Folks who have been in or around gender and sexuality-based movement for the past decade or so have probably noticed an explosion of identities. These new words, new names, new ways of describing oneself and one’s relation to the world — and I’m not sure whether they’re really new, or just more visible than ever before — are maybe most apparent in the lengthening of what gets called “the acronym”: LGBT*QQIAP+, as it’s often written in the queer spaces I inhabit. (The T* is for trans* [gender, sexual, etc.] the first Q is for queer, the second for questioning, the I for intersex, the A for asexual, the P for pansexual, and the + for other identities that haven’t made the leap to acronym status yet.) These complex identities and their infinite, unique combinations show a world that is rich in its forms of gender, desire, play, presentation, and power — as some of the subjects in Sarah Deragon’s recent photo show The Identity Project, like Queer Butch Trans Top, Homo Queer Fag Boy Daddy, Daddy Fem Dyke Dom Queen, and Gender Blind Femme Bottom, among others, show. This growing alphabet soup seems to follow a sort of liberal, multicultural logic: the more people’s identities we acknowledge and make visible around the big gender-desire table, the better.
And yet there’s definitely a more complicated internal politics at play: how did we get from LGBT (still the most common form currently, as far as I can tell) to LGBT*QQIAP+? How many people had to identify as pansexual before educators, activists, writers, and others would remember to write a P? Which identities are struggling to be acronymized? More importantly, what is gained and what is lost in the struggle for acronym status, and in the focus on identity that it requires?
I come to the acronym from a position of privilege, not just as a white, able-bodied, college-educated cisguy, but as someone who arrived on the scene late enough to find that when I thought of myself as bi, there was already a B waiting for me; and when I thought of myself as gay there was a G, too; and when I started thinking of myself more as queer, well, there was usually a well-entrenched Q. I also came out early enough that my identity never got viewed as opportunistic or new-fangled, the way some people roll their eyes when they hear newer terms like trans-spirit, demisexual, biromantic, etc. While I’ve had to explain what I mean by Queer to more than one relative and doctor, I can generally assume (at least in the Bay Area) that most folks will understand what that means.Since I can sometimes pass as straight — especially when I need to, in this heterosexist world — focusing on identityforegrounds an aspect of myself that, unlike whiteness, male-legibility, and able-bodiedness, might remain invisible. It also probably increases the likelihood of striking up a conversation, making out with somebody, etc., when around others whose queerness is similarly visible. At the same time, as Julia Serano argues in her recent book Excluded (reviewed in this issue), foregrounding queerness as an identity can also be insular and clique-ish, in ways that I’m just starting to think about.
All this business about identity makes a lot of sense to me. When you’re told — by doctors, by family, by psychiatrists, by teachers, by politicians — that you’re one thing and you feel like you’re another thing, it’s powerful to say, “You say I am this thing, but I identify as this other thing. (PS: fuck you).” It sets up an opposition between the world of descriptions by those in power, often with authoritative qualifiers like “biologically,” “legally,” “really” — and on the other hand, a world of self-descriptions, focused on a different kind of authority: individual experience. Breaking down essentialist barriers into who could call herself a woman was one of the major triumphs of feminism in the late 20th century. In this sense, identity is political, proposing a different way of grounding claims about what people are. It’s also immensely helpful, literally saving the lives of folks (especially youth) who are going through the process of finding something affirming and communal to latch onto in a hostile, straight society. And yet, the emphasis on identity seems to have already conceded part of the battle. If those with the prescription pads and guns get to use the verb “to be” — to say what stuff in the world is — why do we hedge our bets with “identify as”? (Here’s a hunch: I think folks are worried that describing themselves as e.g., “being trans” commits oneself to too much permanence, denying the fluidity and change that identity is supposed to allow. If this is true, it’s unnecessary; “I’m lesbian” doesn’t need to mean anything more fixed than the fact that I’m hungry right now. Though a little awkward, Judith Butler’s statement, “a lesbian is what I’ve been being” makes the point well [Imitation and Gender Insubordination; emphasis mine].)
