theory journal

Presentation Paper (2/28/06)

Identity Politics: Theorizing the Familiar

Recently I wrote a blog post, which generated a debate between myself and another lesbian on the terms “lifestyle versus orientation.� I could not understand why my admission that no term really suited how I viewed my sexuality would elicit such a heated response. After reading and presenting on queer theories and listening to class discussion, I’m beginning to understand. There seems to be a difference between queer theory and the gay/lesbian political movement. Much of the political movement for rights supposes a sexual identity that pre-exists its representation. This identity is often referred to as the eternal homosexual. “We’re gay; we’ve always been gay etc.� Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick contests the myth of the eternal homosexual in “Axiomatic,� the preface to her book “Epistemology of the Closet.�

She expresses the dangers in relying on any “particular account of the origin of sexual preference and identity in individuals� (331). This is where politics and theory seem to collide. As we’ve discussed in class, the political system requires specific identifications in order to gain rights. Gays and Lesbians must claim to be the “same� as heterosexuals as they fight for rights to gay marriage, adoption and other rights. In other cases, to gain protection under the law, gays and lesbians must be considered “different.� Sedgwick sees that there’s no real way to successfully choose an origin myth to support. If you can choose to be gay then the assumption is you can choose not to be. If homosexuality is biological then those genes can be bred out.

Sedgwick explains that there is no space where gay identity can be discussed that exists outside of a heteronormative agenda, which tries to erase that identity. Sedgwick points to the fact that the word ‘homosexual’ appeared in Euro-American discourse in the late nineteenth century and it wasn’t until then that heterosexual became a term against which “norms� were defined. Throughout the essay, Sedgwick explores how identities (lesbian, gay, straight, male, female) are mapped against each other. She says that both homophobic discourse AND gay and lesbian discourse constructed male and female homosexuality identities through and in relation to one another (330). What I think is so fascinating about what Sedgwick does in this essay is that she challenges readers to (re)consider their assumptions. She explains that it is unfair and illogical to “assume that a male-centered analysis of homo-hetereosexual definition will have no lesbian relevance or interest,� nor can one assume “what its lesbian relevance could be or how far its lesbian interest might extend�(330).

Sedgwick continues to discuss how “intertwined� oppressive structures can be. She asserts that, “the person who is disabled through one set of oppressions may by the same positioning be enabled through others.� It isn’t a simple equation that one is either oppressed or the oppressor and it isn’t always easy to examine the oppressive structures that both enable and constrain because it would mean implicating ourselves in ways that make us accountable for our positioning. Another key thought that seems to work well within this idea of intertwining structures and positions is Sedgwick’s discussion of identity politics. She points out that to identify as also means one is identifying with and against something else. This, quite simply, is at the heart of the complications involved in both identity politics and why when I posted my struggle with defining an identity, I received such an outraged response. By voicing my struggle, I admitted how complicated the terms, “lifestyle� and “orientation� and even sexuality have become. And I think these terms point to the “origin� argument Sedgwick says is an argument that sends one around in circles.

Queer theory posits that sexual identities are a function of representation, that the representations pre-exist, frame and define sexual identities. Judith Butler further complicates both identity and representation when she asserts, “‘the body’ is itself a construction, as are the myriad ‘bodies’ that constitute the domain of gendered subjects� (347). Not only is identity constructed but ‘the body’ as well. This does not mean there isn’t a physical-ness or materiality to our body. But the way we view our bodies is constructed by hegemonic discourse. Butler asks, “Is the construction of the category of women as a coherent and stable subject an unwitting regulation of reification and gender relations?� Resoundingly the answer is yes. Like Sedgwick, Butler argues that identity should not be the foundation of feminist politics since the formation of that identity occurs within a “field of power�(345) already set against it.

