Gender Identity (August 1995)
Aside from the actual fact of our gender, whether we are male or female, we attach other characteristics to the experience of being a man or a woman, a male or female 'identity', which can impose undesirable limitations on us. Society imagines that having a gender identity is not only unavoidable, but a positive and necessary stage in our development and for our journey through life. Gender identity, however, is not only indefinable, because it is specifically defined by the individual's own perceptions and can vary greatly between individuals, but it also restricts our ability to be ourselves and therefore restricts our ability to follow our desires in life.
When we think about male and female identity we tend to assume that these individual identities are absolute and that there is a male identity and that there is a female identity. In addition to this, we also tend to imagine that everyone around us regards male and female identity in the same way. Not only that, but we are inclined to believe that male and female identity are so absolute in their nature that they can be defined in detail, rather like a national costume or a recipe. Because of this, an impression exists that when we talk to another male or a female as the case may be, that their impression of the male identity and the female identity is identical and therefore can be agreed upon by all. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
We may imagine that if we go into a room full of people and say something like: "men are strong, men don't cry, men are capable", we will achieve overwhelming agreement. And if we go into that room and say: "women are more intuitive, women are more sensitive, women are less capable", we also assume that we will gain agreement. These may reflect commonly accepted stereotypes, but do they really reflect commonly held views about identity? Go into the same room and say: "women are strong, women are capable, women are capable of enduring more pain" and one would imagine the same level of agreement existing. The same people faced with those two situations are quite capable, in fact likely, to agree with both of those statements, despite the fact that they seem to be contradictory - or are they? The questions posed by this simple example begin to indicate some of the difficulty we may have in understanding the nature of identity and how it operates. We begin to see that gender identity is a complex beast and not at all as straight forward as a recipe, or indeed a national costume.
When we say, "men are strong," how many people would actually regard the statement as existing in its own right? Very few, it would seem. The inclination is to attach implication to the statement and make an assumption based on the old 'if this true, then that must be true' idea. In other words, 'if men are strong, women are weak'. And yet that is not what was said. The statement itself did not in fact imply or refer in any way to women and certainly did not discount the fact that women can be strong. Despite this, most people would make that non-verbal connection every time. In fact, it is this very principle in exaggerated form, that creates the basis for the whole politically correct movement. If one person is pronounced as capable, by implication another is disadvantaged or implied to be incapable. The whole working of identity is centered around implication - not fact. An example of the extreme nature of such a concept comes from "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories!' by James Finn Garner - an excerpt from Rapunzel:
"Now, this witch was very kindness-impaired. (This is not meant to imply that all, or even some, witches are that way, nor to deny this particular witch her right to express whatever disposition came naturally to her. Far from it, her disposition was without doubt due to many factors of her upbringing and socialization, which, unfortunately, must be omitted here in the interest of brevity).
Now, we can very well laugh at the absurdity of this description and yet, sometimes it can be useful to use extremes as a way of reminding us about basic principles. Identity is all about implication
Identity is about what does not exist, not what is there; what cannot be done, rather than what is achievable; how other people aren't, not what they are and indeed how we cannot be, not what we can be. In reality, male and female identity only exist when we are making those implied connections and comparisons - and at no other time. In order to express something of female identity, we must actively be pursuing a comparison between women and men. Similarly, in exhibiting male identity, there has to be an implication of how women are, in order for the identity to be effective. Without such parallels, identity would not exist.
This is, in essence, why we can express aspects of both male and female identity. Only one may be expressed at any one time, but we are capable of chopping and changing between male and female identity at any time - all we have to do is to change our point of view, our perception. This is also the reason that we can seem to hold contradictory opinions about things in our life, maintain overwhelming paradoxes and yet they present no real conflict.
For example, if we are a man, we can feel that we are superior to women and indeed inferior to women, at different times. No one attitude exists constantly. In the same way, a woman can feel very inferior to men and indeed superior to men at different times. Which aspect of identity is expressing itself depends on the requirement at the time. It is possible to feel that strength is a male bastion and yet feel it is a female bastion, just as strongly as one another, despite there being an obvious conflict.
When we experience the male or female identity we sense the 100% justification of the identity, to the exclusion of anything else. So, if we feel that men are strong, we have to feel the implication that women are weak at that moment. We are not capable of feeling that men and women are equally capable, because of what is implied by the strong justification that is being felt at the time. Obviously when we are being ourselves, our communications reflect balance and we are of course, able to perceive men and women equally. These comparisons may not necessarily be made in words, but they are there, if they were not, the identity would not be performing its function.
