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Archive for January 26th, 2010

This week’s question is a doozy, and it comes at a time when I’ve been thinking about the topic of identity a lot. A big post is in the offing about shifting identities, switching, genderfuck, orientation, and a whole bunch of other shit that I found myself navigating this past weekend. But now, to the question.

Dear Delilah,

In the kink scene, we tend to get attached to certain identities – top, bottom, dom, switch, sub, master, slave, crossdresser, straight, bi, queer, and on and on. Sometimes these labels start to feel confining over time, though. What advice would you give to someone who is starting to feel that an old label might not be fitting them so well anymore, but isn’t sure they want to embrace a new one? How related are identity and behavior? How do you communicate the right information to the right people?

Boy, did you ask it. A snarky part of me wants to say, “You sure that’s enough? Anything else??” Because jeebus, this is a big question, and it’s probably going to take me several posts to address it with anything approaching completeness.

But I’ll take a first stab at it.

Others might disagree, but I tend to think that identity and behavior are very strongly related. I just happened to listen to an episode of Dan Savage’s podcast today, on which a lesbian called him out for saying that anyone can identify any way they want, even if they are a woman in a relationship with a man who wants to call herself a dyke. The caller said that such a person “doesn’t get” to call herself a dyke. Dan respectfully disagreed and said that yes she does, but the caller of course has the right not to believe her.

I for one think it’s absurd when someone is so attached a particular identity that they insist on hanging onto it for dear life even when their actions indicate a different identity. If it’s an exception to a general rule, that’s one thing: I would never say that a butch who femmes out from time to time shouldn’t call herself butch, or that a straight man who wants to touch someone else’s cock once in a while must identify as bisexual. But I don’t think that a woman who is happily married to a man can really sincerely continue to say that she’s a lesbian. Or rather: she can feel free to do that, I’m just not going to believe her.

On the flip side of this, though, is the closeted gay man who’s married to a woman and has fourteen kids. His actions strongly indicate a straight identity – which, after all, is what he is desperately trying to promote. That doesn’t mean that he is not gay. However, it once again shows the strong relationship between identity and actions.

Identity, after all, is mutable, and it’s a tool. People talk about and use identity as a way of presenting themselves in the world: I have a bisexual identity, you have a black identity, he has a gay identity, she has a Latina identity, and so on. Your identity is a combination of who you are, and how you want to be seen. Some aspects of identity cannot be changed: an African American person is 99% of the time visible as such, and so will be seen as such regardless of how deeply that person decides to embrace and promote that identity. Some racial identities must be more actively constructed: not every Hispanic person “looks” Hispanic, and not every person of Latin American descent identifies as Latino. Sexual orientation can also be immutable, as in some gay people who knew from the time they were five years old. Or it can shift over time, as the bisexual who later realizes she’s functionally a lesbian, or the lesbian who gradually opens to the possibility of male partners.

And so on. But another part of identity is decided upon by the individual. That visible African American may grow up in an immediate culture that is mostly white, and grow up queer and kinky. That person may feel more resonance with a queer kinky identity than he does with his black identity. This doesn’t mean he stops being African American (and dealing with all that that brings in this culture); just that it’s not the part of his makeup that he emphasizes. That closeted man from the example above may finally come out, at which point he had traded his straight identity for a gay one.

One of the dangers of shifting identities within the kink scene, of course, is that people will just think you’re flaky. If you’ve been in the scene as a straight female submissive for like five years, and suddenly you demand to be addressed as Mistress McToppyDomme by all the women you’re hoping to fuck, that can cause some spinning heads, and like Dan Savage’s caller, you might not be believed. But one of the advantages of the kink scene is that you can enact those aspects of your identity you want known in public, so that over time, people who may have seen you one way will begin to see other possibilities.

Which brings me (finally) to my advice: if you’re tired of a given label, if you feel your identity is shifting, then simply act on it. Be the change you want to see in yourself, to paraphrase. If you want people to know that you’re not just that one thing that everyone thinks you are, then do other things in front of those people. Even better: suggest that you might like to do those other things with those people. Start with people you already trust, who know you well and will have your back. And if you don’t feel the need to take on a new label, but simply to softly shed one you’ve outgrown…then go naked for a while. Humans are great at labeling – too good, in fact – and if you need a new one, I’ve no doubt it will appear.

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