Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Identity Politics You Can Believe In

I had an odd, educational conversation in a gay chat room earlier today. I was making small talk with another American, who's about to make his first trip to Korea; he is from California, and mentioned how upset he was by Proposition 8. We agreed that the No on 8 campaign had not been very well run, and I said that I thought part of the problem is that many gay people, including younger ones, seem to be denying the continuing force of homophobia/antigay bigotry in the US.

There's something paradoxical going on with that, because on one hand they are highly aware of bigotry as a threat before they come out, but on the other, when it comes to something like same-sex marriage, they seem to be living in a TV movie where all you have to do is assert The Right Thing and everyone magically comes around in time for the end credits. Maybe one bad-guy bigot remains, but he or she is either ridiculed or exiled. So a lot of the opponents of Proposition 8 seemed to be taken utterly by surprise when they encountered real, serious, deep-rooted opposition. (I mean, like, it's marriage, and marriage is good! Everybody should get married! And it's about equality, and equality is good! How could anyone be against it?)

But it wasn't just kids I had in mind. The professional operatives who ran No on 8 seemed equally unprepared, evidently thinking that a few TV ads would send Evil Mr. Proposition 8 back to his den, muttering "Curses! Foiled again!" Given that money was tight, a volunteer-based grass-roots campaign would have been much more cost-effective. (A California-based friend reminded me soon after the debacle that No on 8 had to compete with the Obama campaign for money and youthful idealism, which is a fair point; but the professionals tend to be opposed to grass-roots work on principle.)

Anyway, my interlocutor and I had just agreed about the denial at work in a lot of gay people's reactions to bigotry when another guy in the chat room intervened. (Thirty years old, Caucasian, chatting from Korea.) He told us that for most gay people, marriage isn't an issue, since marriage is a dying institution. Gay teens don't care about it (!), so they didn't get involved in No on 8. Marriage, he declared, should not be a civil institution. But Proposition 8 was the first time discrimination had been written into a constitution. What he said, aside from being wrong-headed (In My Hubristic Opinion), was irrelevant to what we'd been talking about, and I told him so: we'd been talking primarily about the adults who ran the No on 8 campaign, and that younger people's sense of denial about bigotry had nothing particular to do with marriage. I told him that marriage wasn't a big issue for me either (though I might have added that the young gay kids I work with on Speakers Bureau are mostly very pro-marriage -- more like pro-wedding, really). And even keeping it on his level, Colorado's Amendment 2, which also inscribed anti-gay discrimination into a state constitution, predated Prop 8 by sixteen years. Yes, it was overturned by the Supreme Court; Proposition 8 may also fall, one way or another. But it was not the first, not even the first state constitutional amendment to define same-sex marriage out of existence.

What really seemed to concern this guy, though, was "identity politics" and "playing victim," with an accompanying sense of entitlement, all of which he called "pathetic." He argued that we should just treat people as individuals, not as colors or sexes or sexual orientations, which is what he did, and what was I doing to change society that was as significant as that? I commented that he was throwing out prefabricated boilerplate phrases, and pointed out that antigay bigots, along with Teabag Nation and Republicans generally, also like to present themselves as victims. It's not limited to the standard minorities, who do have real grievances for being treated as their skin color, their sex, their sexual orientation.

He then flipped stances and argued that organizing was the only way we were going to change society, and how did I propose to get gay teens involved in the fight for gay marriage? I reminded him that I don't care if gay teens get involved in that fight, and asked him why he had suddenly decided that "identity politics" was not pathetic after all but a necessary tool for organizing, and why gay marriage was suddenly worth fighting for? He didn't seem to have an answer, and resorted to bluster: so what was I doing for equality and change? I asked him why I should bother to talk to someone who'd simply ignored the content of the conversation he'd joined, who had nothing but slogans to contribute, and kept changing his principles from minute to minute without, apparently, being aware that he was doing so. And there it more or less rested; it was lunch time, and I saw no point in continuing the conversation. (The first guy had dropped out of it early on, to run errands of his own.)

For the record, my personal contribution to equality and change is uncommendably modest. Deciding to be openly gay in a Midwestern college town in 1971 was still a fairly bold decision for the time, and I know I had an effect on the opinions of numerous people, gay and straight, but I'm fully aware of the limitations of such individual choices. I got involved in gay organizations as soon as I found some, but I often found them frustrating because they seemed to have been started without any clear goals, just because organizations were springing up all over the place in those days. But having organized, most people didn't seem to know what to do from there. A visible presence on campus and in town, supplying speakers to classes and other straight audiences, setting up a telephone hotline for peer counseling -- all these were good and important, and of course I'm still running the speakers bureau. Some people came to GLF meetings and demanded to know why we weren't lobbying the state legislature, pressuring Congress, marching in the streets. We'd say sure, do you want to get to work on that? They didn't, but they expected us to; activism as a job for servants. Nowadays there's a state-level gay-rights and lobbying organization, run by professional operatives. One of its presidents, from the 90s, was a gay Republican who, inspired by a gay Democrat to see the potential in gay politics, went from the closet to the head of a state organization in record time -- less than a year, it seemed to me. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it made me wary.

Identity politics has problems as a strategy, as black organizations (for example) discovered when Clarence Thomas was nominated to the US Supreme Court in 1991: should "race" take precedence over Thomas's record as a Reaganite collaborator who climbed to prominence over the bodies of his people? In the end it did so, to many people's chagrin. But identity politics is also a useful organizing tool -- is it even possible to organize people without offering them a group identity, a movement, to organize them into? Just about everybody denounces identity politics these days, with old New Leftists blaming it on postmodernists and postmodernists blaming it on the left and postcolonialists blaming it on the West, so that's an indication that something is wrong. Not that I know what it is.

The reason why today's conversation made an impression on me is that it summed up what is, for me, wrong with so much political discourse. Not just today (it's an old problem), not just in America, and not only on the Internet, but in print media and broadcast media and face-to-face interaction. Primed with slogans and misinformation, people don't listen to the other side enough to know whether, let alone why, they disagree. It isn't easy, as I know very well. The biggest irony was my challenger's insistence that The Answer was to treat people as individuals, when he couldn't be bothered to the listen to the individuals he was chatting with.