Irregular Identities

Identity is a big deal at the moment.

I guess nowadays almost everyone has a smart phone in their pocket and the constant ability to Insta-filter portraits and AI-scribe biographies to share with the whole wide world at any moment, it’s become more and more important to find shorthand ways of saying “This is who I am”.

Whilst categories and descriptors have their uses, as they form into identities they can become fixed, defining our sense of self and how we are seen as part of communities and cultures.  Identity becomes cultural construct as we pool individuals into groups of type.  Societies magnify these cultural constructs into systems, and in hierarchical social systems these underpin judgements, stereotypes, prejudices and systematic inequalities.

The possibilities for describing our identities is as limitless as we are all unique.  Humans are social animals, driven by our need for belonging, love and connection, and the internet and social media make it more possible than ever to find one another.  In our quest for connection, identity can quickly show you “people like me” in order to find your “tribe”, your community of like-minded folks with shared lived experiences and common needs.

If you feel like you don’t fit in, or you’re treated like you’re different – other than standard, not completely ‘normal’, ‘misfit’, ‘weirdo’, ‘outsider’ – you’re facing the fear of isolation.  What if you never find your community?  It can be lonely on the outside, and loneliness is a killer.  So connecting via shared identity can be life-saving – the blessed relief in finding a group where you are finally “one of us”. 

The difficulty with “us”, though, is it means there is a “them” – a group, defined and recognised by their opposition to us.  Opposition, magnified by social media, can quickly become polarisation.  Whichever side of any fence you sit, “they” become the threat, the cause of our hardship, the ones who are “wrong” in our echo-chamber of “right”.  

While ever we are in binary, polarised opposition we cannot find common ground – there will be a side that wins and one that loses, and a lot of casualties as the battle is fought.  I want this blog to be a call to myself, to you, and all of us, away from ‘one true way’ thinking.  I’d like this to be an invitation to explore, be curious and responsive, and to look for connection as we celebrate differences.

We may find ourselves defined by others into identities that are stigmatised and marginalised.  We may choose to adopt these identities or to refute them, stepping out of the box we’ve been categorised into and selecting the labels we use to define for ourselves exactly who we are.  Doing this can be a political act as much as a personal one, an act of resistance to injustice and inequality. This invitation is to keep our labels fluid, not fixed, finding new words and descriptors for different times and situations. 

The label I’ve picked as my day-to-day handle on social media, and somewhat in the wider world, is “irregular”.  Like several of the other labels I choose to wear with pride, “irregular” is a reclaiming of the ideas that have been used to hurt me. It’s turned tables on anyone who tried to insult me by saying I wasn’t normal – what even is “normal” anyway? As someone who is committed to challenging the injustices of the systems we live in, questioning the status quo, I would rather not be described as regular or “normal”.

I also choose the label “queer”, although many LGBTQIA+ folks of my age and older struggle to get past memories of painful or traumatic experiences associated with the word used for generations as a slur.  I love the way “queer” has been reclaimed, the counter-cultural, inclusive and liberational meaning that “queer” now holds, for me and many others.  I also like that identifying as “queer” provides me with a slightly ambiguous catchall for both my sexuality and my gender. 

The specific details of how I might otherwise describe these things vary a lot depending on who I’m talking with and what the conversation is about.  For example, I could use ‘bisexual’, ‘pansexual’, or ‘gay’ depending on my best guess as to what the person I’m in conversation with would understand. Similarly, I might say I’m ‘female’, ‘a woman’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘non-binary’, or some other term for my gender identity – depending on how I thought it would be interpreted in context.

My other labels are perhaps less loaded terms, and more general descriptors.  I am neurodivergent, diagnosed with ADHD and I have some autistic traits. Diagnosed late, at age 50, I have found comfort in connection with “neurokin” – those who share my experience of navigating a world not designed for people with atypical brains like ours. 

Context matters when it comes to working out whether I identify as ‘disabled.’ I have a LOT of privilege as a person who currently has no significant physical issues that impact on my access to the world, and ADHD isn’t visible like a wheelchair would be.  However, I do struggle to get my neurodivergent access needs met and invisibility creates its own access challenges.  If I say: ‘I don’t want to take scarce resources away from people who need them more me’, I’m making a judgement and upholding a hierarchy based on ableist assumptions.  I don’t feel good about that, because while I’m tip-toeing around ’Who’s most marginalised?’, I’m not doing anything to reach the people who either don’t know or don’t care about it enough to support access needs.

It’s the same with ‘trans’.  I am adjusting to a fairly new self awareness that my gender identity is not binary. I was assigned female at birth and have always felt comfortable in my female body, but as a ‘tomboy’ in my childhood and as a 6’1” tall adult, I have experienced a range of assumptions from others about my gender identity.  In general, though, I can move through the world and people’s assumptions about my gender don’t cause me to suffer.  It is affirming when I am called ‘they’ and ‘them’, as I feel released from the old constraints of trying to live up to the label ‘woman’ – but I am still exploring, and being described as ‘she’ doesn’t hurt me.  We are currently in the midst of moral panic about gender identity, and many trans gender people, especially trans women, are justifiably frightened just leaving the house.  Those who don’t have ‘passing privilege’, but have physical characteristics that identify them to the world as trans gender face systematic discrimination, limited access to healthcare, political scapegoating and media vitriol, and experience of day-to-day abuse. 

Identity is a big deal at the moment.  It’s life or death as I write this, mindful of what’s happening in Gaza.  In the context of war, genocide, poverty, mass extinction, it can seem trivial to be making any kind of fuss about personal identity, but perhaps it’s more important than ever.  31st March is International Trans Day of Visibility, and last week was Celebrating Neurodiversity Week. Both are campaigns for a group whose shared identity is used to exclude and mistreat them.  Both are campaigns to recognise those groups, to understand their lives and experiences, to welcome their differences as part of our shared humanity.  Both those groups are made up of complex individuals with unique human stories.  We have a choice – to pick a side, a hill to die on, a “wrong” and “right”, “us” and “them”… or to choose curiosity, compassion and connection and find our way to common ground.

Jenn Wilson – March 2024

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