Is identity fluid?

Last January, I gave myself a buzz cut and decided to dress in what is traditionally considered masculine clothing (backwards baseball cap, boxers, loose t-shirt and jeans). I researched posture, gesture and phrases that tend to be gendered and decided to incorporate more of those typically considered to be masculine into my vocabulary.I felt my range of choices for how to perform my identity was limited by what people accepted as legitimate or even comprehensible expressions of femininity. I felt I had to police my body and behavior according to certain norms that I wasn’t sure I was following because I actually wanted to. I was also deeply curious to see what it would be like to present myself to people in a more masculine way and to see whether they would treat me differently; perhaps I would feel like I was more accurately portraying who I am and what I’m like to people in their snap judgments of me. For those reasons, I altered my gender presentation.

Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me that people would simply refuse to interact with me in a way that revealed their perceptions of how I was now presenting my gender; nor did I anticipate that they would be mad. Very mad. Several people told me that they felt I was deliberately “manipulating” them in some kind of social experiment they didn’t want to be a part of. They felt like I assumed that they were stuck in a socially constructed, and therefore “fake” reality and that I saw myself as a privileged outside observer, like Neo in The Matrix. They felt like I was treating them as though they were inferior. This surprised me in a couple of ways. Just because a reality is socially constructed doesn’t make it any less potent and, for all practical purposes, real. Second, what I was doing seemed tantamount to anyone else’s choices regarding what to wear and how to act, even though I was more consciously seeking to give people a certain impression by virtue of altering my habits.

Why grow your hair long and wear a Lacoste polo, tight jeans and Uggs? Don’t those choices signify to others a certain degree of wealth and conventionality? How are such choices any less “socially manipulative” than having short hair and wearing boxers? The people who rebuked me said the difference between those examples was that one was an authentic expression of someone’s identity; the other was a game. But that just begs the question: What causes subjective feelings about the authenticity of one’s identity? Do subjective feelings about identity come innately or are they socially mediated? Are the internal and external causes even separable? I’m still not sure.

I was also told that I was changing my gender presentation to attract attention to myself, and was reprimanded for not being sincere about “wanting to be a boy.” This statement implied that changing gender presentation necessarily meant wanting to completely jump categories from 100 percent feminine to 100 percent masculine. But, in my opinion, this incorrectly assumes the existence of a gender binary. Gender is not an all-or-nothing matter; everyone has traits from both categories. In all honesty, I think that we all, on the inside, are gender queer – that is, existing outside that binary – but are forced to identify with one group or the other because we want other people to understand who we are.

The assumptions regarding my “insincerity” also implied that adopting attributes traditionally associated with the opposite gender was the realm of transgender people, and that experimentation was disrespectful: a parody or dismissal of the struggles faced by the transgender community. This charge was more serious and bordered on politically charged territory. However, it touched on an ongoing debate between some trans-activists and gender queers about whether identity is fluid, that is, if feeling more masculine or feminine inside can change over time or whether identity is fixed from the get-go. I certainly didn’t intend to imply that identity couldn’t be fixed for others, but I wasn’t willing to foreclose on the possibility of gender fluidity, either. I just wanted to find out for myself.

After six weeks of my experiment, it remained unclear to me whether identity is innate or arises out of social interactions, whether it is fluid or fixed. I couldn’t decide how I wanted to present myself because I wasn’t sure how to answer these underlying questions about nature of gender identity.  Again, I still can’t. While some people might already know who they are, others of us are unsure. So, I would request some patience while those of us in the latter group try to figure it out. That said, there is one thing I am sure everyone agrees about:  that buzz cut wasn’t flattering.


Madeline Vuong ’14 is from Austin, Texas. She lives in West College.