What’s In A Name?
Historically, Lenape did not tell people outside of their family the birth name of their children. The birth name was considered a reflection of the child’s true identity and purpose—making the child known to spirit beings. To protect the child’s identity, and to protect the child from enemies, another name was given and used. This name might change over a person’s lifetime
I write this on Valentine’s Day, the annual eve of my birthday.
This year, being 50, single, and without children during these particular 48 hours makes ever-present in my mind my personal experiences of those oft posed and rarely solicited remarks and questions about my identity, sexual orientation, and mental health.
• Some Conservative Christian family members have assumed I am gay and too ashamed or afraid to tell them. There was a long time, mostly in my 20s and 30s, when they regularly initiated the “I hate the sin but love the sinner” conversation with me–usually over the holidays and always framed by painfully uncomfortable reassurances that would go in one of two directions: 1) if I just told them that I was gay they would still love me; or 2) “as long as you’re not practicing….” it would be okay if I were gay. In either direction, I was and still am fated as the “lost gay sister” they pray for.
• Some colleagues at the campus where I work and on all sides of the racial-ethnic-national-class spectrum of self-definition and self-perception have assumed that I am a “lesbian” because I do not have a “family.” (Stronger but not only in the College of Ethnic Studies where my department is located.) I am regularly introduced by colleagues on campus to the “other one” in their department in a not-so-subtle hope of match-making us into some marriage or civil union bliss that looks like a family to them.
• Some peers have asked me if I am gay or lesbian, as though there are no other options, and then become painfully uncomfortable when I do not answer them. Or answer them but then ask what they mean by those terms. “Can you only be x or y?”
• Some have asked me straight-out, “Are you queer?” And when I say I don’t understand the question or what they mean by the term, are shocked and confused. (After all, queer is the more radical identity.)
• I cannot tell you how many people have assumed I have never married because I suffer from some kind of psychological disorder (like depression) that prevents me from developing a “healthy, long-term relationship.”
• I cannot tell you how many people have assumed I “can’t have children” because, obviously if I could, I would have them. At least one.
• Many, many people assume I must be lonely. Deeply, inconsolably lonely. All the time and in some horribly unspeakable, tragic way. So horrible that they never ask. They just feel bad for me.
• Many indigenous people believe I must not be “traditional” because I do not have children (at the least) or a family (at the most).
In each of these instances, people want me to be something that they know. A label, any label, that would make sense out of my being 50, single, and without children. Because a label would mean that they know me. They could recognize me. They could find me.
Freedom, In Quotes
Of course, claiming and exercising the freedom to say, or not to say, who one is and is not is a privilege of political context and cultural significance.
Many indigenous peoples have not been able to say who they are–have been hidden or lied about by family members trying to protect them from imperialist militaries and local militia that were publicly torturing and killing them for being homosexual, or gang raping women to humiliate them and “their men.”
Many have paid for their lives, even in our “modern,” progressive world, for saying who they are and who they love.
For these any many other reasons, self-identifying or being identified as a woman and/or a non-heterosexual (for those biologically male or female) is a defiant political act worthy of respect and honor.
What If I Were Normal?
I write this on Valentine’s Day on the eve of my 51st birthday. Private messages of condolence and “check in” on my mental sense of well-being abound. And so I respond with this:
What if being a woman, at 50, single, without children were considered normal? What would that world look like?
Ageists would be so outdated. Maybe even having come to value all body types and shapes, faces and wrinkles, grey hairs, gravity butts, and age spots. Maybe they wouldn’t even think about themselves and one another in the standards of physical beauty reflected in icons of youth and anorexia.
Monogamists would enjoy all types of relationships. Maybe even stop trying to force every person on the planet into a life-long contract about protecting property rights within “families” and make space for those who value the experience of many different loves and desires and pleasures.
Marriage advocates–heterosexual and non–would be ashamed to admit it. And constitutional, civil rights would not be confined to and by any particular form of marriage or family.
Parents would calm down. Yes, having children is a blessing and important. But there are many other kinds of blessings in this world–for women who are not only important because they can bear children.
Women could relax. They would be honored for who they are. They would not have to fear physical violence.
Homophobes would get over themselves.
In that world, labels would work differently. I and others who have made unconventional choices about their lives and identities wouldn’t have to worry about our status, safety, and well-being. We wouldn’t have to make excuses or defend ourselves. And we wouldn’t be socially humiliated by family and friends for not conforming to their expectations of what happiness looks like (though I remain deeply unconvinced that happiness should be a goal).
Until I live in that world?
Am I queer? My only answer can be this: why do you ask?