and the realm of abstract academic theory in powerful, astonishing ways. But, always, it starts with how one person relates to the world.
Very specifically, a close friend of the family recently came out as “asexual” and asked to be addressed in “gender neutral” terms.
Now, until recently, I did not know what asexuality was. You are probably in the same boat. Which is part of the problem: our failure to recognize the variety of sexualities and genders, instead of passively accepting or rigorously policing the few we have imagined.
Immediately, this individual, who is 16 years old, was met with resistance: you haven’t met the right partner, asexuality doesn’t exist, you are delusional, you are just seeking attention, you don’t know your own body, gender neutrality is too difficult, why can’t you just be like everyone else. For many, anything outside the norm can be terrifying and the impulse is to quickly dismiss the legitimacy of the person’s self-identification and draw them back into the romantic and idealized notions of gender and sexuality. But this 16-year-old warrior stood tall and found an online community to support the difficult job of articulating what was going on in zir body and brain.
A few years ago, prompted by a gender-studies student, I researched gender-neutral pronouns and found a varied and rich history of them. The most popular ones that seem to have survived are sie, hir, hirs, hirself and zie, zir, zirs, zirself. What these do is respect the possibility that the person you are speaking of or to may not identify with any of the standard gender categories. It allows them to self-identify or not identify at all.
This is part of a larger conversation that is addressing some of the restrictive identity categories we have placed on human gender and sexuality. What I see in common in these experiences is the fact that dominant society (mainstream culture and its representation of the world) causes pain—clear, unequivocal, intense, and often overwhelming. What is ‘normal’ in society is policed to an extent that these individuals cannot be who they are in comfort and safety.
Recently, the UNBC Pride Centre opened its doors on campus. Its mandate is “to promote public understanding and acceptance of people of all gender expressions and sexual orientations. The centre fosters and enhances the well-being, unity, and visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and otherwise queer (LGBTQ) people.” It was long overdue—most other universities have had similar spaces for many years now—but it has provided a space in which individuals can find an openness and acceptance no matter what their personal orientation may be.
In the classroom, this type of openness appears as: 1) a rereading of ‘classic’ literary texts from the perspective of how they maintain a narrow sense of gender and sexuality, and 2) a reading or writing of literature that expresses contemporary alternatives to that traditional norm. “Queer Theory” in humanities instruction (like the UNBC English Department) is a recognition of the ways in which LGBTQ persons have been oppressed and silenced in the past, and the ways in which those communities are articulating themselves in new and powerful ways.
It is these communities and this openness of thought that will radically improve that 16-year-old’s ability to express zirself and fully realize zir potential.