Know Oneself, Name Oneself … Or Something Else

What does it mean to know one’s self and then name one’s self based on that knowledge? What does it mean for the complexity that often characterizes the lived experience? Does it mean ideas of the future become organized and labeled in such a way to show that we have mastered our individual and even collective selves and know what is to come?

Should those of us heading into middle age already know who we are and assume we will always be the same from a certain point forward? Should we stop thinking of new terms to describe how we feel and identify? At age 44, should I have already properly named and mastered myself?

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines the verb “master” with an object, as in, “acquire complete knowledge or skill in” and “gain control of; overcome.” With that concept of mastery in mind, I wonder if the goal is to learn about myself to such a degree that I fully grasp and have named the intricacies of my past, present and future. Or might my efforts be better focused on a process of letting go of who I think I am and who I have become? Might I look to unbecoming and de-mastery to see what else is available for me, who else I could be, and what unexpected joy I might find or rediscover?  

In my early teens, my close friends and I let go of rigid racial, sexual and gender norms and listened to bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Mission UK, Cocteau Twins, Sisters of Mercy and Christian Death. We wore patent leather thigh-high stiletto boots, flowy miniskirts, fishnet stockings on our legs and arms, studded chokers, ruffle shirts and heavy makeup. We dyed our hair different colors, sometimes red, purple, green or rainbow.

Should we already know who we are and assume we will always be the same from a certain point forward?

Although underage, we went to clubs and parties where others like us gathered and shadow-danced. We, a collection of oddballs in dark clothing, were “gothic.” I was gothic and living for every minute of it. My gender, sexual and racial designations and expressions found wiggle room under that term. Social conventions were wrought into different aesthetic and affective forms. It was a vivacious and imaginative time in my life.  

Now, decades have passed since my adolescence, and my days have seen their fair share of pretty major twists and turns. Right now I have a good career and money is okay, for which I am extremely grateful. I have worked hard and absolutely love that I am able to educate young people about health science, while serving in marginalized communities.

The Process of Reassessing Oneself

However, as I reflect on the course of my life I notice that certain moments in my personal trajectory trigger a deep assessment of who I am, what I am doing and what I want. Who I thought I was and wanted evolves, in expected and unexpected directions.

This happened when I was gay bashed in the early ’90s.

This happened as a teenage high heel–wearing gothic kid when I buckled to the pressures of heteronormative sociocultural demands and butched up.

This happened when I battled addiction and then chose sobriety.

This happened when I chose to go back to college and graduated from UCLA.

This happened when I conducted my research and finished graduate school.

This happened when I got a job in public health at a local AIDS service organization.

This happened when I became a health science educator.

This happened when certain friends and family members were diagnosed with life-changing medical conditions such as cancer and HIV.

This happened when I lost an uncle to COVID-19 this past February.

This happened not too long ago when I chose to once again start wearing heels and skirts, as I wore them when I identified as gothic. That era coincided with the rise of a newer identity term that became part of larger public discourse, directly affecting me: “Latinx.”  

Philosopher Michel Foucault, among others, pushed us to consider the ways in which a term, an identity, might feel liberating, but could also function as part of systems of discipline and control.

As someone who values Foucault’s work, I do not take lightly his caution about identity politics. Let me be clear, I am skeptical of the articulation and representation of any given identity, label, term or category as an end point in and of itself when it comes to collective and individual political struggle and freedom.

Ideas like mine about identity and politics are plentiful across different areas of social activism and thought. But I would like to build upon, via my personal narrative, the claim that while identity terms may not inevitably lead to liberation, we can still use reworkings of them to let go of who we think we are. This in service to what Columbia University Professor Jack Halberstam calls “failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing.”

One might draw parallels between aspects of Halberstam’s queer elaboration on failure and the theory of “de-mastery.”    

A decade ago, scholar Sandra K. Soto formed a theory on the terms “Chican@” and “queer” in relation to what she called de-mastery. She describes de-mastery as “… a structure of feeling whose force is precisely in its unintelligibility, what Raymond Williams eloquently describes as ‘something not yet come,’ something still ‘at the very edge of semantic availability’.”

Exploring a New Identity Category

As the term “gothic” allowed me to find community and express myself in ways that had been unknown and unintelligible, so, too, does a newer identity category. The term Latinx fairly recently became part of public consciousness and discourse. Its development and deployment were meant to signify, at least in part, gender and sexual inclusiveness in connection to the Spanish language and people of Latin American and Caribbean descent.

Being of Mexican origin, I was thrilled to see Latinx, like Chican@ before it, pushing people to examine individual and cultural biases and linguistic exclusions. Quickly, though, Foucault’s ghost haunted my optimistic feelings and checked my excitement for the term.

‘I am skeptical of the articulation and representation of any given identity, label, term or category as an end point in and of itself.’

However, I would be lying if I did not admit that the idea of Latinx continues to stimulate me. As briefly mentioned above—channeling the work of Michel Foucault, Jack Halberstam and Sandra Soto—a few years ago I began a process of letting go of who I am and embarked on a personal journey of unbecoming and de-mastery.

I let myself foster and feel a desire to express myself more femininely, an action comparable only to when I was gothic. That desire manifested itself into the courage to start wearing heels and makeup, to transition into something else, into another domain of existence.

Latinx is a term that I have recently adopted and use cautiously, not because I want to verbalize and define a sense of who I am, as if I have mastered myself. Instead, it is a contested term that has been subject to critique, in some cases for good reason and others not, and this is precisely what I like about it. I like what it is doing for the community much more so than what it tries to label and identify.

It helps us to think harder about how we collectively and individually understand gender and make room for it in our lives and languages. As I follow the different perspectives and debates about the term Latinx, I find myself ruminating on rediscovered joys and maybe an unknown me, a de-mastered me with the most beautiful gender expressiveness.

I do not look to Latinx to name myself because of master knowledge and understanding of who I am nor to “liberate” myself or any “we” associated with me—for application of the term remains contested and its future uncertain. Yet, this unknown is precisely why I look to Latinx to help with the ongoing work of rethinking and remaking myself. I look to it for inspiration to let go and unbecome and for the potentiality of de-mastery.

Gabby Solorio, MA, is a professional health sciences educator whose research and technical interests include identity and risk-behavior, public health prevention, infectious disease, and health disparities. Before their current position in education, they led the Educational Outreach and Prevention Program at AIDS Service Center, one of Southern California’s first AIDS service organizations, and was also a temporary lecturer in San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies.