identity – the set of characteristics that somebody recognizes as belonging uniquely to himself or herself and constituting his or her individual personality for life
Imagine that your identity was taken from you. Specifically, imagine that five defining factors of your identity were taken from you: your gender, your age, your economic status, your ethnicity, and your sexual orientation. Would you reject or accept this change? What would be your reasoning behind either rejecting or accepting it? This was exactly the situation that was presented to fifty adolescents in a workshop as part of the project “Mujeres con Poder para el Cambio,” or “Women with Power for Change,” another one of CARE Ecuador’s projects that I have had the opportunity to work with.
Each student was given five cards, representing his or her new gender, new age, new economic status, new ethnicity, and new sexual orientation and thus creating his or her “new identity.” You were a male, 15 years old, middle-income, mestizo, heterosexual. You are now a female, 25 years old, poor, indigenous, homosexual. You were a female, 18 years old, low-income, indigenous, heterosexual. You are now a male, 40 years old, rich, Afro-Ecuadorian, bisexual. After all had received their new identities, the participants were told, “You can throw any of the cards you are holding into the center of the circle—the cards that represent aspects of your new identity that you don’t want. The only catch is that you have to explain why you are getting rid of it.”
The first teenager raised his hand and threw a card into the center: homosexual.
“Why don’t you want to be homosexual?”
“Because it’s wrong.”
“Why is it wrong?”
“Because that’s just not the way it’s supposed to be. Men are supposed to be with women, and women are supposed to be with men.”
Once he had given his reasoning, the next student immediately raised her hand, throwing her card reading bisexual into the middle of the circle and giving very similar reasons for doing so. “It’s not natural; it’s not right…” Others followed suit with their respective homosexual and bisexual cards. “Having a sexual relationship with the same sex is gross.” “God didn’t make us that way.”
Sexual orientation was not the only contested factor of the students’ new identities, however. Several of the boys threw their woman cards, sharing the sentiment that “the job of a woman is much more difficult than the job of a man; she has to take care of the kids and the house…” One participant threw his Afro-Ecuadorian card, simply saying, “I don’t like Black people.”
My initial reaction to this situation was one of indignation. I wanted to stop the exercise and say aloud the things that my liberal American upbringing made run through my head: Why is it wrong to be homosexual? Why would being a woman be so miserable? Why does the color of a person’s skin matter? Why is it okay for us to say that the way another person identifies him or herself is wrong? I started to blame these kids for not standing up to conformity, the reason I saw for every card on the floor—“I don’t want to have this characteristic because society tells me that I should have this characteristic instead.” But then I tried to forget my liberal American upbringing, put myself inside of the circle, and reconsider the request. I am an 18-year-old Ecuadorian brought up in a certain society, having certain beliefs. I am given the cards female, teenager, homosexual, poor, Afro-Ecuadorian. What cards would I throw into the circle? All of them. I would throw all of them because females don’t have the same opportunities that males do in Ecuadorian society. I would throw all of them because teenagers are rarely given respect from adults in Ecuadorian society. I would throw all of them because gays and lesbians are told that their attraction to the same sex is wrong in Ecuadorian society. I would throw all of them because if I come from a low income family, I may not have the opportunity to study in Ecuadorian society. I would throw all of them because as an Afro-Ecuadorian, I am stereotyped as a thief in Ecuadorian society. I would throw all of them because that is what the society I have been raised in tells me I should do. I would throw all of them from a desire to fit in. I would throw all of them because I want to have the most opportunities possible open to me. I would throw all of them because no one has ever challenged my presumptions. I would throw all of them because hiding my identity is the easiest thing to do.
However, I have presented a picture in which it may appear that since all young Ecuadorians have grown up in the same society, all have the same beliefs, which is certainly not the case. In fact, there were two students present who inspired me by their choices to throw, or not throw, the cards they had received. The first was a 14-year-old girl who had gotten a mestizo card, and decided to throw it into the middle of the circle.
“Why don’t you want to be mestizo?”
“Because I’m not mestizo. I’m indigenous. And that’s who I am.”
In a world in which there still exists discrimination toward the indigenous population, this young girl was comfortable enough with her identity to be proud of her ethnic background.
The other teenager was not as vocal. As I was walking around the room, listening to the participants justify their actions, I noticed that one of the boys had a homosexual card. When the order came that everyone should throw all of their unwanted cards into the middle, he threw two down—neither of which read “homosexual.” Nobody knew what remained in his hand. In fact, he didn’t say a single word, but he was standing up for something.
I’d like to think that these two students represent the future of Ecuadorian society—as young Ecuadorians are empowered to be confident of their identity and break the stereotypes society sets forth, hopefully an environment will be created in which a person does not feel the need to hide part of his or her identity, does not have to “throw his or card” into the center of the circle.