What’s Hiding Behind Our Identity (Politics)?
When I was in middle school I filched a book from my sister, a mystery novel with a lesbian narrator. At some point in my reading a lot of things clicked together for me as I recognized many of my own longings and emotions in the narrator’s depiction of her sexuality. This is how I began to figure out that I was gay.
It came as a huge relief. Coming out as gay seemed to explain not only the intensity of my attraction to that modelesque girl in my English class; it also seemed to explain a persistent sense of alienation or exile, which I had felt since childhood. Having a name for what I felt meant that it could become intelligible. I could blame this feeling of loss, guilt, and homesickness on homophobia rather than on myself. I wasn’t sure that “being gay” really explained all of this exile feeling, but it seemed to explain enough.
Later on, though, I met Christians who started to clear away some of my misconceptions about their faith. And in their descriptions of what is meant by “original sin” I began to see the outline of those old feelings again. I began to wonder if the exile that I felt was Adam’s exile, and if my experiences of outsider status, as a lesbian, were heightened expressions of our universal loss of home.
The point of this is not to say that my coming out was “really” or “only” about original sin. I’m still pretty gay. But hidden within that coming-out narrative was a religious narrative, no longer about the search for the authentic self but about the longing for God.
And so I wonder, when I see the multiplication of identity-politics terms and initials—LGBTQIAABBQLOL and all that—what might be hidden in these terms. Right now our discourse around the spread of identity labeling mostly takes place entirely on the labels’ own terms: Are asexuals “really” queer, or do they just have victimization envy? Is “demisexual” even a thing, or is this just how people who don’t like being normal say “normal”? I wonder what we’d see if we stepped entirely off the identity battleground, and asked what else these terms are trying to articulate. Are some of these terms, for some people, a way of articulating religious longings, an unacknowledged vocation, or a criticism of surrounding culture?
How much of what we call “being gay,” for example, is the longing for devoted, intimate same-sex friendship? We used to have many ways to express our longings for another person of the same sex; now we have vanishingly few. Men, especially, may find that the only way they can intelligibly express or even acknowledge this longing is by sexualizing it. (This is probably even more true if physical touch is one of your love languages—I know that stuff is pop-psych but I find it pretty useful as an explanatory framework.)
When someone identifies as “genderqueer,” how much of that is a response to the bizarrely rigid gender categories we enforce today? When I sort baby clothes at my volunteer job I’m always dismayed to see that anything with a soccer ball on it is for boys (boys get soccer, football, basketball… and camo) and anything with an artist’s tool is for girls (easel, paintbrush, ballet shoes). Boys who like dance and dolls–representing basic human impulses to create and nurture—are given no positive ways to understand their preferences unless their parents value “gender nonconformity.”
These are examples from sexuality and gender identity, but I suspect you could try to apply similar approaches to other areas. The “#lifehacks: Express a religious longing as mental illness, then as identity politics” progression has occurred with (off the top of my head) anorexia, depression, and addiction. And frankly, when people self-identify as “conservative” or “progressive,” they’re often naming a religious orientation toward different aspects of Heaven (its hierarchy and order, for example, or its overturning of worldly hierarchies) as much as they’re expressing positions on tax rates or health care reform.
None of this means the surface-level meaning of the identity is fake. Nor does it mean that everyone who self-identifies in a particular way is expressing a covert spiritual longing—let alone the same covert spiritual longing! And most sentences that start, “Why don’t you just…?” or, “I think you’re just…” are examples of projection and self-righteousness, not insight.
But the problem with the proliferation of identity labels may not be that we’re too accepting of this language. It’s that we’re too incurious about what the labels name.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.