Category Archives: Identity

Discussions of things related to identity formation, representation, and portrayal.

The Dead and Missing in the Trans Community

Content Notice: This article discusses murders and suicides of nonbinary, transgender, and gender nonconforming people.

Today, November 20th 2015, is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s one of those days I wish didn’t need, you know, its own day.

The Transgender Day of Remembrance memorializes those who have been murdered as a result of hatred or prejudice against transgender and gender nonconforming people. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring TDoR 2015 Update, there have been 271 trans people murdered this year. That’s an average of approximately one trans person every twenty-eight hours.

That information alone should be horrifying to anyone who reads it, but I also wish to talk about something I have mentioned on Twitter many times: nonbinary and transgender people who have died by suicide or gone missing.

The rate of death and people seeming to all but disappear among us is, frankly, horrifying. planettransgender.com collected a list of 27 trans people who died by suicide this year, and I know of ten not on that list. There are also those who simply disappear — either they die and nobody hears of it, or they intentionally hide themselves in an attempt to regain safety. I was unable to find any proper statistics on this sort of thing, but this year alone, 22 nonbinary and trans people I regularly interacted with have disappeared for at least the past two months. Many I only knew online either simply stopped using their public accounts or removed them entirely. One I knew in-person did the same, and has not been seen anywhere in months. A few told me they were planning to disappear, but explicitly refused to tell anybody where they were going or how to contact them.

And I cannot blame any of them. At all.

In a world where our very existence is vilified, and who we are is treated as justification to hate and abuse us, I can’t blame them. In a world where the day before Trans Day of Remembrance, reports came out of a trans woman found dead in a men’s prison, and that kind of thing has happened before, I can’t blame them. I only find myself able to blame those who vilify us, those who use who we are as justification to abuse us, and those who stay quiet while watching this happen.

When the only ones who reliably stay beside us are others who are similarly targeted, it is unsurprising that our progress moves slowly and is paid for with the lives and safety of those who are most vulnerable. Often, this is trans women of color.

Spend today quietly and attentively listening to the nonbinary, transgender, and gender nonconforming people around you. If you can, attend a vigil for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. And, on this incredibly sad day, let’s remember not only those who had their lives taken from them, but also all of the people who are missing. There are so, so many people who should still be with us, but are now gone. Every one of them, and every one of us still around, is loved and important.
There is a list of vigils for the Transgender Day of Remembrance available on tdor.info. Note that some of them occur the weekend after the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Coming Out

A month or so ago I wrote an article about how I found my identity through roleplaying, something extremely personal, and something I thought I should share with the world. It was a story about how I came to know myself and learn to express myself to others; how I came out.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase lately, “coming out”. In a sense of the word coming out is learning about your identity, coming to terms with the reality of who you are, and accepting that. However, there is also the more ritualistic aspect of coming out: presenting that identity to others. Both the dealing with the roiling emotions and telling others how you feel require a lot of emotional fortitude. They are both taxing, both will affect you as a person, and both are seen as this solitary moment; an important event to be celebrated.

The common societal understanding of coming out is that it’s a “one and done” kind of event. We are told “It gets better,” we’re told “It’s something we have to do,” we’re told, “Once it’s over, it’s over.” The thing I’ve started to realize is that it’s never over. Not once have I stopped having to tackle my understanding my own identity, not once have I had to stop telling people who I am.

I suppose this may be different if I didn’t embody an identity with such fluidity, or if I had an identity that was slightly more accepted in society. I’m a curiosity and thus being trans, cis people are often confused about my identity and in their curiosity ask a tonne of questions I am made to answer for. Coming out to someone may last several conversations as they inquire into specific questions, cis curiosities, and discussions about surgery. Every new person I meet, every old person I reintroduce myself to, places the role of teacher on me as they learn about what it means to me to be trans.

Because of this, I can no longer see coming out as a solitary event, something I did when I was 25, I see it as something that I need to do daily.

