James Adam Sanders’ exhibit discussed the complications of identity. photo by Madison Connell

Claiming identity gives voice to otherwise unrepresented communities

Even if identity isn’t a big deal to you, it is still important to respect its significance to others.

To start: I’m bisexual, I’m disabled and I’m proud of it.

On February 21, I went to the art gallery of “Part of Something Bigger” by James Adam Sanders. On a stand, he had little building blocks for people to interweave that say “I am” with a blank for participants to show who they are. Some said they were “strong,” some “enough,” and one said “gay AF.” I decided that I wanted to include one of my identities in it, so I wrote that “I am disabled.”

Before writing it in, I told the artist what I was going to put. He tried to encourage me to put something else and assured me that I am more than my disability.

He wasn’t wrong. I am more than my disability. I am smart, I am kind, I am creative and so much more. But I also disagree that it’s inherently bad to proudly state your identity.

Many of the artist’s pieces were about different social activism causes, like gay rights, immigrant rights and racial equality. At the same time, he was passionate about what he called the “Not a Box” movement, which believes people shouldn’t need to state their identity because a person is more than the sum of their parts.

I can see where people who believe in this are coming from. People are so diverse, language used in labels often fails to encompass all of a person. But I also believe that identities are important to some people, and that should be okay.

I should clarify that I don’t have any animosity towards Sanders. I understand that to him, identities can be limiting, especially when the outside world tries to push it upon you.

For me personally, I am proud that I am part of the LGBT+ community and that I am disabled. Being a part of these communities has helped me find more confidence in myself.

It took time for me to be comfortable with these identities. For a while, I was self-conscious about how my health issues sometimes limit me. I would have never imagined getting a wheelchair, partially because I never could convince myself that I was sick enough to get one. A professor’s recommendation is what gave me that push to purchase what is now one of the most valuable things in my life.

It took getting this wheelchair and researching the disability community for me to finally own up to being disabled, even if I had had most of the same symptoms for years. Of course there are many ways people can be disabled, but buying my first wheelchair was the step for me acknowledge this part of my life.

photo by Madison Connell

Claiming this identity gave me confidence. It encouraged me to finally own what health issues I am working with and to be proud that these obstacles have given me a new more distinct view on the world. I am more empathetic and I am stronger for what I have gone through.

It’s a similar story with me and my bisexual identity. I also claimed this identity in college, and I also found a community that lifts me up and encourages me to love whomever I want to love.

Identity is important in the LGBT+ community. People in this community have been discriminated against for a long time, so they like to be proud of what they identify as in part to resist against bigotry.

There are some identities that seem similar, such as bisexual and pansexual, but are different to those that use them. I personally say I’m bisexual, but if someone accidentally says that I am pansexual, then that is okay with me. That’s not true of most people though. Some people very much prefer one to the other, for reasons as varied as the people that use them.

One person might use pansexual because they believe it’s important to acknowledge the difference that for them love is present regardless of gender. Another person might use bisexual because they have used the word for a long time and don’t want to change it, or because of something as simple as they like the colors on the flag better (which, I’ll admit, I’m a little guilty of). No matter the reason behind someone’s identity, it is important to respect it.

Another important example of taking care in what precise wording is used that I have seen in the disabled community is the word disabled itself. Part of the disabled community prefers to use people-first language, such as “person with disabilities,” others use identity-first language such as “disabled person,” and still others more prefer “differently abled.” Everyone has different reasons behind what they choose for themselves, and as long as it is not hurting others, it is important to be respectful of that decision.

While I am using my personal examples of being disabled and bisexual, this also goes for race, ethnicity, gender and so on.

Just as important as respecting someone’s wishes to use an identity, however, is their wishes to not use an identity. If someone does not want to be labeled as disabled, do not call them so! It is up to each individual as to how they identify. If someone doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into what they find a limiting box, do not do that to them.

Especially important is to not call someone an identity that once was considered offensive and is now being reclaimed if that person does not want to be called that. While some people in the LGBT+ community identify as queer, a large amount of people still despise that term from the days of its previous negative connotation and its still common current abuse as derogatory.

I want to be a catalyst for change. Through my identities, I can speak up for others that might be marginalized in the LGBT+ or disabled community. People can also do this as an ally, but internalizing a label can help give you more stake in the game.

In addition, it is hard to talk about an issue that doesn’t have a name or face to it. Without the word “black,” for example, it is hard to talk about that group of people and how society can serve them better. Labels aren’t inherently bad unless we make them that way.

Saying my identity to others shows that it is something I consider an important aspect in my life. It brings the stigma out of saying the words disabled or bisexual each time someone uses them, normalizing these words in the process. Me saying my identity shows it’s okay for others to say theirs too.

In the end, it comes down to respect. Let people be proud of their identities. Listen to people before you try to assume their identities, and respect their decisions once they tell you. And if people’s identities change over time, respect that too.

Post Author: Madison Connell