Arguing Identity: Session Two

Tom Healy: I’ve been asked to talk about sex and marriage, and since I don’t have enough sex and I’m not married I’m particularly qualified for the task. Of course, we’re always talking, in these conversations, about identity, which comes from the Latin adverb identidem, and it’s hard not to notice that there’s a paradox, in that the very word we use to argue for our uniqueness, for our distinctiveness, is a word that means “the same.” Clearly we hope to believe that we can be the same, and yet also unique. In several ways the largely settled debates about gay marriage have drawn attention to that paradox. Many gays have been alert to the paradox and tried to work through it. Not so easy, after all, to be the same and unique. Say the words “queer identity” and then say “gay marriage” and you begin to see the problem. If marriage is regarded as belonging—having belonged—to the heteronormative, and queer identity belongs to some other condition, you have, at least potentially, some incoherence. Identity is at issue. Some people argued, at least a decade ago, that once you had gay marriage, all sorts of other legal entitlements and protections would be inevitable. And that has been, to a considerable extent, the way it’s gone.

But there are other things that come with being accepted, out of danger, legally protected and basically told you can be who and what you want to be. Nice to feel that people—most people—want you to feel like you’re IN. Nice to feel that certain political issues don’t have to be fought over anymore. And yet for many of us, queer identity has always meant something other than living comfortably inside the bourgeois legal and political system. This is pretty obvious, I know, and yet it does mark the paradox I’m trying to get at here. In fact one of the essential aspects of queer identity—whether forced on you, or optimistically embraced and willed into being—has been a sense that our difference was a place of creativity. John Waters used to say when he saw the development of gay ghettos, or bumper stickers with rainbow flags, or distinctive ways of dress, You know, being gay used to mean you had to be an artist, you had to create a past—because there was no community of identity you could look to—and you had to make a future, because it wasn’t quite clear what the role models and roles and possibilities would be for you. But now, with our gay marriages and our safe neighborhoods, being gay is a consumer choice, and suddenly it’s an interesting question you have to ask about queer identity, about whether it’s just something as fundamental as the sex you practice, or something innate, or just another preference? It’s always been infuriating to be told that really there’s nothing more to being gay than a kind of resentable promiscuity and a freedom from responsibilities and discipline such as a married, family person knows all about. And yet with gay marriage we’re really not sure about these questions. There is a sense in which when a lifestyle is chosen by a large group of people who are having children, getting married, and embracing the values of their friends and family, you have something very different from a situation in which people really are different.

Of course I’m intrigued myself by all the counter-marriage arguments when I hear them coming from young, queer activists who believe that what gay marriage is doing is affording yet another group of haves to separate from people who don’t have. If you look around Western Europe and the United States you learn that the people who are marrying and having children are far more affluent than the people who don’t, and that’s across races, genders and regions. Ironically, traditional values increasingly seem very class-based, and you don’t get to claim an outsider status the way you could at an earlier time. A white, privileged gay male like myself is far more like other white privileged people in our culture than like an outsider group defined by their queer identity. In the past my queer identity suggested a more fluid engagement with people of all kinds of races and classes. When gay culture was largely hidden, people broke traditional boundaries of affiliation, and where that has been lost, the whole idea of difference has changed, and identity, as I say, has become more problematic.

Of course things have also grown more complicated as we’ve moved—some of us have moved—beyond binary ideas of male and female and elementary biological definitions of sex. Judith Butler and many others are raising important questions about gender and sex and the social determination of identity. What are biological facts, we’re now asking, and is biology any kind of destiny? Essentialist views of male and female identity are evolving in strange ways, in part as a result of readily available hormone treatments. Even in conservative America people are looking at things in a whole new way. If someone sees a child of theirs to be a young sissy boy or behaving “like a girl” at three or four years old, steps are being taken to make that boy the girl he really is. For a lot of conservative people, especially religiously conservative people, it makes far more sense to say that I don’t have a gay child or an effeminate child but perhaps a girl that’s trapped in a little boy’s body, and we can use hormones to change that child. Thousands of cases of this are happening and on record, where children are having their sexual identities changed through biological treatment arranged by their parents.

