The map of someone’s experiences of sex, gender and sexuality can be very simple or very complicated. It can also change gradually over the course of a person's life, or even change from one situation to another. We call this state of change fluidity. This growth can affect your life to a greater or lesser degree.
A person who identified as a boy, but maybe always felt a bit “off” could later realize an inner sense of self as a woman, or could even feel a sense of self that shifts between different genders. A woman who has always thought of herself as straight could suddenly find herself, in adulthood, attracted to another woman for the first time. Many people spend a period of time questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, perhaps eventually finding what feels most authentic to them.
Even straight, cisgender people experience fluidity in their sexuality and gender to some degree. Most people experience a dramatic increase in attraction to other people around puberty, and that's also sexual fluidity. The way a small child expresses her girlhood is a very different expression of gender than she’ll have as an adult expressing womanhood; that's an example of gender fluidity.
Recognizing that change is a natural part of life, and looks a bit different for everyone, is a key step toward fully accepting people of diverse genders and sexualities.
Every individual has a unique set of life experiences.
People often feel a special connection to others whose experiences reflect their own in some way. A person may grow up sharing a language, religion, or culture with others and feel connected to this heritage. A person may find that a personal trait of theirs that had always felt isolating is actually shared by others, and feel connected to a new community.
These experiences of connection (or isolation) have huge effects on our life journeys and our personalities. They come together to make up our identity or conception of self.
Identities come from a person’s relationship to race, culture, religion, language, class, sex, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, age, weight and countless other areas of life. People can have multiple identities and each one can influence the degree to which we are marginalized or privileged.
A person of color who is also gay and a woman can experience each of these facets of herself as identities.
Identities intersect with one another to create a more complex identity – an idea that Kimberlé Crenshaw put forward as intersectionality. In other words, a white gay man will have a very different experience of gay identity than a lesbian of color will have, and the barriers they face will look different.
Each individual is a complicated bundle of these experiences. Some of them will seem invisible to us because they do not cause us any hardship or because we grew up believing them to be the “default” identity. Other identities feel salient, or integral, to who we are. They are more easily recognized because we have to fight to exist in them with dignity or because we can always see how they have flavored our lives in a distinctive way. It’s important to remember that there is no universal human experience and no such thing as a “default” identity. White is not the default; cisgender is not the default; straight is not the default; etc. Each person’s individual identities are their own default and we should respect those.
What about you? Which identities are the most important to you, the first ones you think of when describing yourself? Which do you take for granted?
Many of the terms we’ve gone over in this web course developed as a way of giving a name to lived experiences – from bisexual, to genderqueer, to intersex. None of these identity terms were created just for fun; they each came about because there was a need to describe a specific life experience that there was previously no way of talking about or unifying around.