November 30, 2009

Identity Crisis: does the Movement require that we check a box?

I recently read an article written by Karla Jay, radical lesbian feminist and current professor of English and Gender Studies at Pace University, in which Jay tackles a subject countless of us have heard bandied about by former and current activists alike: Gen Y apathy.

Jay makes some good points regarding not only the effects of our technologically driven lives on current activist apathy, but also the struggle to empower young leaders to make strides where their predecessors began 40 years ago (to be fair, I think there is a point to be made for the rise of young leaders during last year's presidential elections as well as the work of young leaders in the surging fight for Equality). But, one of the things that stood out to me in Jay's letter was her take on the refusal of some members of the LGBTQ community to identify as LGBTQ. Of the students she has observed, Jay says, "(t)here’s a Stonewall Coalition at the university, but you don’t need that because New York City has so many queer bars and you have the fake I.D. to get in. You’re oh-so-out, though most of you can’t apply the LGBTQ words to yourself in my queer courses." Her take on this movement away from identifying appears to be an accusation of sorts. Slipped within a diatribe on activist apathy, the feeling behind the sentiment is certainly fueled by an amount of distrust of the "label-less."

Jay's reaction to observing a certain reticence among queer students to identify as LGBTQ calls forward an issue that is key to the current Equality movement. Is this movement away from labels destructive to the unity and cohesiveness of the LGBTQ fight for equality? And is accepting a label on your sexuality really necessary for gaining access to your rights?

Murdered LGBTQ activist Harvey Milk epitomized the sentiments of the 1970s LGBTQ equality movement in his speech "That's What America Is!" when he urged LGBTQ Americans to come out to their families, their friends, their neighbors, and their coworkers. His work with other LGBTQ activist leaders under the slogan "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" resulted in the defeat of anti-gay legislation in California and a shifting tide in the fight for LGBTQ equality. Coming out and identifying as LGBTQ was seen as a political tool to win allies and to put a face to the people being affected by anti-LGBTQ sentiments and legislation. They capitalized upon the feminist political thought that "the personal is political" and used it to humanize the LGBTQ community.

For me, I believe that coming out and identifying remains a powerful weapon for LGBTQ equality. It is easy to demonize a faceless enemy that you have been warned against your entire life. It is much harder to hate someone you know, someone you truly love as a person, for being who they are, be it Black, Muslim, gay, or part of a host of other stereotyped and persecuted groups. Coming out is not only beneficial for the LGBTQ persons in question, but it forces the people around them to confront and become aware of their own reactions towards the LGBTQ community, homophobic or otherwise. However, when we don't come out, we allow the people around us to NOT have to confront these issues. We allow them to live in a space wherein they can believe whatever they want about the LGBTQ community without facing any challenge from us, while we avoid being open and secure about our own lives.

How does this tie in, then, to those who are out, but do not identify as LGBTQ? Personally, I can completely understand the desire to not identify or label oneself. Labels carry the burden of carefully cultivated stigma and stereotypes that probably do not apply to the individual, and it is frustrating to know that assumptions are made about you based on what "box" your sexuality most fits into. Not only do labels inherently limit sexual expression and identity, but they can become a means of parceling out our community along faction lines. In a Utopia, no one would need labels, because one's sexuality would not define one's ideals or morals in the eyes of peers. Sexuality would just be, and that would be that.

However, it is important to remember that we do not live in a Utopia. I respect anyone's decision to not allow themselves to be labeled. At the same time though, I believe there is room within this to still work to disseminate an understanding of our community to our peers and to forward LGBTQ equality. The practice Karla Jay described, that of participating in LGBTQ social life without having to represent the LGBTQ community within a broader social context IS, I believe, a loss to our community. At the very least, identifying with the LGBTQ community, even if not under one of its specific labels, is important in that, like coming out, it forces those around us to recognize us as part of a disenfranchised and underrepresented community. It makes each and every one of us social activists in our smaller communities by giving us a broader identity with which we can associate. In this way, even those of us who do not consider ourselves activists, become ambassadors for our queer community.

We are living and existing in a time of change, and I for one think that it is more than alright that we be a little confrontational.

1 comment:

  1. Well-written. One of my resolutions for the upcoming year is to engage more with the LGBT center and to override my apathy. Thanks for the push.