I think that there is this prevalent idea that identity is a singular trait innate to each person; e.g. that at the core of myself there is such an identity as “Mislav”, that there is only one like me, and that every other interpretation of me is misguided, or that any other presentation of myself is inauthentic.
I have a different view: I feel like each of us holds many identities which map to the roles that we play as we find our place in the social fabric. I have had such identities as a man, as a son, as a brother, as a coworker, a friend, a boyfriend, a pupil and a mentor; each of them with his own characteristics and flaws, each of them subject to and subtly shaped by other people’s expectations. But at the core, at the center of them all where you would expect to find the one “true” Mislav, what do we see? I would argue that no one ever journeys far enough to find out, since we usually become so attached to someone’s specific identity that we forget to explore much further than that.
Identities are not something that we have; they are shortcuts for others to latch on and utilize as points of connection. As with any shortcut, tradeoffs are involved.
I have had different people attach to and subsequently become disappointed by my identities as a man, as a son, or as a lover. I think this happens because they all cared for an idea or a story in their head, possibly a story that they’ve heard somewhere else, and at first it seemed that I would participate in making that story come true, but I was either lazy or noncompliant or both. I have betrayed their dream; a dream in which I was always strong and secure, in which I was academically educated and “successful,” in which I always knew how to make the other person feel special.
Here’s the thing: if we understand identities as roles we play and not something that we are, we begin to harness power to reshape or even escape them.
The gender identity is one of the ones that is early on assigned to us and the one that is still inexplicably polarizing in public discourse. Most points of contention come down to a single question: whether a person gets to own their gender identity, or is someone’s gender something that is imposed upon them by forces out of one’s control.
The complex aspect of identity is that it needs validation to thrive. It’s very lonely to be seemingly the only person who believes in your identity when nobody else does—that’s why we advertise our identities and have others participate in validating them. Unfortunately, when withheld, validation is also a venue by which we can hurt others.
When it comes to me, “male” did not define me for a long time already. Apart from undeniable privilege that comes with being perceived as a male in male-dominated industries, men and “masculinity” hurt me more than they ever provided value for me. Nowadays, I’m still sticking with “him/his” pronouns purely for convenience, but I don’t identify as a man, nor as a woman, nor anything in particular. Call me a “she” or a unicorn or a robot or a plant if you will; I do not care as long as you do so lovingly. However, for others, the least you can do for someone is validate their gender identity since it costs you nothing and could literally save their life.