(1) Being told we don't "belong" to a group we think we belong to.
(2) Having someone assume we're part of a group with which we don't actually identify.
(3) Hearing someone else identify with a group to which we belong, and being annoyed because we don't consider them a part of the group.
Where does identity "policing" come from? And why, in the LGBTQ community,* of all places, does it seem to happen so often? I was pondering this the other day and came up with a short list of possible (no doubt interrelated, and no doubt often subconscious) reasons:
- You feel marginalized in various ways because of an identity you claim. If another person who claims that identity is not marginalized in the same ways, it may feel unfair that they "get" to claim that identity, too. (For example, I suspect this is why female-ID'd butches sometimes don't like trans men claiming butch identities. Butch women have to deal with looking gender-nonconforming virtually all the time. Many trans men can pass as gender-normative if they want to.)
- You want a group to specifically define you, not to be some kind of broad identity that anyone can claim. (For example, ever encounter a hipster type who claims to be "queer but straight?" If so, you might know the feeling I'm describing.)
- You're an "average" member of some group. But if the group is opened to people of some other identity, too, you become lower status within this group. (Butch women/trans men is a good example for this concept, too. Men are higher status in American society [and, unfortunately, in most others as well]. Trans men often pass as men, look like men, etc. If trans men can be butches and butch = masculine, then there's a way in which trans men are "more butch" than female identified butches. Some female butches may find this threatening.)
- Your group is already low status in society, and you don't want an even lower status group to join it, because then it will make your group even lower status. (For example, I've heard lesbians eschew trans women who consider themselves lesbians, and gay men eschew trans men who consider themselves gay men.)
- You think your group is cooler than some other subset of it, so you emphasize a boundary to separate you from that subset. (E.g., I've heard gay men say disparaging things about lesbians, distinguishing sharply between themselves and queer women--arguably, drawing on male privilege while implicitly chastising lesbians for their gender nonconformity and/or "unattractiveness." [To be clear, I firmly believe that this kind of statement is an outlier.])
- They lack some aspect of the identity you claim. You see this aspect as central to the identity. If they don't share that aspect, you can't talk to them about it in the same way, so all of a sudden the group you felt comfortable in includes people you can't talk to (in the same way) about something central to the identity. (For example, if your queer women's group includes a bunch of bisexual women who are dating men, it might feel kind of weird to talk with them about what it's like to be, say, a queer woman at a work function to which partners are invited.)
- You feel like you "got there first" and have a feeling of ownership over the identity. When people who aren't like you start to claim it, you may feel like the identity is changing in a way that excludes you. You want the group to define you--you want it to be a nice fit, not some broad umbrella identity under which you happen to fall. (For example, if you identify as genderqueer or neutrois and as neither male nor female, you may feel uncomfortable or discouraged if people who identify as [and appear to be] either fully male or fully female say that they are genderqueer.)
As I've talked about before, I'm no fan of identity policing. Nonetheless, I can understand the impetus behind it, and I bet I've unintentionally engaged in it. I hope I've caught myself, questioned myself, and asked where the impulse was coming from.
Of course, identity policing and boundary-drawing doesn't just happen in the queer community. It happens with regard to age, race, class, and just about every other social group we can think of.
Nor do I mean to suggest that identity policing always arises from bad motives, or the intention to exclude others. I suspect we'd all agree that it's important to have social and psychological spaces where we can understand ourselves, question our assumptions, and feel at home with people we believe are like us.
What do you think about all of this? Have you ever seen, experienced, or engaged in identity policing? Do you think it exists in the queer community?
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.**
* I was recently a guest speaker in a queer studies class in which several of the students suggested that calling LGBTQ folks a "community" is false and s
** If you feel the urge to write, "Why do we have to label ourselves at all?" or "We're all human beings," or something similar, please read this first.