So, there are lots of complicated questions here, and our present conversations about identity are inevitably going to be very different from the conversations we were having only ten or twelve years ago.

Robert Boyers: Of course you’re right about this, Tom, and no doubt essentialist notions about identity seem more and more impossible to support. And yet, at the same time, in an era when identity politics continues to seem compelling to a great many people, including highly educated people, it’s hard to think that the developments you’ve cited brought essentialist thinking about identity to an end. No doubt we all have our own stories or versions to tell, about the way these things play out, but I’ll share one of my own. When my own gay son was about to come out he was twenty and had lived all his life in a household with large numbers of gay people always around, friends of his parents who, in several cases at least, regarded themselves as gay “uncles” but were about as different from one another as any assortment of people could conceivably be. Some of them were rather conservative culturally and politically, several of them were left-liberals, like us, a number of them enjoyed many sexual partners and seemed always to be temporarily involved with someone new, while many of them had been in long term, committed relationships with a single partner over many years. Some of them were bourgeois, some of them were clearly not. Some wore their queer identity on their proverbial sleeve, others were by no means recognizable as gay or queer. And so our son, in spite of the experiences he’d had, didn’t quite know how to think about what was meant when he heard people speak of a queer identity. What, he asked us, apart from the obvious, was entailed in a queer identity, and if there was such a thing, why was it that the many gay people he had known while growing up in our household did not often resemble one another in any discernible way? My question here is in some way a terribly naïve question, and it comes in two parts. Part one: Is there in fact such a thing as a queer identity, or is it merely a kind of self-definition that corresponds to very little in the actual lives and attitudes and postures of most gay people? And part two: Can you define and lay claim to a so-called queer identity without buying into the sort of essentialism you deplore or disparage?

Tom Healy: So those are your naïve questions? I’m tempted to ask whether anyone here embraces a queer identity, and if so, would be willing to take Bob up on his questions. I mean, this is the sort of thing that’s larger than the experience of any one person.

Robert Boyers: I’m not sure about that, Tom. In a way, an honest response here has to begin with the experience of a single person, either as an instance of the “identity” we’re asking about, or as an observant friend or witness.

Tom Healy: You’re asking what it means to you to say that you recognize a queer identity as some deeply constituted part of yourself.

Robert Boyers: Exactly. And though I might well ask a version of this question if we were talking about black identity, or female identity, we might as well try to work this through the way you’ve set out for us in your earlier remarks.

Tom Healy: Nostalgia here, right? Things used to be simpler. It used to be easier when we had clear categories. Once there were clearly established male roles. An active and passive partner, an older and younger partner. These relations and roles came with a clear sense of what was moral and appropriate. In the Greek world certainly.

Robert Boyers :Persuasive, what you describe. But do clearly established roles and behaviors amount to a description of queer identity? Of that I’m not persuaded.

Tom Healy: What I’ll concede for the moment is that, however identity was constituted in the past, it’s become a much more fluid concept at present, and as for queerness, well, with the advent of gay marriage, and the fact that there are few places I can go in this country where I’ll be discriminated against in a flagrant way, my queerness as an identity is evaporating.

James Miller: I’d go back, Tom, to a more basic way of constituting a group by saying that its members have similar traits. So you can say everybody who has sex with same-sex partners are homosexual or lesbian, and you can call that an ascriptive identity. You can also choose to identify yourself in a certain way, by saying yes, I belong to or in that category. The process of recognition is basic here. I think the notion of a queer identity is a classic case of the kind of identity formation we all recognize. In the post-Stonewall period you had a group of people who had been, for a long time, oppressed, their behaviors prohibited and proscribed, and for whom there was a whole set of stereotypes that were quite negative. Those very stereotypes were then seized on, affirmed and hurled back in the face of those who would denigrate gay people, who said, in effect, “You think we’re queer? We’re more queer than you know.” And that constituted the basis for an idea of queer identity which was very much a historical product of a very specific cultural moment. Inevitably, with the passing of that moment and the particular conjecture that made it what it was, you began to see a much more heterogeneous and pluralistic community that was very different from the one that took shape as a sort of reified counter-affirmation of a previously negative ascribed identity.

