It depends on what the meaning of IS is…

Pick one and stay there.

In yesterday’s online New Yorker, Masha Gessen wrote a fascinating piece on transgender kids and the legal fights over various forms of reassignment or transition therapies. Rather than enter the fray of what is and is not “appropriate,” they raised a lateral question that I think is crucial.

People—including young people, acting legally, with their parents’ support—choose to have babies, move continents, subject themselves to extreme physical risk by engaging in certain sports, make what often amounts to commitments to lifelong medical intervention with S.S.R.I.s for depression or stimulants for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, join the R.O.T.C. or the National Guard… What if we saw ourselves as always changing, always uncertain, but always capable of making choices? What if we accepted that some losses are desirable and some are regrettable, and that we can’t always know the difference? What if we knew that we are always changing not only as individuals but as societies, and the categories we use to sort ourselves mutate faster than we realize?

Mahsa Gessen, “We Need to Change the Terms of the Debate on Trans Kids”

We think of identity as something both immutable about ourselves and differentiating from others. We would never need to declare ourselves as “I am ___” without the context of knowing that other people are something else, that both those statuses are fixed, and that the difference between them matters in some deep, fundamental way. 

That sense of permanence and inevitability is reassuring. Like the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie, we can just set it and forget it. Our gender, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our age, all just facts rather than decisions, things about ourselves and others that we can know with certainty.

I’ve written before about the sociologist Kristen Renn and her ideas about ecological identity or situational identity. Based on her study of mixed-race and queer college students, she finds that the way we identify ourselves depends in large part on our context: the language that is available to describe ourselves and others, our decisions with whom to bond and from whom to distance.

I want to talk about two ways to think about situational identity. One has to do with location on a continuum. I’m 62 years old. That’s a fact, based on the related facts that I was born in 1958 and that the earth goes around the sun in a certain pattern at a certain rate under a certain system of marking time. Okay, arithmetic is arithmetic. But am I young or old or middle-aged? Those descriptors are entirely dependent on the context I’m in. When I did my ethnographic research with teenagers, I was simultaneously old (I was 36 and they were 15-18) and young (because I carried no authority, and didn’t have any vested interest in telling them what to do). Among my closest local circle of friends, I’m a pup, the second youngest of ten. I can comfortably walk a few miles, but have some lingering tendon damage in my right forearm from a month of firewood loading and splitting and stacking last fall. Where does that put me, and on whose continuum?

I’m just shy of 5’5″. Does that make me short or tall or normal? I can call myself short because American men average about 5’10”, but in a room full of women, I’m right at the mathematical average. And if the neighborhood kids came over, I’d be the one reaching for the stuff on the top shelf. I’m short for most team sports, a little tall to be a jockey.

So that’s comparative identity. But the second way of thinking about situational identity is one of performance. I grew up in a working class family, but went on to college and then grad school and then professional academic life. And lemme tell you, pal, I can code-switch with the best! I’m a total double agent, I can go unnoticed in both worlds because I’ve never felt fully at home in either. I’ve always been active in choosing my vocabulary and my references because I’ve always taken social class to be a mode of performance rather than a fixed truth about myself.

I am entirely confident in calling myself a writer, because I write. It’s not something I am, it’s something I do, almost every day. Among my local friends, I have the supposedly fixed identity of writer because my work has been published for thirty years and I’ve taught writing; in the world of “real writers”—that is, the community I aspire to join, that of published novelists—I’m a wannabe, a pretender. A “contributor,” to use the term from the Bread Loaf conference for that majority of us who pay full tuition because we’re not among the promising select few. But both of those attributed labels are less important than the fact that I write all the time, and try to get better at it.

What if we thought of identity as a pattern of action rather than a trait? To come back to Gessen, what if we saw ourselves as always changing, always uncertain, but always capable of making choices? What if we believed that we were responsible for our identity rather than passive heirs? What if we thought of ourselves as doing gender, as doing sexuality, as doing race? That we usually do it one way, but we could easily imagine doing it differently, and sometimes might?

Now, that said, I want to come back tomorrow and talk about the differences between the identities we choose, and those that are applied to us by others. That’s a whole ‘nother thing, as my working-class friends would say.

Stay tuned.