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"What’s In a Name?" Classification and Confusion Amid Rapid Social Evolution

This splicing of identity into finer categories might seem superfluous to those of us who’re comfortable with our group identification, especially if it’s one that has the privilege of being socially acceptable... But even those very broad terms come loaded with social distinctions.

In 1994 I was a junior in high school and my dream was to be a Marine Corps Infantry Officer. I went to the recruiting office every day after school just to hang out. I watched recruiting videos about Force Recon, poured over any Marine literature I could find, and soaked up any advice my recruiters were willing to dish out. I helped encourage my friends to join the Marine Corps, wore Marine Corps t-shirts in school, and sneered condescendingly at any peers who enlisted in other branches of service. In short, I couldn’t wait to be a Marine, to be defined as a Marine.

The form I signed, the one that sent me to Parris Island, South Carolina for training, had the question “Are you a homosexual?” lined through it with ball point pen due to the implementation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In my youthful ignorance, I remarked that I had no problem answering that question. “They shouldn’t have gotten rid of it in the first fuckin’ place,” I cursed in good Marine Corps fashion. I was a God-fearing, Southern Baptist Christian, Republican, Heterosexual Male and I was about to tack Marine onto that list.

But most importantly, I thought of myself as an American. Not just any kind of American, but a “good” American. How could I not be with all those identifiers? I was part of that small town America. We were good Americans who didn’t demand more than our fair share. We didn’t think we were “special” and we didn’t whine. We weren’t the ones fucking things up. That was the Liberal, Godless, Feminist, Democrat, Peace-loving Hippies who only thought about themselves.

Twenty years later, I’m everything I’m despised back then. I’m Agnostic-Atheist who views the world through a philosophical Buddhist lens. I’m a pragmatic progressive who supports the Democratic Party, and is still a staunch supporter of President Obama. I’m a Feminist, Gay, Queer and Trans-Gender ally. I’m still an American, but most importantly I’m an evolved human being.

My friend and fellow columnist, Chez Pazienza, wrote a great piece about Facebook’s recent change in their gender guidelines. Facebook, in an attempt toward inclusiveness, created more options for people who define themselves beyond the traditional male/female dynamic. This is a point that humanity has been struggling with since the Ancient Greeks: how do we define ourselves? In effort to give a human being an exact definition Plato called man “a featherless biped”, using Socrates’ definition. In response Diogenes of Sinope brought a plucked chicken to the Academy and proclaimed “Behold! I have brought you a man!” Afterwards the definition was amended to include “broad flat nails”.

This splicing of identity into finer categories might seem superfluous to those of us who’re comfortable with our group identification, especially if it’s one that has the privilege of being socially acceptable. Other than being somewhat uncool, there’s nothing shocking about being a white, heterosexual male. But even those very broad terms come loaded with social distinctions. Besides being a skin tone, white refers to the dominant ethnic group in America, and because of that it’s synonymous with the status quo.

Most people’s familiarity with history is through general courses they took in high school or core classes in college. They think historians are living repositories of trivia, able to answer any historical fact. However the study of history is concerned with the particular, and the interpretation of historical events using very limited, and often biased evidence. This is why, for historians, it’s important to use words that are limited in their scope, and exact in their meaning.

Historians tend to qualify the shit out of everything they say, and like a lot of academics, they use a lot of, so-called, “big” words. To paraphrase a professor of mine, this isn’t because they want to sound smart. It’s for the purpose of specificity. It’s to clarify exactly what is being discussed.

The reason terms like cis-gender, and hetero-normative exist is because of this attempt at specificity, just like African American. It’s a term that is used by an oppressed group, one that doesn’t fit within the parameters of a dominant group’s definition, to define who they are. Rather than be dictated as to who they are they seek to define themselves which is a crucial step in self-determination.

But like all words they’re flexible. They can be used both positively and negatively. I personally don’t like the term cis-male being applied to me because it’s been used in a derogatory manner to dismiss my point. My argument lacks merit because I’m engaged in “cis” thinking. However it’s simply a term that denotes a status that’s inherent within me. I was born a male, and I identify as that gender even if I don’t apply “cis-male” to myself. I simply don’t care for it because it’s a term that’s being applied to me by someone else. However I have the privilege of being perfectly fine with the status quo definition of male. I wouldn’t force that onto someone, just as much I don’t appreciate something that’s forced on me.

As our species evolves so will our definitions. At the foundation of the US the only people who mattered, who had a say in our democracy, were white, land-owning men. That definition of who matters has grown to include people of color, and women. Some of our definitions will become more encompassing, like who gets to be a voter, and new ones will arise in order to achieve specificity like cis-gender. This isn’t because these people wish to separate themselves, to be “snowflakes”, but rather to find their own place in the pantheon of humanity.

It’s not a question if we’re creating something different. It’s about giving people who are already here, who feel as if they’re excluded, to gain their humanity by being recognized for who they are. Those of us who already have our definitions shouldn’t chastise those that don’t. We should embrace, and encourage them. By broadening the definition of what it means to be a human being we can be more than just a “featherless biped” ADD “broad flat nails”. We expand our horizons. We unchain ourselves from biases and prejudices previously left unexamined.

When we do we become more than we currently are.

We progress.