Who Gets to Define Identity: An Open Letter

The irony in seeking identity is that there will always be people who try to define it for you, when it’s something that can be practically indefinable. Identity can be synonymous with the word label, except the word label suggests only one facet of someone’s truth, and identity suggests a multi-faceted, multi-layered, and interchangeable truth. My hope is that one day, people will recognise that a lot of the time, trying to justify your existence is futile, and that existing is all that needs to be done.

Marsha P. Johnson. Source: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Being born and raised in the United States, I’ve come to understand that there’s something powerful about identity, which is why people will try to claim it from you. I think the idea of knowing and living your truth is admirable to those who respect it, but intimidating to those who don’t understand it. For those who respect it, this is why we band together to create holidays and celebrations, such as June being Pride month in the United States, and celebrating the month of your astrological sign. But when people don’t understand your truth or even fear your truth, the first thing that they’ll do is question why you should have that truth. My advice to the world is not to fall for that! That’s the first step others take to claim your identity. Any response that you give, whether it’s a big ‘Screw You’, or a passionate statement as to why you’re a human being, is giving them the power to take that from you. Now, if people are genuinely interested or do want to understand, then go for it, give them insight. But if you can tell that people are questioning your truth out of wilful ignorance, being unbothered is a way to reclaim that power.

 

An example of someone who lived her truth by claiming her identity from naysayers is Marsha P. Johnson, an activist from the 60’s, and one of the most important icons of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. She was an African American transgender artist, and one of the co-founders of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries activist organisation. The ‘P’ in her name was claimed to stand for ‘Pay it no mind’, as that was often her answer for when people questioned either what it stood for, or what her sexuality and gender were. She was also a performer who participated in drag balls and other performances. In the book Gender Outlaws The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein, a few friends described her as a transformer. She would get on her train from home dressed as a man, and would fully transform into a woman when she got off at her destination, and no one would bother her about it. She was admired and loved by those who knew and respected her truth. The Stonewall Riots of 1969, located at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village New York, were multiple protests against the brutality of the queer community by police officers. Johnson is known as the first person to physically rebel against police forces, stating, “I got my civil rights!” Since then, she was active in the Stonewall demonstrations, as well as the organisation of queer activist groups. Johnson passed on July 6, 1992 at the age of 46 in what has been ruled as a suicide, despite the extremely suspicious circumstances surrounding her death.

Marsha P. Johnson. Source: http://caravantooz.com

I say all of this because the fact is, whether people like it or not, communities will always continue to exist. While it is true that the attack on certain identities can socially and economically affect them, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the next person says, because these identities have existed since the dawn of human existence, and will continue to exist. And when people recognise that, that’s when they expand in numbers. So in a sense, it doesn’t matter if people think your lifestyle is ethically wrong, because that lifestyle will continue to exist. It doesn’t matter what stereotypes people try to tack on you, because if they don’t align up with your identity, then they don’t exist. Yes, people will think your cultural practices are some form of default on your part, but some things aren’t for them to understand. And all of this is referring to the obvious candidates, which includes, but aren’t limited to, anyone who is subjected to the very real effects of a white heteronormative society.

Gay rights activists Sylvia Ray Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Jane Vercaine, Barbara Deming, Kady Vandeurs, and Carol Grosberg at City Hall rally for gay rights. Image by Diana Davies.

The last thing I want to mention is that what I’m explaining isn’t always black and white. There are nuances. I want to remind everyone that despite this very destructive reality of questioning an individual’s identity, it is in human nature for people to question each other’s truth, because it is human nature to want to understand their place in their society amongst others. The point is to take another’s power to harmfully question your truth, and to define it for yourself. That’s how communities thrive and remain strong.

Written by Zo V. Fielder

Subvrtmag

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