How my identities are evolving
Please note that most of the following passages are from two assignments one for my Multicultural Issues course and one from my Ethics of Diversity course. Both assignments can be viewed in their entirety on the courses site.
“My maternal grandparents in Denver immigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1940’s while trying to escape the Nazis. My paternal grandfather’s parents emigrated from Germany as well and my grandmother’s family has been in the United States for some time, but from what I gather were a mixture of English, Welsh, and Scottish. Basically when it comes to ethnic/racial definitions I’ve always considered myself Caucasian and more specifically a decedent of German Jews.”
While I have always know that I am of primarily German heritage, I have never spent much time investigating what that means to me. I have never learned to speak the language, never traveled there and never spent much time talking to my grandparents about what it was like to live there. In many respects, I believe that they divorced their country of birth in order to avoid the sadness associated with the atrocities committed there and I can’t blame them for their response. At the same time, this leaves me with a very loose, if not non-existent personal connection to my ethnic background. That is unless you consider being a Jew part of one’s ethnicity. My grandparents and mother have provided me with a solid connection to the Jewish faith and I for me this is more of an ethnic identity than a religious one. In my work as a student affairs professional, I see this identity playing out in my desire to create an inclusive environment for people of all religions. I think that it is apparent, even in public universities, to see the effects of Christian privilege and it has been my experience that most people are greatly unaware how a simple Christmas decoration or Easter egg basket can make someone feel less included. While I do not choose to live my life according to Jewish principles, I am quite certain that I would face significant challenges on my campus if I chose to do so. Knowing this makes me more able to recognize the challenges and struggles that other religious minorities may go through in order to practice their religions and therefore I see it as much my responsibility as any one’s to bring up these issues if and when the time arises.
“I identify as female, but have never given much thought to what this identity means to me or the fact that if I was so inclined I could change my gender. In fact, on a recent trip to New York City for the National Union of LGBT Jewish Students I was asked if I identify as a lesbian or as a FTM transgender person and I quickly answered with the former. I had never given much thought to the later answer being part of my identity and was a bit taken back that someone would even ask that question. At the time I wondered what kind of image I was portraying and how that had informed the question asker’s statement. Looking back on it, I can only say that it just proves how little questioning I’ve done with regards to my gender. I’ve assumed it was fixed and while I haven’t always felt particularly feminine I have always identified as female. On a very basic level, I recognize my gender most often when I am walking through a dark parking lot late at night or when I’m reminded that every other female in a room is wearing a dress and I’m not”.
As the passage above indicates gender wasn’t something I had spent much time thinking about or recognized as fluid. It was not until I met and befriend people who frequently step across or in some cases completely flip the gender binary on its head that I began to see all of the ways in which my gender or at least my perceived gender affects my life. More than anything I think that my new awareness provides me greater sensitivity to issues of sexism and gender norming. I see it on highway billboards, the commercials I watch, the political campaigns of 2008, and in my everyday life. I also have a greater awareness, although no where near complete, of the issues that transgender and gender questioning students may face in obtaining their degree. It is imperative to recognize and respond to the immediate struggles that these students may face in receiving access to safe and secure housing, bathrooms, health services, etc. but also important to create a university community that provides long-lasting support to these students both inside and outside the classroom. Counseling services, recreational facilities, academic programs, residential communities, international education, they all have to be accessible to transgender students and it is only when people such as I, even with my limited knowledge, speak up with these students that these departments will recognize how inclusive they are and make strides towards improvement.
“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. As far as this identity is concerned, I hesitate to say it, but the hardest thing for me was coming out to myself. My family, friends and co-workers have all been tolerant if not supportive and I have yet to personally experience a negative consequence as a result of my sexual identity. (With that being said) I have never worn my rainbow sticker on my sleeve and generally have found it fairly easy to keep this part of my life hidden until I knew it was safe to disclose this information. I have never built my social or support network around people of my same sexual identity and have no plans to do so in the future. I feel like my rather “easy” coming out and lack of strong GLBT network keep me from taking an active role in this community and my ability to blend in with the crowd when need be can be seen as internalized homophobia. While I wouldn’t say this is the case, but who would, I would say that I’m still working on how this identity will shape my life both professionally and personally. In the past, I have always been willing to downplay it in order to achieve greater unity among people I’ve worked with and for, but I highly doubt that I will put myself in positions in the future where I will have to do so.”
Having written this approximately a year ago and only recently gone back to it, a lot of issues came up for me as I read it. First off, I think it is incredibly important that I acknowledge the importance of the first sentence which may seem haphazard and self-indulgent. Why should anyone care about my exact thoughts on the many words that can be used to describe someone within the GLBTQQAI(…) community? Well, I’m glad that I brought this up then and I’m also glad that I can reflect on it now. It’s taken me a while but lately I’ve realized how powerful words, particularly words that identify people can be. 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 other 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. I know that’s how it is for me. No matter what identifiers I use to describe me, I first and foremost want to be known for my individual values, strengths and yes even weaknesses and I can’t help but think that most people feel the same way I do. Therefore, I must listen carefully to my students and co-workers so I can learn how they individually chose to identify themselves, which words they choose to use and words they want to avoid, which collective values, strengths and weakness they are proud to share and those that they prefer not to be associated with.
After taking Ethics of Diversity, a class where internalized oppression was talked about at length, I feel more confident in saying that although I may not like it, I still deal with internalized homophobia on some level. I see this most often playing out in the way I indicated at the end of the statement I wrote almost a year ago. I’m still willing to put aside my own identity in order to benefit a larger cause or maintain group unity. A good example of this mindset in action would be my feelings toward the latest national election where the American people elected the first black president, but also chose to take away the legality of same-sex marriages and the GLBT community’s ability to adopt children and have other equal rights under the law. At the time that the results were coming in and joy was spreading throughout my living room and the nation, I did not feel comfortable or compelled to bring up the negative results of the day. I have chosen to see the presidential election as a huge step in the right direction towards the lessening of oppression for all people and the votes supporting the oppression of the GLBT community as only a brief step back before an evidential righting of the wrong. However, I do realize that some may label my response as a classic example of internalized homophobia, caused by the fact that I society has conditioned me to not believe that I or any other GLBT person deserves equal rights. As a student affairs professional, I think it is important that I can recognize this often unknown type of oppression in myself. The fact that I can name it, take responsibility for it, and see the actions and feelings attached to it makes me all the more likely to recognize it in others and be able to help them deal with it in their own personal way. I don’t think there is one single way to deal with internalized oppression. Its roots are in so many different places (school, church, family, society at large, politics,) and its impacts are so varied (fear, anger, disappointment, etc.) that I find it impossible to generalize. Ultimately my experience can only serve as a way for me to connect with other people and through that connection potentially see how they can minimize the negativity that can come from internalized oppression.