Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

A common way that people invalidate certain marginalized identities is to claim that they developed as a result of trauma.

When I write it out that way and think about it outside of the context of any current civil rights movements, it sounds completely bananas. How could attributing someone’s identity to trauma possibly invalidate it? Isn’t it common sense that going through trauma often changes people permanently? Would anyone consider it invalid for a veteran to be afraid of fireworks or for someone who survived a flood to avoid going swimming?

As it turns out, when trauma gets tangled up with marginalized identities, all common sense flies out the window.

The problem is that many people will only accept marginalized identities if they view them as unchangeable, unchoosable, and biological in origin. Consequently, many advocates for people with marginalized identities believe that the only way to increase acceptance of marginalized identities is to present them that way. (This includes many people with marginalized identities themselves, as we do not come out of the womb with a perfect understanding of our identities any more than we come out of the womb with those identities already in place.)

If not for the fact that many of us grew up already steeped in the Born That Way narrative, I think more people would see this as the massive insult that it is. In this view, being [insert marginalized identity here] is only okay because they didn’t choose it, the poor things, they were born that way, and if they could change it, they would! Few liberals will say this out loud, but even tolerant people often maintain the belief that marginalized identities are inherently inferior and that of course those people would choose to be normal if they could.

That is insulting and oppressive.

It’s also why so many people, marginalized and privileged alike, are so uncomfortable with the idea that trauma can alter identities that are presumed to be congenital. Many deny that such identities are valid at all, which is how you get comments like, “Just because you had some shitty boyfriends doesn’t mean you have to turn lesbian!” or “Just because you had a bad experience in church doesn’t mean you have to become an atheist!” My first thought was always, Well, they didn’t have to, but they did…

If identity is static, then trauma can’t change it. It can perhaps create the impression for a little while that it has changed, but then you recover from the trauma and go back to your usual straight/cis/allosexual/religious/etc self. That is a much more comforting thought both for bystanders and for trauma survivors themselves, I’d imagine.

And sometimes that’s exactly how it works. For instance, someone might completely lose interest in sex following a sexual assault, but as they heal they start to regain that interest. (Note, though, that while people heal and move forward, they don’t generally “go back to their old selves” completely. Trauma changes the brain.)

But sometimes, a person in that situation will never become interested in sex again, and they may not even want to. They may incorporate “not wanting sex” as part of their identity and find other ways to recover from what they went through.

Most people would be more comfortable identifying the latter person as asexual because their identity, while shaped by trauma, then becomes permanent. The problem is that you can never really know which it’s going to be. It’s always permanent–until it isn’t.

That’s why to me, it makes the most sense for 1) individuals to choose their own labels and identifiers based on their own perception of themselves and 2) everyone to recognize that identifying a certain way can be helpful even if that identity later changes. Even if you’re temporarily not interested in sex or men or presenting as a binary gender or whatever due to trauma, you might still benefit from having access to a community that affirms that and provides support.  

The arguments against this view generally boil down to:

  • But if marginalized identities can change, then what’s to stop bigots from trying to force us to change them?

Well, they already are. That’s the whole gist of reparative therapy for queer and trans people. But besides that, the idea that identities can change does not necessarily imply that we can intentionally change them, and even if we can, that does not at all imply that it is acceptable to try to force someone to change their identity against their will. If identities can change, then I want to believe that identities can change, whether or not some bigots may try to misuse that information. I’m not going to base my understanding of reality on what bigots can and cannot run with, or what’s politically expedient.

  • If trauma can cause an identity shift, doesn’t that imply that that identity is A Bad Thing?

No. Not every result of trauma is bad in and of itself, even if you view the trauma as fundamentally bad. People have always found silver linings in the terrible things they’ve gone through. My mental illness caused me to choose this career that I love. Others find that traumatic experiences bring them closer to other people or make them more empathetic.

But also, some people may view their own queerness, asexuality, or other marginalized identity as a negative thing. Much of that is probably caused by the marginalization they’re experiencing, and it’s our job to fight that marginalization rather than shaming people for reacting quite predictably to it. It makes me sad when people hate being queer or ace or so on, but they don’t have to change in response to my feelings about their feelings. I think it’s important to honor all narratives of marginalization, including those that don’t have a happy ending attached (at least not yet).