So, why do we adopt these identities and how do they differ between individuals? Essentially, a male or female identity is only a tool, it is a tool that helps us to set down the requirements for a desired lifestyle and to help us carry out the achievement of it. When pursuing and creating lifestyle anything is possible within that lifestyle - except that which is not possible. Obvious. However let's examine this more closely. We have specific impressions about a desired lifestyle, but only what is not possible, only what must be excluded from that lifestyle. As long as that boundary is not over-stepped, we can essentially do whatever we want. That sounds quite bearable, desirable even, however, what complicates matters is when something that is excluded from a lifestyle is an essential component of a vision or newly desired lifestyle, perhaps something which develops in later life. There may be aspects of this newly desired lifestyle that are not in conflict. However, as long as there is one component that is in conflict with the original lifestyle, that newly desired lifestyle is in jeopardy.
So within our present lives, we can host a myriad of desires. Some will be compatible with our originally chosen lifestyle, others will not. Some will be in conflict with others and it is those conflicting desires that pose the problem for us in life. Identity only exists in order to help us get what we want. So what happens when we want different and conflicting things with equal passion? What happens to the desires? What happens to identity? It is entirely possible to want two different things with equal desire. It does not matter that they are in conflict, because desire is indiscriminate. Our intellect of course, can have trouble with wanting two different things at once and certainly our identity can have trouble with it, because the other thing may depend on being without certain identity aspects, while the first thing may depend entirely on their existence.
A factor that can be potentially frustrating is the presence of unacknowledged or unconscious desires and it is because of this that we are able to desire conflicting things and not be confounded by it. Obviously, when desires are conscious we may simply choose between options and head in a certain direction. However, when there are depths of passion behind something we do not consciously know about, it can be difficult to recognize what holds us back. Just as confounding are false desires, mistaken for genuine desires but created only to introduce a conflict that cannot be reconciled. False desires can be easy to identify, however levels of vested interest can sometimes provide substantial motivation to keep knowledge of them hidden.
When we desire different things at the same time, we do not even necessarily surrender desire for one of the things, yet we try to be true to both as best we can. Sometimes, therefore, we may head in the direction of what we will call the pure desire. Sometimes we might head in the direction of the identity desire. The way to have both is to have both. A desire is only empowered when we do not have what we desire, when it is something we are working towards. As soon as we get something we desire, we stop desiring it. So then, in order to have the two objects of desire all we have to do is to have them both.
The identity lifestyle is usually the easiest to have because generally we already have it but do not acknowledge that we do. Therefore, in emotional terms we don't have it. Having, simply becomes a matter of acknowledging and appreciating. Then that pure desire is no longer in conflict, it is unobstructed and the elements of that pure desire act as enhancements to the originally desired lifestyle. We remove the either/or nature of the desire, enabling us to fulfill both. Not acknowledging and appreciating, therefore not having the identity lifestyle effectively sets it up as something to be achieved and thus, can be in direct conflict with the pure desire. Achieve it and we can be free to pursue the genuine desire without obstruction.
Male and female identity only serve to better enable us to have what we want and can be specifically useful in particular situations where the way we relate to the opposite sex is important to a desired lifestyle. Living on our own on a desert island would pose no conflict and no threat in terms of male and female identity. There would be no need to express male or female identity because we would be in the presence of neither and perhaps we could have the kind of lifestyle we wanted without the need to express identity. Then have a ship full of men and women arrive and the identity would very likely emerge. So then, gender identity is only used when it is needed for a specific purpose. If we have no need for it, then we do not use it.
It starts to become clear then, that if we really wish to free ourselves to have what we want, having a passionate desire to be able to be ourselves can resolve much. Being ourselves eliminates the need for all of these things, we are naturally more inclined to appreciate and acknowledge and indeed life becomes simpler.
It is worthwhile examining male and female identity a little more closely. It is a mistake to assume that male and female identity can be defined in terms of lists of absolute characteristics. Take the following example to demonstrate how misguided this can be.
A woman is inspired by her father who is a very practical man. He makes things with tools and does an array of manual type tasks with great enjoyment. One might say that to her those traits are aspects of male identity. That woman then has a daughter and that daughter is presented with the example of her mother who performs an array of practical skills, perhaps outside the normal realms of what a woman in her position might do. Is that daughter, inspired by the mother, inspired by male identity or female identity? To the daughter those aspects are definitely female, yet to the mother they were male. And so the mother and daughter may develop in similar ways, but with completely different perceptions of themselves.
This example demonstrates that there are no such things as female and male identity, only to the individual. And then only specific to that individual's perceptions and inspirations. So within one person's perception of female identity, can be aspects of another person' male identity.
Once again, the only way to define what those aspects are, is through recognizing impressions and bringing them into verbal and conscious terms. Even then, one must take care not to entrap oneself in the idea that one is a male or female identity or that indeed one is specifically restricted in life because of it. Knowing about identity can be useful but as with many such principles, without genuine purpose, it can also be misused in ways that can serve to further restrict an individual, rather than inspire them to be free.
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