Social Monotony

There are so many anxiety inducing aspects to introducing yourself as trans and coming out to individual. First off, it’s terrifying to worry about whether or not someone may reject you because of your identity. If you’re at the point where you’ve known someone long enough and you care deeply enough about them that rejection would deeply scar you, imagine doing that with a still very divisive identity in a still very transphobic society with laws that still allow a trans-panic defence. Depending on the context this becomes a very dangerous game of Russian roulette, where there’s a good likelihood that people will accept you and love you just as you are, but there’s still a loaded chamber, and a possibility that you will get hurt, emotionally or physically.

Once you get past whether or not you’re rejected outright, people will have a great number of curiosities about you. Since trans identity is thought of by cis people to embody more of a physical identity, a lot of the questions may revolve around surgery, appearance, clothing, styling, and the like. Even people who understand how awkward their line of question is, may still have their curiosities about how you see yourself and what aspects of your body you would like to see changed in comparison to other trans people.

This line of questioning, while offensive, is the basic line of questioning most cis people take. I used to get incredibly pissed off or discouraged when these questions came up, but if the person asking has known me for a long time and there’s a great level of intimacy between us, I concede and often, I answer. As much as it sometimes pains me to get so personal, refusing to answer would put me in another compromising social position. It may alienate individuals who genuinely believe they care about me enough that they’re showing interest in me, and having to console them or explain why that questioning is out of line, requires more effort than simply answering extremely personal questions about my body. It may be boring to repeat the same damn questions over and over again, but it certainly saves effort and saves my mental health.

The amount of effort it takes to explain certain things is absolutely crucial to me now. Having suffered through several weddings, showers, and social events this summer, I’ve learned that it’s far easier to give the same canned answers and it allows me to slightly disassociate as the conversation is happening. This is very important because, after days like the ones I’ve suffered, I tend to break down directly afterwards. It’s stressful, I’m constantly on edge, and it takes its toll on my mental health. Even on the good days, like my cousin’s wedding, I still broke down afterwards. I love my cousin, I love his wife, they’re two of the most supportive and chill people I know. But it’s still a situation I was surrounded by cisnormativity and heteronormativity and after several hours that will take it’s toll on me.

Lastly, a great deal of the anxiety of being out, or introducing yourself to people while trans, is greatly effected by how well you pass. I’m awkwardly trans, I do not pass worth a damn, and that means that rather than being able to address the subject of my identity or even ignoring it entirely, I will be forced to face questions. When you pass, there’s a likelihood that nobody will notice your trans so it won’t be brought up. When you pass, they’ll treat you just as if you were cis and move on. No awkward questions, no fear of violence, no having to explain your identity. Whether or not this reduces your anxiety is a personal thing, however, for me it would totally reduce my anxiety, and make me feel like I could blend better. In that way, passing privilege totally has an effect on both your experience of coming out to someone and being out in social situations.

Internal Turmoil

Let’s set aside the social aspects of coming out, and focus on what most believe to be the core of coming out, discovering yourself and understanding your identity. My coming out journey was briefly discussed in my previous article so it may not surprise some of you to say that I’ve never been 100% sure of exactly where my identity lies. I’ve always been more into experimenting with the boundaries of my identity and although I know I’m in the right neighbourhood when I say I’m a trans woman, I could never come up with a concrete definition of what that means to me.

To be more specific, I can never settle on what my ideal body would be and where I would stop in terms of surgical progression. When my dysphoria and depression is at it’s highest, I desperately wish I were a cis woman. I wish I had that exact body, I wish I could figuratively buy a new body and throw my old one into a combine. The red slew of skin and bone would probably be the ultimate catharsis. When I’m at my most confident and least dysphoric, I’m absolutely fine with my girlcock, with my cute, perky, HRT breasts. If it wasn’t entirely apparent up to this point, I’m writing from a place of depression.

As a trans woman, I believe my identity is as much physical as it is mental, because the construction of femininity in our society is often thought of in terms of physical and emotional traits. Although I would love that to change, since it stems from sexist and misogynist bullshit, it is still the framework that was hammered into my head and thus it’s how I imagine my own identity.

