Sexual Identity Labels Are Maps, Not Territory

Last month I wrote:

Sexual identity labels are maps, not territory. Anybody who claims that maps are useless has clearly never gone adventuring, and neither has anyone who claims that maps are a perfectly accurate representation of the territory.

This resonated with many of my friends (especially the adventuring sort), so I wanted to expand on this concept.

The map-territory distinction has a long history in fields like art, philosophy, and, presumably, geography. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about all of that history, but the basic idea is that there is a reality, and there are our representations of that reality, and it’s important not to confuse one for the other.

There are two broad “camps” when it comes to the issue of sexual identity labels, which includes any of the LGBTQ+ identities as well as labels like dominant, submissive, demisexual, and basically any other word people use to say, “This is who I am/what I’m into.”

One camp says that labels are unnecessary. They cannot describe the full variety of human sexual experience, they prevent people from being open to experiences and feelings they might otherwise be open to, and they cause others to make unwarranted assumptions based on others’ labels. This camp might acknowledge that labels were politically necessary at one point to gain visibility and basic rights, but now we’ve reached a point where–even though homophobia still exists and must be fought–they are not necessary for that fight. You can find sex, love, or whatever else you’re looking for without them. Some members of this camp additionally claim that people using labels–especially if they are inventing new ones–are “special snowflakes” who just “want attention” for something that ought to be personal and private.

The other camp says that labels are important and that they are natural categories. That is, people are naturally and necessarily either gay/lesbian, straight, bi, or maybe even ace. While some people may choose not to use a label, that doesn’t mean they don’t ultimately fit into one of these categories. Labels are important for politics, research, and social interaction. After all, how are you going to find people like you if you don’t identify what “like you” even means? People who claim they can’t choose one of the available labels are probably confused and haven’t progressed all the way through the stages of sexual identity development.

Both of these camps would be right in some way if the people in them stuck to making observations about themselves rather than about others. Some people don’t like to use labels. Other people like to use labels. Neither is wrong, because both are making choices for themselves in order to create the lives that they want for themselves.

As I wrote, people who claim that maps are universally useless probably don’t do a lot of traveling. Maybe all your loved ones are living with you or just down the street. Maybe you don’t need to leave town and cross rivers and mountains to find them. Others do. For us, labels can be a way of finding others or helping them get to us. Sure, I’m not going to be attracted to everyone that my sexual labels say I have the potential to be attracted to, but I’ll at least be looking in approximately the right place. This way, if I’m looking for trees, I can make sure to at least end up in a forest and not in a desert, or in the middle of the ocean.

On the other hand, maps are also imperfect. That’s not (just) because we need better maps; that’s because they cannot be perfect. The landscape changes. People make mistakes. The mapmaker can’t predict what information will be important for a particular person to know, so they might leave out important things or include extraneous information that clutters up the space and makes it harder to find your way. The researchers who theorize in their offices and then design studies that confirm what they already believe–for instance, by only accepting participants who are able to label themselves “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or (maybe, in some studies) “bisexual”–aren’t out there surveying the land. Of course your map looks perfect when all it does is hang on your wall as decoration.

There’s another challenge, too. Depending on your philosophy, most people do believe that maps depict something that has an objective truth to it: either the river bends here, or it doesn’t. Either the elevation at these coordinates is 100 feet above sea level, or it is not. But when it comes to sexuality, there may not be an objective reality to discover. I’ve just finished reading Lisa M. Diamond’s excellent book, Sexual Fluidity, in which she surveys a variety of ways in which female sexuality may be more complex and undefinable than anyone (who hasn’t personally experienced it) would’ve imagined, so at the moment I’m inclined to believe that an individual’s sexual territory may not be knowable even to them. That’s another reason our sexual identity “maps” will never be perfect.

