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Supermarket of Identities
I recently read an article in The Guardian’s supplement on a topic that is dear to my heart identity. The article was entitled “I’m a Girl, Just Call Me ‘He.’” It went on to document one of the most recent additions to the potpourri of identities available in Western societies, specifically a variety of no-hormones, no-surgery New York lesbians called “boy poseurs.” The article said this group is “all fiercely intelligent, aged from 16 to 26 and identified variously as ‘boiz,’ ‘hes,’ ‘shes’ and one ‘queer genderfreak trans-boygirl fagdyke.”
The article, which was served up with a generous dollop of humor, went on to ask: “Have the Americans gone too far this time? On one hand the ‘transboy’ movement seems fantastically avant-garde; after all, why should it be possible to buy at least six different kinds of bagel in New York city and yet be limited to a mere two choices of gender?” Apparently this group of women chafes under the onerous inequities that identifying with one’s gender confers and believes that by calling themselves “he” they will “sink the gender boat.” According to a prominent feminist, Jami Weinstein, “if biological females use the pronoun ‘he’ enough, then the power of ‘he’ as an essential category will be eroded and maybe one day ‘he’ and ‘she’ will be on an equal plane.” One twenty-six-year-old (female) lawyer says, “I choose to use the name Dean and masculine pronouns. In part this feels right because most people who look at me take me to be a woman, so using these words helps to disrupt that process a little and opens a space for me to be something more complicated than that, which I feel better fits who I really am.”
The article went on to describe some of the additional practices that this group have taken up to free themselves of this limited identity: breast removal, breast binding, wearing “frog bras,” using devices that allow them to pee standing up, dressing like men, etc. Then, as far as I am concerned, we come to the punch line: “Still, every London gay party you go to these days is filled with lesbians having babies (yawn) or lesbians turning straight, if the men are rich enough (yawn). Sinking the gender boat would at least be an interesting new pastime for British lesbians who don’t want to do either of the above and are looking for a new focus. After all, the idea of identity flux, of being able to be whoever you want, is an essential part of the times we are living in.”
Yes, quite. Why? Obviously, because limited identities fail to address the fact that our true identity is limitless. Trying to cram the vastness of one’s self into such tiny containers is painful. The solution suggested by the boy poseurs, that taking refuge in an opposite identity will somehow cancel out one’s former identity, is understandable, if somewhat unscientific. If I assert one identity to cancel another, what do I do with the second identity once the first is canceled? If I get rid of it, I am faced with the prospect of returning to where I started. Why? Because the ostensible reason for making this change in oneself is to challenge the limited identities that others project on us. If the purpose were solely to change one’s own view of one’s self, there would be no need to perform the outer disciplines designed to erase one’s identity. One would simply change the way one thinks about oneself – which at least in the case of Dean seems to have already been done – and be happy with who one thought one was. While I would argue that “who he really is” is not “complicated,” “he” is clear that his identity is too big to comfortably rest in the shade of a gender category. But the confidence to refuse the identity projections of others is a very rare quality, so we feel the need to continually attempt to educate the world about who we are. Youth is not known as a period of foresight, so the boy poseurs are eventually going to have to confront the fact once they have removed the breast bindings and men’s clothing, the world, heaven forbid, is going to go right back to seeing them as “shes.”
I went through this identity crisis when I was in my 20s. I grew up in the forties and fifties – which were not periods of introspection – and at the age of twenty-five thought of myself (insofar as I thought of myself at all) as I really was, “a straight (in those days it meant ‘someone who has not used drugs’), white, Anglo-Saxon businessman.” LSD changed all that. Within a year I was a “turned-on hippie,” or a “head” – meaning a stoner – and I looked down on my former identity as a “plastic person” with contempt. A few years later I realized that “hippie” was merely a reaction to the limitations of being “straight,” that it was not a transcendent category, shared the same existential level with “hippie” and merely saddled me with a different set of limitations.
For better or worse you are what you think you are – and anything you can think about yourself will necessarily be limited. One could argue that the only solution would be to accept the limitations imposed by one’s concept of one’s self, but there is another way – investigation.
India’s ancient texts on the subject of the self, the Upanishads, contradict the view that only limited identities are available to us. They categorically state that our true identity is universal. “Aham brahmasmi” is a mantra, called a mahavakya, a “great proclamation” that sits at the very ontological heart of Vedic culture. It means “the ‘I,’ the self, is limitless.” That this is not obvious to most of us is obvious. However, many people have investigated the “I” and discovered that it is not merely an idea nor is it “complicated,” as Dean believes, but it is a partless whole.
Identity is not, as we have come to believe, necessarily specific to our bodies and minds and the roles they play. There is a simple something that is much more essentially “us” than any of these things – our consciousness, our intelligence, the light, some say spirit, that illumines the body and the mind. It is not something one necessarily discovers by merely reacting to the limitations that society’s limited identities impose. However, suffering limitation sometimes causes one to think about who one actually is. And when this kind of thinking becomes rigorous and allows itself to be shaped by the time-tested body of teachings on the subject of the “I” it can lead to the freedom from limitation that Vedic culture calls enlightenment, or “moksa.” It will probably be some time before the boy poseurs strip off their breast bindings and abandon their soft-pack dildos in favor of the hair shirt and the meditation cushion, but they are definitely thinking in the right direction.