I was inspired to write this particular post by an email from another reader, and it's all about identity.
Is it, he asks, that "sexual identity is at the forefront of what it means to have an identity at all". Yes and no. For me personally, regarding my own identity, that's true. Identifying as bisexual is very important to me because it is so very invisible/misunderstood/stereotyped and so I have a vested interest in putting the record straight. But having a sexual identity is absolutely irrelevant to many/most people – as long as they are either completely het or are so casually bi that their same-sex behaviour can be written off as a bit of drunken fumbling that says nothing about them.
Then of course there is the philosophical issue of what actually "identity" means. In the way we use it today, it’s generally speaking about oppression. Another identity that used to be very important to me – "mother" – is not, now that my son is an adult and not in need of my day-to-day care. I am not oppressed as the mother of a 23-year-old! Being the mother of a 3 or 13 year old is an entirely different matter. "Mother" as an identity has changed into “mother” purely as describing a relationship.
In many ways, of course, the whole issue of identity as we see it at all is very historically, geographically and culturally specific. As far as I can tell, most people, most of the time, see and saw themselves as identifying with a tribe, a family, a group, a class – differentiating themselves from people who weren’t part of that group.
Identity is about differentiating yourself from those around you and this applies to all sorts of identity. Therefore I don't need to identify as bisexual when I am in, say, a bi conference. But when everyone assumes I am straight (or at times in the past when they I assumed I was a lesbian) I need to speak the truth about myself. Similarly, if I am abroad I will say I am British whereas here no one would think I was anything else. But I might say I was a Londoner if I was in Scotland, or indeed that I am half-Welsh if the subject comes up.
In the USA, compared to all other countries, identity in general is spectacularly important. As anyone observing that culture knows, people are always hyphenated (Italian-American, Irish-American, African-American and so forth) in a way I don’t think happens anywhere else. Perhaps this is partly why sexual identity is so important there too (apart from the fact that great swaths of the country express levels of homophobia and fundamentalist moral fervour that would only be laughed at in the UK, of course!)
I have rather belatedly been reading Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs. Among many other very interesting things she talks about the way sexual identity has changed there. “Lesbian” for instance used to be a political label, a rallying cry, whereas now, she says, identity has become a “behaviour-descriptor”. It describes what you do, not what you think or feel. Many women now say things like: “I’m a butch top” etc. While that might help them get the sort of sex they want, it doesn’t really do much for anybody’s liberation.
More on this in the next post...