Description, Affinity, Politics, and Identity
This is a continuation of previous columns: What Is Trans, What Is Sex, What Is Gender, and Situational Membership. All are over at Bilerico, and three of them are also presently at my own blog.
I'm reposting this particular one here for reasons that are unimportant to anyone but myself, but they are, for me, important reasons, and I would sorta like to hear from those who find themselves avoiding trans issues here (and elsewhere) and those who feel there is no connection between the letters that make up LGBT, in whole or in part.
And yes, even the folks who dislike me, lol
This series is looking at several different aspects of what underlies the social systems that affect our ways of interrelating, and I don't look at priviliege. In future columns at Bilerico, with a possibility of them coming here, I will examine aspects of group dynamics within the LGBT milieu that are affected by the earlier stuff. As with the previous columns, how a given individual identifies is irrelevant, and while some of my terminology is different, the aspects here are based on current science and knowledge. And I'll still be as annoying as ever. Indeed, let's click over and see how I can annoy this time, shall we?
It's Not Me!
When discussing LGBT issues, one of the things that often comes up is some individual stating that they are not part of a particular group, and that as a result, they are opposed to the stuff being discussed.
An example of this is LGB people who dislike the presence of Trans folk in the mélange, or trans folk of one sort or another who feel that some term or some group does them an injustice. Part of what underlies the unwillingness on the part of many to deal with situations of dissent there is that there is an almost unspoken requirement to respect an individual's personal self identity.
To avoid being disrespectful of that person's self identity, people go to great lengths to talk around aspects, or else they become embroiled in a contest where the argument descends into the logical fallacy of arguing the general from a specific or vice versa.
An example of this logical fallacy is readily available: there are some people who feel that the only real transsexuals are those who seek to have SRS. To justify this, they use personal, specific examples that are not applicable to the transsexual population as a whole. This is a logical fallacy – arguing from a specific (the personal examples) to a general (the transsexual population as a whole).
To discuss the transsexual population as a whole, you cannot use what separates them, but only what they have in common, and you can only discuss it in terms of the group, not an individual within that group.
The reverse is common among those transsexuals they annoy – arguing from a general to a specific, where those general commonalities are employed specifically against them to show how they are unlike transsexuals because they as individuals don't meet common group traits.
I use this example only because I am familiar with it, not for any other reason. Both arguments have a great deal of emotional or “common sense” appeal – we generally know our own experiences better than others, and the arguments when made have a certain sense and reasonableness to them.
That doesn't make them logically sound, however – what sounds good isn't always what really is. As I am fond of noting, one of the chief differences between fiction and reality is that fiction always has to make sense. Reality doesn't.
Another example of this is the LGB minus the T concept, where some folks feel that there is no commonality between T issues and problems and LGB issues and problems. Often, this is escalated into a further attack on the B, which is all too often not seen as actual or real, despite the decades of evidence showing that its more prevalent than anything else descriptively, but not necessarily in terms of identity.
One part of the problem involved in all of this is that people do not understand where the boundaries of personal identity end, where the boundaries and the nature of Political Identity begin, and how their particular affinity group fits into the whole thing.
Personal Identity is personal – it applies only to the individual so concerned. One can be respectful of one's personal identity and not quite so much so to the Political identity to which that person may or may not belong.
Since personal identity is limited to the person themselves, for me to say that everyone is Toni D'orsay or like Toni D'orsay, and is indeed, D'orsay-ish, people would, rightfully, sorta have a cow. They are not Toni D'orsay. Indeed, there are very few Toni D'orsay's out there. (some are thankful for that, I hear).
This is what happens, however, when a person identifies, as an example, as a transsexual, but then applies their particular specifics of being a transsexual to others who fit the social description or happen to be aligned together under to collective political identity of Transsexual.
The same can be said of Gay, of Lesbian, of Bisexual, of Queer, of Bear, of Butch, of Femme, and so forth.
Political Identity is a form of affinity group. Affinity Groups are groups which share a commonality, something that binds them together despite the other differences.
Political Identity is a social gestalt. It is not something that is planned or created typically (and certainly not in the era of identity politics), it is something that grows up out of shared experience. It happens “naturally”, as an outgrowth of social networking and interrelationships.
