Not long ago, my friend Kyrie told me she’d been questioned about my sexual orientation. Or, rather, a friend of hers expressed concern that I wasn’t more open about it. I was surprised, since I don’t consider my sexuality relevant to most situations and rarely feel the need to bring it up. If it seems safe to do so, I will tell people about my interest in asexuality, my involvement in the community, and my research on the subject. But I don’t claim it as an identity.
Part of the problem is that, in a strict sense, “asexual” doesn’t apply to me. Since I am, occasionally, attracted to people sexually, I can’t claim to be “a person who does not experience sexual attraction”. I do claim other labels – “heterosexual”, “demisexual”, “platoniromantic” – but they generally require a fair amount of additional explanation. And even with these labels, I feel a certain resistance to using them as identity categories. Sure, they may describe me. But are they identities?
Take “heterosexual”. We talk about sexual orientation as a kind of identity category, but what does it actually mean? In my case, it means that, of the (very small number of) people I’ve been sexually attracted to, 100% have (to the best of my knowledge) been members of the opposite sex. But that’s more a description of my experience than an identity. If I fall for a member of the same sex tomorrow, I’ll have a new experience to add to my list of life experiences. But my sense of identity won’t change.
You could say something similar about “demisexual” and “platoniromantic”. “Demisexual” just means that I tend to experience sexual attraction only after getting to know someone. “Platoniromantic” means I don’t experience romance as something distinct from friendship (or, conversely, that I do experience romance as a part of friendship). In the case of “platoniromantic”, you could say it indicates a certain way of perceiving the world, but even that is more of a characteristic than an identity.
And, having started on this path, I’d have to question how many so-called “identity categories” are really identities at all. Of the many labels out there, how many would I claim as my “identity”?
Let’s start with citizenship. I’m Canadian. I love being Canadian. But what I love about Canada isn’t our strong sense of shared identity, history, or culture. It’s actually the opposite! Unlike “Italian” or “Japanese”, “Canadian” can’t be equated with an ethnicity, a language, or a cuisine. And unlike “Americans”, we don’t have grand narratives of Manifest Destiny or E Pluribus Unum to give us a sense of collective purpose. By comparison, “Canadian” is almost meaningless. We usually have to go elsewhere for our culture. That’s why so many of us are Chinese-Canadians, Somali-Canadians, or Pakistani-Canadians. That’s why when we eat out we ask, “Thai, Indian, or Lebanese?” That’s why I mostly watch U.S. movies and read British literature. If there’s something I share with all Canadians, it’s that my citizenship has comparatively little influence on other areas of my life. And I love that. But what I love is the freedom, the fact that being Canadian does not determine my identity.
Gender? I don’t think I have one. I have a body, and that body has parts. But the idea that I can somehow be male or female in a way that transcends my physical body – that’s something I can’t wrap my head around. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that my physical sex is more important to me than my gender. After all, it affects everything from how I use the toilet to what kind of underwear I buy to when I go swimming. I don’t even know what my (lack of) gender affects. So I don’t have a gender identity. But I don’t think of “sex” as an identity, either. It’s more a physical circumstance courtesy of the body I live in, like being bipedal, near-sighted, or left-handed. If it were suddenly to change, well… it would be an adjustment, sure! I’d have a new set of physical circumstances to deal with. But I’d still be me. It wouldn’t affect my identity.
Race? There’s a tricky one. If you mean in a purely genealogical sense, then I’m half West-Indian and half Anglo-Canadian. But in practice I mostly pass for white. Culturally, I’m much like any other North American of British descent. My West Indian heritage plays little role in my life and my South Asian heritage none at all. I don’t really think about my race that much, and since not thinking of oneself in terms of race is pretty much a privilege of whiteness, I guess I must be white. Is that my identity, though? Maybe, but not one I take pride in. The way I understand it, white people are responsible for most of the world’s problems. So, while I may be white, it’s not an identity I’m likely to proclaim enthusiastically.
Religion? Now we’re getting somewhere. Unlike my sex, race, and native land, religion is something I have a fair amount of control over. I’m a Christian. I’ve chosen to be a Christian. And Christianity goes beyond my physical circumstances or situation. But is it how I identify? While we often talk about religion as an identity that people can share, Christianity is really a set of beliefs, and one’s belief are more a characteristic than an identity. I guess part of my belief is that God created and loves me, and “God’s beloved creation” could certainly be an identity. The problem is, it’s an identity I share with everyone else on the planet! I mean, you could argue that not everyone believes in God or His love, but it still seems strange to claim my belief as an identity. You might as well say, “I identify as a climate-change believer”, or, “I identify as an ape-descendent.” It doesn’t get us very far in terms of distinguishing me from the rest of humanity.
Fandom? My love of fictional works has certainly been hugely important to me. But, in general, what I love about those works is that they express something in me. It’s not so much that a work gives me an identity as that it reflects the identity I already have. And one result of that is that my fandom is contingent. I’ll love a franchise devotedly as long as I can relate to it. But if a work stops reflecting me, then I won’t be a fan any more. So being a fan is more something I do than something I am.
Perhaps the problem is that each of these labels is only a partial expression of who I am. In that case, maybe the solution is to collect enough labels to represent the whole of me. If I decorated my bag with enough buttons – an ace flag, a maple leaf, a Jesus fish, a Darwin fish, a Green Party logo, a Ravenclaw crest, a Martell sigil, and something expressing my love of Middle-earth, Star Wars, and The X-Files – would I end up with a comprehensive image of myself? Maybe I’d have an approximation. But still not one I’d recognise if I saw it in the mirror.
So, who am I? Am I reduced to simply saying, “I am I. I am me. I am myself”? Is there no label I can point to and say, “That’s my identity”?
Four years ago, I wrote a letter to a friend in which I tried to explain what our friendship meant to me. It was not, I told him, a hobby, something I’d picked up because it was amusing and would drop again when I got bored with it. It was not a role, something I played at some times and shed at others. It was not a job, something I did because it was useful and expected to be rewarded for.
That’s right: it was an identity.
Being his friend wasn’t just an act, an alliance, or an experience. It was an integral part of my being. And I could no more easily give it up than I could give up a limb, an organ, or one of my five senses.
There’s a scene at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Snape reveals his patronus. For those not familiar with Harry Potter, a patronus is a kind of protective charm that a wizard can perform. Creating a patronus requires one to reach deep inside oneself for a source of strength and happiness. The patronus appears as an animal, and each person’s animal is supposed to represent their personality. In other words, each person’s patronus is a partial expression of their identity.
Over the seven years of the series, we’ve known Snape as many things, but his patronus does not reflect any of them. It’s not an expression of his identity as a Slytherin, a professor, a Potions master, a Dark Arts expert, a Death Eater, or a half-blood. Snape’s patronus is an expression of his best friend, the only person he ever loved. His identity is not based on what he does, what he knows, or where he comes from. At its deepest level, it’s about who he loves.
There are plenty of labels that describe my characteristics, circumstances, experiences, and actions. But if you ask me to locate myself, I would say you can’t find it in any of them. Instead, my identity is found in the bonds I form with other people – the kind of bonds that turn a house into a home, friends into family, and a temperamental child into someone you would give your life for.
So this is what I told Kyrie: As far as I’m concerned, I expect the people in her life to think of me as “Kyrie’s friend”. That label, “friend of Kyrie”, expresses more of who I am as a person than any other label they might attach to me. And if I don’t bring up my sexuality, or my race, or any of the other labels that might describe me, it’s not because I’m ashamed of them. It’s because none of them are as meaningful as the one they already have.