The problem with identity politics is that humans defy simple classifications

I wrote yesterday about the softball players who were accused of being “not gay enough.”  I appreciate that the league in question has its rules — you must be gay — but the story still got me thinking about what constitutes being gay.  From there, of course, I started thinking about identity politics.  Let me walk you through my train of thought.

The day before this news story broke, a woman with whom I was speaking told me she believes her grandson is gay.  He’s only eight but, according to her, his movements are effeminate.  I know what she means.  I’ve known children like that.  I stumped her with a question, though:  “What if, when he grows up, he still likes girls?  Does that mean he’s gay because of his decidedly effeminate body language or straight because he wants to sleep with women?”  She was stumped.  Her labeling didn’t extent that far.

Humans like labels.  Without our innate ability to organize and categorize, because of the overwhelming amount of data we receive from the world around us, we would be dysfunctional.  You can imagine some distant hunter/gatherer ancestor standing paralyzed before a brown thing, unable to classify it as plant or animal, safe or dangerous, edible or poisonous.  That perplexed hunter/gatherer did not survive to pass down his genes.  The one who was able to classify the object correctly as a bush waving in the wind, a sleeping bear, or the entrance to a cave was the one who was able to be fruitful and multiply.  We are that well-organized person’s descendants.

Having an inherent ability, however, doesn’t mean that we have to let that ability control.  We are all capable of killing but, if we’re moral, we don’t unless we have to.  We’re hardwired for sex, but the vast majority of us can control our libidos.  We tamp down on our fight and flight instincts, too, insofar as we’ve figured out that a stressful meeting with the boss isn’t license to hit him or run away.

In the same way, I do believe we can control the rampant categorization that constitutes identity politics.  People are not labels.  They are the giant sum of their parts, their interests, and their values.  I have good friends who are gay conservatives, and I even know some Jewish conservatives.  I know Asians who are slackers.  These people are who they are, not what they are.

For a generation that was raised to shake off all the old stereotypes (and I still came into the world on the tail-end of the “Poles are stupid,” “Jews are greedy,” “Scots are frugal,” “Irish are shiftless,” “Asians are sneaky” tropes that were endemic in American society for so many decades), we seem awfully anxious to embrace stereotypes all over again.  It’s just that we’re embracing entirely new stereotypes that still manage to lock people into straight jackets just as tightly as the old ones did.

I’ll close this post with a story — a true story — just to remind us that humans, in their beautiful variety, regularly deny even their own attempts to lock themselves into neatly labeled boxes.

One of my friends was estranged from his father.  After many years, he made an effort to visit Dad, who was still living in the same old apartment.  What was new was the label over the buzzer.  Instead of saying “John Doe,” it read “Jane Doe.”  That was peculiar.  What was even more peculiar was the fact that Dad answered the door decked out in his deceased wife’s old clothes.  It turned out that Dad had spent his entire married (and parenting) life hiding the fact that he was a transvestite.  With his wife gone, he had come to terms with that fact, as well as with the fact that he was a woman trapped in a man’s body.  He was about to begin the long road of hormonal treatments for a sex change operation.  My friend, who is an open-minded man, was glad that his father was finally going to find some peace, and they had a friendly parting.

The long estrangement, though, made it so that it was some time before my friend again visited his father.  To his surprise, the label over the buzzer now read “John Doe.”  And even more surprising was the fact that his Dad answered the door attired in ordinary guy wear — jeans and a t-shirt.  You see, Dad had had another epiphany.  He was not a woman trapped in a man’s body; he was a lesbian trapped in a man’s body.  He’d also figured out that he had infinitely more success romancing the women he craved when he looked like man, than he did when he looked like a woman.

Clearly, John/Jane Doe was a person who suffered profoundly from a mind-body disconnect.  I’m grateful that he lives in a society that allows him (her?) to try to find some happiness.  It can’t be easy living that way.

Aside from it’s comedy-tragedy elements, though, this story reminds us that, when it comes to trying to slot human behavior into neat little boxes, it just can’t be done.  And to try to create vast social policies based upon those impossible and unreasonable boxes is an even sillier idea. That’s the beauty of a libertarian/capitalist system.  Subject to some government policing against fraud and abuse, and within the framework of a government fulfilling its basic health, safety, transportation, etc., functions, people are free, whether this means they’re free to live in City A as opposed to City B, to be a plumber or a professor, or to figure out whether someone else is trying to share their body with them.

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