Akeel Bilgrami: What I hear in those words, Jim, is the sense that the persons you’re describing suddenly find themselves with a good deal more latitude.

Tom Healy: Maybe not so suddenly, but with greater latitude, and a range of choices.

Akeel Bilgrami: I’m wondering if the term “choice” isn’t a bit misleading here, in this context. I mean, the word choice really gives the impression of a lot of latitude which we actually may not possess, or not much of the time, or all of the time. Much of the time, the real thing we do is endorse what may be given to us in greater or lesser degree. There was a wonderful moment in 1989 at a PEN society meeting in support o f Salman Rushdie, when Norman Mailer declared “I am Salman Rushdie, let them come and get me” or something like that, and Bernard Levin, a sort of sniping conservative, said about this claim of Mailer’s, “The flesh is willing but the opportunity is weak.” And there was something to that. Really you just can’t embrace anything you like just by declaring it. Lots of things are given to you, and sometimes as an act of resistance you can choose to deny some of them, and that’s remarkable, but most of the time we endorse something without being quite able to freely choose or reject it. This doesn’t quite answer to Bob’s challenge as to what exactly we might mean when we resort to a term like queer identity, but I think it may move us further in the direction of an answer.

Orlando Patterson: On the matter of choice, everything depends very much on the circumstances. I agree with Akeel, that there are some cases of identity in which one has no choice, especially when it’s externally imposed and there’s no way not to accept that. I have no choice when I walk into a room and I’m recognized as a black person, though there is a question as to whether or not I’m going to endorse it by affirming that I am essentially what my color says I am. But of course we all know, or should know, that there’s no such thing as a single identity. All of us have multiple identities. Some black people choose to make their blackness the focal point—we see a lot of that, and in fact we see far too much of it. And it’s much the same for some gay people who choose to make much of their gay identity, while others choose not to. Where it gets problematic is when those who have chosen to make one aspect of their identity focal begin insisting that others must do no less, and accuse those who resist of not being sufficiently authentic. My sense is that this sort of thing is less common than it was a decade or two ago, and that people are more relaxed about such matters right now. At least this seems to be the case among black people.

I do find very intriguing, though, Tom’s point about what is lost when formerly marginalized populations are accepted. The parallels with the black community are numerous. And I’ve even heard American Jews talk occasionally about the way that a certain kind of urgency about community and about the building of bonds with others has been lost with the disappearance of anti-Semitism. Assimilation can be a great thing, but it brings with it many costs, as we’ve all observed.

Peter Beinart: Tom’s take on the challenges associated with gay identity reminded me of a conversation I once had with a former professor of mine, a gay man, who got recruited very heavily to go to the University of Oklahoma. This was back in the nineties, and then he left Oklahoma after a couple of years. And I said to him, “Did you leave because there weren’t enough gay people there?” And he looked at me, sort of sideways, and said, “No, Peter, I left because there were too many.” After a minute I realized what he meant, which was that they were all married to women and that he was a kind of magnet in a way that must not have been comfortable.

But I want to pick up on Orlando’s sense of what you gain and what you lose once you’re no longer marginal and find yourself being accepted. Part of what Orlando is talking about is the idea that there were things we had when we were constrained that we miss. I mean, lots of people who no longer think of themselves as belonging to a certain class can miss the feeling of solidarity you get when you’re involved with others like yourself in a kind of ongoing struggle. It’s not so very surprising that people who live in places where it’s still not easy to be openly gay may feel that they enjoy certain advantages as a self-conscious minority.

Carolyn Forché: When we were asked—I think we were asked—the question how many of us identify as queer I went back in my mind and I thought, all of the women in my 8th grade class graduated from dancing with each other to other things, and though most of them are married now, and I don’t know whether any of them think about their sexual history with each other, we certainly all had that history. I wonder if that counts when we think about whether we should identify as queer.