The problem with attempting to pinpoint an identity for me, and the reason I could never say coming out was a thing that *happened*, is that emotional factors and experience affect my identity a great deal, although at a much slower rate. Because it’s so slow, I would never ascribe the identity gender-fluid to myself, nor do I feel like genderqueer or non-binary would be appropriate terms. Who I am and what I aspire to be changes, but not drastically, and if I wake up feeling different it’s because I feel more reserved, or more flamboyant, or more flirty. These differences are enough to be felt, and enough to say that there is no concrete notion of my identity. In six months or a year, I bet my experience will lead me to new concepts, new understandings of my identity, and thus I feel like coming out is an ongoing process.

Conclusion

I’ve been in a constant state of coming out for the past few years and, frankly, there’s no end in sight. So long as I am learning new things about my own identity, about my place in the world, and meeting new people, the cycle will never end. I may get better at it, it may affect me less as time goes on, but as it stands, coming out is a very anxiety inducing process for me. As with the last article, I’d like to reiterate that your personal experience and opinions will vary from mine, and you may wish to focus on the more liberating elements of coming out versus the parts that figuratively constitute a chore. You will never feel the same as me, but you may be in the same neighbourhood, on the same general process of thought. For you, and for me, I hope in the future we’ll be looking back on this as simply an awkward time in our lives and not yet another anxiety we have to face daily.

Anonymity, Pseudonymity, and Identity

I spent many years in academia and schooling, maybe a few too many. Over the course of my education, I had far too much time to over-think sociological and philosophical topics. Because of this I wrote several essays trying to solve nearly impossible problems. In my head, problems relating to mundane social interaction, international relations, and social power dynamics, were all easily solved in under 10 pages. I thought every problem had an easy solution that millions of people, most more experienced than me, were simply ignorant to.

In one of my undergrad essays, for a course on Political Cosmopolitanism, my thesis claimed that anonymous communication was a relevant force in the internet age for removing one’s identity and equalizing the power gap between all participants of a conversation. The essay used examples from Reddit and 4chan, and discussed how anonymity reduced every social actor in a conversation down to one “meaningless” mass of non-identity. A user could be talking to anyone, and they needed to adjust the way they communicated accordingly. This was a superficial argument, it did nothing to address social power, privilege, and identity politics. I lacked the necessary research and experience to know why I was wrong, and my naivety still haunts me.

As an effort to redeem myself, I would like to use this week’s article to argue with my stance from 3 years ago, and once again explore the concepts of anonymity, pseudonymity, and identity.

“The Great Equalizer”

When discussing anonymity, I am referring to sections of the internet where “real names” are avoided, whether it be a choice to allow users to post without an identity or a choice of their own screen name. For a long time, these two were the de-facto naming policies of websites.

Both anonymity and pseudonymity allow a user to define themselves by their words and their actions rather than by their perceived identity. The assumption is that without clear attachment to a physical body and a name, an individual will be more free to speak their mind since an unpopular opinion carries no social consequences.

With anonymity, there is no permanence to an individual, hence a user could be talking to anyone. Users will adjust their attitude and speech accordingly, and because nobody knows the identity of other users it is difficult to be prejudiced another individual based on their gender, sexual orientation, race, national identity, etc. In theory, that is how it is supposed to work.

With pseudonymity, individuals can be identified and given prominence but they are not identified by their actual body. They could simply create a mask to hide themselves in plain view. It is not necessarily a perfect system but it is seen as a happy compromise between strict naming policies and anonymity.

It is a great equalizer because no “real identity” is known. Online representation can never be concrete, because every user knows that others can chose their personas freely – and simply reset their presence as needed. Words are ultimately what defines an individual – whether it be for a moment via anonymity or, with pseudonymity, a presence that emerges more than once. These systems provide a theoretical meritocracy and utopia for those who believe in this system – a libertarian sandbox where everyone is supposedly as equal as anyone else.

