On Being a Person of Multiple Identities

So first off, the title “multiple identities” is the best way I could find to word “having multiple labels” without using the word “labels” (I’ll explain why that word’s problematic later)

I’m Autistic. For those who are unsure, this means that I have a range of differences in how my brain works that are often grouped together and called ASD or Autistic Spectrum Disorder. A spectrum disorder is one that has a wide range of symptoms, severities and outcomes. I’m “verbal” (I can speak, most of the time), and my cognitive ability is not negatively affected by my autism. This is what they call “high functioning”, it also used to be diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome. I’m not formally diagnosed, though I have made it through pre-screening. My lack of a diagnosis is due to long waiting lists, limited availability of specialists, and having everyday life to deal with as well.

I have a variant gender identity. Broadly, this means I fit into the category of “transgender”. This is best explained by this useful little graphic (which will likely be revised as the scientific community grows in its understanding of how gender works).

Edit: I’ve been made aware of some problems with the “genderbread” graphic, and so have removed the link.  I’ll now be using The Gender Unicorn, which explains all the same stuff.

So far, we understand that human beings experience sex and gender in a number of ways. First, there are your physical sex characteristics, which encompasses physical, genetic and hormonal characteristics. It’s a spectrum, including Male (typically has a penis and testicles, XY chromosomes and is high in testosterone), Female (typically has a vagina, vulva, ovaries, has XX chromosomes and is high in oestrogen), and Intersex (has any combination of the aforementioned parts, hormones and chromosomes). “Biological sex” is not simply the expression of the X or Y chromosomes, it’s a complex interaction of multiple genetic, hormonal and environmental factors.

Since the 1990s, researchers have identified more than 25 genes involved in DSDs, and next-generation DNA sequencing in the past few years has uncovered a wide range of variations in these genes that have mild effects on individuals, rather than causing DSDs.

So it’s not quite as simple as being just male or female. Biology occasionally creates other categories for itself. If you don’t know anyone who’s transgender, you might not know, but asking someone about their sex assigned at birth is generally considered very rude. I mean… the average new acquaintance doesn’t interrogate you about the intimate details of your genitalia, do they?

Next up is gender identity, that’s what a person feels inside. Identities also encompass male and female, but also have space for being both, slightly more one than the other, and being neither. A person often looks at their interests, hobbies, mannerisms and feelings before deciding how they identify. It’s something that’s unique to each person. You can present at birth with female characteristics, identify as female but enjoy stereotypically masculine pursuits, it’s not about pathologising people who don’t conform to expected gender roles. You can also present at birth with typically male characteristics, enjoy stereotypically male pursuits but internally identify as female.

If your identity matches your biological characteristics, you’re “cisgender”. “Cis” means “on the same side as”, it just means that your identity is on the same side as your biology.

If you have a gender identity that doesn’t match your biological appearance, you might be transgender. “Trans” means “across”, and means that your identity is on the other side from your biology.

Having an identity that doesn’t match your biology can be very upsetting. Imagine for a moment that you woke up one day with the wrong body. There are lumpy bits where there shouldn’t be lumpy bits, and you’re flat where you feel you should have something there. This is called “gender dysphoria”, and affects some (but not all) transpeople to varying degrees. Some people who experience gender dysphoria go on to take hormones or have surgery to make their bodies more closely fit their identity.

Then there’s gender expression. Gender expression is how you “perform”. It encompasses clothes, makeup, mannerisms and is again completely independent of both your biological characteristics and your identity. A person can be biologically female, have a female identity and express as “Butch”, or “masculine”. If you’re cisgender but have a preference for clothes and activities traditionally reserved for another gender, this is usually called “Gender Non Conforming” on GNC. That just means you do as you like without letting anyone’s preconceptions of what it means to be “male” or “female” get in your way.

Identities and expressions that don’t fit into the usual “male/female” grouping are called “non-binary”. Binary means “two pieces” and when it comes to gender means that we usually only recognise two states. There are a lot of different words out there for non-binary identities, and all of them are equally valid because they’re designed to work for the people who use them.

So now we get onto labels. Labels are problematic. In a lot of spaces, labels are thought of as words used to hurt a group of people who stand out, and labelling is a thing to be avoided. This isn’t always accurate. For some groups of people, finding words that describe their experiences can be incredibly empowering. It allows people to communicate their experiences with each other, which is really important when you’re a minority. It can be very comforting to know that you’re not the only person feeling that way, and that there’s a word for what you are. Of course, like “autistic” vs “non-autistic” and “neurodivergent” (has a brain difference) vs “neurotypical” (brain conforms to the norm), we also need words to describe people who aren’t transgender. That’s how “cisgender” came about. The word “normal”, while technically accurate from a statistical standpoint, has some serious connotations. The opposite of normal is abnormal, and that has some really nasty connotations, even if it is statistically correct. It’s not designed to be offensive, just a way to describe “not-transgender”.

So what’s the problem with having more than one label? Everyone has more than one label. You can have one for your religion, one for your ethnic origin, one for your socioeconomic status, one for your gender, gender expression, biological sex (though for most people all things gender are assumed from their perceived biological sex)… The real problem starts when you have more than one label that’s a minority. As someone who:

  • is neurodivergent/autistic
  • has special dietary requirements
  • suffers from anxiety/depression
  • identifies as transgender
  • has niche interests
  • has a minority faith

What tends to happen is that I will, during the course of a person finding out these multiple things about me, be accused of lying for attention, or being confused, or having Munchausen or being a hypercondriac or any other way they can find to express the idea that a person cannot have multiple minority identities. Of course, it’s nonsense, we can all quite easily imagine a person having a minority ethnic origin, and be transgender. It seems to be much harder for people to comprehend when many of these aspects of identity are invisible.

Identities are also not set in stone. We wouldn’t get upset with a person no longer identifying as disabled (perhaps they had restorative surgery, or treatment to relieve the symptoms of an illness), but we seem to have a real problem with people whose gender identity, sexual orientation or gender presentation changes. We assume that they’re confused, that it was a “phase” or one of the identities wasn’t real. The truth is that figuring out who you are is a journey. Just like you probably aren’t the same person you were a few years ago because you’ve grown and developed your understanding of yourself, people exploring their gender identity or sexual orientation are growing and developing too. This doesn’t invalidate any of the stages they went through to get to where they are now, and it doesn’t invalidate their current identity. We’re all caterpillars, slowly turning into butterflies (but potentially with more stages). When a caterpillar creates a crysalis and becomes a soup of biological goo inside, that doesn’t make its past self any less of a caterpillar, and when it becomes a butterfly, it doesn’t invalidate its caterpillar-ness in its past, or its current butterfly-ness.

To sum up, respect the other caterpillars, people, because we’re all just figuring out what kind of butterflies we are!

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