But I want to talk about class here too, and loss. I spent the first twenty years of my life deeply immersed in working class culture, living in a working class family with a working class identity. And later on I read a book by Paul Fussell, the grumpy old Paul Fussell, who is great on poetic meter and poetic form, but also wrote a book on class where he devised a category for people like me, people who were raised in one class and now have no particular class markers to identify ourselves and so should be called members of the “X-class.” And so yes, I sort of fit in the X-class, and I sort of do miss being working class, although working class has nothing to do with most of the life that I now lead or the circles I move in. I mean I do occasionally even now assert this identity and people will then do battle with me and say, come on Carolyn, you’re not working class any more, that’s something you should have gotten over or left behind and not something to be proud of, not now, not for you. What I want, I guess, is to feel that I’m someone who can still partly be what I felt I was, with an identity that isn’t completely this and no way that.

Bina Gogineni: You know there’s a quiz at the end of the Fussell book and you can see what your class is, and I placed in X as well. I think most of us at a table like this place in X. And that does have something to do with the question of queer. I think one of the things that’s distinctive about “queer” is that it’s one of those categories that really can be chosen rather than merely endorsed, because it’s both more and less than homosexual. It doesn’t correspond in a one to one way to a particular sexual choice, so that you can ostensibly be a heterosexual person who feels identified with a queer lifestyle. Speaking here just for myself, I can say that when I deliberately choose not to espouse a queer identity, it’s not that I don’t think I’m sort of odd, it’s that I don’t want to avail myself of the glamour of a category that has in fact acquired a certain glamour. Sometimes, categories of difference become glamorous, and I feel in the case of queerness that I haven’t earned the right to be queer, that there are people much queerer than I some of whom are homosexuals—which is of course at the basis and origin of queer in the first place. So there is a kind of modesty that can come with the disavowel of categories, depending on their status in a dynamic world.

Robert Boyers: I love what you’ve said, Bina, and would ask whether in fact you often feel, as I do, that many of those who proclaim their own queerness are, some of the time, exactly as you say, laying claim to the glamour though in fact they are not at all entitled to it.

Tom Healy: Can you be gay and not at all entitled to it?

Robert Boyers: If queer entails, or implies, something other than simply gay, then the answer has to be yes.

Peter Beinart: Would you mind playing that out a little more?

Akeel Bilgrami: This would depend on your definition of queer, obviously, and I do hear in what Bina said the idea that queer can be an honorific term, and that you have to feel that you’re entitled to claim it for yourself, in which case…

Peter Beinart: I hear the same thing, both in what Bob and Bina have been saying.

Tom Healy: But I want to hear Bob say not only why it’s modesty that would prevent Bina from asserting her queerness, but why he would think people who do assert their queerness may not be entitled to it.

Robert Boyers: Look, this is not, not in the main, a moral argument, as I understand it. But it does have to do with the way we deploy and acknowledge identity. If someone declares himself to be queer, and to make a big deal of it by differentiating himself from other less glamorous people, well, I’m inclined to wonder what kinds of risks and heterodoxies that person has built his life around. If my gay friend leads a perfectly secure and conventional life, and rarely if ever takes risks on behalf of other persons or anything else that has potentially dangerous consequences, then I say no, my friend is not entitled to “queer” if queer is associated with the dangerous, the subversive, the adventurous.

Akeel Bilgrami: In some ways this is a semantic argument.

Bina Gogineni: It’s semantic, but it’s also, as Bob says, a matter of the way identity is deployed in a culture where, inevitably, certain identities have status and others don’t.

Ruth Franklin: It’s so interesting to think where exactly these categories come from. You know, if you did have the right to espouse yourself as queer, where do you inherit it from? Who bestows that right upon you? In the most fundamental sense identity usually starts with our parentage. That’s what Andrew Sullivan suggests when he cites vertical identities, which are different from horizontal identities. The vertical identity comes from thinking of oneself as the product of these particular two people. In the Judaic tradition, that’s even embedded within one’s Hebrew name, so that I am myself, the daughter or son of this tradition. I know that this is very different from the argument about who is or isn’t entitled to assert a queer identity. But I wanted to point to the more common and foundational case, where traditionally the people we are identified with are our community. We feel a part of this community as if it were part of our family.