On the other hand, there seems to be some push-back among folks who’d just as soon give up the identity game in favor of a short and manageable description like, “the queer and trans community.” This approach has an obvious problem: it sacrifices some identities while privileging others, contributing to the invisibility of those who don’t feel any resonance with these terms. But maybe that’s the point: by self-consciously substituting an approximation of a lot of people’s identities, it shifts the focus from the person to the political. Here, “queer” and “trans” (but we could probably insert other words) are proxies for folks whose genders, desires, practices, etc. expose them to oppression. The people who feel represented by it, like myself, might see in it less a mirror than a shared politics. What it loses in apparent inclusion it gains in accessibility and recognition. It pushes us outward, proposing other axis for connection and intimacy. It suggests, critically, that our shared identity may not be as fertile a ground for collaboration as we thought, that identity might turn out to be a poor predictor of politics. (I often find more common ground with straight radicals than with queer liberals.)
I think this is what Eve Sedgwick was getting at when she argued in The Epistemology of the Closet that our way of talking about sexuality is limited, our terms tending to focus on the gender of the person using the term and the gender of their sexual partners (e.g., so the story goes, a lesbian is a woman who desires and/or has sex with women). This way of thinking about sexuality leaves out a lot of the sexual picture: What kinds of sex do people have? Do they practice good consent? Do they have sex in exchange for money or other goods? Do they talk with their partners about STIs? Do they film themselves fucking? What sexual politics do they have? How do they view the world? On this score, the proliferation of identities may be helpful: a self-description like “cisgendered feminist butch queen” tells me about this person’s exposure to gender discourse (“cisgendered”) and a little about their politics (“feminist”). But these terms are also flexible and vague — “butch” looks very different for different folks — and for a good reason: it doesn’t help anyone to police a right or wrong way of being butch, queer, etc.
In pointing this out, I’m not suggesting that the solution is to further expand the taxonomy, adding more identities in a never-ending search for total descriptive perfection, which might only lead to a more atomized culture. (Though I think there’s a pretty radical argument to be made for proliferating identities so infinitely that the concept stops meaning anything altogether — a critique that might end up tracing the limits of language itself, the impossibility of reducing desire or gender to words.) Instead, I wonder about the implications of a suggestion bell hooks offered in 1984: “Often emphasis on identity and lifestyle is appealing because it creates a false sense that one is engaged in praxis… To emphasize the engagement with feminist struggle as political commitment, we could avoid using the phrase ‘I am a feminist’ (a linguistic structure designed to refer to some personal aspect of identity and self-definition) and could state, ‘I advocate feminism.’” (Feminist Theory from Margin to Center, 30-1). This proposal fits gender and sexuality awkwardly at best: one isn’t necessarily advocating anything when one comes out as this or that. But I think that’s exactly the point! Maybe identity is ill-suited to politics to begin with.
That’s not say to that we should discard identity-talk altogether: I don’t think we could if we wanted to, and, again, identity has proven itself to be a helpful tool for figuring ourselves out, socializing, countering oppressive externally-imposed descriptions, and more. These are all definitely important functions, but maybe they’re more helpful for forming a personal bedrock for politics than for praxis itself. hooks’ suggestion makes me wonder: What if we focused less on who’s under the acronym-umbrella (acrobrella?), and more on fighting sexuality- and gender-based oppression? Less on who people are, and more on what they advocate, what they’ll fight for? Doing so might allow us to focus on issues that have been overlooked as “not queer/trans enough.” It might also help us to see how heterosexism and transphobia actually hurt straight and/or cis people, too; after all, these too can be fragile, contingent identities. (To give just one example, “straightness” often comes at the cost of having to constantly shore up one’s identity through self-policing and public disavowals like “no homo.”) Most important, we might see how those not under — or excluded from — the acronym have a stake in the movement, too.
Butler, Judith. Imitation and Gender Subordination. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York, NY: Routledge, 1993. 307-20.
hooks, bell. Feminist Theory from Marin to Center. London: Pluto Press, 2000. 1st ed 1984.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, CA: UCP, 1990.
Serano, Julia. Excluded. New York, NY: Seal Press, 2013.