I was thirteen.
My father and I had been fighting about the terms of my visitation. As I approached my teenage years I became resentful of divorce court battles. Being caught in the crossfire between my mother and father’s legal shitstorms over custody never seemed to accomplish anything—I, however, wanted my weekends to be free to spend with my friends, or to watch Saturday night shows on a television that had cable. After all, I could hardly compete for my father’s love. When it came to his girlfriends he would often sacrifice our time together so he could be with them in bars: cheap beer and peanuts. So perhaps this particular fight on a Sunday evening in July over my personal freedom was inevitable. An argument that had started over the everyday desires of a young thirteen year old had ended with my father dropping me off in a park, throwing my weekend duffel of possessions at my feet, and driving off into the distance.
This is my last memory of him.
The park that I found myself in was called Moore Park of Westfield, N.Y. During that time of year it had been adorned with proud American flags on every pole, and nicely dressed people congregated around the nearby Presbyterian Church. Diagonally to its left stood the Statue of Grace Bedell and Abraham Lincoln, who in his 1861 inaugural journey had made a stop in this unheard of town to greet her over a letter she had written, asking Lincoln to grow out his ‘whiskers.’ A cheerful couple sat in the gazebo with their family for a picnic. The window shops that dotted the nearby street were filled with customers. The early afternoon had been kissed with sun and there was not a cloud in the sky—these are the images I recall during my four-hour wait with my duffel before my mother had found me. In retrospect, I could not appreciate the irony of something so traditionally un-American happening in a scene that was so traditionally American—the dissolution of the family unit.
Of course as a result of my constant issues with my parent’s divorce, I could not escape the label of being a child from a broken home. One of those “damaged” people. I found that I did not have an identity for many years, but rather whatever I was prescribed by others. Journals such as American Sociological Review and Journal of Marriage and the Family enforced the stereotype that children of divorcees were more likely to drop out of school, participate in criminal activities, abuse drugs, participate in risky sex, and suffer from psychological distress that would carry into their adulthoods as emotional scars. I was not a person with identity nor was I a young woman with innocence. I was a statistic, a societal liability and a clockwork droog in the making—and how do these ‘statistics’ grow! As of March 2011, The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that one out of every two marriages today end in divorce, meaning that more than one million children a year find themselves in this situation.
Indeed, some people grow up and do not have a true sense of self-identity. Even though that sounds absurd when you consider what kinds of identity entails “being American.” From the time we are little to the time when we are adults we are thrust into this generalized American culture of patriotism, ideology, and celebration. During national holidays we are encouraged to take part in festivities that celebrate our country’s independent status, and our will to carry out the vision of our Founding Fathers through religious and political practices of freedom. Many may choose to identify loosely with this Americanized culture, still others might prefer to identify themselves through terms such as race.
However for the individual who cannot quite identify with these terms or by other means in which to define his or her self, the process of discovering oneself can be challenging. Frankly trying to find an identity can be outright discouraging. This is the situation I, like many others, found myself in during high school and starting college—where do I fit in this picture?
(art credit to Mojo Wan)
The question itself makes my mind race in a fragmented panic trying to cobble together some convoluted legend of how I became upon my serendipitous identity. Clearly I did not come from the typical ‘American’ background of a nuclear family, a stable household, or a clear image of where I came from. I was too busy trying to figure out ‘who I was’ situated in my dysfunctional familial setting, and not enough time to question ‘who I am.’ As a child I was chugged between the camps of my warring mother and father, no time for opportunities to make human connections. I did not get to ask questions about my heritage from my father, nor did I come to find solace from all of it in religion. It was not until a strong inquisition on my mother in my 20s that I found out she had been thrice married, and that my father had more children with other women. The sole half-sister I had known about was then joined by at least five other nameless, faceless blood relatives who still to this day I have never known. Needless to say rejection and mystery was a major part of my life. Sometimes I like to joke with my friends that I defined my image around the things I am not rather than the things that I am.
Instead I would say that my identity formed gradually to me over time. As I grew older I matured out of this notion that identity was either something you had or you did not have. Perhaps we all had identities deep down that just needed to be brought to the surface—or in my case uncovered from the piss and shit that had built up from years of feeling angry. When I entered my sophomore year of college (and turned 18 thus giving me the power to vote) I became more politically involved. For a while I set my values based on what political views I agreed with the most, and what I read in books. So I became a registered Democrat and took on many liberal causes. The idea of activism and protesting for what was justice in my eyes resonated deeply within me, and it seemed to echo that founding American foundation that freedom was something earned and protected—not necessarily a birthright after all. I had clawed my out from being another American statistic, and I was willing to fight for others too. Although the idea of a woman fighting and in politics is probably less than what people would describe as ‘feminine’ attributes.
True I was very politically active, and I still believe that part of my identity was shaped by these motivated ideals I accumulated during this time. Yet another half of my identity came from a very unexpected circumstance at SUNY Fredonia a few years ago. It began with a LGBT club meeting on a Thursday night at 7pm in the William’s Center.