Tom Healy: There are different kinds of families and communities, and when you’re experiencing a crisis of identity you may discover that your family is not your community.

Ruth Franklin: I agree with you, Tom, and I suppose that when someone espouses a queer identity he may well be saying to members of his own family, my identity is not yours, I’m creating an identity for myself that is totally separate from the identity of the people, of the family that I came from. And it means basically that if that’s what I’m going to call my identity, I have to choose to affiliate myself with another community, and to find a way to integrate all the multiplicities of identity that are or have been a part of me. It’s possible that, as gay marriage and childbearing become more and more common, gay people will not be aiming to differentiate themselves from the parents but discovering ways to go back and connect. In which case the question of queerness and heteronormativity will not be terribly important, and what people will be asking is what it means to choose an identity and still feel that you’re not just adopting a set of prescribed postures.

Robert Boyers: One aspect of this situation is that the person embarking upon a life as a gay man or a lesbian woman may very well be thinking that he or she identifies more or less completely with the so-called heteronormative bourgeois lifestyle and choices of the parents’ generation. And yet the young gay man or woman may then think, how is that possible? How can an independent queer identity be fashioned for a person who is so completely identified with this other sort of heteronormative way of life? I’m thinking here of someone who indeed wants to be married, and to live a life that includes a stable bourgeois marriage. And I think that’s part of the problem that many young gay people right now are confronting. As Tom was saying earlier, it was much easier to think about these things when to be gay meant to be an outsider and to find ways to live an outsider life such as we still associate with a term like “queer.”

Tom Healy: I don’t have any figures to support this, but my sense is that what you’re describing is more common among lesbian women than among gay men. That the outsider may remain attractive to a large proportion of gay men, even in the age of gay marriage.

James Miller: I want to circle back to the question that Akeel raised about the difference between choosing and endorsing. For myself, I stand by the word “choice” because a modern conception of freedom does include the requirement that choices, real choices, be made available to a growing number of people. Vocational freedom to choose, as I said, is one of the markers of that kind of choice. What we’re seeing with gay marriage is the spread of choices for people confronted with a whole host of possibilities that weren’t really available before. And what makes something a choice, rather than just a fait accompli, is that they have to have available real alternatives. Now, obviously, Akeel is right that there are so-called alternatives that don’t go all the way down in a genuine way. A jejune conception of choice would make it seem like it’s just a set of transactions that anyone can easily manage, like choosing between which kind of cereal you get in the supermarket, whereas the kinds of things we’re talking about don’t work that way.

But let me give an example from my own life. We’ve spoken here of a sense of loss when you leave a community you were once a part of. My religious formation was profoundly Lutheran and Protestant, my religion one that insisted you have no choice but to choose. You must really choose your religion because if you haven’t chosen it, and endorsed it explicitly, it’s a false form of religiosity you could then put on. And because that was hammered into me, there came a point when I was in college and had read David Hume, Freud and Marx, all in the same semester, and I thought, well, I need to choose and I don’t believe what I’ve been given. And so I came back and I said to my mother, who had raised me as a Lutheran, I’m not going to church, I abjure church, I don’t believe in the trinity, I don’t believe in transubstantiation, it’s over, and of course my mother was very upset, and I was very crisp in my assertion of a rupture, saying, no, I’m not that any more. And yet all these many years later I realize, well yeah, not so quick, because there is deep in my habitual character a residual makeup, despite my best efforts to change it, a whole set of reflex views that grow out of my early Lutheran convictions, among them the sanctity of choice.

