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Self-Identity

By Sue Saltmarsh

November/December 2011

Sometimes the ways we humans have of separating ourselves into "us" or "them" seem endless. There are the obvious -- physical characteristics, race, age, etc. -- and the not-so-always-obvious -- religion, educational background, political philosophy, etc. -- and the sometimes-hidden -- sexual orientation, HIV or other medical status, financial status, etc. I could break it down to pet preference, sports team affiliation, even what you like on your pizza. The fact is that we, as a species, are widely varied in our plumage, habits, and habitats and yet we are also one big (dysfunctional) family.

When I first heard the ubiquitous, public health-speak "MSM," I thought it was a joke. I mean, really. And we're all so used to "LGBT" by now that even straight politicians use it. But recently, an e-mail appeared with the following: LGBTQI2-S (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, and Two-Spirited). Seriously???

I understand that, for academic and clinical purposes, perhaps such strings of letters and numbers might provide a way to categorize people that cuts down on word count and typing effort, but it seems to me it also obscures the fact that the people being categorized are indeed people.

I've often argued that the recent advances in civil rights for gay and lesbian people are because the younger generation (and those of us oldies with open minds) understands that being gay is not entirely about what you do with your genitalia, but more about how you live your life and who you choose to live it with.

Back in the '80s, when Carol Shaw began a movement towards fat acceptance with BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) magazine, I weighed over 300 pounds. Even then, though I indulged occasionally in the fantasy presented by BBW, I knew the difference between fantasy and reality. I refused to be called a BBW -- the notion that all large women are beautiful is as absurd as the idea that all women of any size are beautiful (let's face it, ladies, some of us must rely on having, as my grandmother put it, "other things to recommend you") -- and I refused to define myself by my weight. I was, and am, a lot more than numbers on a scale (or a glucose meter, for that matter), just as my dear friend Sal, who calls himself "a big 'mo," is way more than an "MSM."

Some maintain that those to whom the MSM label refers are completely oblivious to the fact that it is applied to them by social workers, medical providers, counselors, and academics. But if they do know and they accept it, what does that say about their self-identity? If they somehow prefer those three letters to the other three, is it any wonder that it's their very population that is seeing the highest incidence of new infections? No matter how they think of themselves on the categorization continuum, too many either don't know or don't want to know their HIV status, perhaps in part because they don't even fully know or accept themselves.

How do we as a society hope to achieve true acceptance of all varieties of humankind when we insist on inventing "dividers" that keep us from knowing and appreciating ourselves and each other?

I've never slept with a woman, mostly because I find my "sisters" to be way less trustworthy than the men in my life, but once in the summer of 1982, while working at a regional theatre, I got drunk at a wrap party with a woman named Nan and we had a lovely long kiss. I had no inclination to go further, but I'll tell you this much -- if we had indeed spent the night in orgasmic bliss together, there is no way on Earth I would ever allow "WSW" to define me.

In the end, aren't we all basically PSP (People Who Have Sex with People), even if only with ourselves?

Breathe deep, live long.




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