Being affiliated with the Gay-Straight Alliance, I was happy to attend a meeting to bring support to one of the many causes that I believe also help define other peoples’ identities in America. As I entered the room in ‘Willy C’ I was surrounded by at least sixty different people of all types of racial, sexual, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Since there were so many of us, the coordinator had us split into separate groups so we could all get to know each other and exchange different ideas.
In my group there were a couple of women who identified themselves as bisexual, and soon we found ourselves talking about different events on campus. One of them perkily mentioned a production called The Vagina Monologues. I had never heard of that before. The mental image of a gaggle of verbalizing vaginas was enough to put a condescending smirk on my face. Little did I know that the title taken at face value did not begin to delve into the complex details that composed this play. The Vagina Monologues is an episodic play written by the feminist Eve Ensler that consists of different monologues performed by a variety of female actresses. The monologues themselves are meant to convey some form of the feminine experience. They can address topics such as sex, love, rape, genital mutilation, menstruation, birth, or orgasm. Some monologues can have a jubilant spirit about them, while others can have a tendency to be dark and represent the violent nature of what some women experience.
Of course I did not learn all of this until I actually joined the cast. At first I was intimidated by the thought of presenting myself on stage and talking about such sensitive issues even if some were not technically my own. My whole life up until that point, especially under the roof of my family, did not allow for these issues about female sexuality to be openly discussed. My mother was fervently Catholic and did not condone much talk about raunchy sexual themes. To be in an environment where discussion about feminine issues was tolerated, nay encouraged, was in itself a liberating and free experience for me—maybe one that I desperately needed.
The first year I was in the production I was assigned the role of a transgendered male-to-female in a trio of three others, who were expressing their experience of growing up, struggling with their gender identities with their families, and coming to terms with being transgendered. During my second year I portrayed a woman delivering a speech about a woman from Islamabad who suffered an acid attack from her abusive husband. The monologue detailed each time the husband abused his wife. Each attack grew subsequently worse as time progressed, and the people within her community did nothing to stop the violence because she was his ‘unwritten law.’ Tragically she suffered an acid attack by his hands when she asked for money for food for them. It completely melted her face. She too is now faceless, yet inside she still is a person and has an identity like any other despite her husband’s wish (and the wish of many men) to objectify her and make her a nothing. I am honored to be performing this exact monologue again this year, and the women that I speak about have had a profound effect on my own feelings of identity and self-worth as well.
Each time the nervousness of reciting these monologues to an audience of two hundred or more people never left the back of my mind. However in hindsight I believe what these monologues did for me was build a stronger sense of identity for me as a woman. It helped me come to terms with some of the negative experiences I have faced and let me embrace the more positive experiences I went through. It also gave me hope for the good of what was to come, as well as protection against the bad. Like the transgendered female I portrayed, I was able to explore my sexuality, my gender as a woman, and heal some of the personal wounds I suffered. Being in this community of women talking about our gender identities was spiritually empowering as well as frustrating at times—just like my personal search for my identity had been.
Some people have said that America having a collection of different individuals is what makes this nation truly unique. It is due to the fact that we are never really homogenous—we are all composed of different political affiliations, genders, races, and religions. What I admire about America is that there never seems to be a “right” or “wrong” way to identify oneself. Namely how you choose to identify yourself relies on your individual application and discovery. I ponder the question if we have the natural right to identities; that we have a right to express ourselves.
I would say the answer to that question is a definite yes even though in our history we have certainly oppressed certain groups from expressing themselves such as the LGBT community, women, and minorities (to name a few). The fact that our nation has made strides to triumph over these prejudices against certain groups of people is in itself a great accomplishment. Though I would say things like stereotypes are still an issue, it is nice to know that if one ever wanted to express something about their identity that they would have the means and an audience to do so. The freedom of expression and identity is so valuable, and I think in a lot of westernized nations we take it for granted.
I am completely free to express in my identity of how I am a political activist and an advocate for women’s rights. This is a very comfortable thought indeed. However it is not too unimaginable to think that we could very well be living in a nation where you could not get away with identifying yourself as a potential political threat, and no less that you care about the rights or well-being of an oppressed group of individuals. Part of having an American identity is to realize that the protection of other identities is just as important as your own. Maybe by our standards today it is naïve to assume that all of us are always going to be civil with one another, especially over social and political disagreements. For example I know I get into some pretty heated arguments with friends who act as my political opponents about matters concerning things like war. It is a known fact that sensitive issues can be used to divide people. Yet we can still find ways to look past all of our differences and at least get along. It is also possible for people to not identify with others, but still respect their identities regardless. Like when a religious person sticks up for the rights of an atheist, even though they might not share the same beliefs, the religious person recognizes the legitimate right of the atheist to irreligion and vice versa.
The reason why I named this paper Femina was not only in reference to the obvious feminine identity with which I associate, but that America in general has this natural feminine feature of being nurturing, and fostering an environment where people can grow to form their own unique identities. I did not originally identify so strongly as a woman, yet I have found ways to represent myself as such. Even the Statue of Liberty, whose female appearance was modeled after the Roman Goddess of liberty named Libertas, serves as a reminder that the femininity in America cannot simply be eradicated out of history. While it is true that Americans are unified in the sense that we all have a culturally relatable identity, lest we forget the virtues, features, and beliefs we each have that makes us the individuals that we are.