News & Politics

The War On Identity


iven the reactionary agenda that has hitched itself to the current cry for unity, it’s no surprise to see 9-11 become the basis of a case against gay rights. The shocker comes from the latest source of this backlash: a new think tank called the Liberty Education Forum that promises to pursue “a centrist approach” to gay politics.

This think tank—a spawn of the Log Cabin Republicans—has been placing ads in major gay papers, as well as The Washington Post, exhorting the queer movement “to meet the new challenges facing gay Americans in this new period, even if they don’t fit what these groups have long argued was ‘the gay agenda.’ ” At the heart of that agenda is the fight for laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Gay conservatives borrow the language the right uses against affirmative action to argue that laws protecting gay people from bias promote a “virtual victimization paradigm.” Why only virtual? Because the same gay community that crusades for anti-bias laws is taking luxury cruises, jamming circuit parties, and “filling black-tie dinner halls to hear keynote addresses from Hollywood celebrities.”

Of course, the gay community isn’t just composed of people who can afford cushy cruises and black-tie banquets. It’s precisely these queers—rendered especially vulnerable to homophobia by their class, gender, or gender variance—who most need anti-bias laws. By pushing for such legislation, the movement represents all its members. But the essence of gay conservatism is a politics of privilege. These gents have no sense of the queer disadvantaged. Nothing alien is human to them.

There aren’t many think tanks that can boast, as the Liberty Education Forum does, of an “official and exclusive airline”—United. It’s easy to see why this company is drawn to a gay group that opposes gay-rights laws. United Airlines is still smarting from a scuffle with the city of San Francisco over domestic-partner benefits. But fronting for business interests isn’t the only item on the gayocon agenda. Their fondest desire is to wean queers from identity politics. They have a potent ally in the new rhetoric of unity.

All sorts of social issues have been subsumed by this shibboleth. Now comes the gay right to argue that homophobia is less of a threat to queers than terrorism. In the current crisis, according to them, the new gay motto should be “United We Stand.” What’s missing from this picture? Identity.

n order to grasp the intentions of this attack, it’s necessary to understand what the enemies of identity politics mean by the term. Religion has nothing to do with it. You can practice any faith, no matter how much it might constitute an identity, without drawing fire. In fact, the president has made a point of urging respect for Islamic practices, even using the politically correct words for those who observe the Muslim dress code: “women of cover.” It’s only women of color who stand to be dissed, if they insist on making race and gender tenets of their identity.

Male societies are being honored left and right, as always in wartime, and no one seems to have noticed that some of these fraternities (such as the Fire Department) are also identities. And what about Hasidim? Surely they practice identity politics, but here again it’s a question of pedigree. Satmars are a faith community; Santería is a cult. Men in uniform are heroes; dykes who dress alike are guilty of groupthink. Angry white males are a voting bloc; blacks who call themselves “race men” are a separatist cadre. The critique of identity politics applies only to groups that represent a threat to the order.

This attack gains enormous legitimacy when it’s couched in patriotic tropes. Now, adversarial identities can be tarred with the brush of treason, and the partisan interests that underlie the new “consensus” can be made to seem like a defense of liberty. Never mind that identity politics can coexist with individuality and boost self-esteem. In the current climate, only one thing merits bolstering: hierarchy.

iven the real message of this cry for unity—”Get Back!”—you’d think the left would stand on the side of diversity. But for some time now, there’s been a progressive backlash against identity politics. To the extent that it aims to uproot the unhealthy aspects of this new formation, the critique is welcome. But in the hands of progs like The Nation‘s Eric Alterman, it’s an exercise in repression.

After Mark Green’s defeat last month, Alterman went on a red-meat rampage. By basically blaming his man’s defeat on “bankrupt identity-politics leftism,” Alterman managed to avoid confronting the major reason why Green lost. By now it has been proven that his aides were fully aware of the scurrilous leaflets circulating in the Jewish community. Green’s opponents may have reacted opportunistically, but he gave them the ammo. It’s his fault that a fighting progressive was defeated by a faux Republican.

Long before the term existed, identity politics played a major part in mayoral campaigns. Abe Beame’s campaign sent bongo-playing musicians through Jewish neighborhoods to scare people away from his primary opponent, Herman Badillo. Koch was a macher of the us/them game, and Giuliani was its capo di tutti capi. Green’s campaign used the same playbook, but the rules had changed. That happened precisely because the victims of the old race code managed to organize. It was identity politics disrupting the status quo—the old shoe-in-the-machine routine, a time-honored tactic of the left. But for Alterman, it has a whole other meaning. He sees it as a sign that “(Some) leftists like losing.”

Hurling the charge of masochism at one’s less power-mad opponent is an old macho reflex on the left. But it has no bearing on the rebellion against Green. Though power was lost, change was (hopefully) gained.

For that matter, how can Alterman claim identity politics brought Green down? He got the black vote, the gay vote, and (albeit barely) the women’s vote. Without these constituencies, Green would have lost by a landslide. As for Latinos, they used the same tactics ethnic groups have always relied on when they were shut out of government and patronage. Back before LaGuardia, Italians became Republicans largely because the Democratic machine was controlled by the Irish. It was an effective response to an unjust hierarchy—and no one calls it identity politics.

The irony is that, given a politician who knows how to navigate its shoals, diversity is one of the Democrats’ most potent organizing tools. It’s understandable that Republicans would want to disable it, and that they would use the current crisis to this end. But why do (some) heteroprogs see red the way gayocons see red, white, and blue? Because for some people, the anxiety aroused by this brave new world overwhelms clarity. For the rest of us, however, the question remains: Who is the We in “United We Stand,” and what is the price of unity?

Research: Adrian Leung and Gretchen Dubrowski

The Latest