And so, when I married my Jewish wife and I explained that I was very uncomfortable being with her in temple because to me religion was a form of indoctrination, she looked at me incredulously and said, “No, this renewal of tradition and ethnicity has nothing to do with choice, it has to do with creating continuity from time immemorial.” And then I said, “But how can you go and say you don’t believe in God?” And she said, “Oh it has nothing to do with belief.” So the idea, the choice to me, always had to do with truly believing it, which is a profoundly Lutheran conception, and in a way also distinctively modern for that reason. So, yeah, I thought I walked away from it, and I look at a number of other ostensibly lapsed Lutherans, like Nietzsche, and I see that he’s the Lutheran minister’s son, so that at the end of his life, when he’s totally lost it, he’s talking about the war within himself. The idea that you can just say no and move on, well, it’s much messier and bloodier than that, given the kinds of enculturation that have sunk their hooks deep down into you, like it or not.

Orlando Paterson: So you are agreeing with Akeel? About the difference between what we choose or can’t help choosing when it comes to identity?

James Miller: I’m saying that there’s something incredibly important about the emergence of a normative choice culture in modern societies which lay out and demand real alternatives as a concomitant of any genuine freedom.

Akeel Bilgrami: I think we’re substantially agreed, though I guess I’m just slightly more Burkean than you about this, Jim. An interesting figure, Burke, strikingly consistent in talking about India and empire, on the one hand, and about the French Revolution, where he inspires qualm and suspicion. His point, of course, was that you just don’t go and overturn a great civilization, whether it’s done by revolutionary mobilization or by an imperial state. It’s exactly the same argument he uses. It’s an impertinence to blithely, without misgiving, overturn what’s given to you even when we think the cause or outcome terrific in some cases.

Peter Beinart: I have things to say about Burke, but want for the moment to respond to Jim’s conversation about his mother, which reminded me of a story that I think can be attributed to Daniel Bell. At the age of thirteen, as he was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, he came in and told the Rabbi that he had become a Marxist and he no longer believed in God. So it was all meaningless to him. The Rabbi looked at him—and I have to say I indentify with this conversation very strongly because I remember having it as a kid—and the Rabbi said, “Do you think God cares?”

Orlando Patterson: I’ve heard that story.

Peter Beinart: Oh good, so I didn’t make it up. Even when I heard it a long time ago, it resonated with me, that’s exactly what my own Rabbi would have said. The other thing that I was thinking about before, is the way in which some of the templates of gay culture have started to permeate culture more generally, because, in a way, as gay culture has become more mainstream, the whole idea of the coming out conversation has become more mainstream too. For instance, there was a video put out last year by J-Street Youth, the campus version of the Jewish organization, and the tag line is “Have you come out to your parents?” So there was a video in which a young man knocks on the door of his parents’ home, comes in, and his middle-aged parents say, welcome back for the weekend, and he says, we have to have a very serious conversation. So they sit on the couch together and he says, I have something that I’ve never told you and I feel like now is really the time to do it. I feel like I’ve been wrestling with this for a long time. And they say, yes, what is it, and he says, “I support the Palestinian state.” And at the end the parents embrace the child and say it’s okay, we understand, we support you, we love you.

So I just think it’s really interesting that all sorts of people are now finding new ways to talk about things that are deep within them and in effect to perform this idea of what they feel they’ve become.

Tom Healy: The fascinating thing about choice, especially when the choice bears upon your sense of who you are and your sense of what’s actually possible, is that even so-called free choice comes with conditions. Sure, there are benefits that come with gay marriage, but the benefits can be assumed only within the framework of understandings that govern our idea of relationship and what marital relationship means. A lot of queer theorists argue that the opening up in gay marriage is also a closing down. Choice is being given to a lot of people who weren’t looking for that kind of opening. Judith Butler would say, using Foucault’s language of regulative discourse and frameworks of intelligibility, that the choice even to have a gender or express your sexuality doesn’t come from nowhere; it comes out of a context which, properly understood, will make you rather cynical about how broad the new choice really is.

James Miller: Or ironic.

Tom Healy: Sure, I agree. Ironic. I mean, difference is usually just a matter of living with a little more independent style inside the old categories.