Saturday, June 13, 2015

UNTANGLING IDENTITY MARKERS - DOLEZAL, JENNER and...

 Is there such a thing as transracial? After all, we now understand the designation of transgender, and I tend to think gender is a more fundamental marker than race.  Maybe that's just me. But I identify myself as female before identifying myself as white.

I was therefore fascinated by Osomudia James succinct explanation in her Washington Post article .  The problem with Rachel Dolezal's “transracial status” she writes is that "Dolezal was neither incorrectly assigned her whiteness at birth, nor subject to the social experiences — good and bad — of blackness in her developing and formative years. Rather, Dolezal merely performed, appropriating a character."

A helpful and important distinction. But she also writes about playing into stereotypes about how blacks look and behave, and here I am reminded of Elinor Burket's recent article "What Makes a Woman." Caitlyn Jenner's first appearance as a woman on the cover of Vanity Fair showed her dressed in a satin corset. Gender stereotype or real woman? "They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails," Elinor Burket writes.

Costume does not define identity.  Yet it does send a message. We all send messages in how we present ourselves to the world - even though our physical appearance doesn't speak to who we are on a deeper level.  And yet there is this desire to shape the message we send to the world by our appearance. We live in a low context society - and therefore cannot always tell who somebody is by how they dress.

Going off on a bit of a tangent here - I often wonder if some high context markers might still be useful today - such as, for example, the practice of dressing in mourning. You dressed in black for a year after the loss of a loved one - and after that you went into half mourning.  Thus people instantly knew when they looked at you, that you had suffered a loss. And they treated you accordingly.  You didn't have to explain.

On the other hand, it might often have happened that you were forced to dress in mourning for a close relative you weren't very fond of! That would be sending a mixed message.

Mixed messages.  Herein lies the problem. We don't know and can't always believe what we perceive to be true of identity.

And as if this isn't confusing enough - try this one on for size. I heard a fascinating, though disturbing interview on Radio Q while driving home from work last week.  The program was about BIID- Body Integrity Identity Disorder.  Those who suffer from this condition identify as handicapped even while they are able bodied. In some cases they go to extreme lengths to fit their appearance to a perceived disability - including trying to mutilate their healthy limbs.   Dr Michael First who had treated many patients with this disorder was speaking on the show, and claimed that to be "transabled" was very similar to being transgender.

HUH?

Something doesn't sit right with me about that.  I ask myself if sufferers of BIID feel inadequate in some unidentifiable ways and therefore want outward validating evidence of their inadequacy. In other words, they feel handicapped and therefore wish to be perceived as such.

Meanwhile, those who actually are handicapped wish their handicap to be a secondary consideration to who they fundamentally are as human beings.  Does a handicap speak to the core of a person's identity? Hardly.

Transgendered people do not wish to get special consideration. They merely want to be perceived as the gender they feel themselves to be inside. Maybe there's a difference between being female and being a woman or between being male and being a man. I don't know.  But I'm thinking about it a lot and trying to puzzle it out.

That's why I'm writing a novel about it - about what it MEANS to be female - regardless of your gender of birth.  I think it's important that we don't conflate "trans" markers as we go forward.

Comments welcome - of a compassionate and thoughtful nature.