Transactional Identities

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Image from the Thematic Apperception Test, remixed by author.

My whole family was Republican, and my boyfriend was Republican, and all my friends were Democrats, so I became a Libertarian to vex everyone. I’d volunteered for the Democratic party before, as a teen, and had railed against social conservatism by screaming at Bill O’Reilly when my mom put him on the TV, but at some point the tensions between my morals and her morals were too challenging, so I guess I decided to not have any morals at all.

Libertarianism appeals to a lot of naive young people because it is inherently adolescent in its motives and means. I liked the idea of freedom, had longed my whole life to bust out and run wild, to say whatever without recourse, not that I had much to say. Libertarianism ended conversations. It thwarted conventional, party-line fights about wrong and right and how the economy worked and what government should do. My family and boyfriend couldn’t argue with Libertarianism because it took their trickle-down, laizzes-may-care economic perspective to an extreme they couldn’t stomach but also couldn’t logically express fault with. My friends couldn’t argue with Libertarianism because I was adamant about gay marriage and anti-racism and explained away corporate injustices by saying we needed tort reform, and none of us understood what the fuck I meant by that, myself included, so discussion kind of drifted off.

It was easy to not give a shit when I was a Libertarian. I ceased being mad about politics. I was doing more than running away from hard feelings. I was throwing myself past apathy, directly into a smug sense of remove. I was in Ohio in 2008 and I voted for Ron Paul instead of the first Black President. Can you believe it? I don’t know if I even believed any of it.

I loved free speech. I was a free speech absolutist. I did an entire PhD dissertation on free speech attitudes. I asked people about whether Nazis should be allowed to organize in their towns. When people on my committee expressed discomfort at that possibility, I shrugged and said yes, in many countries such a thing would be seen as wrong and would be illegal, but it’s legal here, so that is the standard. I watched Nazis return to political prominence shortly thereafter and immediately changed my mind.

I stopped believing, at some along the way, that market efficiency was not the most desirable thing. I guess I just met people who had legitimately suffered. I could no longer ignore that lots of Libertarians, like my beloved Ron Paul, were anti-abortion in the extreme. I started to need that kind of freedom more than I needed the freedom to say hateful words. I needed the ability to be uncomfortable, to be mad even, at people who disagreed with me. I shelved that part of me away, or changed it, and by the time I had the opportunity to vote for Obama again, I was ready to take it.

From a young age, I cared a lot about LGBT rights. I cared with a passion that felt personal, but I couldn’t figure out how or why it was personal. I got to wishing I could be a lesbian, because maybe that would change my family’s beliefs and their politics.

I didn’t understand that wanting to be gay means you probably already are. I wanted things, but I saw that I could not have them, so I denied myself desire. I denied it so viciously it became what I was. Asexual was a word popping up on forums I frequented. It was a convenient burlap sack to cover my nakedness with.

I wanted things. I wanted narrow hips, I wanted his angular face, his leanness, his flat chest, her almost-not-there boobs, maybe no boobs at all, I wanted to be him, I wanted him and I to meld completely until we were the same thing, I loved when people said I looked like him, when the facial recognition software said I looked like that guy, I wanted to be so close there was no me left, only him and his love for me. But I couldn’t want that, it was pathetic, it was creepy. My wanting was a big gaping, festering wound that had to be hidden away.

I was a person removed. Asexual. I could not have him, be him, be what I wanted, have what I needed, so I made an identity out of having no needs. I told everyone. They were all dubious.

My first boyfriend, when I did finally get one, kind of punished me for using the word. He didn’t like how it implied I had no desire for him. He couldn’t know that I was using the word to mask just how much I wanted him. I wanted him to melt and cover me. I wanted to turn to a specter and pass through him and stay there forever between his layers of skin, dissolving and fading until I was only a rouge chimeric cell inside his perfect form.

In a psych class we were asked to list all our identities in a column on a page. Intellectual was my first choice. Other people mentioned things like their gender or their race, a sport they played, a social activity that bound them to others.

Using my mind to distance myself from other people was my sport. I unfurled huge plains of analysis, text, and trivial knowledge between me and them, to keep myself at bay. I projected emotionlessness, strived to let no one see me cry, or love, or eat.

When I moved to a new city, I had no idea I would need to meet new people. Graduate school, I thought, would be a monastic experience. My mom dropped me off at my new home and I shook with sobs all night and day. It baffled both of us.

I got so lonely I willingly listened to a long pitch from a chiropractor at the mall. I took long bus rides to beaches in winter just to have a reason to keep my body moving. I met people for dates when I had no interest in dating. I just wanted the thrill of having someone to be near and talk to in the dark. My only window faced a brick wall, letting no light in. I spent long evenings watching vapid movies and playing vapid video games and choosing other very unintellectual uses of my time.

Years later, a friend told me that there people who live in their body, people who live in their heart, and people who live in their head. She put me firmly in the head category. Everyone does. I used to, too. I was always looking for ways to sequester myself into a cold, clinical box, throw that box down a hill, bury it under sheets of pristine ice.

But that winter, on the beach, I began considering that I had a heart, and slowly thawed and listened to it. The identities I’ve adopted since have been more messy, and sticky and warm, and harder for other people to deal with. But they’ve been informed by what I’ve heard my heart say. They have existed for me, not to resolve a tense negotiation between myself and others’ comfort.

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