Identity, philosophy, and personal happiness

Note: This post is taken from a message I left in a UseNet newsgroup recently. It was triggered in part by a conversation about identities such as “gay” and “straight,” and is the continuation of things I have thought about and discussed with Shelly over the past year or so.

A person on the newsgroup made the comment that one is not necessarily “gay” or “straight” on the basis of the sex of one’s sexual partners. My reply:

If a person engages in a long-term sexual relationship over an extended peoriod of time with a member of the same sex, and this long-term sexual relationship is accompanied by a predisposition to feel sexual attraction to members of the same sex, then if words are to have any meaning whatsoever, it is reasonable to say that person is gay, even if it’s not an identity that that person chooses.

People often choose to think of themselves or describe themselves in terms that are fundamentally in contradiction with their own behavior and activity. I submit that when a person assumes an identity which is in contradiction to the reality of that person’s experience, behavior, or activity, then that identity is flawed, and furthermore, continuing to assume that identity will likely at some point interfere with that person’s happiness, understanging, self-knowledge, or any combination thereof.

There may be many reasons why people feel compelled to accept an identity in contradiction with the reality of their lives. It may be because that person has prejudices or preconceived ideas about what that identity means–“Gays are dirty perverts who screw each other at bathhouses!”–which are untrue. It may be that the person associates a set of moral, ethical, or religious ideas with that identity. It may be that the person has an emotional investment in preserving some sense of a different identity.

It’s fascinating to watch. I know a woman who has concurrent, simultaneous, ongoing romantic and sexual relationships with a man and a woman, but who maintains that she absolutely, positively is not bisexual. She will say “Yes, I am sexually attracted to both men and women.” She will say “Yes, I am currently involved sexually with a man and a woman.” But she will then say “I am not bisexual”–in spite of the fact that the word “bisexual” has a functional definition which precisely matches her current behavior.

I know another woman who was for three years involved romantically with two people, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved. Indeed, she is still romantically and sexually involved with both of those people; I am one of them. For the first three years of that time, she maintained that she was not polyamorous and her relationships were not polyamorous. Yes, she was engaged in ongoing, loving, sexual and romantic relationships with two people simultaneously; yes, each of those two people knew of, and approved of, her other relationship; yes, she made a conscious choice to engage in multiple simultaneous relationships; yes, she made this choice with full knowledge of and consideration of the ethics of the situation; no, she was not poly.

If words have any meanings whatsoever, then these meanings must have descriptive value. If you can maintain, for example, that a person who engages in sexual relationships with members of the same sex and is attracted sexually to members of the same sex but is not “gay,” then you can also maintain that a person who cuts wood for a living is not a “woodcutter.”

Words have meanings. We think in language; fuzzy language leads to fuzzy thought.

But more importantly: When a person seeks to maintain an identity which is in contradiction with the reality of that person’s life, that person undermines not only his own self-knowledge, but also his own *happiness*.

This goes beyond merely what labels a person uses to describe himself; it’ss the essence of my objection to polyamorous “don’t ask, don’t tell” [a relationship between a polyamorous person and a monogamous person, where the monogamous person does not want to know about or hear about the poly person’s activities] relationships as well.

People will sometimes seek to preserve a myth or an illusion about themselves or their lives, erroneously thinking that this illusion will help them be happy. And in the short run, it may. A person who does not self-identify as gay, in spite of having ongoing sexual relationship with a person of the same sex, and a person who is in a relationship with a polyamorous parttner but does not want to be reminded that his partner has other lovers, are both in a similar situation; their happiness is constructed on a foundation of sand.

When your happiness depends on preserving an idea that is in this sort of contradiction with reality, that happiness is always under threat. It takes no more than an accidental disclosure, a chance discovery, to bring that illusion crashing down around your ears.

A person whose happiness is contingent on such a contradiction is always at risk of some truth crashing through that happiness like a wrecking ball.

If you must believe that your partner is monogamous in order to be happy, even when your partner is not, then sooner or later, you’re going to come face-to-face with the realization that your belief is flawed. If you must believe that you are straight in order to be happy, even though you are engaging in a sexual relationship with a member of the same sex, then your happiness will always be subject to being shattered by the reality that your behavior is not, in fact, the behavior of someone who is straight.

Real, lasting, solid, stable happiness ultimately relies on an honest, realistic assessment of who you are, and a solid, well-founded understanding of your relationship with the people and the world around you. The greater the contradiction between the reality of youur situation and the ideas you attempt to preserve about your situation, the greater the risk that your happiness will be short-lived and illusory. The more you seek to deny some fundamental truth about yourself, the more difficult it will be for you to find happiness that lasts.

An enlightened response lies in assessing, realistically and without fear, how the actions you take and the decisions you make affect who you are and how you relate to the world around you. This kind of response is a very powerful tool for happiness. Happiness that is broad and deep requires knowledge not only of what your own limits are and what you need in your life in order to be happy, but *also* knowledge of *who* you are as a person. Only with this knowledge can you make choices and build identities which are not constantly in jeopardy.

I know that idea is extremely threatening to many people; I have encountered many people in my life who will go to great lengths to build and preserve illusions about themselves and their relationships even when those illusions contradict reality in deeply fundamental ways. I have enver met anyone who does this who really seems like a happy person.