“Identity Politics for the Twenty-first Century”; or, More on Pride Month, The Mutable Feast

One of the very few things that this blog has in common with the New York Times Magazine (actually, I think it’s probably the only thing this blog has in common with the NYT Magazine) is that both have in recent years been very good about covering issues related to the state of LGBT/queer history, politics, and identity come June. This week’s Magazine included just such an array of articles, foremost among them the cover story, “Living the Good Lie,” which a friend passed on to me with the words, “Identity politics of the 21st century.”

Truer words were ne’er spoken. The URL of the story, implying the description “Therapists Who Help People Stay in the Closet,” is misleading. The article is in fact about therapists who are—like we have been discussing on this blog and on Facebook for the past several months—destabilizing the coming-out narrative—and the metaphor of the closet—as a psychological panacea. In particular, it follows one therapist, Denis Flanigan, who though is himself gay and has had a long career working with patients with sexual-identity issues, has come to the conclusion that encouraging patients to come out, to assume a normative gay identity, no matter what, isn’t necessarily the best solution for patients who, for example, need to choose between their sexual orientation and their conservative evangelical church. Instead, Flanigan believes in helping people to cope, to get along in their lives, to escape from denial but not necessarily to move to the West Village and make a life on the bar scene, or even to aspire to a white-picket-fence gay-married existence. He helps some of his patients to make peace with celibacy, or with lives married to opposite-sex partners. (Though it should be noted that the article doesn’t address something I think is very important, which is the position of the opposite-sex partners in all this. History tells us that Symonds and Wilde thought of themselves as family men who loved their wives and children even as they carried on dalliances with men, but that unbeknownst to Symonds his wife was miserable and the byproduct of Wilde’s trials is that his wife’s and children’s lives were ruined.) His method is rooted in acknowledging that while sexual orientation is the core of some people’s identities/self-conceptions, it is not at the core of everyone’s. For some people, a different identifying factor, like religion, may be far more central, everything else just superstructure; for some people, religion has the same immutable sense of Truth and born-this-way-ness that sexual orientation has for those who assume a more traditional LGBT identity.

The article does a great job of contextualizing Flanigan’s and other like-minded psychologists’ ideas within the framework of the modern LGBT rights movement and queer theory, sensitive to the fact that “identity” does not always mean “gay identity,” and that even what “gay identity” (or “queer identity,” though most of Flanigan’s patients seem to be same-sex-attracted men) means has changed significantly since the 1960s and before. This is, of course, no surprise to those who study the history of sexuality and who, like certain authors of this blog, spend a lot of time insisting quite vociferously on the point that sexual orientation did not form the fundamental aspect of a person’s self-consciousness a hundred years ago that it does today. But I think even those of us used to looking backward (and it must be said that there are certain parallels to be drawn between the ideas discussed in this article and those of some of the most progressive turn-of-the-century sexologists, like Havelock Ellis) are less inclined to look forward. As a politically-engaged queer-identified person, I often find myself asking where the LGBT rights movement will be in twenty, fifty, or one hundred years. But it is only recently that I have started to find myself asking where nonnormative sexual identities will be in twenty, fifty, or one hundred years. And when I do that, I think I do find myself noting that the metaphor of the closet is becoming less and less useful, especially for those young people my age and particularly half a generation younger than me who more and more grow up out to themselves, if not always out to others or eager to translate their own self-conscious sexual identity into something appropriate for public consumption. Many young people (and the NYT Magazine I think covered this last Pride Month!) are taking an approach of rejecting labels, especially if, like “LGBT,” they carry a political connotation; many more, even if they do identify as something easy like “gay,” don’t really get on board with the come-out-come-out-wherever-you-are, silence-equals-death approach that got their elders through some really hard times. And as this blog evidences, I have found myself doing the same: emphasizing intellectual and cultural much more than immutable biological or psychological factors as a way of understanding sexual identity, and insisting that gay-identity-politics messages—whether they are “Born This Way” or “Silence = Death”—can mean something even to people whose lives, for whatever reason, do not include a closet, or at least include a more complicated, less identifiable one.

Maybe this is just me getting older, becoming more of a historian, seeing more complications everywhere, and getting a little distance from that moment of identity-politics-infused discovery of the queer world that I think a lot of young queer people go through. I was looking through some of my ephemera from three years ago the other day, and came across some notes from a talk I gave at the first iteration of a conference called KinkForAll about why “coming out” gets figured as a political act and some ethical issues surrounding that. But never once in that presentation did I question the idea of “coming out” at all, or the notion that sexual identity would be so obviously important to someone’s being that it would trump all other concerns. Those notes were definitely a time capsule, because for a lot of reasons both personal and academic I would not now think of “coming out” or “sexual identity” as concepts reduced to their simplest form. I made a lot of assumptions about how people fit sexuality into their senses of selves as whole people that I would not make anymore—though this is not to say that the set of assumptions I have replaced them with are any better. At times, I now have a tendency to venture too far into deconstruction for anyone’s good. And the question is, of course, how to move forward from there, how to still be able to have useful conversations about sexual identity, how it works, and its role in public and private life.

Well, I think part of it is saying that, while the queer cultural canon remains the queer cultural canon (and the same goes for my academic field, the gay male cultural canon), those who do not identify as queer (or gay men) still have a right to access and to gain inspiration, solace, and energy from the art that canon has produced and the lessons it can teach. I think part of it is saying that while you can be “born this way,” you can also be born many other ways as well, sometimes all of them at the same time, and sometimes all of them self-contradicting, taking immense amounts of will—and sometimes professional help—to muddle through.

I am not a gay man, but that culture’s canon is one of the things that gives both my personal and my scholarly lives meaning. Similarly self-contradictorily, I am not by any stretch of the imagination a Christian, and yet in the past six months of Oxford Sundays I have become a regular college-chapelgoer. Yesterday in chapel we had a leavers’ service, I suppose not dissimilar to the tradition of the graduation baccalaureate service at many American universities, though more patently Christian than those services are at Princeton. When the chaplain prayed for, among other collegiate things, the many who have sat in this chapel before us, I couldn’t help but think of Symonds’ letters to his sister from his first year at Oxford, telling her which colleges’ Evensong services he thought were the best. I couldn’t help but think of Symonds the undergraduate, Symonds the 21-year-old winner of poetry prizes and essay prizes, Symonds walking down Broad Street, Symonds in his subfusc, Symonds kneeling in a college chapel with his head full of Greek and of German philosophy, knowing that in some inchoate way Plato and Whitman fit together with the vision of the choristers but not quite certain of how to say it—and indeed knowing that, at least right then in 1861, the English words weren’t there.

Identity is a tricky thing, and a dynamic thing, and a thing as palimpsestic as Oxford itself. And, as Symonds knew by the time he was a little older than I am now, working through the muddles our identity problems place us in means resolving some improbable contradictions. Sometimes, like Symonds, we do it through dialectic; sometimes, as I have a tendency to do, we resort to deconstruction, and try not to get lost in it. Sometimes, we find ourselves sitting in therapists’ offices, struggling to describe why the world doesn’t have boxes big enough for us to fit ourselves in. And sometimes—particularly during Pride Month—we find ourselves taking refuge within the identity-political canon, asking in the plaintive words of psychoanalysis-weary gay history, that we “just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”

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