Being vs Identifying as

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.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, asexual identity, Gray-A, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Being vs Identifying as

  1. luvtheheaven says:

    See when I was reading too fast and kinda saw the “I don’t identify as a woman, I am a woman” quote before I saw the preface that it’s a common transphobic thing to say, I really thought this might be things actual trans women commonly say. Like “I don’t just identify as it, let me make it clearer, this is my truth, this is who I am”. It’s all such complicated semantics. I think it is important to talk about this.

    I also think there’s this idea in a lot of our heads about like… Like the truth whether or not someone knows it vs reality, which can be used in bigoted ways, like that transphobic quote, but also is true in cases like how I identified as heteroromantic when I first decided I was ace, but later decided I was wrong and “really am”… Something else, but at first I was unsure what, and eventually settled on Aromantic Spectrum with Panromantic leanings as yes, how I identify in occasionally relevant contexts…

    • Jess says:

      I’ve also heard the certainty vs. uncertainty discussion around the language of ‘preferred pronouns’ as in, these are my preferred pronouns vs. these are my pronouns.

      • luvtheheaven says:

        I’ve seen nonbinary people switch to strongly saying they don’t like “preferred” pronouns language because there aren’t really any other acceptable ones, it’s not a preference, that’s… softening too much, so yeah I think this is a good and related point.

        • Rivers says:

          I thought the same thing when I first saw the quote out of context.

          For me, being is something you are. Identifying is putting that into words or giving people (or just yourself) the words and framework you would like to use to explain your experience regardless of how you technically “are”. Which is why how you identify is important and should be respected. If you are questioning or your identity is fluid, your identity during that period is just as valid as the one you “end up” having. If you respect who a person is, you should respect how they choose to frame that.

  2. Jess says:

    I would agree, at least in terms of how I express these things myself. I am asexual, but when I talk to people irl, if I tell them at all I’m more likely to frame it as ‘I identify as asexual.’ I do feel like it softens it a little bit, in a couple of ways: one, it could suggest that the label itself isn’t important–this is the way I am, and this is what I choose to call it–it separates the term from the meaning, a little bit, because honestly I think a lot of people take more issue with ‘everything having a label’ even if they have no problem with what the label actually means.

    The other way I feel like the term ‘identify’ softens the declaration is that it suggests that this is again, what I am choosing to call myself rather than what I inherently am; it suggests that this is something that might (no matter how small the chance) change in the future, as sexuality is fluid and I feel like people sometimes perceive that more declarative ‘I am’ as false certainty/stubbornness (for the same reason that they might think a young person who says they don’t ever want kids is being too hasty). I am NOT saying that any of these people are right, but I do think that, as you said, sometimes we need to seem less certain than we actually are to start to get our point across.

  3. queenieofaces says:

    I think I use the “identify” vs. “am” distinction in another way that isn’t discussed here: I’ll often say “I identify as” to signal to people what words are and aren’t appropriate to use for me. So I’ll say “I identify as queer” rather than “You can refer to me as queer.”

  4. Rivers says:

    For me, identifying as something is when a person gives themself or others words to describe their experience/s. Being is something you are. Identifying is putting that into words or giving people (or just yourself) the words and framework you would like to use to explain your experience regardless of how you technically “are” (such as identifying as ace to people who do not know what Gray-A means).

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