• Behaviors, identities, and perceived deviance


    Several months ago I came across a Tumblr post that described what the author called “positionality”. They defined it as occupying a social position that does not necessarily correspond to your identity, being perceived as a member of a group you do not actually consider yourself a part of, and being affected by benefits and drawbacks, typically applied to that group.

    After I did some search, I found out that this is not quite what “positionality” means. Various sources I consulted defined “positionality” as your position in the society as a person with certain identities or as the general social context that shapes your identity. Some of these sources also seem to support the idea that identities are “a socially constructed power relationship”

    In paraphiliac and transid communities (the birth place of radeviance) an identity is most often defined as a way to describe self, as a sum of concepts that someone finds personally relevant and applicable. This does not contradict the view that identities are socially constructed, because this construction is not necessarily founded on acceptance of the position that’s assigned to you and may as well be subversive. At the core, our identities are a form of a dialogue we have with the society.

    However, it would be extremely useful to have a term that describes specifically how we are seen, in opposition to how we see ourselves. I’m hesitant to use “positionality” as this term, despite the original context I found it under, and in this post I will say “social perception”. 

    Social perception – your social position in relation to privilege and oppression that may or may not correspond to your identity.

    Sources of social perception

    One of the common ways to end up being perceived as a certain group is to engage in behaviors, associated with that group. Historically, behavior was often used as the founding ground for identity, and that’s why older identity terminology may center behavior. For example, the word “transvestite” (the prototype and origin of the word “transgender”) literally means “crossdresser”, and older definitions of “lesbian” cite sexual activity between women. 

    Whether you identify as transgender or as a lesbian, if you do something the majority associates with these identities, you may end up being grouped with them. And even if you don’t feel like you belong in these groups, the oppression you’ll receive will be very real. This often slips away from many queer discourse bloggers, who believe that those not sharing a particular identity cannot be victimized by this particular bigotry. But it’s important to remember that bigots, and the society as a whole, are not aware of the full nuance of minority identities.

    Lack of nuance is another source of social perception. From the point of view of the average person, queerness is amorphous and monolithic. A medially transitioning person who engages in typically “same sex” relationships but does not consider themself gay or trans and a gay trans person who is single and doesn’t transition are perceived similarly (not to mention that being publicly queer is by itself a form of behavior that attracts aggressive attention). 

    The same attitude is extended to minority ethnicities that have some vague common ground (e.g. facial features or popular religion), people with a nonsexual fascination with kodocon who are assumed to be maps, able-bodied people who use mobility aids for any reason, and many more. 

    Social perception vs identity

    It’s worth establishing one more time that the way someone is perceived does not say anything certain about their identity, and the identity is not a flawless predictor of perception. 

    The roles you are given externally do shape your view of yourself and your place in the world to some degree. But they do not have to perfectly reflect in how you see yourself and what you want from life. Likewise, your identity has impact on how you are grouped socially and how the world interacts with you. But that does not mean you are seen correctly 100% of the time and only have experiences, specific to your group. And you do not have to give up your identity in order to bring attention to how your perception harms you. In fact, being forced to choose between fighting injustice and identifying a certain way (like trans men speaking up about misogyny are forced to choose) is by itself a tool of oppression.

    There is a push, as was demonstrated by the sources I found on positionality, to attach identity to something strictly externally assigned. However, we will not achieve the liberation of self without allowing people to identify with concepts they were not already given.

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