A Matter of Semantics: The Difference Between “Identifying as” and “Identifying with”

This post grew out of something I read in Sherry Wolf’s book, Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation .

This book had been on my must read list for a while. I was familiar with Ms. Wolf’s writing from her columns at Socialistworker.org.

Yesterday, on Face Book, Ethan St Pierre asked if people identified as male, female or transgender.

I’m an old fashioned lefty.  I’m not something because I identify as that thing.  Claiming to identify as without being seems to me to be an odd construct that doesn’t fall much in line with my existentialist line of thinking.

I am not a woman because I identify as a woman. I am a woman even though I was assigned male at birth because of having been born with something that the best term for still seems to be “transsexualism”.  I had sex reassignment surgery that made me female.

Now there are all sorts of debates about why one is transsexual.  Is it nature, is it nurture or is it both. What ever it is the origin doesn’t matter all that much to me. The only thing I can say for sure is: Don’t tell me that I have to embrace transsexual as a permanent identity.  Perhaps as a transitory one…

What I find most problematic of the dictum implied in the semiotic “identify as” is that it is both exclusive and exclusionary in that it carries with it an implication, a subtext if you will, that implies that if you too do not “identify as” then you must be in opposition.  Further if the “I” who is policing the borders of this “identification as” decides you bear the one particular trait for inclusion in that “identity” then that one trait over rules all other aspects of ones being.  This is an extension of some very reactionary politics based on the rather anachronistic application of “the one drop of black blood makes you black (or Jewish etc) rule”.

Usage of this semiotic carries several other subtexts, including:  If you share that one trait but do not embrace that identity (in this case transgender) then you must be self -loathing.  You are in denial and an antagonistic separatist, particularly if you defend not embracing that “identify as” semiotic.  Refusal to identify as is therefore grounds for assumption of hostility towards the group one refuses to identify as.

The seeds for identity politics possibly date to the 1960s and the rise of “black nationalism” instead of a united front in support of the African American Civil Rights Movement.

There  was a rush to place primacy of oppressions in what seemed like a queue.  This lead to the term, “Oppression Olympics”.  And the dismissal of claims of empathy.

The alternative that would help unite the various groups fighting what is generally speaking a common source of oppression would be to switch from a requirement to “identify as” to people learning to “identify with” the struggles of others, and through the exercise of empathy find commonalities with others.

I do not have to “identify as” to identify with the struggles of say African Americans, or farm workers, in their struggle for civil rights. As I can extrapolate through my own experiences what it feels like to suffer abuse, discrimination and oppression.

Lately there has been this requirement for people with transsexualism firmly claim “having always identified as a member of the sex to which they are reassigned”.  Perhaps in the best of all possible worlds, where one’s “identity” is never challenged.  That would seem in total contradiction with the reports of almost universal childhood abuse for “gender inappropriate behavior”.

Those who give priority to identity over the physical sneeringly call my response  citing my present body as reason for being assured of my identity, essentialist.  Perhaps it is as I considered SRS as “making it real” in flesh as well as in performed sex role behavior.

Damn here I am in bed with Judy Butler… I promise not to hate myself in the morning…

Identity has an amorphous character that is constantly open to challenge and negotiation.  But so too are bodies.  We should know that all to well.  T to F people have memories about being labeled as sissies and being told they aren’t really boys.  Hence my response to Anna about thinking I was half boy/half girl as a child, given I had boy parts yet was physically feminine in appearance and was feminine in behavior. Identity open to challenge due to physical traits that were written on the body.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman.”  The existentialist analysis is about becoming through influences and actions.  Beat poet Diane di Prima’s first sentence in her book, “Recollections of my Life as a Woman” reads:  “My earliest sense of what it means to be a woman was learned from my grandmother, Antoinette Mallozzi, and at her knee.”

Then there is a paragraph that starts on page 5:

“As I went into the kitchen this morning to make some tea, I saw through the (intentionally?) open crack in her door, my beautiful young daughter in the arms of a beautiful young Black skateboarder, who had evidently spent the night (skateboard propped against the wall in front of her door like an insignia).  As I went tranquilly into the kitchen and called out to ask them if they wanted tea or coffee, I thought with deep gratitude of some of the women I met when I first left home at the age of eighteen: those beautiful, soft strong women of middle age with their young daughters who made me welcome in various homes, where I could observe on a given morning mom coming out of her bedroom with a lover, male or female, and joining daughter and her lover at the table for breakfast in naturalness and camaraderie.  These women, by now mostly dead I suppose were great pioneers.  They are nameless to me, nameless and brief friends I encountered along the way who showed me something else was possible besides what I had seen at home.”

