How to choose an identity

When you have multiple identities, deciding which one matters most can prove challenging. Maybe you feel more South African than transsexual, or maybe depression has shaped your life more than your sexuality has. You swap your identities the way you might exchange your outfits, depending on your disposition on the day. Today I feel South African, you might say, and observe all the ways in which the Canadians around you are different from you – and always will be.

But how do other people do it? What if you are mainstream, hold a 9-5 job, have 2.5 children and white skin? What if you are Canadian and like hockey? What becomes the defining characteristic that drives your life? What becomes your core identity?

Rich or poor, able or disabled, straight or queer, caucasian or not, religious or atheist, we all have composite identities; it’s the one thing we have in common. And, according to recent research, we tend to surround ourselves with people just like us. Like-minded, kindred spirits who see the world through the same lenses, with the same ironic wit (or lack of it), who reflect back to us the “proof” that the world really is the way we think it is. It gives us a sense of safety. But is that safety real?

I think most of us fall into the trap of thinking that if those who disagree with us just were more educated on the matter at hand, they would see things our way. That’s not always the case. The rational mind is a wondrous thing; depending on your deeply-held beliefs it can convince you of anything. Like that God exists, or doesn’t.

So if we are a cobbled together collection of identities, and what we believe about ourselves shapes who we become, as does who we surround ourselves with, how do we go about deciding that this identity is more important than that one?

The reason I ask is this: I am a transgender man. But I’m also a writer, a cyclist, a blogger, a dog-owner, a survivor of mental illness, a Canadian and a South African. Each of these identities holds importance in my life. And some overlap with others — my dual nationality, for instance, means that I have experiences in common with both South Africans and Canadians (the flip side being that I have gaps in my internal cultural database for those moments when I was in one or the other country).

Some of these identities have shaped me more than others. For instance, while I have become a cyclist only relatively recently, my transgender identity has haunted me from a very young age (as far back as age 4, that I can remember). And while I no longer consider myself depressed, it has certainly left its stamp on how I approach my life day by day, and how I respond to stressful situations (I practice, when I can, loving-kindness meditation in an effort to restore my mind’s fragile equilibrium).

Some identities, too, may be dependent on one another for their existence in the first place. My social anxiety, for instance, is directly related to my trans identity. The disconnect I felt growing up, between how I was perceived versus how I wanted to be perceived, caused me to withdraw inward and avoid social interactions. Had I not been born trans, would I still have suffered from social anxiety? Impossible to know for sure, but I wonder.

Which brings me to my final point: identities are constantly in flux. By that I mean they change and dissolve and reassemble and expand. I was briefly on welfare in the midst a severe bout of clinical depression in my early twenties. As the depression lifted, my identity as an unemployed person dissolved as well. Thankfully, I was able to return to work and have managed to establish a life, if not of riches, at least of some financial stability.

Maybe seeking out a primal identity is a doomed exercise. Identity like the weather, changes constantly. But like the weather, it comes in patterns, clusters of behaviours that associate us with others who have those same behaviours. Am I trans because of the disconnect between my physical body and sense of self? If so, then do I lose my trans identity once my body and self are aligned? Or does my trans identity persist beyond the point where medical intervention ceases because of the shared experience I have with others who have walked this same path?

Maybe, in the end, identity comes less from the labels we inhabit and more from how we orient ourselves in our lives. Maybe our behaviours, inspired by our chosen values, define us. For instance:

I believe in the beauty of life

I believe that we, each of us, belong and have a right to exist

I believe in the value of living my truth with kindness. As it’s through living my truth that I am able to experience the truth and beauty of others as well.

Maybe that, and the actions these values inspire, is all the identity I need to concern myself with.

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