On Defining My Own Identity
by Beverly Yuen Thompson
Check One Only
Asian or Pacific Islander
American Indian or Alaskan Native
In grade school I agonized over which box I was suppose to check off on their forms. As a child I inherited my father’s last name, was I also to inherit his white skin privilege? Or, should I consider myself my mother’s child and check Asian? After many circular discussions with my father I still could pick neither. The four boxes they offered did not reflect my individual identity. I did not fit into their boxes.
Check One Only
At seventeen, I began to question my sexual orientation. My roommate had just come out as a lesbian and I was getting involved in feminist activism. It was a time of great late night talks about what it meant to be a woman and a lesbian. I questioned my sexual orientation in the process of my roommate’s defining her own. Perhaps I had only considered myself straight by default until this point.
Questioning my own orientation, the options seemed less clear-cut than I had previously assumed. Again, I agonized over which box to check. I quit announcing my heterosexuality, but this action cut me out of the loop. If I was not heterosexual then I was a lesbian. Yet, I could not become a lesbian with my attraction to men still vibrant, though the heterosexual lifestyle was beginning to make me claustrophobic. I spent two years unable to categorize myself before realizing the existence of a bisexual identity.
Eventually I learned that the problem did not lie in my inability to commit to one identity over another, but that the rules of the game did not fit my reality. I had fallen through the cracks of the binary opposition paradigm of identity. It is the definitions that have to change in order that those who have been marginilized out of the "box" can be included.
Barbara Smith has defined feminism as a "political theory and practice that struggles to free all women…Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but female self-aggrandizement." It is crucial that feminism work to eradicate racism, homophobia and biphobia. Further, the gay and lesbian movement must be based on the premise that no one should be harassed and persecuted for their sexuality and choice of life partners.
Often activists discuss the need for diversity in their organizations and wonder why more people of color and individuals of differing sexual orientation do not attend their meetings. To fight discrimination many activists want a clear-cut definition of what delineates an ally from an enemy. Biracial and bisexual individuals too often are placed on the enemy side. They are charged with "passing" in the dominant society and rejecting their true identity because they won’t chose a side.
The term "passing" has been used to mean a temporary acceptance from the dominant society as long as you deny a part of yourself and endeavor to fit a particular box. If one looks heterosexual enough or white enough, this gains one a membership in the dominant society. Individuals who are part of the gay and lesbian community have been able to pass as heterosexual as long as they look straight. The cost of passing is an erasure of history, a loss of pride and breakdown of the sense of "wholeness" of identity.
Bisexuals face homophobia from the dominant society when they speak out for queer rights, when they do not adopt the "heterosexual look," when they are affectionate in public with a partner of the same sex. From the gay and lesbian community, bisexuals face discrimination, some are closeted and are accused of trying to pass by dating people of opposite gender in an attempt to avoid harassment. Some lesbians that I have encountered feel that bisexual women are "sleeping with the enemy". Lesbianism can be viewed as being based on one practice of feminism, one may be perceived as being a better feminist by adhering to this behavior. Because of the politics of lesbianism, they seem to be more critical of bisexual women than gay men are of bisexual men.
People of mixed races, and others who can "pass" as white face a similar dilemma as that of bisexuals. They are in the closet in both communities yet they are not excepted into either. One must be either white or a person of color. I am both Chinese and Caucasian. However, this is not how either the Chinese or white community views me. In my experience, I have been denied a white identity by the white society, yet I am viewed as "white" by Chinese Americans who cannot accept me because of my lack of language abilities and my "foreign and Western" concepts and upbringing. Therefore both the white and Chinese communities view me as an outsider, yet I am both and more.
To dismantle the binary opposition of race and sexuality we must work towards an inclusion of "other" identities. The horizon must be broadened to include those who identify as "both and more". To truly organize against discrimination we must not allow ourselves to be pitted against each other by a binary paradigm of identity. We must fight against the segmentation of identity that leads to the breakdown of "wholeness" for individuals of mixed races who are denied by both the white society as well as their communities of color. We must fight against the alienation that bisexuals face in the gay and lesbian community as well as the straight world. Sexual and racial purity is an ideal that leads only to division and disempowerment. We must work to create pride around issues of racial heritage and sexual orientation, instead of shame and disrespect.
Beverly Yuen Thompson holds a BA in Political Science from Eastern Washington University and an MA in Women’s Studies from San Diego State University where she wrote her thesis on the topic of bisexual and multiracial identity politics. She currently resides in New York City.
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Copyright © 1999 Beverly Yuen Thompson. All rights reserved.