Friday, August 10, 2012

Symbols of Identity

 -by Gilligan

Rainbows. Pink. Blue. Circles and sticks with arrows or crossbars. Triangles. Equal signs. Sporks. Green Carnations. 
For centuries, queer/lgbt etc. people have tried to signal safe spaces, identify themselves, and seek out others like them to find understanding, security, love, and support.  The specific symbols have changed from time to time, and so have the parameters of the meetings and discussions that have occurred. 

What hasn’t really changed, however, is our desire as a community to come together to better understand and claim our own place in a world in which we are often invisible, or told to be so.  These symbols thus play an important role in the ways in which we redefine our own identities and set up the discussions and actions we want to have and take.

Not only do they enable us to identify ourselves within our community and to outsiders, but they can establish distinctions between movements within our community.  However, their ability to do so effectively has often been skewed by levels of resources and information available to those both inside and outside of it.  To those not able to be very well connected to queer resources and information, some signs may be unknown, while others may signify a safe person or space (even if others looking for the same thing might shy away from that symbol entirely).  The same diversity in levels of awareness, accessibility, and community involvement that gives those with access to them options, is that which can also lead to identity competitions and isolation (ie. the famed “I’m queerer than you” competition) and miscommunication.

When attending the Philadelphia Trans* Health Conference a month and a half ago, I reached for an unused water bottle that my mother had bought me a few months before.  At that point, I had heard whisperings of the more negative sides of HRC (Human Rights Campaign). But, to me, it had been one of the few established resources I had been able to find, and which I had seen advocating on a broad scale for some of my interests.  I had even printed out a copy of their “transgender guide to coming out” a couple years before, as one of the few pieces of literature I had seen on the subject. Soon after visiting the store on a trip to DC, I learned more about the downsides of the organization and the actual targets of their activism, along with the gaping holes in their policy and practice.  

At that point, I was torn. I thought to myself, should I use that bottle at college, to identify myself as a possible safer resource to other students, in a somewhat subtle way? Or would some students get the wrong idea and shy away from me? I faced a similar choice before PTHC.  Should I take it?  Should I just leave it, because HRC really has done very little to help the trans* community? Should I take it and tape a black “T” over it to signify myself as a resource and acknowledge to combine these three into one the greater work that should be done for the trans* community?  

I chose the latter option.  

But in making that choice, I realized that, just like using labels for our identities, the use of symbols can be useful and make us feel proud and strong, while pointing to differences in perspective.  What one word or symbol means to someone will differ from what it means to someone else.  And the people with whom we’ll be interacting, how we feel, and how we want to be perceived all have to fit together in a tiny space inside that triple ven diagram.  In a world filled with school, work, friends, family, partners, prospective partners, and alone time, that small space becomes a rapidly shifting target.

I don’t really have an answer for the best way to choose.  While I personally like to use certain symbols to identify myself as a potential resource and friend, using those in stealth job situations, or when working with kids (as I’m doing both currently), could out me or jeopardize my job. Do I risk it? Do I use them anyway and prepare for a possible confrontation with my supervisors? Or do I decline, and find ways to let people know I’m open-minded and willing to help, without using queer-specific symbols? There can’t be a right answer – just as with choosing labels and an identity, if one even wants to do so, each person has to find what’s right for them, and do their best to understand, learn about, and respect what others choose to use and why. 

I’d encourage you to really reflect on those choices, though.  What do those labels and symbols say about you now? Five years ago? What might they say ten years from now? What conflicts, fears, exciting moments, and struggles did those choices mark for you?  And, in doing so, those symbols and words become all the more meaningful and powerful.  Which, in the end, is the point.