Identities: the ones we construct and the ones that construct us

The past few days have been the commemoration of the martyrdom of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., here at the seminary.  We’ve been talking a lot about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other things that divide us.

We’ve been wondering whether we live in a “post-racial America.”

One of my favorite professors here, Dr. Judy Fentress Williams, said that she hadn’t “gotten the memo” that America had become “post-racial.”  It seems what we want to find is the end of racism, sexism, homophobia, all forms of discrimination, but we are not there.  To pretend otherwise is folly.

I heartily agree.  I’m continually frustrated by the divisions we continue to construct, knowingly and unknowingly.  I’m angered that the construction of the border fence (read “border wall”) continues.

I’m frustrated that I am still caught of guard by my own and others’ attitudes, assumptions, and hesitancies.  It is so hard to move from “us/them” to “I/thou.”

At the same time I hear in “post-racial” and especially “post-gay” an attitude of hope.  While both words could admittedly be used to awful ends, saying that someone has been “cured” of their sexual orientation or that we are “color-blind,” I think there is some value to the conception that we have moved into a new period of identity politics.  Is there more room to talk about the DIVERSE experience of African American people, now that we have Barack Obama for President?  Is there more room to talk about the diversity of experience for those whose sexual orientation or gender expression differ from the norm, now that even Iowa has approved gay marriage?

Where I worked the past two years, at the University of California San Diego, I became a convert to “queer” terminology.  Students at UCSD from the LGBT community often preferred the term “queer” to any label of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or otherwise.  They found an inclusiveness in “queer” that the other labels didn’t satisfy.  Perhaps they were predominantly attracted to people of the same sex, but not exclusively, and thus didn’t feel lesbian or bisexual fit their experience.

Asserting this identity also means that same sex attraction and gender ambiguity must be viewed as natural, normal, even blessed.  Though the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from it’s list of disorders in 1973 (for a fantastic This American Life on that history click here) we still seem to behave in society and the church as if people are deficient.  The attitude of tolerance seems to be just that.  “Because you are, sadly, oriented ONLY to members of your own gender I guess we will accept you.  We’re all sinners.”  Could “Post-gay” or “Queer” mean moving past this “tolerance” toward embrace, toward seeing same gender love as a blessing? (It sure surprised Oprah when Ed Bacon said homosexuality was a blessing.)  Would this allow us to wonder if more people experience same-gender love than are able to claim this natural and blessed part of their identity?  Would this allow more people who are predominantly attracted to members of the same gender to accept that they also experience some attraction to people of the other gender without compromising their sense of identity?

So often our identities are constructed for us.  The other, is defined by those who “other” them:  Sambo and the Poof, Aunt Jemima and drag queens.  At the same time communities can gather to determine and claim their own identity.  Last night the Howard Gospel Choir performed at Virginia Seminary, and we had some church.  There is no doubting the presence of God in the culturally rooted, liberative, expressive, identifying music of Gospel.  The music AFFIRMS the goodness, the createdness, the beauty of the people who sing it and of the culture that birthed such exquisite praise.

All identity is construct.  The trick seems to be learning to develop identies which we value for their distinction and beauty, in which we glimpse the diverse character of the face of God while following the Christ who breaks down the walls that divide us.  Moving to a place where our identities are no longer political, a truly post-racial and post-gay place because racism and homophobia are not the determining factors for the identity of black and queer Americans.  A place where culture and relationship are expressed robustly.  I think this is what Paul had in mind when he said, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Woman nor Man but all are one in Christ.”  Not that our distinction would disappear, but that we would learn the value of our difference for drawing us more fully together in the diversity of God.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Identities: the ones we construct and the ones that construct us

  1. Amen Mike. Alison Stuart writes in “Gay and Lesbian Theologies,” (which is actually queerer than it sounds) that the only _un_ constructed identity we have, as Christians, is the one God gives us in baptism. That is how God knows us, as baptized ones, as his children.

    All those other identities that we build out of our gendered bodies, or our skin color, or the roles we play on the stage of life (husband/wife/mother/father/owner/laborer etc), are contingent, limited, and not worth building theologies on (theologies which mostly seek to proscribe and limit). Among other problems, all those identities we construct, she says, will be placed under “eschatological erasure” (in Christ there is no longer . . .).

    But the identity we receive in baptism . . . that one will last.

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