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Self and Identity

sel209's picture

Clare, Wilchins, Swartz, Barard…when trying to make sense of all of the authors swirling around in my head, the idea I keep coming back to is that of self versus identity. I’m concurrently taking a psych course that deals with this distinction, and we’ve read the works of researchers who claim that while an idea of the self is present in even the youngest of humans because it denotes the acknowledgement of an “I,” an individual being with unique likes and dislikes, the idea of an identity only develops around adolescence when one separates oneself as an individual in society, finds a social niche, and establishes a set of morals and a life philosophy. If one commits to these things during adolescence, he or she has achieved an identity. If one does not, he or she is in some sort of limbo, ranging from a state of moratorium (having gone through a period of self-exploration but not having committed to an identity) to foreclosure (commitment to a certain identity without any self-exploration) to the worst of all, diffusion (no self-exploration and no identity commitment). *

Well, all that theory seems kind of clear and logical until you read a narrative like Clare’s or accounts from Swartz and you wonder how things get so messy so fast. From reading his story, I get the impression that Eli Clare would scoff at the idea that he didn’t have an identity during his adolescence. His statement that,“ I was a rural, mixed-class, queer child in a straight, rural, working class town” (46) indicates that he was very much aware of his adolescent character and his uniqueness within his social context. However, in the next breath Clare goes on to say that, “Afterwards, [in adulthood] I was an urban-transplanted, mixed-class, dyke activist in an urban, mostly middle-class community.” By the standards of conventional identity theory, Clare spent his adolescence in a state of moratorium. Upon coming to crucial realizations and making new life choices in his adulthood, his identity was destabilized and re-formed. Yet towards the end of his book, Clare totally dispels the idea that we can ever achieve full identity formation in the sentence, “You don’t have pronouns yet for us” (149), which emphasizes the idea that some simple but powerful words we use to define our identities like woman or queer or disabled are just too small to encapsulate everything a person can be. And on some level I believe him, and on another level I want to believe him but feel like these words are just too ingrained within me to ever not matter. So then I ask: in order to commit to your identity, do you have to fully know your identity? Does it have to consist of concrete labels? Do you have to live it and breathe it, or is it enough to simply believe it? If Clare never found the dyke community or spoke out against the idea of disability as inability, would he still have the identity of a dyke and a progressive? Is it realistic to say that identity is entirely personal and the pieces of self one shows to the world are inconsequential in defining one’s true self? Denis Flanigan would certainly say so, but I’m not so sure that Wilchins would, and I’m not even sure that I would. And so the swirling in my head continues.


*If you’re interested in where these ideas came from and this particular theory behind self and identity development, developmental psychologist Erik Erikson has written extensively on the subject.