Can We Ever Get Identity “Right”?

An iPhone screen displays a startup page for Facebook, while a person with a stylus has scribbled over the wordmark.
They’re all cesspools, but it’s my least fav. (Thought Catalog / Pexels.com)

Recently, I ran an ad on Facebook. Nothing all too surprising there—although it reinforced why I dislike the Facebook platform. As much as people call other platforms cesspools, Facebook seems to be a place where people feel entitled to comment. At least on platforms like Tumblr, people can use the excuse of trolling—accounts have handles and may or may not show their faces.

What bothered me about this particular interaction, though, was the issue around identity policing. Someone felt the need to express displeasure that “yet another woman” was “appropriating” gay romance.

The Disk Horse Rides Again: Straight Women Overwhelm Gay Romance

Cishet women do dominate the MM romance scene.

More than that, though, as I’ve written before, cishet women have particular ideas about how gay relationships work. Being the dominate voices in the space, they’re also not afraid of policing identity to their own preferences. Many will harangue gay male authors about how they present their gay characters. They will rate books that don’t live up to their own expectations lower.

This is a problem. It makes it difficult for gay male authors to express their own identity and experiences. How do you write authentically when a horde of people is saying, “That’s not how gay men really behave!”? Worse, how do you find the courage to put that out there when you know people will police your experiences?

Who’s Minding the Gate: Queers Policing Queers

Perhaps more irritating was the “yet another cishet woman” comment.

A quick glance at my profile or even my name would certainly lend itself to the conclusion that I’m just another one of those “cishet women authors” appropriating the gay male identity for fun and for profit.

But I don’t fit that category. At all. I am, first and foremost, bi/pan, and have identified that way for quite some time.

While this doesn’t make me a gay cisgender male author, it does place me firmly in the queer community. To be lumped in with heterosexual female authors does a disservice to me, my writing, and the queer community. While I can certainly agree that I, once again, do not have the experience of a cisgender gay man, I do have experience as a queer person.

At this point, I would also say I’m not “a woman.” I’m still in the process of de-tangling gender, which has been a lot more convoluted than figuring out I’m bi/pan.

The point stands: I’m not het and I’d disagree with cis as well.

This is where identity policing begins to breakdown. If we’re so vigilant as to close the gates too tight, where can we find spaces for people to explore and challenge binary notions of gender?

Many Cishet People Don’t Challenge Gender

I’ll note here than many cishet women authors do not do this. It was a fairly common critique when I was in fandom fifteen years ago that cishet women wrote gay couples as straight couples.

In short, cishet women are unable to escape the confines of the heterosexist binary. They are unable to imagine how relationships function beyond someone being “the man” and someone being “the woman.”

When I first started writing slash, I absolutely followed these stereotypes—because it was what I knew. I didn’t have a framework beyond “man and woman” and the stereotypical roles they play. Queer writers in fandom spaces challenged and encouraged me to think beyond the heterosexist paradigm. I took further courses in college that expanded this thinking.

At no point did I question gender itself, however. That’s been a much more recent development, both in my work and in my own life. Similar to how I was unable to challenge the heterosexist paradigm until I entered spaces that countered the narrative, I was unable to imagine beyond the gender binary.

That it took me so long to come to those conversations is perhaps a failing on my part, but the point remains.

Trans Masculinity Is Different

A man with gray hair and a gray beard mops a hardwood floor in his home while a young girl, presumably his daughter, clings to his leg.
A man cleaning and caring for a child?! GASP. (Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels.com)

Once I had the frameworks, I could think about and challenge traditional gender roles and binaries. That, in turn, made me question my own writing.

Further examination showed me that I am writing “gay men”—I’m merely writing trans gay men. With that in mind, it’s possible to say that these characters reflect an authentic experience of trans-ness, of gayness, and of masculinity.

They’re just not traditional masculinity.

This is not to say that we need to treat every cisgender woman as someone who is a potential egg. But I do think there needs to be space that we can open for even cishet women to explore—and explode—the heteronormative binary.

Deconstructing Identity Gatekeeping

While I remain aware of the issues of appropriation and silencing, I think it’s important to provide this space. I, after all, identified myself as a cishet woman for at least some of the time I’ve been writing gay men.

The issue with “gatekeeping” and “policing” these identities is that they wall out individuals who are all actually sitting in the same boat. We seek to throw people out of the boat, perhaps to prove we are “more oppressed.”

In trying to police each other, we are engaging in the “oppression Olympics.” We quibble about who can write whom, about whose experience is authentic, and so on.

This distracts from the larger reality: we are all oppressed by cishet norms. Gay men are oppressed by the assumption of compulsory heterosexuality. Cishet women are oppressed by patriarchal norms that construct them as nothing more than incubators. Trans men are oppressed by the intersection of these attitudes, and trans women, nonbinary, and other genderqueer individuals suffer even more.

Get Back in Your Box

This policing of identity marks where each of us may “express” ourselves. By erecting and defending these walls around identities so ardently, we make the work of oppressive heteronormative society much easier. We might as well put pink triangles on.

Society wants us to participate in these sorts activities, because it keeps us fighting among ourselves. We believe there are “scarce resources,” which means that an individual who is perceived to “take up space” becomes a threat. A cishet woman who writes gay relationships is a problem because we imagine there are only so many seats at the table.

We perceive that we must scrap over these limited seats instead of coming to the conclusion that what we really need is a new table. Or perhaps we don’t need a table at all—we need to abolish the idea altogether.

By refusing to interrogate the idea of limited seats at the table, by refusing to dismantle the table at all, we uphold the very regime that keeps us oppressed. We do the work of heteronormative society for it when we police our identities with barbed wire and barbed words.

When Identities Are Created by the Oppressor

The obsession with authenticity is one borne of the anxieties of the oppressor. We can see the same thing happening in circles where Indigenous people are calling out and questioning other Indigneous people, such as the recent controversy around Sacheen Littlefeather. Was she a “pretendian”? Was she “Indian enough”? Who counts and who doesn’t?

Here, it’s important to remember that the definition of “Native American” was made up by a genocidal white supremacist state. That state used the same blood quantum theory in reverse to dictate who was “Black” and who was not. That doctrine also supported Nazi Germany’s definition of who was and wasn’t a Jew.

Concerns over who is a woman and who is a man, who is “gay” and who is “straight” echo these same genocidal tendencies. The only reason we are concerned is that the oppressive state has promised some sort of “special privileges” if we comply with their program. “Indians” in Canada are afforded certain rights, while those who aren’t “status” aren’t afforded the same—no matter their bloodlines. The entire point of this law is to destroy Indigenous peoples by legislating them out of existence. The point was to make sure there would eventually be no status Indians—that everyone was white. The remaining “Indians” could be oppressed, in exchange for a few “scraps” from the state.

Identity Is Contest Ground

This is why identity—such as it is—is such dangerous territory to stake out. The definitions we’re using are inherently defined by genocidal, white supremacist, heterosexist, Christofascist imperialist cultures. The definition of “man” and “woman” we use hark back to the Victorian era, the height of most of these anxieties. Every woman who rails against being construed as fragile and weak, frail and frigid, is pushing back against the same paradigm that constructs gay men as “sick” and “effeminate.”

It may not be the same fight—but they are adjacent fights. And when we want to corral each other into neat and tidy pens, we all lose our fights—because we have failed to overturn the superstructure that made those pens necessary in the first place.

About the author

By Cherry

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