When I was 15 years old, I had a romantic dream about a girl in my Spanish class. The possibility of being a lesbian suddenly dawned upon me. It didn’t quite feel right because there were boys I was crushing on too, but the idea of being heterosexual didn’t feel right for me either. Gender never felt as important to me as it seemed for others.
And so my identity crisis began.
My anxiety reached a level that was far outside of my control. My grades dropped, I was losing sleep, and I was avoiding friends and hobbies that I loved. I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know anyone who felt the way I did. I confided in my parents and started therapy.
It helped that I had someone who at the time I thought was without bias to talk to. My therapist’s conclusion was that I was heterosexual and just going through a phase because I was still attracted to men. This sometimes comforted me because I thought it meant that I was “normal.” But those questioning thoughts still tugged at me for years. It wasn’t until my early twenties, after the break-up of my first serious long-term relationship, that I allowed these feelings to sit at the forefront of my mind again. I still experienced the same anxiety, but was more open to exploring these thoughts.
Just over a year after a suicide attempt and another sexual assault, I travelled to Australia from my home in the US. I had very much outgrown my hometown and I needed time and a place where I could heal and be my genuine self. I identified myself as queer to the very first person I met in Australia.
It wasn’t until one of my followers on my Instagram asked me why I referred to myself as white if I had Puerto Rican blood that I started questioning my own racial identity.
We happened to be on the same flights from New York to Los Angeles, and then to Sydney. This same person also brought me to my first protest here in Sydney. It was here that I had my first conversation about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history. What struck me as different in Australia were the amount of people who I ignorantly perceived to be white who identified as Indigenous. Blood quantum was irrelevant, which was a new concept to me.
I quickly learned that “it doesn’t matter how much milk you add, it’s still tea.”
It wasn’t until one of my followers on my Instagram account, where I regularly discuss topics such as racism and colonisation, asked me why I referred to myself as white if I had Puerto Rican blood (Puerto Ricans are a mixture of Spanish, African, Taíno, and Asian ancestry) that I started questioning my own racial identity. I had no answer for her other than the fact that I looked white and had always benefited from looking white.
She was also a white-passing woman of colour. She kindly suggested that maybe I was struggling with some internalised racism. In that moment, an entirely new identity crisis arose. It wasn’t really new. I had always felt a little confused about how to identify whenever it came time to check a box to define my race/ethnicity.
As an American, I have benefited from European colonisation in a lot of ways. I’m a college-educated Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, and German white-passing woman of colour. I was born on stolen land on Long Island, one of the most segregated areas of the entire United States, to a middle-class family.
I grew up in a nice house in a predominantly white community. I never experienced discrimination that was due to the colour of my skin. I have no visible physical disability. I spent a lot of my life nestled in privilege. That being said, I am the product of the ongoing colonisation and resulting internalised generational trauma in the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
I felt being Boricua was something that made me unique, like a trinket, rather than a valid part of my identity. Aside from my last name, I did not feel particularly connected to this part of me. I know now that this is very common when you consider how difficult it is for Puerto Ricans in the United States. Culture and identity is often glossed over in order to fit the mould of what it is to be American.
Realising I was erasing an important part of my own identity, I took on the responsibility of unlearning everything that I knew. Through this process of questioning, I’ve realised how much of my identity was lost due to the way our society centres the white cisgender able-bodied heterosexual experience. I realised how uncomfortable I felt in LGBTQI+ spaces, which only appeared to welcome the right kind of white cisgender able-bodied gays and lesbians. I realised how much my anxiety and lived experiences were being shaped by parts of my identity that I had no control over. I don’t believe that my identity is the sole reason for my struggles with mental health, but they have had an effect on my lived experiences.
While there is undeniable privilege for white-passing people of colour, both biracial and bisexual people experience what is known as double-discrimination. This means that not only do we experience discrimination at the hands of our oppressors, but from those who share our marginalised identities as well. Bisexual women have a higher risk of suicide, mental illness, domestic violence, sexual violence, poverty, and physical health disparities in comparison to our heterosexual and homosexual counterparts. These statistics are very similar for Latinx women and biracial/multiracial people.
Owning and embracing both my bisexual and biracial identity has come with many positives and negatives. For one thing, it has made a lot of people uncomfortable and even sometimes angry. I’ve experienced a lot of push back about my bisexuality from monosexual people (people who are attracted to only one gender). I’ve run into every stereotype in the bisexual book, from being called “attention-seeking” to being told that my relationships with men are just a symptom of compulsory heterosexuality. I’ve also been asked invasive questions about my sexual history and genitalia preference.
I’ve had very similar responses from white people when it comes to me embracing my biracial identity. To this day, there are people who scoff at how particularly vocal I am about my Puerto Rican ancestry. If you compare race discourse between the United States and Australia, though there are many similarities, it is very different. I think Americans struggle a lot more with embracing mixed race identities because we have not yet shed the idea of blood quantum, and not just in terms of Native ancestry.
There are a lot of white-passing people of colour with erased identities in the United States. This is due to colonisation and miseducation. The goal of colonisation is for everyone to adhere to white European standards; for everyone to achieve a respectable level of “whiteness.” It is so deeply embedded in our psyche that whenever it is challenged, discomfort immediately arises.
I know there always will be people who are adamant on erasing my identity because it makes them uncomfortable. I know this because people in positions of privilege have always tried to control the narratives of queer women and non-binary people of colour. For some reason, people view the reclaiming of my identity as a way of me trying to victimise myself.
What I’m really trying to do by owning my identity, is to make it safer for others to own their identity too, and to use the privilege and platform I have to help those more marginalised than myself achieve equality and safety.
The most positive thing this journey has taught me is that taking control of your own narrative is the one of the healthiest and most powerful things you can do for yourself.
Mental health support services:
Lifeline - 13 11 14
Carers Australia 1800 242 636 - Short-term counselling and emotional and psychological support services for carers and their families in each state and territory.
Headspace 1800 650 890 - a free online and telephone service that supports young people aged between 12 and 25 and their families going through a tough time.
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 - A free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25.
Mindspot Clinic 1800 61 44 34 - An online and telephone clinic providing free assessment and treatment services for Australian adults with anxiety or depression.
QLife 1800 184 527 - QLife is Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people.
Relationships Australia 1300 364 277- A provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.
SANE Australia 1800 18 7263 - Information about mental illness, treatments, where to go for support and help carers.
Source: Beyond Blue
Today is World Mental Health day. The new three-part SBS series 'How 'Mad' Are You?' takes a unique look at mental health. It will be broadcast on SBS tonight on October 11 at 8:30pm on SBS.