I identify as a lesbian although sometimes I feel more comfortable using the term gay, because it is more inclusive, although not as inclusive as the newly reclaimed term queer, which I don’t particularly like. While this may seem like a personal diatribe, I think it is actually a very real example of how important language is when discussing identity. Words that identify people are complicated. I still feel a great deal of uncertainty with what the most student affairs friendly terms for identifying people are and they always seem to be changing. It’s confusing to discuss and explain to people the reasons why certain groups can use words to identify themselves that they wouldn’t want anyone outside of that group saying. Words have multiple meanings and cause different reactions and feelings within each individual. I think the real problem with identity words is that they are all loaded to a certain degree with values, strengths, weaknesses, assumptions, etc. and most people don’t want to be tied to all of that simply because they say they identify accordingly. This is why I believe whole-heartedly that every person has the right to describe themselves and their identities in ways they see most fit.
Another insight that my sexual orientation has afforded me is an understanding of how challenging it can be to come to terms with one’s own identity. The hardest person to come out to (in my case) was myself. This took a long time because I was worried that by simply announcing this identity I was inheriting all of the values, strengths, weaknesses, etc. that I had ever heard about the GLBT community. I feel like this is a very real and valid fear for GLBT students along with other students contemplating their various identities. In an effort to reject categorization students (including me) often avoid and don’t take advantage of the support services available to them. Having dealt with this fear on my own, I think I have a great deal of empathy for students who deal with the same or similar issues. I understand the fear, anger and sense of unfairness that come with “checking a box” and automatically feeling connected and conversely disconnected with certain people, values, goals, etc.
Given my first-hand experience with this, I think it is my responsibility to share my feelings with students who may be going through similar situations. I must share my own methods of reconciliation between my actual values and those that were thrust upon me. I must catch myself whenever I begin to attribute specific values, strengths or weaknesses to a person because of one or more the ways in which they identify and try to help others avoid the habit. I must recognize and contribute to the resources and support services provided to various cultural groups and yet still keep in mind that not every student who identifies with a particular group will need or want those services.
Lastly my sexual orientation has allowed me to have first hand experience with feelings of internalized oppression. I shall devote a full post to this topic which you can access here or through my multicultural competence page.