Nevertheless, having maps is easier than not having maps. But poorly drawn, inaccurate maps can cause a lot of trouble. How many people–women and nonbinary people especially–have I seen worrying that there’s something wrong with them because they’re standing at a crossroads holding up their map and it just doesn’t look anything like what’s in front of them? They think they must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, but what’s actually happened is that someone drew a map lazily and sloppily. “Am I bisexual?” they ask. “Was I actually gay all along?” “Can I be a lesbian if I sometimes have sex with men for fun?” “Am I ace enough to call myself ace?” “I’ve only ever dated men but I like other genders, too, so why do they keep telling me I’m straight?

Sexual labels are maps, not territory. If they don’t seem to be working well, they probably need some updating. For some people, that might be enough to throw out the map altogether and just go wandering. Others want more guidance, more concreteness. Either approach is okay.

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How To Get People To Care When It’s Not Personal: On Rob Portman

I’m going to talk about Rob Portman now even though that bit of news is pretty old at this point. (Hey, if you want to read about stuff in a timely manner, go read the NYT or something.)

Brief summary: Portman is a Republican senator from Ohio (yay Ohio!) who used to oppose same-sex marriage but changed his mind when his son came out as gay. He said, “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like [my wife] and I have had for over 26 years.” Portman is now the only sitting Republican senator to publicly support equal marriage, although there are other well-known Republicans who do.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way first, I’m very glad to hear of Portman’s change of heart. Really. Each additional vote for marriage equality matters, especially when it’s the first sitting Republican senator to do it. That’s cool.

However, this really doesn’t bode well for our politics. Most legislators are white, male, straight, cisgender, rich, Christian, and able-bodied. Unless they either 1) possess gifts of empathy and imagination more advanced than those of Portman or 2) have family members who are not those things, they may not be willing to challenge themselves to do better by those who aren’t like them.

Some identities are what writer Andrew Solomon calls “horizontal” identities, meaning that parents and children typically don’t share them–these include stuff like homosexuality, transsexuality, and disability. So there’s a decent chance that a given legislator may have someone with one of these identities in their family.

But other identities are “vertical,” meaning that they tend to be passed down from parents to children, whether through genetics, upbringing, or some combination. Race is obviously vertical. Class and (to a lesser extent) religion tend to be as well. How likely is an American legislator to have someone in their family who is a person of color? How likely are they to have someone in their family who is impoverished?

In fact, some of the most pressing social justice issues today concern people who are so marginalized that it’s basically inconceivable that an influential American politician would know any of them personally, let alone have one of them as a family member–for instance, the people most impacted by the war on drugs, who are forever labeled as ex-cons and barred from public housing, welfare benefits, jobs, and education. It’s easy to go on believing that these people deserved what they got–which they often get for crimes as small as having some pot on them when they get pulled over by the cops for no reason other than their race–if you don’t actually know any of these people. (Well, or if you haven’t read The New Jim Crow, I guess.)

Even with horizontal identities, though, relying on the possibility that important politicians will suddenly reverse their positions based on some family member coming out or having a particular experience or identity isn’t really a good bet. First of all, coming out doesn’t always go that well; 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, and the top two reasons for their homelessness is that they either run away because of rejection by their families or they’re actually kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fact that one of your parents is a prominent Republican politician who publicly opposes equal marriage probably makes you even less likely to come out to them.

And even if the child of such a parent comes out to them and nothing awful happens, people still have all sorts of ways of resolving cognitive dissonance. To use an example from a different issue, pro-choice activists who interact with pro-lifers have noticed a phenomenon that’s encapsulated in the article, “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion.” Basically, when some pro-life people find themselves with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, they sometimes find ways to justify getting an abortion even though they still believe it’s morally wrong in general.

Similarly, if you’re a homophobe and someone you love comes out to you as queer, that absolutely doesn’t mean you’re going to end up supporting queer rights. You might end up seeing that person as “not like all those other gays,” perhaps because they don’t fit the stereotypes that you’ve associated with others like them. You might invent some sort of “reason” that this person turned out to be queer, whereas others still “choose” it. You might simply conclude that no matter how much you may love someone who’s queer, it’s still against your religion to give queer people the right to get married.