  • But if someone has only recently become [insert marginalized identity here], and may stop being that soon, then they haven’t experienced As Much Oppression as others in our group and have no place here.

This comes up often in conversations about bisexual women who have only dated men. If they’ve never been with a woman, the thinking goes, they haven’t really experienced what it’s like to be bi and have no place in bi/queer spaces.

Well, that’s bullshit on various levels and I’ve written about that elsewhere. In a nutshell, membership in an oppressed group isn’t about how many Units of Oppression you’ve experienced; it’s about who you are. Besides, bisexual people can absolutely experience homophobia and biphobia without ever actually dating someone of the same gender.

Of course, if your identity actually changes, that’s a little different. If you’ve always been straight and now suddenly you’re a lesbian, then you haven’t experienced homophobia–at least not in a personal way–until now. And if your interest in men suddenly returns one day, then you may stop experiencing homophobia at that point. (Although, as a sidenote, someone like that would probably end up identifying as queer, pan, or bi, so the homophobia would absolutely still be there, and probably with a nice side order of biphobia too.) But again, membership in an oppressed group isn’t about how many Units of Oppression you’ve experienced; it’s about who you are. And yes, who you are can change.

  • People who only became [insert marginalized identity here] as a result of trauma have a completely different experience than those of us who were Born That Way, so they don’t belong to our group.

What this belies is that everyone in a particular group has had a completely different experience than everyone else in that group. In fact, someone who knew they were gay when they were 5 years old and was rejected by their religious family as a result probably has more in common with someone who started to identify as gay after a trauma in their 20s and was then rejected by their religious family, than with someone who knew they were gay when they were 5 years old and was immediately accepted by their progressive family and has received nothing but support and affirmation from them since.

Yet we don’t invalidate people’s identities just because they are fortunate to have families who accept them. We recognize, when relevant, that those who have that fortune don’t always understand the experiences of those who don’t, but nobody always understands anyone’s experiences. In fact, it’s probably a good idea for most people to cultivate a greater appreciation for how different their experiences and perspectives are from those of others, even others they have a lot in common with. This is a great place to start.

  • But if they’re not even going to stay [insert marginalized identity here], why should they get the benefits of belonging to our group?

Because nobody knows if they’re going to stay [insert marginalized identity here] forever. Because they still need support and affirmation right now. Because support and affirmation are not finite resources, to be doled out sparingly and only to those who Really Deserve it. Because this is a marginalized identity, not a middle school cafeteria clique.

And look, I get that it’s all kinds of painful to have to confront the fact that other marginalized people (seem to) have it easier than us for whatever reasons. Sometimes I’ve wished to wake up straight tomorrow. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) I’ve been jealous of queer people who have been able to make long-term committed relationships with someone of the “opposite” gender work. But it’s easy to assume that others have it easier when they really don’t, and besides, those feelings are ours to work through and not others’ to manage for us by denying themselves community.

  • So are you saying that all [insert marginalized identity here] people are only that way because of trauma?

No. I’m saying that those who say that their identity changed as a result of trauma, had their identity change as a result of trauma.

  • If someone says their identity changed as a result of trauma, they were really that identity all along.

I don’t buy that. Human brains are way more complicated than that. And as I said at the beginning of this piece, we already know that trauma can change the brain permanently. Of course, I’d love to see some research on the impact of trauma on sexual and gender identities, but that’s going to be difficult to approve and fund as long as there’s this massive taboo against even acknowledging that it can happen. In the meantime, I prefer to trust people when they speak about their own experiences. As I always say: we don’t always have a perfect understanding of our own brains, but we’re each the closest there is to an expert on it.

If some aspect of your identity changed as a result of a trauma you experienced, I want you to know that that identity is valid whether it lasts a day or the rest of your life, whether you accept it right away or someday or never, whether you wish you could go back to who you were before or not. Identity is not determined by cause or duration or amount of oppression experienced; identities are self-defined.

Can identities be shaped by trauma? Yes. Can identities change, even multiple times throughout someone’s life? Yes. Are those identities any less valid than identities that last from birth to death? No.

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Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid