What’s Your Affinity? A Reflection on Personal Identity

London Pride, June 2013.This last weekend was Pride weekend. Here, in London, where I’ve made my home with my wife for the past four years, and in San Francisco, the gay mecca of my home-state. There was much rejoicing: DOMA has been struck down, Prop 8 undone, marriages newly made, and a happy one (ours) still going strong.

My pride in our community, in our commitment to gaining human rights under the eyes of the law, was fit to burst these past few days. As part of the process, I’ve looked back on what has brought  me to this specific place in my life, and I was reminded of something I’d written earlier this spring on identity, and the crazy intersections of those identities that we all live with each day.

Here it is, for you to enjoy. With love.

Affinities – A Personal Reflection on Identity

Some people have coming out stories that begin before the age of five. Some say they just knew they were different, that they weren’t like other boys and girls. I identified as a girl, but the categories of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ only appeared to represent different power positions in a country where the news still celebrated ‘The First Female Astronaut’ and ‘The First Female Poet Laureate.’ In other words, I knew I was a girl who would sometimes be challenged for being different.

Possibly a combination of my parents’ supportive encouragement of my disparate interests—sports, writing, art, marine biology—and general loving influence, I was firmly grounded in the idea that gender was not a boundary with which to hold me back.  If I wanted shoot my bow and arrow in the backyard with my dad or finger-paint with my mom, it was possible. If I wanted to sing songs from The Little Mermaid while tide-pooling without shame, that was all fine. If this sounds like an idealized version of my home-life as a child, take this appraisal of my identity from my fourth-grade teacher: ‘Erica refuses to be pigeonholed into what is girl or boy, pink or blue.’

At the age of 19, not much had changed in my gender expression except that I had gone through puberty. In my first year of university, I attended a lecture on gender and sexuality as performed by a drag queen artist. It was on the floor of a dark auditorium that I learned the word ‘fluid.’ This new word—with its expansive definition of human attraction and identity—made sense to me in much the same way that the Kinsey Scale (a.k.a. the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale) did when I considered my own gender and sexual identities. I existed somewhere in between, and here was language with which to talk to about it with others. I started to claim ‘fluid’ as my sexual identity.

Discussion along these blurry lines continued into the next academic year as I learned about queer theory and queer politics. Professors, lecturers and students alike were claiming queer identities, refusing heteronormative assumptions of gender, expression and relationships. As I entered into my first romantic relationship with a woman, I began to claim ‘queer’ as my new sexual identity. ‘Bisexual’ was being exotically paraded and mocked on a MTV reality TV show and maintaining that I was attracted to both men and women worried my lesbian girlfriend. ‘Queer’ was the closest I could come to a safe-space where I could continue to be me.

Years later, I still refuse to have my gender and sexual identities pigeonholed by others. I am in a legal, same-sex civil partnership but would never claim to be in a lesbian relationship. I have a tendency to assert my political identity as a feminist rather than rally around being a woman. On National Coming Out Day, I remind others that I am ‘bisexual’ because, sometimes, it matters to stand up and be counted.

Girl, Woman, Fluid, Queer, Bisexual: I carry these labels with me, not necessarily as identities but as affinities. I relate to these words, these political spaces, but I do not contain or represent them. Nor do they contain or represent me as a whole. But, sometimes, my representation of these affinities matters in order to challenge heteronormative assumptions, culture, and laws. On a practical level, it matters that my partner and I, along with countless other couples, cannot immigrate across national borders as a family unit. On a compassionate level, it matters that homophobia/biphobia/transphobia are motivation for bullying, hate crimes, and death. On a human level, it matters that women and women’s bodies are subjugated. Choosing to gather through these collective identities make political change possible, even if a certain amount of erasure of individuality must take place in order for it to succeed.

I live each day in this body, which is asked to identify itself on a regular basis, to be understood in explainable categories by others. I return to these labels over and over again, to these intersections of my identity, but I don’t often utter the word that matters most to me: love. There is no politically powerful word that indicates one human loving another, and yet my strongest affinity is with love.  From a relationship with the divine to the intimacy of my romantic partnership to the daily interactions with other human beings who inhabit my community, to identify with love, for me, is to have who I am explained.