Of course, when it comes to marriage rights, it’s not really necessary for that many more Republican lawmakers to suddenly discover that the queer people in their families are human too. The GOP will begin supporting equal marriage regardless (or, at least, it will stop advocating the restriction of rights to heterosexual couples), because otherwise it will go extinct. That’s just becoming the demographic reality.

However, equal marriage is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abolishing a system that privileges straight people over queer people, and most of those causes aren’t nearly as sexy as equal marriage. Just look at the marketing for it: it’s all about love and beautiful weddings and cute gay or lesbian couples adopting children. Mentally and emotionally, it’s just not a difficult cause for straight folks to support. Who doesn’t love love?

The other issues facing queer people aren’t nearly as pleasant to think about. Who will help the young people who are homeless because their families kicked them out for being queer? Who will stop trans* people from being forced to use restrooms that do not belong to their actual gender, risking violence and harassment?

And, to bring it back to my earlier point: how likely are any Republican senators to have family members in any of these situations?

I don’t think Portman is a bad person for failing to support equal marriage until his son came out. Or, at least, if he’s a bad person, then most people are, because most people don’t care enough about issues that aren’t personally relevant to them to do the difficult work of confronting and working through their biases. And anyway, I don’t think that this has anything to do with how “good” or “bad” of a person you are (and frankly I hate those ways of labeling people). It’s more that some people are just more interested in things that don’t affect them personally than others.

Our job as activists, then, is to figure out how to get people to care even when the issue at hand isn’t necessarily something they have a personal connection to, because that won’t always be enough and because defining victims of injustice by their relationships to those who you’re trying to target has its own problems (which doesn’t necessarily mean we should never use that tactic, but that’s for another post).

I’m still trying to figure out how to do that, but I do have my own experience to draw on. As a teenager, I didn’t care a bit about social justice, but I did care about culture and sociology and how the world works. In college, I started to learn how structures in society affect individuals and create power imbalances, and I found this fascinating. It also brought into sharp relief the actual suffering of people who are on the wrong side of those imbalances, and before long I was reading, thinking, and writing about that.

Although nobody intentionally argued me over to this worldview, the courses I took and the stuff I read online seemed to take advantage of my natural curiosity about how society works, and eventually they brought me into the fold.

If you have any stories to share about how you started caring about an issue that doesn’t affect you personally, please share!

How It Feels To Shed Your Skin

Being a young and mobile person is a bit like having a never-ending case of whiplash.

I don’t have a single identity or home or social circle; I have many, and I’m constantly leaving one for another and feeling like the skin that has been grafted onto my preexisting skin is being ripped off and the resulting wound is replaced with another.

There is my life at school, which is the busiest and most visibly meaningful (but actually probably the emptiest) life of them all. There is who I am with my family in Ohio, and who I am when I visit my intended future home, New York City. I am someone else entirely apart from all these people with my long-distance partner (first one, then another) when one of us is visiting the other.

Leaving each of these is like heartbreak. At that moment it feels like nothing is deeper and truer than who I am in this place, with these people, at this point in time. I tell myself over and over that once I get to my destination I will become that person and it’ll feel normal again, but no amount of telling it makes it feel true. It is always like leaving myself and becoming someone else, someone I don’t want to be. And upon arriving I briefly experience the sickening feeling of having become someone I dreaded becoming just a few short hours before, across a few state lines or perhaps a two-hour flight away. That feeling squeezes me by the throat and then finally slinks away and I grow comfortable and complacent in my new (old?) skin.

Shortly before leaving I often grow aloof and distant from the people I’m with, and this breaks my heart even more. And probably theirs. It pains me, but it seems better than letting myself stay close for those final hours, which would mean letting them see me collapse in tears as I imagine being torn away from them by whichever car, bus, train, or plane is doing it this time.

There is a certain courage that you need to let someone wipe your tears away, and it is a courage I rarely have these days.