“The Unintentional Oppressor”

In my youth, I thought these were positive qualities. If you were a marginalized individual, or did not hold a mainstream opinion, you could speak your mind freely with little fear that someone will find and use those words against your “real identity.” I was not wrong in thinking that these these systems has positive attributes, but I erred when seeing the notion of “free speech” as a positive in and of itself. At its best, free speech is an inconsequential concept, while at its worst a dangerous one. The most obvious problem is that anonymous users have a penchant for abusing their anonymity. Whether found through stalking, death threats, trolling, and hate speech, if someone’s “real identity” is found out, anonymous users will show no remorse. If someone is not part of the homogeneous white mass, if they do not look like the others users, they will be told how “wrong” they are, repeatedly, and in a handful of violent ways. Having a system where everyone can “speak their mind” never becomes inclusive, and is nothing but a reinforcement of the status quo where those willing to abuse those privileges will be given the power to do so with the tacit approval of the majority.

Despite the claim that nobody has a “real identity,” most users assume that any other user falls into a status quo. The common belief is that every others user automatically falls into the demographic that holds the most power: cis, white, heterosexual, and male. This presumption must persist for the system to work, because any identity that exists outside of it changes the dynamics of conversation. When it is assumed that everyone shares an equivalent identity, it is more easy to believe that the power dynamics present in society have been erased. This is not egalitarianism, because it assumes everyone belongs to the same privileged group. No other types of people exist until they make themselves known. For example: there are no girls on the internet until there is a girl on the internet.

Therein lies the ultimate problem: these systems would only ever work if the users actually respected the ideals that came with anonymity and pseudonymity. When an individual exposes their real identity, especially one that does not fit within the status quo, users often try to violate that individual’s privacy. One needs to look no further than victims of the online hate campaign, GamerGate. If one user suspects another of being a girl, they might hound them relentlessly and try to force them to confirm that they are not part of the status quo. The user in question may be demanded for pictures proving that they are a girl, subject to random skype calls, or messaged direct sexual harassment. The phrase “tits or GTFO” is not limited to 4chan – it is the common internet experience on women everywhere. Anonymous users often feel entitled to proof without giving any context or concrete reason for why they cannot believe another human being at face value. (p.12) It is either “prove you are who you say you are,” or be seen as a liar. For one to confirm they hold the identity they say they do, they need to sacrifice their anonymity and pseudonymity – which makes them even more vulnerable to harassment.

When one is exposed as not being a cisgender heterosexual white male, they become an easier target for online attacks; which are a frightening prospect. Since the system is based on the premise that every user belongs to the same demographic, they often defend the abusers, deny the abuse, and then blame the victim when they are exposed. Abusers try to argue that individuals who are not anonymous are public figures, while being protected by their peers fighting for an irrelevant ideal. Anything goes, and nobody is responsible.

Towards a workable future.

While these systems are incredibly far from perfect, they are not without redemption. It will require effort on the part of developers and moderators to make better. For example, a system could track users on the back-end while allowing anonymity and pseudonymity to remain as a staple of user to user interaction. Much of the problem with current moderation policy is the misguided belief that these anonymous social interactions are self-regulating. This claim has been proven false, time and time again, and one needs to look no further than 4chan and Reddit to recognize it. Whether or not the users like it, moderation needs to be active, hate speech rules need to be enforced, and criminal activity and threats need to be taken seriously. If moderators kept at it, they could create safer and more inviting message boards.

There will be a backlash at first, but the era of the “community driven and abused” internet needs to end before message board administration commit to more drastic to more draconian policies that are even more harmful to marginalized individuals. I know users will scream out “1984! Big Brother!,” but if 4chan and Reddit continue to gain a harmful reputation as safe-havens for terrorists, racists, and misogynists, more extreme options such as “real name” policies will continue to gain clout. Communities have proven unable to govern themselves, so moderators need to step up and enforce those communities – or slowly watch the notion of anonymity disappear entirely in favour of “real name” policies.

Roleplay as an Identity Formation Sandbox

To kick off the creation of our new section, I wanted to write something a bit more personal than we’re used to publishing on Inatri. Something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time, and something I find absolutely fascinating, is the notion of identity formation. A lot of you know my identity or aspects of it: I’m a feminist, I’m a transgender woman, I’m a fan of Gundam, prior to Gamergate I would’ve called myself a gamer, but very few of you know how I reached those conclusions and which ones I tout as being more central to my identity than others.

