Sitting around the Thanksgiving table last week, a friend was telling of his experience moving from New York to Southern California. He said that he was shocked when in L.A. his Latino heritage became his defining identity when in New York it was being gay that defined him. I thought this was fascinating because I realized that what makes me different from my family and from the society and culture in which I grew up is only that I am gay. My otherness, in other words, comes from my sexual desire and not my race, ethnicity, class, or any other marker by which society classifies. It is the gay part of my white, male, middle-class existence that makes me stand out from my family and my society. This made me wonder whether this singular otherness made it more difficult for me to adjust, or whether those people who possess multiple points of otherness better understand the fluidity of identity, or if this was even the way to understand my relationship to the power structures that depend up sameness and otherness for their power.
When we meet people for the first time, most of us make instant judgments; it’s difficult for us not to since our society is predicated on the identity groups we each represent. Before actually speaking with me, people I meet see that I’m a white, middle-age man, who dresses in a slightly conservative fashion, who is bald, and of average build. With this basic information, most people make the assumption that I’m straight. I say this not because I think I’m particularly butch (I don’t think of myself in that way), but because almost inevitably the new encounter will ask me about my wife, especially if this new person is a man. Consequently, I have to tell this new person that I don’t have a wife but I do have a husband. This moment is almost always uncomfortable for me and for this new encounter. For me it feels like coming out of the closet over and over again. For the new encounter, it is uncomfortable because he has to spend some time readjusting his assumption about what he first saw in me.
From listening to my friend at Thanksgiving, he has a similar experience with his ethnicity. He doesn’t look Latino, whatever a Latino is suppose to look like. Or, as he says, he’s a light-skinned Latino and so can pass in the way that we understand passing from Zora Neale Hurston as being seen as white when one isn’t. My friend’s ethnicity is not transparent, nor is his sexuality. So that when he encounters someone new he has these two points of otherness that must be negotiated.
On the other hand, for people whose difference is readily apparent—for most women say—they have to contend with an entirely different set of assumptions that we apply to gender. And if that woman also happens to be a lesbian and non-white, then these multiple categories constitute, I think, multiple ways of interpreting who she is. What I don’t know is whether these multiple points of otherness make women or Latinos or underserved populations or anyone else who looks different better able to negotiate the different expectations that are placed on them, or whether these fluid identity markers make it harder to negotiate society, constantly having to worry about what identity you have to be in any given instance.
But maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Our sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender are only markers that society has identified as significant categories—ones protected by the law. But we are complex creatures who deploy different parts of our identity depending on the situation. At work, I’m a Dean and this very official title codes me with a certain set of expectations that relate to the way people relate to power. In this blog, I’m a writer who’s concerned with the question of gayness. When I’m around my family, I’m a son and brother who is heavily coded with the events of my past. To David, I’m a husband who, at times, drives him crazy but who also gives love and support. To our neighbors in the small town upstate where we own a house, we are urbanites (or citiots as some of them like to say). Each of us already possesses multiple points of otherness that we deploy in any given situation and which are encoded on us by society. We pass and we stand out. We hide and we make declarations.
It seems too much to ask that we be taken as the sum of our complexities, or at least that we be given the space to allow for a certain amount of fluidity in our identities. If it proves too difficult for us to see each other in the full accompaniment of our points of otherness, maybe we can at least acknowledge that no one is ever just what they appear to be. Those primary traits that have come to define us are only the starting point of far more interesting people who lie beneath our surfaces.