Butler also questions sex and gender identity when she says, “Taken to its logical limit the sex/gender distinction suggests a radical discontinuity between sexed bodies and culturally constructed gender� (345). What I find compelling about Butler is her challenge to the idea of a “given� gender and/or sex. For me this both connects to and further complicates Sedgwick’s discussion that sexuality and gender are “inextricable from one another� although they can only be expressed in terms of one another.

Sedgwick and Butler lay theoretical groundwork for examining bodies, identities and sexuality through a cultural and queer theory lens. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner take up this project in their essay “Sex in Public.� They promote what they call “the radical aspirations of queer culture� moving beyond “a safe zone for sex� and pushing for “changed possibilities of identity, intelligibility, publics, culture, and sex that appear when the heterosexual couple is no longer the referent or the privileged example of sexual culture� (355). Berlant and Warner theorize the material practices of queer culture and the ways in which heterosexual culture has framed it.

Berlant and Warner challenge the “heterosexual life narrative,� which seems to plague queer culture. “People feel that the price they must pay for social membership and a relation to the future is identification with the heterosexual life narrative� (361). Sedgwick and Butler hint at this when they discuss how identities are formed over and against one another but Berlant and Warner point directly to this identification as problematic. In order to be recognized, in order to be validated, gays and lesbians must identify with the path of the heterosexual. The issue of gay marriage comes to mind, here, as well as gay adoption. What sacrifices to our identities do we give up when we strive to belong to the institutions that oppress us? In my opinion, gays and lesbians should be questioning the very need for recognition and validation.

Another myth Berlant and Warner discuss is the “love plot of intimacy� that gets associated and in their opinions, confused, with sex. Berlant and Warner are careful to separate heteronormativity from heterosexuality. They explain that heteronormativity is “the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent—that is organized as a sexuality—but also privileged� (355). Heteronormativity is embedded and produced in practically every aspect of social life including the law, commerce, medicine, and romance as well as what Berlant and Warner call “other protected spaces of culture.� What I think resonates so deeply with me in this essay is the way they challenge myths about the notions of heterosexuality as the norm, the referent and the narrative against which lesbians and gays compare themselves. Berlant and Warner make queer culture complicit in its identification practices. They point out that gays and lesbians buy the love plot, the intimacy myth without questioning ideological, economic or oppressive motives behind it. “Like most ideologies, that of normal intimacy may never have been an accurate description of how people actually live� (363).

I am impressed by the way Berlant and Warner theorize sexuality within and outside of queer culture. “Respectable gays like to think that they owe nothing to the sexual subculture they think of as sleazy. But their success, their way of living, their political rights, and their very identities would never have been possible but for the existence of the public sexual culture they now despise� (365). This strikes a chord with Sedgwick’s assertion that the positions that oppress you are the same positions that can also enable. Hatred is heteronormative rather its hatred from the queer or heterosexual cultures.

What Berlant and Warner do is contextualize theory within material conditions, in this case queer and heterosexual cultures. They point out that both cultures are too comfortable with the ways in which sexuality is defined as a form of intimacy. That representation is limiting, according to Berlant and Warner. Their essay is a step toward the kinds of cultural work that should be done on queer bodies, queer cultures, and queer sexuality. I think an examination of lesbian bodies and spaces would further the cultural work done in this essay. Not to essentialize the lesbian identity but to examine lesbian culture, to see what ways it behaves in complicit ways, to question whether or not women centered space can exist or if Irigary’s deduction that it cannot is correct. What about bodies that do not fit into categorization? This is where, as we’ve talked about in class, queer theory opens a space for theorizing those bodies, those identities. And there are other cultural locations such as race where queer theory can be applied.

If I were to post about my struggle with language, identity and sexuality now, I would do it differently. I would be more aware of my own assumptions, my complicity and my notions of what being a lesbian means. Using queer theory, I could examine the search to belong, to be recognized by a name, any name that sounds familiar to my person, in a more critical way. Perhaps now, I can revisit these feelings and instead of being shocked by the outraged response, theorize it.