by Daniel A. Kaufman
Until about five minutes ago, if you’d asked me what some customary uses of ‘identify’ are, I would have given three: [A] Where one expresses sympathy for and solidarity with a group to which one does not belong, as in, “I identify with the plight of Afghan women, in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan”; [B] where one asks another person to determine who or what something is, as in “Could you identify the suspect?” or “Can you identify this species?”, or where one is unable to do so, as in “I can’t identify that particular insect.”; and [C], relatedly, where one asks another person to say who they are – i.e. “Identify yourself” – where what is being asked for is the person’s name and sometimes, some bits of biographical information like a home address. It is worth noting that when answering the latter sorts of questions, the term ‘identify’ is dropped. One says in response, “That’s the guy I saw coming out of the supermarket with the bag of money” or “This is an Iguana delicatissima,” or “I’m Dan Kaufman,” not “that guy identifies with the person I saw coming out…” or “this lizard identifies as an …” or “I identify as Dan Kaufman.”
In asking around the philosophy interwebs, another use was suggested that is a variant on [A], where one does belong to a particular group but wishes one didn’t or has fallen out of sympathy with it, as in: “I was born in San Francisco, but I no longer identify as American, now that Trump is president.”
In contemporary gender-identity discourse, ‘identify’ is used in conjunction with ‘as’, to produce linguistic constructions like [D]: “I identify as a woman/man/neither a woman nor a man.” I already have written about these kinds of sexed/gendered identifications from a number of angles: whether or not they are the sort of identities that are self- rather than socially made; whether they are the kind that can be felt, as in “feeling like a man”; as well as a number of others.  But, I haven’t examined the actual grammar – in the Wittgensteinian, not the syntactic sense – of ‘I identify as’, which is what I’m doing here. 
[A] – [C] would seem to indicate that ‘identify’ operates in essentially two ways: As a way of asking or saying what or who something or someone is (or saying that one cannot do so); and as a way of expressing one’s relation to something one is not. The question is whether [D] can be assimilated with these established uses or demonstrated as having some other coherent, customary use.
Suppose that one is a lawyer or guitar-player or carpenter or Lutheran. What would saying “I identify as ___” add? As already discussed, if one actually is the thing in question, one simply says so without using the word ‘identify’. ‘Identify’, while employable in an identity seeking query – “Could you identify this species” / “Could you identify yourself” – becomes ungrammatical when used in an identity stating assertion: “This is an Iguana delicatissima,” not “This identifies as an Iguana delicatissima” and “I am Dan Kaufman,” not “I identify as Dan Kaufman.”
Now, imagine that one was not any of these things. Suppose, for example, that you are an actor playing a lawyer or a guitar-player or a carpenter or a Lutheran in a play, film, or TV show. You would say, “I play a lawyer, carpenter, guitar-player, etc., in ____,” and this would communicate quite clearly that in fact, you are not the thing in question. Also notice, that you would not say “I identify as [a lawyer, guitar-player, carpenter, or Lutheran].” As per [A] and its variant, ‘identify’ can be used to claim sympathy with a group to which one does not belong — or antipathy towards one that one does — but it is not employed in straightforward denials that one actually is something.
So, what is ‘identify as’ supposed to communicate, when uttered or written? In earlier days, when the public understanding of trans people was largely in terms of male to female and female to male transsexuals, the relevant state of being was conceived as that of a legal and social fiction. A person, for reasons of psychological distress, endeavored to look and behave like a conventionally appearing and acting member of the opposite sex and was treated as such in a limited number of contexts. If ‘identify as’ was used back then (it wasn’t for the most part), it would have been understood in the kinds of terms just mentioned in our discussion of someone in a television show or film playing a role, a direct implication of which, remember, is that one is not actually the thing in question. And while perhaps an odd use of the expression — as indicated, we don’t describe actors and other performers this way — it would be coherent and comprehensible.
But this is not how ‘identify as’ is being used today, and to suggest any such thing provokes intense and hostile reactions from activists, who go to extraordinary lengths to exercise control over the public discussion of the subject. Now we are told that one no longer needs to be dysphoric to be trans, one need not “identify as” the opposite sex, and that in fact, gender need not be related to reproductive classes at all (hence ‘agender’ and the like). Gender is no longer a socially determined and inflected set of roles, but rather an innate identity, and this is why, today, one hears more and more that “Transwomen are women,” “Trans men are men,” and “Non-binary people are neither men nor women.”
But why employ the ‘identify as’ construction, then? If ‘man’ and ‘woman’ no longer denote reproductive classes , as they always have up until now, but refer instead to genders, then the claims “Transwomen are women” and the like are analytic and require no elaboration. And as we’ve seen, ‘identify as’ has no customary use in this regard, as it is not used to say that one is, straightforwardly, such-and-such. I leave open the question of the motives behind continuing to talk this way in this context, as I am not inclined to guess, but suffice it to say that given the common and customary uses of ‘identify’, why someone one would use it to say “So and so is such and such” is at best puzzling.
Furthermore, as far as I can tell, ‘identify as’ is only acceptable when used within gender-identity discourse and is harshly punished when employed outside of it – witness what happened to Rachel Dolezal, who tried to “identify as” black – though it remains unclear whether such uses may become more acceptable in the future.  Oli London, a so-called “influencer,” recently claimed to identify as Korean, despite not being Korean, and has received a less hostile, more mixed reaction than did Dolezal.  I also am seeing ‘identify as’ used in the context of disability, albeit it only on the fringes of public discourse.
What all of this suggests is that ‘identify as’ is fundamentally rhetorical in nature and should be treated as such when encountered. It is hardly the only such expression, of course, but given that it is now being employed in the official communications of major journalistic, political, legal, scientific, and medical institutions, it is particularly important that we be clear that this is what it is.