This article is being cross-posted to my blog, A Trivial Knot.
In modern philosophy, there is a thing called a performative speech act. That’s when you do things by saying things. For example if I say, “I apologize,” it is not merely a statement of fact, but is itself an act of apology. Likewise, if I say “I identify as queer,” it is not merely a statement of fact, but is itself an act of identification. It makes no difference whether I say “I identify as queer” or “I am queer” because both of them are acts of identification.
Nonetheless, if we put on our descriptivist hats, it sure seems like people are making a distinction between identifying as a thing, and being the thing. Instead of dismissing the distinction out of hand, we should try to understand it. I will propose two basic interpretations.
In the first interpretation, “I am” is an act of identification, right now in the present moment. “I identify as” is a statement about how you identify in a more general set of contexts, not necessarily limited to the present moment. For example, the following is a true statement that I could make:
Sometimes I identify as asexual, but I’m not asexual.
When I say I’m not asexual, what I mean is that I’m gray-A, which is a distinct category. I decided that I was gray-A in 2009. Of course, gray-A is not a widely known term, and was even more obscure in 2009. So what I would tell people, and sometimes still tell people, is that I’m asexual. This is close enough to the truth, and often I don’t feel like going into a lengthy explanation. So when I say I sometimes identify as asexual, I mean that literally. I’m just not identifying as asexual now, because this is my blog and I don’t need to resort to approximations here.
And here is another true statement I could make:
I don’t identify as homoromantic, but it’s what I am.
I am homoromantic because I’m attracted to men romantically. I generally don’t tell people I’m homoromantic though, because I feel it is misleading. Homoromantic is usually used in conjunction with a sexual orientation term, such as “bisexual” or “asexual”, in order to distinguish one’s sexual orientation from one’s romantic orientation. But I don’t want to make that distinction. Whatever my sexual orientation is, my romantic orientation is the same as that. So if I’m giving you the lowdown, as I am doing right now, I’ll identify as homoromantic. But in general I do not identify as homoromantic.
The second interpretation is that “I am” is a stronger expression of legitimacy and certainty, compared to “I identify as”. For example, there’s a common transphobic expression:
I don’t identify as a woman, I am a woman.
Here, the speaker (presumably cis) wants us to believe that their gender identity is somehow more legitimate or real than a trans woman’s gender identity. According to the speaker, trans women merely identify as women, without being women. Another way to interpret it, is that a trans woman has to say out loud that she is a woman, whereas the cis speaker doesn’t have to say anything. Because cis privilege means that people will recognize your gender without you making a big deal out of it.
Where do people get the idea that to “identify as” something is somehow less legitimate than “being” the thing? Perhaps it’s because queer, trans, and asexual people are, in general, very careful about the words we use. When the straight/cis/allo public hears our careful language, they think of us. And because they see our identities as less legitimate than their own, they think that’s what our language is trying to say.
And is the interpretation necessarily wrong? When I said “Sometimes I identify as asexual, but I’m not asexual,” I was deliberately casting doubt on my asexual identity. That was the whole point of saying it the way I did. While we fight hard for the legitimacy of our identities, it’s easy to forget that many of us have a personal need to express our identities in an uncertain or equivocal way. This is especially true for all the Unsures out there, as well as people who are on the boundaries of categories.
Of course, there’s a big difference between me trying to express uncertainty about my own label, and an outsider treating my identity as inherently uncertain.
Although it can be abused, I think it is worth preserving the distinction between “I am” and “I identify as”. If it’s a distinction that you don’t have any need for in your own life, count yourself lucky.