I often hear a saying in my Jewish community that “Whenever there are two Jews in a room, there will be a least three different opinions.”
People tell me a similar saying circulates in their various communities, and it underscores a crucial point in that every overall demographic group stands not as a unified, like-minded, like-opinionated, and monolithic block in terms of political, social, spiritual, and economic strategic agendas, but rather, as enormously diverse with internally contradictory and vastly opposing positions on the full array of topics.
If this is true, then how have people in a United States context who share a similar social identity come together in alliance and work for their liberation? In other words, how has the concept of “identity politics” been possible?
First, this very question fails to address the fact that each person is composed of multiple identity positions that interconnect with each other. Depending on time and location, some of these identities may appear more or less salient, important, or central to the individual. Our society accords some identities more unearned privileges while simultaneously according less to other identities.
Secondly, as no two falling snowflakes appear identical in structure or shape, no two people are born with duplicate internal temperaments or personalities, nor are they exposed to the same exact forms of socialization during their formative and extended years. Each person is, therefore, as unique as a snowflake, regardless of their socially constructed identities.
That said, people have joined in movements around one or a couple of identities, and they have successfully pushed for social, legislative, and political change. For example, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and trans* people have come together to increase our visibility in the media and within the larger society.
We have joined in alliance to fight for marriage equality, entrance into military service, equality of treatment in housing, employment, insurance coverage, public accommodations, partnership benefits, adoption, and many others concerns.
We have and continue to work to dismantle the social, medical, and religious stigma that have long plagued our lives and our very existence; we have challenged conditions that place our bodies at risk for random acts of violence; we have worked to end the bullying of our youth in the schools and our workers in the workplace; and we have joined to empower each and every one of us to live with pride, dignity, integrity, and authenticity.
Though the political and theocratic right accuses us of pushing some sort of conspiratorial “gay agenda” on the people of our country, to paraphrase my opening saying: “Whenever there are two queer people in a room, there will be at least three different opinions.”
Even the use of the term “queer” has been highly contested within LGBT communities. Some lesbian and gay people don’t consider bisexual and pansexual people as part of their communities, while some LGB people would rather trans* people go away and form fully separate communities. Oy vey!
Just look at a few of the enormous array of groups and their “agendas:” there are gays for Trump, LGBTQ Marxists, “Log Cabin Republicans,” LGBTQ people for Hillary, “Gays Against Guns (GAG),” LGBTQ members of the National Rifle Association, LGBTQ anarchists, LGBTQ Catholics, “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” “Ladies Against Women,” “Dykes on Bikes,” LGBTQ atheists, LGBTQ Muslims, lesbian daughters of Holocaust survivors, LGBTQ Bridge clubs, LGBTQ athletic clubs, Puerto Rican gay men’s organizations, black lesbians groups, groups for LGBTQ deaf people and for LGBTQ elders, and yes, even LGBTQ members of racist white nationalist gangs.
So even though identity politics has served certain of our purposes and has gained us selected victories, with the incredible diversity within LGBTQ communities in terms of social identities and political philosophies and outlooks, identity politics has shown its inherent restrictions. Therefore, its use can only take us to a limited point along our multiple paths.
Though I continue to engage in identity politics occasionally on particular issues, I have come to understand that sexual identities and gender identities and expressions with the social oppressions that come with these are simply not sufficient to connect a community, and by extension, to fuel a movement for progressive social change.
Therefore, my major focus and energy has been to join and connect with people of similar political ideas and ideologies that cut across individuals from disparate social identities in what some call “idea politics.”
My motto is: “I don’t care who’s in your bed. I care instead what’s in your head!”
In this conception, people come together with others of like minds, political philosophies, and strategies for achieving their objectives. Though many differences inevitably remain, overall, we read from a similar, if not from the same, page.
Oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes in which each spoke represents one of the virtually endless systems of oppression. In a United States context, for example, individual spokes may represent oppression toward African Americans, recent African immigrants to this country, Mexican immigrants, U.S.-born citizens whose parents immigrated from Cuba, white women, trans* women, gay men, Muslims, atheists, people along the autism spectrum, elders, youth, Spanish as first-language speakers, people outside the current socially-determined parameters of body size, and I could continue endlessly.
I have been joining with people who understand that if we work to dismantle only one or a few specific spokes, the wheel will continue spinning and trampling over people. We are working together toward dismantling all its many hideous spokes in our hopes of one day dismantling oppression in its totality.
So, if indeed it is true, as the old saying goes, that “the fish is the last to see or even feel the water because it is so pervasive,” then from our vantage points at the margins or even outside the aquarium, queer people have a special opportunity – indeed, a responsibility – to serve as social commentators, as critics.
Our experiences as outsiders give us the tools to expose and highlight the rigidity, the binary frames, of most social identity categories that flood and saturate our environment. We have the ability, if we choose to use this, to truly challenge the culture to move forever forward and to grow by looking beyond just ourselves.