A good question: Is my identity God-given?
One question, four answers
Who am I? I am clearly black; clearly a woman. Both attributes are God-given; but, what it means to be black and what it means to be a woman are undoubtedly shaped by the world.
I don’t usually think of myself as “Black Karen”, or “Female Karen”; these are not the default descriptors in my mind, they just “are” – and to some extent I take them for granted. I recently led an exercise where I gave participants two minutes to list aspects of their identity. Doing this task myself, I identified that I am: A mother, a grandmother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a poet, argumentative, contrary… but neither “black” nor “woman” appeared on my list. The omission was not deliberate, but perhaps an old phrase gives the explanation: “Why state the blooming obvious?”
The truth is, however, that my colour and gender are intrinsic to who I am. I think as a black person because my experience of the world and its issues has been from the perspective of being black. I think as a woman because I am a woman. I am immersed in being the person I am; so, it is not always easy to see when my colour and gender are directly or indirectly impacting what I feel, or, how much my views are being shaped by what I have seen or felt or experienced as a black individual born and raised in Britain, or as a woman existing in a man̕s world. I am conscious that racism is very real, and that women face barriers and struggles which men do not. Being both black and a woman necessarily impacts the person I am, the life I live, the options I have and the choices I make. I’m not convinced this is what God intended when God made me “me”…
My younger brother and I belong to the generation of black people in Britain who were acutely aware of our “outsider” status. By the time in 1987 that Paul Gilroy published his seminal text on black positionality in post-war Britain, There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack, the die was cast for me and my younger brother. We were already postcolonial refusniks. We were anti-colonial, socially discontented, critically sceptical black young boys living in Britain.
The die had been cast from the moment we witnessed Viv Richards stroking the cricket ball majestically around the Oval in the final test of the scorching hot summer of 1976. My brother and I watched on in a state of unadulterated joy as we witnessed the West Indies Cricket team – a team of all black Caribbean people like ourselves – defeat an all white English team captained by a white South African. I realise that I am a child of my times. I am aware that cultures are not static and that the oppositional stance I possess about Britain is rooted in an era of anti-colonial identity politics, which says as much about me as it does about the nation as a whole. In more recent times, I realise that appositional stance to identifying with Britain is complex, for I remain, in many ways, a quintessentially British socialised man, even if I am loathed to name it.
The young boy who adored Viv Richards in 1976 is still here, but he has been supplemented by more recent passions and influences. My identity is fluid and contradictory. Like all people, I am a complex amalgam of things and influences. But at heart I am still an outsider!..
“Remember who we are. Alexander and Boukephalas.” These words are whispered in the ear of a highly strung horse by the young Alexander the Great in Mary Renault’s novel, Fire from Heaven. Cruelly treated, the horse looks untameable, but Alexander recognises the nobility which will emerge under his firm but kind tutelage.
Who we are is not always obvious to other people. We too can lack self-awareness – such is the power of avoidance and denial; but then, one day, a voice – a still, small voice perhaps – can be heard, whispering: “Remember who you are,” and the deep down “you” becomes apparent – first to you, and then, if you find the courage and the guidance you need, to the people around you.
This emergent character of identity is often observable in gender variant people, though not always. Increasing numbers of very young children are expressing their innate sense of gender identity, both verbally and in their behaviours, an identity that does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. It has probably always been so. A friend who grew up in the 1930s consistently told adults that, despite appearances and expectations, they were a girl – and in later life they transitioned. It’s simply that we hear about these children now, and that with parental support and professional help, they are able to be themselves…
Fundamentalists who condemn me for “changing sex” say that we don’t have the right to choose our gender because “God doesn’t make mistakes.” It seems a bit strange to me, being a trans woman, that I should find myself agreeing with them. I know from experience it’s not possible to choose one’s sex because I spent most of my life trying to do so.
I was born with a male body and a male identity and everyone told me I was male and so I did everything I could to stifle the still, small and unbelievably powerful voice inside me that told me this was not so. After years of isolation, when I truly believed I was a uniquely sick kind of person who was utterly alone in the world and whom no one would ever love, a miracle occurred and I fell in love with a remarkable woman who also fell in love with me.
We lived together for 33 years, very happily on the whole. I had come out to her soon after we met and she had said: “I know there’s something feminine about you, and that’s one reason why I really like you.” We had two amazing and beautiful daughters whom we cared for equally between us, and I became a successful writer. We came out of poverty into a comfortable prosperity.
I had everything that should have made me happy as a man. And to a great extent I was. The female self inside me was expressed through childcare and through my work as a playwright, where I could imagine myself to be the female characters I could not be in life. But in my early 50s, I started to have breakdowns…
This is an extract from the October 2015 edition of Reform.