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On the politics of identity

<h5>The Lewis Center for the Arts in the early evening.</h5>
<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The Lewis Center for the Arts in the early evening.
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

LGBTQ+ communities inhabit the continually shifting terrain of “identity politics” — the notion that affiliating with an identity group provides an adequate political and social agenda — which, at the moment, is historically under scrutiny from both the left and the right. To align your politics and values with an aspect of your identity — be it gender, sexuality, race, class or ability — seems to some narrow and exclusive. To others, it’s a necessary affirmation of marginalized people in the face of hegemonic power, a portal into a broader social analysis.

LGBTQ+ identity remains a high-stakes topic in an increasingly bitter and divided American public sphere. On the right, some politicians turn to gender and sexuality to inspire moral panics convenient for stacking elections. On the left, some activists close ranks around identity, drawing strict boundaries around, for example, who has the right and authority to teach or speak to certain subjects. In my field of theater and performance studies, for example, artists and critics debate who can embody or write about certain life experiences and stories.

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Both positions harden identity into a knowable, singular essence, and obstruct the curiosity, respect, and dialogue necessary for any minoritarian subject to achieve full equality. Our goal as critical thinkers and citizens should be to complicate this impasse and consider the politics of identity from more nuanced, fluid, and generative perspectives. 

In 1977, I came out as a lesbian feminist. Publicly asserting my sexuality (along with, for me, a politic that framed it), was cataclysmic then, as it meant being something of an outlaw, even for a white, middle-class, college-educated young woman like me. This was before assimilation was even a choice — decades before same-sex marriage was legalized, before queer people could more easily become parents, and before anti-discrimination housing laws were passed.

American culture has changed dramatically in the years since. I was in college when I came out; now, kids in high school and younger declare their gender and sexual identities, and find possibility in stating them, publicly and privately, more fluidly. This opportunity, though, may now depend on the state in which they live. For instance, recently passed Florida legislation, colloquially known as “Don’t Say Gay,” prohibits teachers in grades K-3 from talking to students about gender identity or sexuality. Legislation pending or passed in other states refuses medical care to transgender young people and criminalizes parents and doctors who would support their gender transitions or explorations.

“Coming out,” in fact, is never an endpoint, even now. For me, this declaration requires perpetual reiteration: at appointments with a new doctor, at meetings with new colleagues or friends, and certainly every time someone inquires after my “husband.” These moments require me to assert my difference from the heterosexual norm, so that this aspect of my identity can, when it’s relevant, be fully present.

“When it’s relevant,” of course, becomes the question. How central is a minoritarian identity to your life? For people whose gender, sexuality, and other identity vectors center them in political and cultural representation, it can be difficult to imagine how it feels to be marginalized. How do we shape ourselves and our choices without stories and images that let us see and imagine multiple ways of being in the world? The presumption of heterosexuality (or that my sexual identity aligns with the majority) erases the specifics of my life and my values as a lesbian, just as the presumption of Christianity erases my difference as a Jew.

Identity politics are tied to political and cultural representation. Which identities does political representation enfranchise? Which communities and ways of life does cultural representation — theater, film, television, media — engage or erase? My own cultural criticism argues for the importance and world-remaking vitality of representation of women, LGBTQ+ artists, and artists of color in a cultural mainstream that, when I started as a critic in the late 70s, rarely acknowledged their existence. My scholarship aligned with what was then a plank of lesbian and gay identity politics. The artists about whom I wrote — Holly Hughes, Peggy Shaw, Tim Miller, Carmelita Tropicana — performed from bodies deeply and productively marked by their own exclusion from dominant culture.

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Writing about these artists, I urged spectators to witness the pleasure and power of deviating from a white, male, heterosexual cultural norm. I argued that they exemplified how to be socially different while claiming the right to be politically equal. But over the years, as LGBTQ+ artists and people in the U.S. gained cultural and political ground, I began to loosen my own fierce personal and professional commitments to identity politics. The “calling cards” of identity, in which people introduced a thought or an idea by saying, “As a [fill in the blank: white, woman, lesbian, Jewish person, etc.], I . . .” now seemed parsed, and the presumption of knowingness these cards laid out too limiting and finite.

Those calling cards also didn’t work when my identities intersected. Decades ago, I traveled with several colleagues to an area of the country in which as a Jew and a lesbian, I didn’t quite feel safe. One of my colleagues was Jewish and straight; one was a lesbian and not Jewish. As we boarded a city bus one day, my friends sat one behind the other, each with a space beside them for me. I was frozen with indecision and responsibility; in a social context in which they were both vulnerable because of their visible otherness, should I sit with the lesbian or the Jew? Where we put our bodies matters, as we literally and metaphorically form and reform necessarily shifting alliances.

Identity politics debates persist and repeat. For instance, once lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, and transgender characters began appearing regularly in plays, on television, and in film, critics and activists discussed which actors could best portray them. Could a straight actor play a gay character? Some activists insisted gay people could more authentically portray gay characters. More recently, debates about whether only transgender people should play trans characters repeat similar themes or, for that matter, whether only Jewish actors should play Jewish characters.

In historical moments when a minority is politically and culturally invisible, representation means putting bodies on view that are intimately carved with the particulars of experience. At these times, the politics of identity require that minority subjects tell their own stories.

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But eventually, as cultural and political representation proliferates, an artistic practice of imagination and creativity for artists and audiences might be just the scene on which to expand our identity claims. Actors train to think and feel their way into the experience of another, of a character who is not themselves, of a life about which they might educate themselves and with which they might empathize, but which is not their own. Isn’t this the hopeful power of the arts, to encourage us to think, feel, and see differently, with love and curiosity, respect and regard?

The history of LGBTQ+ political representation reminds us that for every step forward, two steps beckon on which to slide back toward homogeneous hegemony. Progress toward equality is never linear but always requires new strategies, new arguments, and new claims to public and cultural visibility.

Perhaps what we need most is simply more: to produce more representations of complexity, variety, and nuance across our multiple, ever morphing identities. We need representations that encourage surprising and important allegiances and multiple belongings, cultural and political representations that can’t wholly be owned but that many can try to engage, by which they can hope to be moved and touched. We need to learn complicated ways of speaking about identity and experience — in the arts, in politics, in life — and how they push us forward into a more equitable future.

Jill Dolan is Dean of the College at Princeton University, Annan Professor in English, and a professor of theater studies in the Lewis Center for the Arts.

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