Who am I, really? The whole notion of identity, especially sexual identity, fascinates me. When I came out gay I kicked against using the gay label. Limiting, constraining and simplifying is what labels do. I wrestled for a long time with the question of what does it mean to be gay. Could I be gay, me who was anything but? And yet if I use it, people understand what I’m talking about . . . or do they?
I recently stumbled across Iris Rose’s rather lengthy academic article on citizenship and identity. She examines the notion of citizenship in the USA and the ways in which the rules for who qualifies have changed and do change over time. “I assert that citizenship, like race, is used as a device to categorize individuals or groups resulting in an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy.”
Seems to me she could as well be writing about LGBT people and how they’ve been treated over time.
Traditionally, people who live in the USA have divided the world into us and them. Us-people are citizens, Them-people are not. Us have been white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male, Rose points out. Along comes presidential candidate Barack Obama who doesn’t look like an us. And what happens? His citizenship is challenged. In fact, such a furor is raised over his citizenship that the candidate feels obliged to publish his birth certificate.
Reminds me of how LGBT persons have been and still are denied standing afforded to people who fit the Us-people mode. LGBT persons are not yet embraced as worthy of full citizenship in our democracy. Thinks marriage equality. Think job and housing discrimination. Think legal roadblocks. The correspondences aren’t one-to-one, but the comparisons are illuminating.
“Citizenship, like race, is a social construct,” says Rose. “If citizenship is constructed socially, much like reality television stars construct their identities, is citizenship even real? I assert that citizenship is itself a simulacrum.”
Simulacrum? I had to look the word up. A simulacrum is a crummy simulation or substitute for the real thing. (Hot house tomatoes vs. ones fresh from your own garden. Reality TV vs. experiences of real life.)
So Rose is saying citizenship is itself a poor substitute—for what? For itself. The idea of citizenship has been separated out, peeled away from whatever basis in reality it once held. We toss it around nowadays without even being sure what we mean by it. (But we know it’s important, and something to be jealously, zealously guarded: look at the “Road to Citizenship” debate that’s currently getting a lot of media attention.
Reminds me of the arguments against gay marriage—can’t let anybody else in on this prized possession we have. LGBT people marrying each other will somehow threaten the fabric of society. Gotta guard what we got.)
“There is a distinction between the ideal of citizenship and how citizenship exists in reality,” says Rose. Says I, if citizenship has become a shadow of itself, maybe so, too, sexual identity. Maybe it’s taken on a life of its own and is no longer even quite what we thought we were fighting over.
Rose ends her piece saying that the definition of citizenship has always been a moving target and probably always will be.
Probably the same can be said for sexual identity. Which leaves me still wrestling with the question, “Who am I, really?” Guess I best get used to living with ambiguity, flux and change.
How intrinsic is LGBT label to your identity?
For action (or penance): Imagine yourself as not-LGBT. Who are you?
Note: I see Manleben in Life is wrestling with similar issues. Check out this post.
Photo courtesy, Ahmad Hammoud Photography at flickr.com