Identity Policing and “Own Voices”

4/6: I’m removing the Twitter links at the bottom of this post because 1) they’re not displaying right for a few readers and 2) Haynes has now apparently threatened to sue one of the individuals I linked to. (This may be a barn door/escaped horses situation, but still…)


There’s been a lot of discussion this past week about an April 2020 essay at Dark Matter Zine, “Defining ‘Own Voices’ Authors: you can’t have it both ways”.

Full disclosure: I published an essay by DMZ’s managing editor, Nalini Haynes, in 2014. “Evil Albino Trope is Evil” appeared both on my blog and in Invisible. I asked on Twitter whether DMZ would be responding to the conversation, or if their views had changed at all since 2020. I haven’t gotten a response yet, but will update when and if I do.

The essay at DMZ begins:

“Over the years I’ve had conflict with a number of authors about whether or not they are an “own voices” author and whether or not they’re appropriating (or misappropriating) others’ stories. Many authors claim identities when it’s convenient for them, when they stand to sell books or get a publishing opportunity. These same authors will not, at other times, identify as disabled. They won’t tick the “disabled” box when it might lose them a job. They won’t tick the “disabled” box when they might miss out on opportunities. They see the identity as a “treat” box they can dip in to at will but pass by when it’s inconvenient. And yet they want to use Dark Matter Zine, my platform, to wink at audiences, implying and claiming an identity that they will shed like a coat when the weather is warm.”

Identity isn’t as simple or straightforward as checking a box. If it was, I wouldn’t have struggled with whether or not to start out by saying, “Hey, I’m disabled.” As a type 1 diabetic, I need daily meds to live. I’m protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’m pretty sure that puts me in the “disabled” pool. But with my pump and meter, I’ve been able to manage my diabetes for 22 years now. It’s well-controlled, and doesn’t cause me any major problems from day to day.

And that’s part of the problem: thinking I’m not really disabled because I’m not inconvenienced enough. Because I don’t suffer enough as a result of my disease. Because I’m not thinking about it 24/7. I end up policing my own identity, thinking I’m not disabled enough to claim the label. I’ve talked to plenty of other folks who’ve had similar struggles.

The essay continues:

“They want to claim to be an “own voices” author and they want to disavow that identity when owning that identity does not suit them. I use disability as an example, but this equally applies to being LGBTQIA (aka “queer”), Muslim, a person of color, and so on. If you’re “passing” as straight, or areligious or a conforming religion, or white, then you don’t get the full technicolor violent experience of the identity you’re claiming. You are NOT an “own voices” author if you don’t own that identity ALL THE DAMNED TIME.”

Hi, my name is Jim Hines, and I’m diabetic. I’ve had a long day… First, I worked on painting my kitchen, diabetically. Then I had to drive my dog to the vet for her shot, all the while being diabetic. Then I came home and found, to my diabetic dismay, a leak in the basement ceiling beneath the dishwasher. I swore a mighty diabetic curse, then got to work trying to fix the dishwasher with my own two diabetic hands. And so on, and so forth.

I’m pretty open about my disability, but I don’t announce it to everyone I meet. I’m not “out” as a diabetic with every coworker. I’ve been out to meals folks where I deliberately don’t say anything about the diabetes, because I don’t feel like dealing with people trying to police what I can and can’t eat.

But you know what? If I decided to write a story about a diabetic protagonist, it would damn well draw on my own personal experiences. It would be “Own Voices,” in that the story is written by someone with 22 years of dealing with this damn disease. The fact that I’m not actively owning that identity all the time doesn’t make my story any less authentic or real.

That’s a relatively light example. Haynes also claims that if you’re white-passing or straight-passing, you don’t get the “full…violent experience” of the identity you’re claiming.

As if there’s only one universal full experience.

As if persecution and violence are prerequisites for being queer or non-white or disabled.

As if “passing” is a whim, like deciding whether or not to wear a windbreaker when taking the dogs for a walk this afternoon.

People are killed every day for being LGBTQIA. There are places where coming out as queer will get you arrested and killed.

Let’s say someone chooses to keep their sexuality a secret, because they have a personal preference for not being murdered. Let’s say that person writes a book about being queer. They publish under a pseudonym (see: preference for not being murdered). Are you honestly going to tell me that book isn’t “Own Voices” because the author isn’t claiming the identity “all the damned time”?

The DMZ essay talks about authors co-opting the “Own Voices” label to sell books, claiming or implying that they’re disabled in order to get a little extra publicity, or a few more sales. No examples are given, but yeah, it can happen. Author Michael Derrick Hudson used a female-sounding Asian pseudonym to sell his poetry. Marvel Comics’ C. B. Cebulski wrote “Wolverine: Soultaker” and “Kitty Pryde – Shadow & Flame,” both of which are set in Japan, using the name “Akira Yoshida.”

It reminds me of voter fraud. We know there are very few legitimate cases of voter fraud. But the solution to that problem is not to suppress thousands or millions of legitimate voters!

“It’s a con game to make money. Under this banner, any author who’s ever found someone of their gender attractive could claim to be queer while never having had a same sex relationship, never having experienced coming out, never having experienced others’ reactions to being nontraditional, nonconformist. It’s a con.”

Oh, hell, no. This is outside of my personal experience as a straight man, but as far as I know, coming out is not a prerequisite for being queer. Nor is having a same-sex relationship.

If you’re uncertain about this, flip the script. I’ve known I was straight for most of my life. I was straight years before I ever had a girlfriend. What gives you the right to tell 15-year-old me I’m not straight, just because I haven’t dated yet?

I have loved ones who identify as pansexual. Are you going to tell them they’re not — that it’s just a con — unless they can prove they’ve had a relationship with someone of every gender? Do you have a checklist they have to complete? A sexual scavenger hunt to earn their Pansexuality merit badge?

“Far better to acknowledge that you’re writing another’s story than to falsely claim it as your own.”

In and of itself, I agree with this statement. The problem is that the author is making themself the judge of whose identities are true and valid, and whose are false. And they’re trying to dump a hell of a lot of people into the “false” basket. Basically, they’re claiming the role of identity police. They’re laying out The Rules, and claiming, “This applies to all minority identities.”


Look, we already have too many people trying to tell others who they are isn’t real. Saying things like, “Oh, asexuality isn’t a thing” or “You’re just going through a phase” or “You’re not trans; you’re just confused.” They pounce at the chance to prove someone isn’t “really” disabled. “Aha, you walked from the handicap spot to the store, so you’re not really handicapped!” or “You stood up from your wheelchair to get something from the shelf, so you’re not really disabled!” And don’t get me started on mental illness. “Depression isn’t real; you just need exercise/sunshine/yoga/a jade egg/etc…”

And then we wonder why people are hesitant to come out. Why they’re reluctant to identify as disabled.

That essay may represent Dark Matter Zine’s “official position on this matter,” but DMZ is just one magazine. They’re not the world. It’s identity policing without a badge, and without any real authority.

My official position is that DMZ’s essay is misguided, misinformed, and cruel.

I believe who you are is valid and real. It’s enough. You are who you are, regardless of whether you’ve come out publicly, regardless of whether you’ve had all the same experiences as someone else.