Your identity, as it appears to others, is very superficial. It’s an identifiable way to categorize others and form an opinion on them based on tidbits of information you know about this person. We share an identity, therefore, I can relate to this person and discuss this aspect of my identity.

However, to all individuals, identity tells a story about you, you who are as a person, and how you developed. In high-school, my favourite band in the world was Cursive. You may pass this off as emotional indie-rock trash, you may hate Tim Kasher, but in 2003 every Cursive song held this incredible significance to me that I cannot explain, and that all started when an old friend of mine lent me The Ugly Organ.

It should be said that I don’t hold this identity as very important anymore, it’s an illustration of how seemingly insignificant parts of someone’s identity can be exaggerated and given incredible importance by an individual. It’s just some band out of Omaha NE., yet 16 year old me thought their music was amazing. Perhaps it was because 16 year old me was trying to figure herself out, where her place was in the world and what “Elizabeth” stood for as an individual.

At the time, she wasn’t “Elizabeth” but she would arrive to that conclusion. Working through different identities and struggling to choose which ones fit her and which ones did not was part of her 16 year old experience, but it was a process that largely took place in the public sphere and that’s the problem. While most kids at her high-school were socially liberal and are absolutely supportive of her now, she was still 16 and it was still a Catholic high-school.

To arrive at Elizabeth she needed a process of identity formation that was away from the public eye. Some place she could play with more taboo identities and figure out what those identities meant to her. 16 year old Elizabeth needed roleplaying.

Learning to Break Norms

I’m certain you’re all aware of role play in some capacity, whether it be hardcore pen and paper roleplaying, adult role play, or you remember playing make-believe as a kid, it is an element of our learning and socialization as human beings. It is an important enough element to play an intrinsic party of many sociological and psychological theories of development, most notably George Herbert Mead. Mead theorized that children first learn about the world around them through the lens of play. As a child grows they begin to understand not only what actions are befitting of the character they represent in the role play, but what social expectations are placed on them in society. Mead calls this “the generalized other.”

If a child plays house and they embody a role, they begin to form an opinion on what is expected of that role and what society expects of that role. Young Elizabeth playing house learns what it means to be a mother in her society. Her interactions with others telegraph to her what society expects of other roles as well. This is all well and good, but the problem with the generalized other, and the problem with limiting role play to younger ages, is that our perceptions of roles are so strictly dictated by expectations of society, it just goes to enforce norms.

Maybe in a few years time a child could play house and have a more fluid concept of what each role should be, but currently you’d find very few children playing house that have a transgender or non-binary character, have a house with a gay relationship, have a game where work is not divided into domestic and public. Roleplaying at a younger age helps you develop certain faculties, but your development continues well beyond your childhood and your identity continues to form much later. Childhood roleplaying does not help you learn that social norms are there to be broken!

As much as I’d love to call up some of my friends to come play house with me, that is a wildly unrealistic expectation, especially to ask of people who have much more concrete identities than I do. People who would have very little sympathy or understanding of the request. So where did I turn? Video and pen and paper games.

Roleplaying in games helped me realize that I was transgender, helped me come to an understanding of what kind of woman I would be, and gave me a lot of practice interacting with others as Elizabeth. A lot of therapists and doctors place too much emphasis on trans individuals crossdressing or wearing make-up, and while those experiences are extremely important for some trans people, I reached an understand of my trans-ness in a different ways. For me I needed that social interaction, I needed to be treated as a woman before it clicked. My crossdressing never left my bedroom, but when I began experiencing things from a woman’s perspective, I knew that’s who I was.