I view who I am not as some sort of “identity” claimed without experience but as the sum total of my experiences and encounters.

The experiences and my awareness of self were uncertain and abused as a child. As I gained agency as a teenager, I sought out answers and those answers changed my sense of being.  Through choosing to learn certain things and not other things, to learn certain ways of being, skills, I became those things and those skills became my natural skills learned in muscle memory and unconscious  in nature.

Coming out was a matter of stating “I AM!” and then acting upon it.  My first steps were uncertain, like some one first learning to ice skate, yet the things I had been absorbing in secret rapidly asserted themselves.  People reacted differently to me and the different way I was treated became part of who I am.  Within weeks the ability to don the mask I had worn for 21 years became impossible.  Is this identity?

If it is… Does the fact I didn’t particularly think of the concepts of  “I am” or “I am becoming” in terms of identity, but rather in terms of “being” and “becoming”, both aspects of the philosophy of existentialism, invalidate those who speak in terms of identity?  Do the semantics of “identity” replete with semiotic meanings require a subjugation of existentialist thinking to a new god of post-modernist terminology?

Are these idiotic matters to be argued over while hiding in an attic we might not be in were it not for our immersion in “identity politics”?

I am my life experiences, my interpretations of those experiences, my analysis of those experiences are subject to change as I am immersed in new experiences.

If I say I am post-transsexual it doesn’t mean I am beyond all concern regarding the subject or all concern for those going through transition.  It means that for me those experiences were all so long ago and when dredged up are subject to new interpretations based on the many years of experience since.  The requirement that I “identify as” is alienating as it negates the passage of time and the experiences of life after SRS.

However, I am as capable of “identifying with” the struggles of TG and pre-op sisters and brothers as I am with any other oppressed group that I am not specifically a part of.  Identifying with the struggles of the oppressed does not require one to “identify as.”

To answer Ethan St. Pierre’s question.  I don’t identify as a woman.  I am a woman.

7 Responses to “A Matter of Semantics: The Difference Between “Identifying as” and “Identifying with””

  1. Véronique Says:

    Brava! I try to avoid “identify as” as much as possible. I am who I am, and what you see is what you get. I don’t have to assert anything other than what I already am.

    • Suzan Says:

      The sooner people drop the “identify as” a requirement to work for progressive change and start asking people to identify with/feel empathy for regarding oppression the sooner we will be able to work together ending it.

  2. Devon Jones Says:

    This post is amazing. Also being of an existentialist line of thinking, I have to say this speaks to many of my own frustrations as a transsexual person (pre-transition but very much focused on my bodily sex, not on my presented gender) when fellow trans people speak of “identifying” as something, or when cis people, often speaking as “allies,” say that people who identify as something should be allowed to identify as that. I am not intent on making any changes to my body because of anything to do with socialization or gender as performance. I am intent on making changes because my body is not what my brain wants or expects— and it is easier to change my body than my brain, and even if I could change my brain, that would be pretty fucked up. I am a man, such as one “is” anything in Sartre’s sense. Saying I identify as a man sounds like “choosing” to be one, in my own personal case.

    Of course, for many people it really is a matter of identification, but to me that is why “transgender” is one thing and “transsexual” is another thing, and why I celebrate all of us falling anywhere in these categories. But a lot of people need to stop talking about sex OR gender as though anyone who isn’t cis is thinking about this in terms of identity. Cis people don’t have to say “I identify as a man” or “I identify as a woman,” and I’m not going to feel like cissexism is erased until there are no compulsions for anyone to say what sex or gender they identify as.

    • Suzan Says:

      Well Transgender grew out of the Virginia Prince faction of heterosexual cross dressers. Transsexual grew up from transsexual. We had SRS Transgender people didn’t.

      Mostly though transgender is a social construct that gained popularity with the confluences of post-modernism/gender studies and queer studies.

      It has always been a place of great arguments over word games and for all its claims of activism most activist seem not to involved in the philosophical aspects. Much of the online factionalism seems to be among people who enjoy drunken bar brawls with razors and broken bottles.

  3. Sunset Says:

    The other issue with identity is that it leaves no room for identities that you haven’t already allowed. I feel strongly that the female gender I was “born with” is fundamentally wrong. At the same time, male isn’t quite right either. What does that make me? I’ve been told I’m a fashion statement trying to claim an identity I don’t have. I’ve been told I am really a FtM and still in the closet. I’d like room to just be my young, somewhat confused self.

  4. The Thang Blog » Identity and Perspective Says:

    [...] Born Transsexual had a post a few weeks ago titled A Matter of Semantics: The Difference Between “Identifying as” and “Identifying with.” The post was prompted by a question seen on Facebook asking if readers identified as male, female, [...]


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