I’m glad to see queer youth getting some love / representation in this New York Times article. But like so many pieces on youth social justice movements, the article positions young LGBTQIA folks as “post-gay” and somehow at odds with older generations, which doesn’t actually seem to be true in the real world.
I’m glad to see that a diversity of sexual identities are being recognized. But I also worry about the intense focus on identity, and what that means for social justice movements. Call it the Tumblr-ization of activism: This idea that what’s most important is having a unique identity that other people must recognize in order to be made “real.” What’s hard is that there’s no bright line between where this is helpful and where it gets silly. Is it of course good and helpful to have a network of individuals who share a similarly marginalized or even simply unusual experience? Sure. Can it also be damaging to social justice activism to center an ethic where simply identifying as something is activism, where all identities must be represented and prioritized, and where one’s right to speak about an issue is contingent upon one being sufficiently “identified” with several adjectives (and any critique or questioning is shouted down with a relatively simplistic understanding of the concept of “privilege”)? Yeah.
Here’s what I mean: There are very real barriers and impediments to living a happy and fair life for good chunks of the U.S. population. Trans, lesbian and gay youth have astoundingly high rates of homelessness and victimization, especially among youth of color; trans, lesbian and gay adults face very real discrimination when it comes to housing, marriage, adoption of children, health care and employment. It’s legal in many places to openly discriminate against trans, gay and lesbian people, and a whole lot of folks do. People who don’t fit into a neat gender binary also face pervasive discrimination in housing, health care, parental rights, employment and a range of other areas. Those are very real issues, and there’s great work being done on them. Visibility of identity is also a component there — to make the case that gender presentation shouldn’t be a factor in hiring, you have to make gender non-conformity visible.
But I also think there’s a sensibility in social justice communities (especially online, especially in circles where these ideas are just being discovered and hashed out) that to be a player, it has to be about you. When really, one of the most important social justice lessons is that it’s not always about you; sometimes (often) if you’re in a relatively privileged position, the hard work comes not in navel-gazing and sussing out your own identity, but using your passion and your beliefs in equality to advocate for a more wholly just world. Not recognizing privilege as a way to self-flaggelate or to prove that you are a Good Ally by talking more about yourself (“As a white woman who is an anti-racist ally, I….”), but internally assessing how your own life and experiences have shaped your values, beliefs and vantage point, recognizing how you have been given unearned benefits, and making an effort to promote the voices and the rights of people who have been historically marginalized. Not trying to figure out a way that you have been marginalized or that you are extra-special.
What I mean, even more specifically, is: All of us have things that make us different. All of us have various components of our identities that are outside of “normal.” All of us have been treated poorly in some way, at some time, based on some aspect of who we are. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with creating like-minded communities of people with similar experiences or beliefs, there is something wrong with co-opting the language of systematic oppression to do it. For example (although this is far from the only one): Sexuality and sexual preferences. Demisexuality, autosexuality, demi-romantic, asexuality, aromantic — all of these terms and qualifiers and descriptors describe real feelings, beliefs and sexual practices that real people have. There’s no harm in sharing experiences and building bridges and discussing how life is different when one is outside of the sexual mainstream. That’s a good thing! That’s what the internet is for! And like, for example, being child-free, there are very real social consequences for being a person whose sexuality is not standard. But being demiromantic is not in the same universe as being gay in terms of actual real-life discrimination and mistreatment. And I know social justice blogs aren’t supposed to say that and I look forward to the predictable Tumblr outrage, but: Not all minority identities are treated equally terribly. And the emphasis on you must recognize my identity has, in some circles, overtaken a real analysis of inequality.
There are more extreme examples of this — “otherkin” who believe they’re trans-species and “really” animals or mythical creatures and co-opt social justice language. Folks who insist they’re “trans-ethnic” (who as an aside seem, most of the time, to be teenage white boys who really like Manga and are just positive that they’re really 12-year-old Japanese girls). Or, my favorite, people who are “trans-fat.”
To be clear, people can identify however the hell they want. If you believe you are a she-wolf and you want to go howl at the moon, more power to you. More seriously (and reasonably), if your identity leaves you socially isolated or feeling alone and online (or in-person) communities of like-minded folks offer a lifeline, strategies for survival and a greater understanding of yourself and a happier and healthier life, that is a fantastic thing. I start to see a problem, though, in the insistence that the existence of a non-mainstream identity is in itself evidence of oppression and that adding a letter to an acronym is social justice. Racism, the old definition goes, is prejudice + power. And those two components — prejudice, power — are central in analyzing oppressive structures, and in working to dismantle them. Identity matters. But self-involved oppression-hunting isn’t social justice activism.
Or perhaps the generational differences are real, and I’m just an old fogey with outdated ideas of what “social justice” means.
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