Beyond Identity Politics

Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE, knows that the LGBT movement has to change tack to address the new challenges offered by trans & queer people to established identity blocks.

To discuss this, he got together Mara Keisling of NCTE, Carmen Vasquez of NYS Department of Health and Kate Kendall of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

It’s worth reading,  if just for quotes like this from Vasquez

Part of the problem we have, and some- thing I think we are moving away from, is that ours has been an identity-based politics forever, not a politics framed by human rights. When things center on identity and people feel that their identity is somehow being trampled on or taken away, they get defensive. That needs to change.

Keisling offers

It’s easy to fall victim to a kind of transition anxiety—“transition” in the sense that society is changing. There is a new America emerging, and we’ve all been hesitant to say that because we’re afraid to face this transition anxiety. There are people who wouldn’t have been welcome in the world before who we want to make room for now. And that makes some people uncomfortable. Just when you think you’ve found your place in society, society changes again. And we’re seeing this now within the trans movement, and the trans communities (plural) where what it means to be trans is shifting constantly.

I’m happy to see her talk about “trans communities (plural),” which I started talking about in the late 1990s.   My phrase was “the interlocking communities around trans” because many of us active are in multiple communities.

At that time, though, this kind of precise understanding was erased as many projected onto other transpeople their own presumed ideas, needs and characteristics.   We wanted identity politics to work for us, one bloc, even though the call to trans is clearly very queer and very individual.

The problem with this discussion is that it quickly falls back into the language of oppression, of us versus them, that always underlies identity politics.

Moving to human rights demands empowering individual humans rather than identifying shared group oppressions.

Kendell finishes the discussion with a troubling note

One question we always ask at NCLR is: who is being left behind? The second question is: what kind of country do we want to live in? Neither is particularly driven by identity. Although the first one is connected to identity to some degree, because in a nation that still has white supremacy at its core—and racism obviously still entrenched everywhere, and transphobia and homophobia—I think there is still a place for understanding that there will be individuals whose very identity makes them more of a target for oppression.

Does this acknowledge that in many, many cases, the people doing the “oppression” are people who identify as “oppressed” and target these individuals because they are seen more as “oppressors” than as allies, neighbours and humans?

After all, this is the question that started the discussion: How do we make room in LGBT organizations for people who cannot fit neatly into our identity politics based systems?

Individual empowerment, though — the kind I spoke about in a short acceptance speech in 1997 — demands moving beyond simple us versus them paradigms.  Instead, it demands individual empowerment, personal responsibility both for claiming our own success and for being a powerful ally to others who need a hand in claiming their own power in the world.

This move is directly challenging to both individuals and to those who claim institutional power by creating divides between groups, using us vs. them as a political club, claiming that a simple fight to end class based oppressions will make life easier and nicer for their constituents.

Keisling’s point, though, that there are many trans communities, is at the heart of the challenge offered.   No one is separate, isolated, cleanly in this or that box.

And no solution to shared challenges will ever occur without the willingness, no the imperative to reach beyond our own cultural boundaries, our own comforting walls, and work with others who are not like us, those who would never make some of the choices we made.  Separatism may be effective rabble rousing, but it does not create a politics of healing, growth and maturity.

Humans interlock in profound and powerful ways that identity politics just discounts and denies.  You cannot both continue a politics of us versus them and make the transition to embracing people as individuals who have lived real & liminal lives, crossing boundaries others want to see as solid to claim their unique version of continuous common humanity.

I am not surprised that the people at SAGE are focusing on this issue.   Instead of dealing with fresh, young people who are ready to assume a new identity, they serve mature queer people who have a life of twists, of stories and of transcendence behind them.   These are not clients who can easily twist themselves down to fit in a neat rhetorical box anymore, nor at our age, are we willing to do that kind of denial just to try and join the gang.

We are who we are, elders, beyond and cranky, and that’s one reason we often don’t participate in the kind of LGBT organizations that are dominated by young idealogues who try to impose a doctrinal vision of the way the world should be, focusing not on complex connections but rather on easy separations.

Mr. Adams is right.  New models are required.

I just don’t think the participants in the conversation are ready yet to do the hard work of letting go of the old structures of identity politics which support their current organizations.