I, Dentity

by Bootdog

Spend a little time among certain communities ::cough::Bears!::cough:: and you discover something odd. People actually debate who does and does not get to identify as part of the community in question. If I had that much power, I'd try my hand at controlling the weather, but these folks are content to simply decide who may and who may not call themself a Bear, or a Leatherman, or Queer, or male. It's kind of breathtaking, the way ordinary, non-elected folks are tying themselves up in knots over a topic that is not only eminently self-evident but also utterly impossible to express rationally. Like trying to objectively define obscenity, they can't say exactly what make a person a member of the community, but they know it when they see it. Put another way, a Bear is someone who gives a Bear-admirer a hard-on.

::gasp:: "A woman in a bear bar! Fetch my smelling salts!"

I started off talking about the Bear Community, I'll stick with that for a few moments. Those of you who have perused my Bear Page know that I define a bear non-restrictively as "a man, usually somewhat stouter than the average man, who is possessed of particularly more body hair than most men". You may not realize that I consider my friend Biff to be a Bear, even though Biff is genetically female and is pretty darn smooth, from what I understand. Years back, when I was a member of the Bears Mailing List at Queernet, it was something of a running joke (and I imagine it still is today) that every six months or so, everyone would break into a severe rash of "What is a Bear?" postings for a week or so, culminating in a rather astonishing escalation in Godwin's Law territory. The we'd all come to our senses again for another six months or so.

It's difficult to believe just how strongly people feel about properly delineating the boundaries of what a Bear is. "Bear's are all husky!" "Bears are all furry!" "Bears accept everyone!" "Bears slap salmon out of rivers!" Soon, I realized that these statements taken as union statements translate to "Everyone's a Bear!". Taken as intersection statements: "No one's a Bear!" And somewhere up in heaven, Kurt Gödel is asking Pearl to play the music for his Superior Dance. (A dog and his obscure math humor; it's a beautiful thing.)

Twinks Are People, Too

Once upon a time, I was attending the Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend in Washington, DC. I was wandering through the vendor mart, and I stopped at a vendor who was selling bear flag merchandise. I collected a few things (T-shirt, luggage tags, etc.) and proceeded to attempt to pay for the items. The guy running the booth looked at me and looked at what I was buying and asked, "So you wanna be a bear?"

It's times like this that I wish I had a quicker wit. I could have immediately busted out with, "No, I wanna be a fireman; I already AM a bear." Unfortunately, I didn't come up with that. I don't completely remember, but I believe I responded with something mealy-mouthed about Papa being a bear. Cut me some slack; I was twenty-five.

I Know What You Aren't, But What Ain't I?

Let's compare that previous anecdote with a few choice snippets that I and others have heard over and over again:

"He's a self-proclaimed master."
"Real leatherman don't dance."
"You're too old to be a boy!"

What do all these statements have in common? They are all negations of someone's identity. Granted, this sort of thing is not necessarily the egregious miscarriage of justice that a lot of people think. In many cases, matters of identity are derived entirely from fact. For example, there have been a few instances where someone has pointed out that the "crying Indian" from the old Keep America Beautiful television spot was not Native American, and was, in fact, second generation Italian-American. Interestingly enough, once he adopted his Native American persona, he didn't let it drop for the rest of his life. But the fact still stands that he was as native American as I am.

However, in the case of sexual identity, objectivity no longer has much influence.

This is only a tangential story, but I love it so much that I just have to tell it. A few years back, I attended the American Brotherhood Weekend, during which time the American Leatherman, American Leatherwoman and American Leatherboy contests are held. The outgoing American Leatherboy was Terry Sapp, who was biologically female. During her stepdown speech, she related the fact that a number of people has asked her during her title year how she could identify as a boy, being female. Her response went along the lines of.

"Look, I go tent camping regularly. Every morning when I'm camping, the first thing I do is go down to the river to wash up, and I have never arrived at the river to find a big hairy guy slappin' salmon out of the water. So, if they can call themselves bears, I can call myself a boy."

"How's it hangin', Late For Dinner?"

Where was I? Oh yeah, sexual identity. Being queer folk, we've each eschewed the standard sexual identity template to some extent, leaving us with . . . . let's call it a blank slate, although that's not entirely accurate. It's close enough. We've each had to establish, if only in our own minds, our root sexual identity: our gender, our orientation, our preferences regarding physical morphology, our kinks, our behaviors. It all adds up to our individual sexual identity, the gestalt of all of these different factors. In establishing this identity, we also form an internal set of measures and rules, against which we evaluate others.

There are a few flaws, of course. For one thing, our perception of the sexual identity of others is really only relevant to one thing: whether or not we want to have sex with them. However, we all tend to use the perception as a basis for other interpersonal evaluations. I remember a few years back when 20/20 did a hidden camera piece on helping strangers. Two women, one very attractive, and one very plain, were, on separate days, placed in the same location and set up to look like their car had run out of gas. The attractive woman had many more people (mostly men) stop to offer assistance. I certainly doubt that the people who stopped did so specifically with the intention of having sex with the woman they helped ("How can I ever repay you? Wink wink nudge nudge say no more say no more"), but they let their perception of her attractiveness influence their non-sexual behavior. It's an ingrained habit. It sucks, big time.

"Honey, butch is not your color."

Another problem with this process of forming our sexual identity is that the vocabulary we develop to understand it can become wildly divergent from that of others. For example, I consider masculinity to be substantially different from butchness. I've been giving it some thought, and the best way of expressing it that I can currently come up with is that (using myself as the example) masculinity is an unconscious manifestation of my masculine aspect: the way I move, the way I talk, etc., while butchness is much more conscious: the clothes I wear, the activities I participate in, topics that I talk about. They both come from the same source, my masculine identity, so they track rather closely, but they manifest in different ways. My masculinity is pretty stable; I don't swish more one some days than others. My butchness is much more variable; some days, I might actually be more touchy-feely, let's-go-get-a-cup-of-herbal-tea-and-talk-about-cats than others. The big problem comes in that butchness tends to be more "flamboyant" than masculinity, and a lot of guys calibrate their perceptions of you based on how butch you're being when they first meet you.

Now, obviously, I hope that everyone's goal is to not use superficial perceptions of someone's sexuality to form their opinions of that person, but we all do it, and it ain't gonna stop any time soon.

Humor me; it makes things go much more smoothly

So where am I going with this? I refer you back to earlier, when I discussed people negating other people's sexual identity. This has to stop. For one thing, there's no real objectivity when it comes to sexual identity. There's no American Gay Association deciding who's earned enough Leather points to call themself a leatherman; no one has established the mandatory retirement age for a boy; and the California Master Institute just lost it accreditation (and I only had three more credits to go until I got my top license). So unless you're applying for the position of the Great and Powerful Oz, cut out the whole "You're not a ______" thing.

This doesn't mean that you have to accept everyone's delusions, though. Feel perfectly free to internally scoff at the cute widdle boy showing what a big bad dominant he is (by spraining his shoulder with a flogger three times too heavy for him). Heck, you can roll your eyes at your friends. The only thing you shouldn't do is openly contradict him. Your disdain for his delusions carries no weight within his head, but telling him about it is just mean.

In short, my maxim: "Everyone is free to call themselves whatever they want and not be challenged on it; and everyone else is free to think they are a liar, an idiot, or certifiable."

And I am TOO a top! ::stamps foot::