Friday, October 23, 2015

Identity Shopping at the Race-Gender-Class Buffet

Current events followers with long memories (possibly a rarity anymore) might remember the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race, when incumbent Republican Scott Brown lambasted Elizabeth Warren as a liar and opportunist for claiming to have Native American heritage. Brown, speaking through proxies, even called Warren a "liar," painfully direct language once common in political races, now very rare. Brown based this characterization entirely on Warren’s visibly fair hair and skin.

The liberal-minded outrage at Brown’s narrow, nigh-bigoted attacks largely disappeared three years later when Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP chapter president, got outed as secretly white. Photos of an unmistakably white teenaged Dolezal circulated on social media, stirring another Facebook-driven moral panic that reached national levels before another mass shooting returned her to anonymity. Her tone-deaf Today Show interview generated indignation over her attempt to pick her racial identity.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, left, and disgraced NAACP maven Rachel Dolezal.
Can you tell someone's race by their skin tone? Umm, depends who's asking, apparently.

The source in both cases? Parents. Warren declared that her parents told her she had Native American heritage, and she had no reason to disbelieve. Dolezal’s parents floated the damning photographs that elevated her from regional gadfly to nationwide notoriety. Though the cases had virtually opposite consequences— individuals either can or cannot self-identify with the racial heritage they readily embrace— both share the belief that one’s parents dictate one’s race.

I remembered this strange duality this week when a Huffington Post article entitled “What's a Skoliosexual?” crossed my desk. The title suggests fetish-like attraction to congenital back problems. But the article enumerates a dozen sexual identities that don’t slot neatly into the straight-vs-LGBT spectrum we’ve accepted for the last two decades. This includes such doozies as “Lithromantic,” “Graysexual,” “Queerplatonic,” and “Zucchini.” As though you weren’t risking insulting enough categories already.

Some categories from this article are familiar. I first encountered the term “pansexual” in a biography of actor Alan Cummings, who doesn’t create divisions in his romantic entanglements. But what, precisely, is the difference between “pansexual,” “polysexual,” and plain old bisexual? This creation of new categories obscures more than it clarifies, largely because adherents to these various groups pick their affiliation, and according to this article, may pick more than one.

Marxist writer Mick Hume makes an interesting point that I’d not previously considered. In today’s shifting landscape of identity politics, a theory of group identification and collective responsibility, having somebody like Rachel Dolezal horn in on our group undermines meaningful cohesion. If we get identity, and political agency, from group membership, we must guard our borders assiduously. That’s why I can’t pick my race, class, biological sex, or nationality.

This leaves only one internal identity marker over which I exercise any control whatsoever: my sexual identity. Only I can determine whether I’m attracted to men, women, or some subjective ratio. Only I can ascertain whether my psychological gender corresponds with my genitals. Though there’s some, very incomplete, evidence of neurological basis for sexuality, nobody knows whether that’s inborn or epigenetic. The evidence can only be shown upon autopsy.

Consider Caitlyn Jenner. The former Bruce apparently decided, at an age when many men are gearing down to spend their Golden Years spoiling their grandchildren, that she’d secretly always been a woman, inside, where it counts. She concedes she’s still sexually attracted to women. There’s no evidence Bruce ever frequented drag clubs, had ambiguous tendencies, or wore a dress before 2014. And Caitlyn has no pending plans for genital reassignment.

Caitlyn Jenner, accepting one of many recent accolades. Sorry, Caitlyn, but most transsexuals
don't get glamour shoots, reality shows, and awards; too many get rejected by their families and
become homeless.

My ability to pick my sexual identity, but absolutely no other internal identity markers, is especially problematic from a scientific perspective. Anthropologists like Richard J. Perry write the word “race” in scare quotes anymore, because there’s no empirical evidence of consistent genetic markers for racial characteristics. “Race” consists entirely of how others treat us. As cultural guardians harden lines of racial identity (unless a Republican asks), science has softened them.

The Washington Post admits we don't know how many Americans identify as transgender. Until recently, “trannies” and “queers” had no serious demographic standing. The popularity of web programs like TransParent, and Caitlyn Jenner’s public visibility, certainly make the incidence of transgendered persons seem more ubiquitous. As identity activists make other social divisions more intractable, giving us fewer choices, having a malleable sexual identity certainly seems tempting.

I’ve struggled with this for several months. After that struggle, I literally can determine no difference between Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, except how people treat them. While liberal activists soften gender divisions, they’ve rigidified other splits. They’ve created categories only individuals can subjectively identify, while trapping people in other external categories. No wonder it feels like people don’t talk to one another anymore. Increasingly, we can’t.

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