A good example of this is the idea of a “Homosexual Agenda”. In the worldview of those unfamiliar with basic sociology, the Agenda exists because why else and how else could this massive collection of people who all have a strong common want come to be? It is assumed there is an agency, a directing force, and that it has plotted out and planned such a thing.
There is none of that — this is why there is not a copy of the Agenda sitting on shelves and why their saying it seems so silly and yet has some kind of ring of truth to it at the same time. Political Identity, then, is essentially, a really advanced from of Clique. A social group that simply grows up because people have things in common with other people.
In my article on What is Trans, I describe the affinity group of Trans. A quick look will note that it is made up of several very different categories – some of which are generally antithetical in terms of how they exist. In that, I took what is the one thing trans folk hold in common and then noted how the various types of trans folk differ from each other in brief. I could, of course, taken the time to break it down further, to show how the various types I note within the categories all interrelate – their differences and their commonalities. I didn't for a simple reason: that wasn't the point.
The point was to give a brief reference of some fairly basic variances in the Trans community, and to show what it was that tied them together. So from the very simple thing that ties all those diverse groups together, you get Trans. As I've pointed out, this is not an umbrella term. Unless, of course, you consider human to be an umbrella term, or perhaps Citrus, or maybe Stone Fruit. If, as an individual, you consider things like Human, Citrus, or Stone Fruit to be umbrella terms, well, you have a problem, and it is not one I share with you.
Within Trans, there are umbrella terms – I provided a general listing of them. Transsexual, for example, is an umbrella term. Transgender is an umbrella term. Each of them cover a wide range of persons who have something more specific than the Trans classification in common. In looking at the parts of Gender, one can see how these different groups approach gender within the Trans community, and that creates a lot of internal friction. Transsexuals, for example, tend to seek to remain within gender boundaries, while other groups do not.
Nevertheless, it is an affinity group – or a set – that shares something in common, which was discussed in the column as a whole. They are bound together only by that commonality.
The Membership Factor
That commonality may be fleeting, resulting is a situational membership in that group. And that situational membership may be something the individual feels is bad or terrible.
This is typically due to the stigma, real or enacted, felt as a result of the situational membership.
Situational Membership, as I noted in a previous column, does not mean that a person is actually part of that group from their perspective – only from the perspective of others. Situational membership can, in fact, reduce privilege and subject someone to discrimination, but in and of itself is not something that is within their control. A couple examples of this in effect can be found here in the comments section at PHB, where some people have felt as if they were being forced into somehow being Trans when they do not see themselves that way, as well as the example of transsexuals who want to not be related in any way shape or form to other kinds of trans people.
In both cases, the reaction on the part of the individuals is visceral, and because there is a strong worry about being disrespectful to an individual's identity, people make efforts not to include them in order to appease them. Falling prey to the logical fallacies mentioned earlier.
A transsexual who does not see themselves as having that commonality with the whole of Trans is not immediately a member of the Political Identity. Nor does the fact they are not a member of that Political Identity make *other* transsexuals not a part of it.
Since political Identity comes from the collective presence of *several* people, it can only apply in a situation where there are several people with commonality. Since situational membership is not something an individual does of their own accord, but is based in others, that means they cannot change that membership. This is even more true if they become involved with that particular Political Identity.
Mechanism of Action
Social Description, then, is the mechanism of situational membership. If you can be described as such, you may find yourself a member of a particular group situationally.
That is, for an individual, their social description may be altered by the efforts of the Political Identity, but that still doesn't make them part of it except situationally.
As an example, an MtF Transsexual involved in a relationship with a cis man may find themselves with a social description of Gay. That situational membership is based on the social description of the person viewing them.
They may not (and, in truth, most likely are not, but its always possible) identify as gay, and may not identify with Gay men (rather obviously, since they are a woman), but it can and does happen.
By that measure, there can be a social description that is incredibly insulting to transsexual women, as recent events have shown. Again, in strong part, because of the stigma related to such. There's nothing wrong with being gay, but if it is not accurate as a description, people get peeved.
I bristle at the description “straight”, and yet, as a woman that likes men, its accurate. Calling me gay is trying to descrbe me as a woman who likes women, and while there's some small truth to that (I am, after all, technically still married to one), its not exactly something I like. In this case, not because of stigma, but because its simply not accurate. And it is, truly enough for me to say just that in response to such: it's not accurate.
