Agential identity

What does it mean to be “out” as queer, when in a gay bar you express your queerness loud and proud but reel it in with homophobic family? What does it mean to have your sexuality or gender invalidated?

These are example phenomena analysed by Robin Dembroff and Cat Saint-Croix’s paper, “Yep, I’m Gay”: Understanding Agential Identity.

Their basic idea is to bridge how we understand ourselves to be (self-identity) and what others take us to be (social position) using the concept of agential identity.

Agential identification with a particular social group follows this recipe:

  1. You self-identify as a member of the social group, for instance lesbian or genderqueer.
  2. You make that self-identity externally available
    (a) consciously or unconsciously;
    (b) by behaving a particular way and/or displaying perceivable features; and
    (c) those behaviours/features manifest or are intended to manifest social properties associated with the group.
  3. You accept or allow that others take you as belonging to the group.

Self-identity isn’t necessarily established effortlessly and it depends on the people around you. Dembroff and Saint-Croix draw on Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy approach in which we decode which groups we belong to by tuning into the norms which seem relevant to us – even if we disagree with those norms. The extent to which this process is deliberate – for instance, how much research someone does on a particular social group and its history – can lead to stronger or weaker self-identity.

Agential identity involves some attempt to broadcast self-identity. Dembroff and Saint-Croix explore the different ways this can be done and emphasise that the social processes involved are often complex. For instance, agential identity can be more or less salient depending on who we are with (pp. 583-584):

“consider a gay teenager who comes out to his parents, but otherwise acts conservatively at home in order to minimize the salience of his gay identity. This same teenager might, in other contexts, deliberately talk and behave in ways that persistently signal and emphasize his gay identity.”

A strong self-identity and salient attempts to establish a matching agential identity may not be taken up in a particular context. Someone could persistently signal their trans identity in all contexts but it is only accepted in LGBTQ+ spaces and ignored or ridiculed by transphobic colleagues. Agential identity depends on self-identity and consent to belong to a particular social group – these are key conditions – and expresses preferred social group membership. However, that preference may not be accepted.

That’s a brief overview – venture over here to read the full article: “Yep, I’m Gay”: Understanding Agential Identity.