Friday, May 6, 2011

Identity in Second Life

One of my first life interests is gender identity, so I periodically search the SL forums for gender related posts. Today I ran across a wonderful thread called the Unqueering of Second Life, started by resident Scylla Rhiadra. Scylla argues that one of the things that SL does well is queering our perceptions. Here Scylla isn't quite talking about queer in the sense that the word is being reclaimed by GLBT people but a process related to that notion that forces us to reexamine our assumptions about people and identity. Scylla writes:

" “Queering” in this sense is really a process of “making strange,” a kind of shifting or even distortion of perspective that forces us to perceive anew, and in different ways, objects, ideas, and socially-constructed conceptions that we otherwise take for granted. "

Scylla then argues that this queering process is under threat by social networking such as facebook where one's "real life" identity becomes paramount as well as by groups requiring gender verification via SL voice.

The threats posed by social networking and beyond that, the threats posed by facial recognition software and other technologies is something that I have been thinking about. To me the threat of such systems is that they threaten to take away any sense of sanctuary that one might want online to explore by trying on other identities. Now I don't believe for a second that I have expectation of absolute privacy online but there should be room for relatively safe spaces where a person has some control over what information from these identities they wish to link to their real life information.

For transgender people, this can present a problem because there is the desire and for some the need to keep their transgender issues private, and at the same time be able to talk and share with other people including those outside the transgender community. In my case I am a professor and generally keep my transgender identity separate from my work life. But as a professor I am told "to be authentic" by academic theoreticians and to me being authentic means presenting myself as an integrated whole.

Of course in real life, we take on specific roles but to me the quest for integration implies that I don't keep my gender dysphoria suppressed-been there most of my life and that path is inherently destructive. Besides as professor-I can and do maintain a male persona at work-but unless in my private time I am going to relegate my gender expression to the shadows some bleed through is inevitable. Students do from time to time see me outside of class as a female. So my strategy is not to keep my other self hidden but keep my presentation separate enough so as not to upset the gender binary natives and yet reveal this aspect of my psyche in a sort of matter of fact way. I am for instance co-advisor of my school's GLBT student group and also am a Safe Space trainer for my campus and I can't exactly be hidden there. The whole idea is to open up some psychological space for myself.

Certainly students can find out about me. Now returning to SL, if you check out my profile you will a picture of me in SL but also there is a real life picture of me as I look in RL. When I teach, work, or shop in SL, Simone is my expression-sort of an extended phenotype. She is the face my biology students see when we go into SL. I did create a male AV which I use only rarely. Why should I bring the dysphoria I feel in first life into Second Life? To me that makes no sense. My experiences in SL as Simone have generally been good. I guess most people who might other feel threatened by my alternate identities appreciate the transparency or they don't find a short Japanese -Creole female AV in a Kimono to be threatening or desirable as a SL pick up.

One of my best experiences happened the other Spring when I was on sabbatical and working in SL. One day a strange male IM'd me in SL, and as I normally do, refused the IM since he did not state what he wanted. Well he persisted and on his third attempt said "Paul it's XXXXXX". Now it turns out that XXXXXX was an old friend from South America whom I had lost track of for about 15 years. At any rate he had googled my first life male name, found this blog and made the connection.

He asked me if I was gay since I have a female AV so I took the time to explain the issues I have and even show him a picture of myself "en femme" in real life. For the record, dear reader, "Paula" is pretty conservative in dress-not pick up material at all. But this fellow knows me in first life and my colleagues and friends have pretty much stuck with me. So my friends allow me an oasis where I can be more myself. That gets me through the week sometimes.

Yet even me being relatively transparent feels threatened by social network technology. First all of the sudden my RL "official" identity becomes key-I was dragged kicking and screaming into Facebook by my son who insisted that this how he and his friends communicate. Plus enough of my colleagues are on FB that my morning coffee ritual is to look at FB first rather than opening my campus E-mail. But I was a bit disturbed when FB kept insisting that I had to give my sex as male or female else how could people find me? Ya right. Fortunately FB stopped that nonsense. Maybe they imputed it from my RL name or from the funky stuffed caterpillar that currently graces my FB profile.

Now I really don't mind FB or SL having my legal ID information but why should this be the primary thing for a profile. Why can't FB allow me to establish a profile at variance with my legal identity if by doing so I am giving a more authentic face to myself? Fortunately in the circles I run in-even SL work related circles have not insisted in any sort of voice or verification of gender which would in my case be a verification of assigned gender based on the fact that my gonads produce microgametes with tails (i.e. sperm). SL provides still an oasis for me to the degree that my assigned gender or even my male name is not an issue.

Voice verification, linking SL to other social networks etc threaten the informational oasis because all of the sudden it become too easy for "queering" information to leak out to people who don't know me and may not be so willing to set aside their biases about people who are transgender. Rather than being like a large city where anonymity serves as a buffer against judgmental busy bodies, making first life assigned gender markers etc makes the net even more a city of judgmental busy bodies where the gender binary is enforced and those of us who don't fit are relegated to the shadows of the closet.

Scylla has a lot more to say in the SL forum thread and if you are interested in identity issues in Second Life it's worth a read.