So situational membership can be detrimental to a person's sense of self, but that is, in the end, the problem of the person themselves. Compassion and empathy would suggest to us that we should avoid such things out of an interest in getting along, because as the agents of that social description, we want to honor their personal identity.
“Stop Forcing Your Lifestyle On Me”
Political Identity, however, cannot be forced on someone.
Political identity is not social description, as it arises from the collective shared experience of the members, not from the external understanding of others.
This is important as a distinction. Political Identity – the affinity group, for example, that creates the LGBT or just the L or just the T, and so on – is based on self perceived commonality, while social description is based externally perceived commonality.
Indeed, claiming that Political Identity is forced on someone is making a claim logically akin to the claim that gay people force their lifestyle on others. Since the lifestyle of a gay person I pretty much the lifestyle of any other person in the same demographic group (say, middle income Asian Americans in their mid thirties), we can see that lifestyle isn't forced on anyone, and since we know gay isn't a choice, they can't exactly force it on anyone either.
By this measure, if someone doesn't perceive themselves to be a member of the LGBT Political Identity, they are not. But they do not have control over whether or not they have a situational membership in the social description of LGBT. This underlies a great many of the arguments seen of late in the comments here at Bilerico, where persons seeking to change the Social Description that creates a situational membership for them are attacking the Political Identity they do not have for causing it.
This is, sociologically speaking, reverse causality (putting the cart before the horse).
The social description often gives rise to the shared experiences that create the Political identity. Negative experiences with social description create resentment and foster prejudice (“you faggot”, “you freak”, “you pervert”) which results in a shared experience of prejudice which in turn leads to a formation of Political Identity. An example: there is an argument extant that the activism of “transgender” persons places “transsexual” persons in a bad way. The basis of this argument is social description.
In order to combat that social description, some transsexuals have decided to attack the Political Identity group for creating this social description, and seek to not be part of it. A lot of people have a hard time with this, as it seems counter intuitive, but this is primarily due to the usual lack of familiarity with social systems, which are not always immediately intuitive, despite arising from what is an intuitive source.
The Political Identity group is not the source of the problem, since they are, in fact, caused and created by it. It is the wider society in which they all exist that is the problem. The effort to change things may indeed work — if they can gain enough of the particular segment to create a gestalt, and establish, ultimately, a new Political Identity.
One of the problems currently going on within the T community overall (and one day I'll get into why there is indeed a T community, and it will touch on all of this, but suffice to say that without a community, there would not be a T as part of a political Identity) is that due to social injustices and continued prejudice and persecution both indirect and direct, some Trans folks have come to the conclusion that the T needs to move on its own.
This jibes well with some in the LG community who feel the same. The B is sorta here and there on it. So its possible that it could happen, but there is a very strong force pushing back against that from outside the LGBT community as a whole, and that is why, thus far, it hasn't happened.
What's usually used to justify exclusion, as well, is social description. “'I'm not like those other gay people because I'm more like a man than they are.”
The social description part is “more like a man than they are”, while the identity part is the “gay”.
So the problem is not so much the Political Identiy, but the social description and the lack of awareness that Political identity is outside the realm of it. This is fostered, in part, by the nature of political activity – in explaining to the wider society what is shared in common by the particular Political Identity, one must use social description, and as a result people may find that they share or do not share those things in common as a part of self identity. This creates a potential conflict, between self identity, political identity, and the social descriptions they encounter.
And, thus, we end up with nasty arguments in comment threads throughout the LGBT sphere of influence about how lesbians aren't gay, how gay men hold back the movement, how trans folk are just riding the coattails, and so forth. The solution to this is, in the end, awareness. Not everyone will choose to be aware, however, so it is not a universal awareness, but rather a general awareness of all the various aspects of our particular Affinity Group. It need not reach every person, just a substantial majority of them.
A Closing Question
Given the last four segments, now, I'm going to end this part with a question.
The next part will look more closely at the interrelationships of all these elements within the wider community we are part of (in this case, the US), whereas this one looked at the more internal parts.
Key concepts introduced here are Social Description, Political Identity, Affinity Groups, and Personal Identity.
Given this, and the previous articles, let me ask a question that many will choose not to answer, and I suspect others will answer improperly. The reason there is an LGBT is that there is a commonality of experience that creates the affinity group. Rather than looking at the things that divide and separate us – those things we do not have in common – let us look at what we do have in common that creates that LGBT.
What do you think the common thing shared by all who are LGBT is?