AI: To Question or not to Question
Following on from Courtney’s excellent AI about self-identification and queer identity policing, I wanted to ask if it was ever possible for a situation to warrant someone’s identity to be called into question.
This (quite rightly) unseemly idea popped into my head during some student elections that recently took place on my campus. It happened when nominations for certain equity positions were being called for, including ones representing women-identifying, queer and disabled students respectively, with the idea that only students identifying accordingly could vote for their representatives. As I looked at the people filing into the space for the women’s representative elections, I noticed that those present pretty much all straightforwardly read as female. I wondered what would happen if, say, a pre-op trans woman were to have come along to have her say. Would they be met with suspicious glances, their right to take part in the electoral process questioned? I would obviously hope not. I then started thinking about our other equity positions, a space full of queer and/or disabled students voting for their representatives would look a lot more diverse and be impossible/wrong to subject to an identity shakedown. However, no student political body is devoid of controversy and power-hungry students and ours wasn’t any different, so it was important that the people running and voting for these positions have the best of intentions and can best represent their electorates. So I wondered –
Is there ever an instance wherein it would be acceptable to question someone about their identity? Does it become more important if/when they will be acting on behalf of you, or as a representative? As always, please be respectful and classy, guys.
The Afternoon Inqueery (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Queereka community. Look for it to appear on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, at 3pm ET.
Great question. I’m not sure I have a good answer other than “it depends.” I would not question people’s identities based on appearances or stereotypes. I definitely wouldn’t jump to conclusions about people’s identities. But if I saw disconnections over a longer period of time, I might speak up. For example, if someone identified as a gay man and he always bragged about the women he was having sex with and made homophobic or heterosexist comments, I would probably question why he was identifying as a gay man.
I dunno, it may be tempting to have a blanket rule against questioning identity, but it’s easy to think of pathological examples (that nonetheless happen in real life) where it’s legitimate. I question the identity of pastafarians; I’m pretty sure they’re not serious. I question the identity of someone who said on a survey they were only attracted to a spirit. I question the identity of that Japanese person who claimed to be asexual because ze wanted to cook and eat hir genitals (or at least, “asexual” is the wrong translation). I question the identity of a friend who identified as bisexual because she could theoretically be attracted to women in the future, but never has been before. I question the identity of little kids that are taken over a GLB fad in middle school, not knowing any better. I question the identities of people who are not cisgender, just “normal”. Etc. etc.
I think that questioning identities is an entirely rational attitude, just like it’s rational to believe in homeopathy when you’re unaware of the (lack of) science behind it. I think it just needs to be approached carefully, since chances are you haven’t thought about it as long as the people who are actually in that identity category.
I agree that it can be totally rational to believe in homeopathy, because of the computer science adage: “Garbage in, garbage out.” Reason is only as reliable as the premises you start with.
I don’t know about the example of middle-schoolers you gave. Maybe I’m more sensitive to this than most given how many people rail against young people identifying as trans or genderqueer, saying we’re “just following a fad”, but why should we question someone’s identity based on their age? I mean, on a fundamental level, *what’s it to you* if a young person identifies as gay, bi, etc, when they’re 8, 11, 14 years old? Are you concerned they’ll later change their mind? If so, why? Shouldn’t we be seeing young people coming out at earlier ages (granted, of course, that they don’t encounter serious difficulties because of it) as a sign of progress?
I’m talking about when 50% of the girls in a school all come out as bi or something like that. Then they all shortly go back, with a few exceptions who end up telling this story to their queer friends years later. If unreliable anecdotes and secondhand hearsay are anything to go by, apparently this is a real thing that happens? Or it’s BS?
um, ok, that sounds kind of speculative/anecdotal to me. but i would ask, again, so what?
So what nothing. I was questioning identities, not expressing concern about potential harm from those identities. It seems pretty harmless to me. It’s just that given the numbers, given the inexperience of the people, given the quick retractions of many of the same people, sure seems like some of those identities were inaccurate (or the story is inaccurate).
I completely disagree with your parallel to homeopathy as well. When someone comes out as an lgbtq etc identity, they are primarily making a claim about their subjective sense of self and/or patterns of attraction, and only in a very indirect way making any truth claims about the state of the universe. The same cannot be said for proponents of alt-med!
oh, sorry, i realize i didn’t read your post very carefully. i thought you were saying that questioning people’s identities is as rational an attitude as questioning homeopathy. apologies.
having said that, i will note that Natalie Reed has a very pertinent essay up today:
i’d be really curious to hear everyone’s opinion about it.
Personally, I think this is one of those things that all comes out in the wash. Even if it is a case where they person says they identify a particular way and then runs for an elected position if it turns out that they only did it to get elected in the first place, it will eventually out. That person will rightly be marked as a total douchebag and it will then continue to be the case that it was one person acting irresponsibly and they should be punished for it, everyone else who obeyed the rules shouldn’t then have to answer invasive questions for what most people would treat as obvious.
People talk about cases where men would apparently dress as women and then pretend to be trans* to get into women’s toilets, but in all my time reading that sort of argument, I don’t think I’ve read about a case where it has actually happened. Creepers wind up in women’s toilets all the time, but as far as I can tell they don’t falsely identify as trans women to do so.
Also, identities can change, if someone says they identify as something in particular at a certain point in time why would asking them again, or asking them to prove it, change anything? How can we even set up a standard of proof? Like discussing whether you could ever come up with a good proof that a religion is correct, we’re never going to reach a consensus as to what is a good enough proof so the question then seems rather hollow.