The reason I need courage is because there is so much to be afraid of. People misread the particular mix of emotions I feel when I’m leaving and assume that I must be pathologically attached to them or confused about where I “belong” (why the hell do I hate Ohio so much but invariably lose control of myself when leaving it?). The truth is, yes, I get very attached to people. But I don’t think there’s anything pathological about the way in which I get attached. I think the difference between me and people who aren’t depressed is that, sometimes, the way you keep from being depressed is by choosing not to acknowledge the enormous amounts of pain and pleasure that others can give to you, and living as though you are truly independent.

Whose way is better? I can’t say, but I know that I’m incapable of ignoring the bonds between myself and the people I love for the few hours it takes for me to leave. And because I can’t ignore them, having to sever them over and over and then splice them back up and sever them again, every couple of months, feels like the worst thing in the world.

Someone pointed out to me recently that the same theme keeps coming up whenever I tell the story of my life, how I came to be so depressed, and how I eventually (mostly) recovered. That theme is disconnection. My worst misery is when I feel disconnected from people, society, and life itself. It’s when I feel misunderstood by the people close to me or when I feel like an outsider (this happens often to me; if you read my previous post you can see a little snippet of it). Or when I feel like I just don’t understand the people around me and why we can’t seem to agree on anything, or when I feel like I have no traditions to give shape to my life, or when I feel like I’m not “fully” any of the things that I think I am–feminist, atheist, Jew, Russian, Israeli, woman, student, activist.

(In my better moments, I realize that, well, of course I’m not “fully” any of these things. Nobody can possibly fit some hypothetical Aristotelian prototype of any of these things. The very nature of such identities is that the pressure to belong and conform is significant and that we will always wonder if we’re really measuring up to what we’re “supposed” to be.)

On the other hand, the greatest happiness I’ve ever known is feeling connected to people and ideas and places. It’s the feeling I had at Skepticon. It’s reading a brilliant book or article and feeling completely in sync with the author. It’s holding someone I love close. It’s discovering that my partner and I both hate Michael Cera and love Los Campesinos! and agree on virtually every ethical and political issue that we care about.

Given this, it’s not very surprising that I have such difficulty with transitions. Of course, everything is ultimately temporary and change is part of life for everyone, but this much temporariness and this much change is just too much. That whiplashy feeling I get every time I have to switch identities and hop across state lines is a sign that someone like me just isn’t made for this lifestyle.

I have strategies to help me cope with it, of course. I always carry things from one place to another to help me remember who I am when I’m somewhere else. I have stacks of notebooks from other times. I almost never recall old memories.

Mostly, though, I write. Telling you this right now is the only thing that’s helping.

A while ago, I wrote that the happiest day of my life up until that point had been my older brother’s wedding, because I got to spend a whole day focusing entirely on other people and not on myself. My new sister-in-law read it and replied that she felt much like I did when I was younger and that once you grow a bit older and start to settle down, it gets easier. Not necessarily because Change Is Bad, but because people like me are at a stage in our lives where we are basically required to focus on nothing but ourselves. Our education, our needs, our desires, our constant criss-crossing of the country in search of opportunities. Once you’re able to turn that focus outwards at other people, that feeling of disconnect subsides and real, lasting happiness–not the kind you might get from parties or straight As–can take its place.

I hope she’s right. I hope that after I’ve finished all of my degrees and chosen a city to live in, life will stop jerking me around like this every few months. I hope that I can finally build a network of friends and acquaintances that will be more or less stable. I hope that the people I spend time with will have known me for longer than a few months. I hope that my work will feel more meaningful than my schooling.

I hope, because tomorrow I will rip myself out of one skin and shoddily sew myself into another, and the person I am right now, as I write this, will already be just a distant memory.

On Taking People’s Word For It (Or, When Not to Argue)

“You’re not really depressed, you just get sad sometimes.”

“You’re not really a lesbian, you’ve just had some bad experiences with men.”

“You’re not really an atheist, you’re just questioning your faith. You’ll find God again.”

Why do people say these things?

Everyone I ask seems to have a story about a friend or family member who just cannot accept what they disclose about themselves and insist that it’s not true–without any evidence.

