My girlfriend and I were on the way to a networking event: medical professionals, drinks, and our attempt to garner support for a recent policy proposal.
We started talking about identity. I asked her how she preferred to identify. We were a relatively new couple and probably the first time that she was really coming to realize that she might actually be attracted to women (something I often forgot as she handled it with such grace). I guess at the time that I posed the question, I didn't think that it would matter to me how she answered. Really, I was just curious about her thoughts. It was my way of trying to figure out how she was feeling about it.
Through the course of our conversation, I shared how I believed my sexual orientation to be either bisexual or gay, but that I chose to identify as queer for political reasons. I worried about enforcing a binary gender normative so I was reluctant to identify as bi. On the other hand, gay seemed so constricting. Even more importantly, I felt like queer was more inclusive. More and more I've come to see the value and wisdom in coalition forming. The LGBTTIQA alphabet soup had to stick together. Who else could we count on for support? One letter is just too lonely.
She said that she could see the wisdom in that. At the same time, it didn't seem to fit for her personally. Certainly, she recognized that transgendered folks deserved a voice. She just didn't really feel like she had much in common with someone who was transgendered. How could she truthfully claim that identity and unity if she didn't feel like they had any shared experiences?
At another point she talked about perhaps not choosing an identity at all. Why should anyone have to chose a label?
I immediately became agitated. I tried not to get personal and even told myself I wasn't mad at her. I was mad at the way things were. The system. Our circumstances. I reminded myself that identity is personal. If she didn't feel like she had anything in common with a transgendered person, I couldn't tell her that was wrong and that she ought to. I reminded myself that in an ideal world, not choosing an identity should be free of negative implications.
I argued with her about the convenience of allowing oneself to pass. I said, "I'm not saying you're doing this, but sometimes I feel like some people chose to not pick a label because then they don't ever have to confront the issue. They can just pass. And if people who can pass just keep on passing, we'll never be able to normalize this identity!" We both played along and pretended that I wasn't attacking her personally.
From there it was this cascade of incompletely understood feelings compounded by misunderstood responses. It was like when you turn down a ski slope that's just a bit beyond your skill. You start off faster than you expect, but it's ok. Around one third of the way down you're still surviving but you're only processing flashes of visual input. All your responses are based on instinct. Then it all finally catches up with you, some how you fall, and the next thing you know, you've tumbled to the bottom without any idea of how it all happened.
The next thing I remember clearly: hours after the car ride, sitting in my apartment with the lights out. Still struggling, but now it wasn't just about identity anymore. Race. Class. And it was no longer clear what the topic of discussion was. The "ideal" conflict resolution model of 1) identify the issue 2) outline feelings 3) discuss and clarify needs 4) resolution seemed impossible to apply. I don't think I could have even explained what I was feeling and why I was upset. She said I was attacking her friends without knowing them just because they were white and not necessarily the most radical people. She accused me of taking my anger about the system out on her. I knew that this was an unfair to projection, so I struggled to admit that she was right to both her and myself.
In my mind, I try to list all of the missteps and assumptions and miscommunications and vulnerabilities and anger and baggage (from individuals and the world) that came up during that conversation. It's overwhelming. And there was this moment, when I sat there in the dark, that I felt this intense despair. Maybe it wasn't possible for me to date a white person after all. I know it sounds dramatic but it almost felt like the tragedies of the world were pulling us apart.
However, at the same time, accompanying that was this vision of us fighting fiercely for our relationship. We spend our whole lives doing work founded on the premise that humans have the capacity for empathy and change. If we couldn't even figure out how to resolve all these issues with someone that we were deeply in love with, how could we continue hope for that in the world? When it was framed that way, it seemed absurd to even consider giving up.
I struggled with what I knew I should do admit: that I was frustrated that she could pass; that I was jealous that the was society and often those around us treated her was so different than that was that I was treated; and most importantly, that I was unfairly, though however humanly, translating my issues with the world that we live in onto a more concrete target: her.
Finally we found the words that would finally be heard. My mouth probably dropped open. "I will never be other. It's like you want me to be." Words that me me remorseful, "Give me a break! I only realized that I might even be queer a few months ago!" And finally, words that physically made me cringe, "At what point do I lose the ability to laugh at jokes you make about white folks because it's just too sensitive an issue between us?" And from my end, "Even though right now I might be safe, you don't think that I know that at any point world politics, societal beliefs could change and I'd land on the dangerous side of "other"? More than just fighting implicit issues, but like, hate crimes and murders."