Identity and Azeroth

What really helped cement my identity was roleplaying in World of Warcraft. I had role played before, hell I was even involved in a shapeshifting forum role play, but I never took full advantage of it. When I started playing WoW in summer 2008, I began rolling up characters of different genders and races. Why? I can’t really remember, but I’m glad I did. It was my Blood Elf paladin woman that really started to change my perception of self because playing as her meant that others would treat me differently; Elizabeth figured out then that it made me nothing but happy to be treated like her. I took the good with the bad and tried not to break role, even when it got exceptionally creepy.

I’ll admit that I was lucky when I moved to the Wyrmrest Accord server. I happened to find a group of friends who were very accepting, and also very good role-players. They knew there was a hard divide between character and individual, but also that one would not exist without the other. Our role play experience became a sandbox where we’d pit aspects of our personalities against each other. Because of this I did get to toy with gender and sexuality in a basically safe environment; I got to play around with aspects of my personality and see which one I most enjoyed being, warts and all.

This self experimentation reached it’s peak when I rolled Nayumi. She was basically a slightly chaotic version of Elizabeth: a soft, emotional, drunk, who tries to have fun and amuse herself so she can hopefully clear her mind of all the negative thoughts she has. She was also trans because at the time I was in my first steps towards transition and I wanted to know how the characters who cared about her, and the people who cared about me, would react to that information and how it might affect individual interaction.

Breaking Character and Breaking Up

The fall of 2012 was an odd point in my life. In October I had started talking to someone on OkCupid who would have a large emotional impact on my life. On-line there was guild drama that culminated into a full split, and the Guild Master quitting WoW and moving to Guild Wars 2. I was in my 4th year of Political Science and extremely stressed out by my schooling and the prospect of moving on to grad school. Lastly, I decided that now was the time I would start my transition; I would start subtly playing with gender, I would break what was my former identity, and once I was graduated, I’d start seeking hormones and the necessary therapy component.

Elizabeth was now my primary identity, but some loose ends had to be tied up. The relationship I was in, however brief, pretty much destroyed me. That’s not entirely her fault, nor is it entirely mine, we just had different ideas of each other in our heads, and the split was not amicable. This coupled with the stress of constantly writing essays and theses, pushed me towards Guild Wars 2 as a much needed escape from the troubles of my physical life. I joined my old friends on Tarnished Coast, which was the unofficial roleplaying server and I’d continued playing around with my identity. This time though, it would not be limited to character role play, but rather my entire existence on that server would be my sandbox and I would play as an out trans woman.

To say I’m lucky does not accurately describe how well that experience went. The more cynical, older me, would have avoided this like the plague. In fact, I do not out myself at all anymore. Maybe because this was a pre-gamergate world and trans women were not seen as “enemies”, but being out as trans on the server got me many friends, most of whom play around with gender themselves, whether they identify as trans or cis, a lot of them opened up to me about how they play with gender, how they perceive gender. In the odd case that a bigot would start hurling abuse at me, many of the players would defend me.

This experience prompted me to come out to my friends finally and begin presenting more feminine in the physical world. I knew that people would support me, even if the majority of people would hate me, fear me, or act awkward around me. I knew I could overcome the shitiness of humanity, because I played this scenario out in games.

Conclusion

While my experience was fairly ideal, role play had allowed me to explore alternative identities to the ones I had been socialized into, and helped me clarify my own identity. As a sufferer of social anxiety, role play created a space where identity could be fluid and tweaked with that was not openly public. The lack of persistence coupled with the pseudonymous nature of online games meant that I wouldn’t have to be worried about my experimentation following me and casting a shadow over any future experimentation or any social interactions I may have offline. Because of this it became the ideal place to come out as trans and gauge reactions before attempting to do so in situations that may have an immediate and drastic effect on my personal wellbeing.

I would recommend young individuals try role playing different identities before decided on a concrete identity, but with a caveat. The way I came to understand my identity requires a lot of privilege. I was given carte blanche to play around with my identity as a long process mostly because I’m a white, secular, middle class, university educated Canadian, who only really associates with the same. I’ve since come out to everyone important in my life and not one hasn’t, at least, feigned support for me. This is privilege. While my experience has actually been really amazing, unless you’re coming out to my exact friends and family, I fear that your experience may be wildly different.