Relation, Alienation, and Discontinuity — Reflections on “Identity”
In case you are somehow unaware at this point, the popular Youtuber Abigail Thorn, creator of Philosophy Tube recently came out as a trans woman. Her video, “Identity” tackles the question of her gender as a philosophical essay on identity itself, how how it relates to the self, others, society, and marginalization. I’ve been aware of Abigail’s work for sometime, although I admit I have not followed her closely. I’ve been sitting with some thoughts about her video, as it was extremely evocative. The most important line, for me, is: “If you remembered things from your life, what if your interpretation of that thing has changed? Would that make you a different person?”
Interpreting my life through the lens of gender creates a discontinuity for me. It’s felt like a severance of my memory from my self. I think back to being my late teens and early twenties, when I was just starting to feel less defined by being awkward and uncomfortable with myself. I really latched onto things that felt appealing to men. If identity is something that is not just personal, but relational, I sought ways to better relate to groups I wanted to be a part of, because that’s what made sense to me given societal pressure. I “knew” from a young age that I wasn’t “allowed” to be close friends with girls, and I had more tools to form an identity around things the guys around me found appealing. These were not conscious thoughts or passed down from any authority in my life, but are rules my mind came up with in response to the confusing world around me. I focused on stuff like video games, sports, having a beard, all things that feel into a certain niche that felt comfortable enough to occupy. Not some “macho” vision of masculinity, but a type of masculinity that fit as well as I could muster. These things that made sense to men and could form a jumping off point to a deeper level of friendship. Going into high school, I was really interested in big questions and philosophy and exploring ideas through writing, but I channeled these feelings towards the more “rational, male-coded” hard sciences. Don’t get me wrong, I still think hard sciences are great, but it was a distinct turn in my interests. And this identity led me to many genuine connections I treasure deeply.
But, as I formed an identity around certain relational aspects, there was also a certain degree of alienation from the very people I could connect with, feeling like I wasn’t quite like them, even though I “should”. When I began to relate to the experiences of trans people, it opened up a whole new relational paradigm for my identity. A new interpretive lens for my memories, my relationships, my interests, and even my body. It can be exhilarating and exhausting. It also fractures the basis on which I’ve built a large portion of my life, and reshapes it into something different. Something that feels powerful and exciting, but unknown, terrifying, and like it can’t coexist with every coping mechanism I’ve built to live and exist in the world. And because it’s built on this relational, interpretive basis, it often doesn’t feel “real”. Because it’s a discontinuity. And it contradicts other relational aspects I’ve constructed a life from. Even what I’ve written in this thread is an act of interpretation of my life that only has validity insofar as it feels valid. But it’s real. It’s real in the same way as the deeper layers of my relationships are., which is a beautiful thing. So, thank you for showing a path towards this way of knowing about myself, Abigail. I can see out of the trench and into “no man’s land”, which perhaps makes the metaphor work even better than I thought before.