We Are What We Aren’t; We Aren’t What We Are

Clara Barnhurst

People are what they are. At least, we keep saying that. But then we get people asking why people can’t be what they are. A person who realises they are something isn’t suddenly a new thing. They are what they were, and now they are this new thing as well. But they were that new thing all along! And that makes sense because they are what they are, whether they think they are or not.

And that’s a tangle, but so is identity. Identity may be self determined, but it’s often defined by things outside ourselves. How we describe our identity is really for the benefit of other people; in a culture of one, we wouldn’t need to label anything. We could just be people. But we don’t live in a culture of one.

The concept of a culture of one first showed up in my life on Star Trek: The Next Generation when Commander Data was trying to figure out how to parent. Picard points out that he needn’t draw from all these cultural points because he is a culture of one. It’s true that things like parenting are highly individual; I wonder if every parent is effectively a culture of one.

I never thought of myself as a writer. People kept calling me a writer; my fiancée would introduce me to friends as a writer. I quickly brushed it off. “I mostly babble,” I would say. I didn’t think I was a writer, but they thought I was. I was what I was, and I didn’t see a writer. Who was wrong?

Turned out I was, but I only let myself see a writer when a person who writes for a living called me a writer. I needed someone’s authority to change my thoughts. I just wrote things, other people assigned the label ‘writer’ to me. And it was accurate in my mind insofar as I was one that writes. But when a professional writer called me a writer, I gave way and had to add the label ‘writer’ to the description of myself.

Naturally, I didn’t have to do anything. I could have kept not calling myself a writer and I still would have been me. And yet, adopting the label did change me. I started playing with tone more, thinking more actively about how I said things, and considering what I enjoyed writing most. I started a patreon and thinking about the best ways to get my writing out to people. When I was one that writes, I just let my thoughts wander without thought to structure or function. When I became a writer in my mind, I acquired a deliberateness — a trajectory — that pushed me to write more carefully.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the majority of my gender specialist’s patients don’t self apply the transgender label. I looked at how the term transgender was linked to activist culture, and I think this internal process of adoption is to do with that. In my own process, this holds true: early on, I was happily transgender and my motivations for many things were about pushing the community’s agenda. I still care about those things, but since discarding that label for myself my activities (including my writing) has become more subdued. More personal. It avoids certain vocabulary.


Labels might be for other people, but they do things to how we think of ourselves. We are what we say we are, and we are what they say we are, too. Being told what we’re not is often just as useful as being told what we are, provided we perceive choices and have the confidence and support to adopt labels that suit. And that’s the crux of it: I was given a very unhelpful label at birth and it’s made life rather inconvenient ever since. Filling in my life history (another thing my doctor wanted), the list spans back as far as I can remember and caused problems for me until now. Had I understood I had a choice, I wouldn’t have gone through all that.

What seems especially paradoxical is how people like me can go a lifetime with a damaging label only to shed it and adopt another label that is independent of their perceived choices. Except it isn’t that weird: the label in question describes a starting point that was rejected. Context is everything, and I do want the transgender label from a medical perspective (at least right now) because I have specific mental and physical health needs that directly relate to my rejection of my first label.


Gender labels are given before we even get a name. Before we get any other descriptor, we get called a gender. We get that gender descriptor as a physical description: we have a body configuration that’s most closely associated with a gender role. OK… that makes no sense, and the fact that it’s so accurate is a marvel. That transgender people associate body configuration with gender so strongly that we often require reconstructive surgery to feel right in ourselves is pretty crazy. That transgender people need to align their body chemistry with that of their most aligned perceived option is also bizarre, but it’s empirically so.

Through all this, nobody seems to like labels. They form an intrinsic part of who we are. They guide self perception as well as presentation. They form the matrices of our identities and give us ways to show people who we are. And we hate them all. Why? It’s clear we need them, and our relationship with labels is complex — beyond the scope of this column to fully explore.

At the end of the day, transitioning people are justifiably characterised as moody teenagers. We are exploring our labels, picking which ones we want to keep and emulate. Our obsession with who we are, our need to seek out our drives, passions, and turn-offs springs from our sudden freedom to explore. The rush from the discovery that we are not who people say we are and we don’t have to be like what people say is no different from the transition from child to adolescent to adult. And like teenagers, we hate what we need and moan about how nobody understands. I’m no different. I am what I am until I’m not and I’ll be glad if you described me as I am until I say I’m not anymore. I’ll get back to you.


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