From a skeptical perspective, that bothers me. Most of the time, when someone makes a statement, it’s possible to (intelligently) dispute it. If someone states a fact–i.e. “It’s 70 degrees outside”–you can dispute it if you have evidence against it–i.e. your thermometer reads 80 degrees. If someone states an opinion that can be supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a good president because he has business experience”–you can counter it with an opposing statement that is also supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a bad president because his ideas about fixing the economy would actually worsen the situation for the middle and lower classes and also because he is a huge lying douchecanoe.” (But I digress.)

However, if someone makes a fact-based claim that they have firsthand knowledge of and you do not–i.e. “I don’t believe in God” or “I am a lesbian”–you cannot argue. Sorry, but you can’t. You have no evidence.

You can, if you want to be an asshole, tell them that they’re going to hell or that you find that appalling or that you hope they change. But you cannot claim it isn’t true.

(Likewise, feelings are not up for debate. If someone says they’re sad, then they’re sad. If they say they feel embarrassed, then they feel embarrassed. “But you don’t really feel that way–” Yep, they do.)

But what if you have a Real Legitimate Concern that it’s “just a phase,” or that they’re misinterpreting things somehow?

First of all, examine where that concern is stemming from. Is it because, in your heart of hearts, you really really don’t want this person to be who they say they are? If so, you should probably keep your Real Legitimate Concerns to yourself, because you may* be a bigot.

If it’s because this person has a history of going through “phases,” it’s more reasonable of you to gently express your concern, but be kind about it. Most people stop going through phases eventually, and this could be it.

However, even if it is a “just a phase,” that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. As people grow and mature–this is a process that lasts a lifetime, by the way, rather than stopping at some arbitrary age–they change. Religious people may become atheists; atheists may become religious. Political identities change. Mental health changes. Even sexual orientation and gender identity can change. That doesn’t mean that a person’s past identities were fake or “lies,” and even if you believe that what they’re telling you now will not always be true, the kind thing to do is to affirm who the person is right now.

And if you’re “disagreeing” with what someone says about themselves because you’re concerned about possible repercussions for the person if they identify that way (such as being bullied for being gay or ostracized by family for being an atheist), remember that the onus is never on victims of prejudice to hide who they are. It’s on the rest of us to learn how to treat them like human beings. If you’re spending your energy on trying to get people to hide who they are when you could be spending it on encouraging people not to be bigots, you’re doin’ it wrong.

Depression presents a special case. When someone discloses to you that they are depressed, it may be extremely tempting to try to persuade them that they’re not “really” depressed because you think that this will help somehow. However, you can’t will an illness out of existence anyway, so you might as well accept what they’re telling you and try to be supportive. For many people (like me), identifying themselves as “depressed” is a relief, because the alternative is to believe that it’s just your personality and that you’re destined for a life of misery. That’s a topic for a whole other post, though.

In general, asking questions is better than making statements when someone’s telling you something personal–it shows that you don’t presume to know more about their experience than they do. However, there are definitely right and wrong ways to go about it. “So how did you realize you were a [insert identity here]?” is worlds better than “But how do you really know you’re [insert identity here]? I mean I had a friend who said they were [insert identity here] but they changed their mind later/were only doing it for attention/were just going through a phase! Are you sure?”

Remember, though, that it’s not the person’s job to provide you with Sufficient Evidence that what they’re saying about themselves is true. Sure, people lie about themselves sometimes. But presuming that someone is lying when they’re actually not is a pretty easy way to ruin a relationship.

If you have someone in your life who insists on disagreeing when you disclose something about yourself, here are some of my favorite ways to respond (warning: snark may not be suitable for everyone):

  • “Interesting. How did you learn to read minds?”
  • “You’re probably right, you know me much better than I know myself. Tell me, am I hungry right now? Should I go eat?”
  • “How do you know that?”
  • “Actually, yes, I really am [insert identity here].”
  • “Citations or GTFO.”

*You may! I said you may! That doesn’t mean you are. It’s a distinct possibility, however.