When I was around 16 years old, one of the male role models in my life came out as a transgender woman. I had difficulty with this at first. The concept was new to me and I thought: this man is confused. It didn’t take long however for me to turn around. This was not a confused man, but a woman born in the wrong body. It was a question of identity.
During our lives, we develop an identity. Some of the elements of our identity are things we choose to identify with. However, we don’t have a choice about some other parts of our identity. We don’t choose if we want to be straight or gay. We simply have the specific sexual orientation that we experience today.
Not all parts of our identity are fixed like this, however. Nobody is born as a pineapple pizza lover. But at some point we might identify as one. (Yeah… I don’t understand them either… I’m just trying to be inclusive here…).
On the other hand, when we do decide that we identify as something, we say that it is something fixed. It’s the way we are. It’s unchanging. When we identify as something, we can find other people who identify by the same term. “I am not the only one”. This can be very helpful and healing.
And then, I learned, there are some parts of our identity that are living in the gray area in between these two. Parts of our lives that we are born with, that are functional to identify with, but where we do have a choice.
I my own life, I am living a polyamorous lifestyle. It’s a form of consensual non-monogamy, where me and my partners agree to the option of having multiple romantic relationships. This is a lifestyle choice I made. To me, it’s not an identity. I could decide I want to go back to a monogamous lifestyle one day. However, for some people being polyamorous is part of their identity. It’s their sexual orientation. They cannot function in a monogamous relationship, in the same way that a gay person cannot function in a straight relationship.
Apparently we found a concept here, that can be both a lifestyle choice, as well as a sexual identity.
Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
The problem with consensual non-monogamy is that it breaks with one of the dominant norms in society. Monogamy is the way that relationships should be. The norm tells us that there is a wrongness to having multiple partners.
Just like with any identity, we might experience pushback from the people around us. Our lifestyle might not fit their norms. Like I had with the transgender woman at first, some people thought (or think) I am confused. Other people tolerate the knowledge of my lifestyle, as long as it is not too visible. Kind of like how some people have no problem with gay people, ‘as long as they don’t start kissing in front of me’. I hope that you see how this view is not very tolerant at all.
It’s not easy to live in a way that breaks with the dominant norm in society. When the lifestyle is connected to somebody’s identity, we say that we do not have a choice. This is the way we are, and this is the way we will remain. We can only hope for the empathy and acceptance of others. That they acknowledge our identity and let go of their judgments.
The lesson I learned through all of this is to be careful with identity. Careful with the identities I assume for myself. And careful as well as respectful with the identities that those around me assumed. Assuming an identity can be very empowering and healing. It can also be the thing that is holding me back from developing into a bigger and brighter version of myself.
Choose your identity wisely.