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Identity Politics

For both constructionists and essentialists, their perspectives on homosexual identity become points of departure for specific political demands concerning the decriminalization of expressions of same-sex love, fairness in employment and housing, and the right to accurate representation in the media, fiction, and nonfiction. Thus the term "identity politics" has become popular as lesbians and gays, as well as other oppressed groups, have come to use a fixed sense of primary identity as a basis for social activism.

But many would argue that inherent in identity politics is a disturbing process of limitation and reduction, for all human beings have many identities, reflecting not only sexual orientation, but also sex, class, ethnicity, region, profession, religion, and so on.

To claim an identity such as "lesbian" or "gay" is necessarily to obscure the importance of other factors that would fracture any sense of unity with other people in the group to which one claims affiliation. Most troubling in such a process is the possibility that persistent social prejudices and hierarchies will continue to be replicated; thus, many African-American women have felt marginalized in predominantly white lesbian groups, as have some lower-class men among groups of gays who embrace a narrow notion of identity built on aestheticism and elitism.

In James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, we see the difficulty of arriving at a common sense of identity when class status and cultural heritage so clearly differentiate the perceptions of the two main characters, David and Giovanni.

Likewise, Audre Lorde in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, as well as other works, deals openly with the problems of interracial affairs between women who may similarly embrace an explicitly lesbian identity, but whose different life experiences and encounters with oppression make common ground difficult to find.


Further undermining narrow notions of gay and lesbian identity is the continuing presence of self-identifying bisexuals, as well as bisexual desire and experiences among individuals identifying themselves as homosexual. Identity politics seems to mandate a continued binarism, whereby individuals attracted to members of their own sex are pressed to identify themselves in clear opposition to heterosexuality as well as heterosexism.

But as Kinsey found in the famous sex surveys of the 1940s and 1950s, the overwhelming majority of individuals fall somewhere in between absolute hetero- or homosexuality. Narrow categories may make sense as a basis for political activism, but they also have the potential for confining individuals in ways that limit self-expression.

Thus, David Leavitt in The Lost Language of Cranes, as well as several short stories, explores the plight of men who are under pressure to choose an identity, either gay or straight, when in actuality they love members of both sexes. Rosa Guy's title character in Ruby must also come to terms with conflicting desires in a world that limits one to relationships with members of the opposite sex.

In both writers' works, desire does not necessarily seek or need an encounter with a member of a particular sex for fulfillment; characters look instead for other individuals who can offer companionship and support in a hostile world.


Thus, one is left with the paradox of identity being both liberating and oppressive, both necessary for action and necessarily limiting that action.

Some contemporary critical theorists such as Judith Butler argue that we have embraced notions of identity that are far too narrow and unnecessarily rigid. In Gender Trouble, Butler argues that social change can be effected through destabilizing identity, causing "gender trouble," by disrupting the performative aspects of gender: dress, mannerisms, voice, and the like.

Similarly, the notion of a vaguely defined "queer" identity has been embraced by some individuals as a less restrictive, yet still oppositional, strategy for self-identification. Such "queerness" would allow social and political ties between lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgressive heterosexuals, all of whom reject narrow notions of sexual conventionality.

But these attempts to move beyond a binary system of gender and orientational identification will inevitably trouble many, for seemingly basic to humanness is the need to claim affiliation as we shift to some larger group at least some of the responsibility for determining the parameters of self-representation, patterns of behavior, and beliefs.

Although Virginia Woolf's title character in Orlando may alter sexual identities in a relatively effortless way, few individuals seem capable of such transition. In fact, lesbians and gays may need to define themselves, whether through constructionist or essentialist models, in order to feel positive and healthy about desires that are still reviled and stigmatized by much of society.

In Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy envisions a future society that has moved beyond strict notions of gender and orientation, but such freedom seems very distant from our politicized world of restrictive rules and narrow strategies for countering those rules.

Donald E. Hall

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literature >> Overview:  Aestheticism

A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

literature >> Overview:  Gender

The theory that gender relations are socially constructed categories of meaning has opened up a number of new areas in lesbian, gay, and queer studies.

social sciences >> Overview:  Identity Politics

Not limited to activity in the traditionally conceived political sphere, identity politics refers to activism, politics, theorizing, and other similar activities based on the shared experiences of members of a specific social group, often relying on shared experiences of oppression.

literature >> Overview:  Post-modernism

Post-modern theory has led to the problematizing of marginalized and "other" peoples and cultures and to viewing homosexuality as a social construction.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Female

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, intimate, exclusive, and often erotic romantic friendships between women were largely perceived as normal and socially acceptable.

literature >> Baldwin, James Arthur

James Baldwin, a pioneering figure in twentieth-century literature, wrote sustained and articulate challenges to American racism and mandatory heterosexuality.

literature >> Behn, Aphra

British dramatist, novelist, and poet Aphra Behn was known to her contemporaries as a "scandal" for both her writings and her flamboyant personal life.

social sciences >> Ellis, Havelock

Henry Havelock Ellis--British psychologist and writer--was one of the first modern thinkers to challenge Victorian taboos against the frank and objective discussion of sex.

literature >> Foucault, Michel

One of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, Foucault has had an enormous influence on our understanding of the lesbian and gay literary heritage and the cultural forces surrounding it.

literature >> Grahn, Judy

Judy Grahn has been an effective leader the gay rights movement, and her identity as a lesbian and a feminist has infused all of her works, in both prose and poetry.

literature >> Hall, Radclyffe

Radclyffe Hall, who lived her lesbianism openly and proudly, is best known for The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most important lesbian novel ever written.

literature >> Leavitt, David

Novelist and short story writer David Leavitt is one of the brightest stars of the gay literary world today.

literature >> Lorde, Audre

The work of African-American activist and writer Audre Lord was greatly influenced by her lesbianism.

literature >> Marlowe, Christopher

Christopher Marlowe represents homoerotic situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously that any other major English Renaissance writer.

literature >> Melville, Herman

The most important American novelist of the nineteenth century, Herman Melville reflects his homosexuality throughout his texts.

literature >> Proust, Marcel

Marcel Proust is the author of A la recherche du temps perdu, one of the major achievements of Modernism and a great gay novel.

literature >> Rossetti, Christina

Her sexuality repressed by religion, Christina Rossetti wrote poetry that included highly-charged erotic female-to-female affection.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

literature >> Wittig, Monique

The controversial lesbian author and theorist Monique Wittig has produced some of the most challenging fictional and theoretical work of second-wave feminism.

literature >> Woolf, Virginia

Passionate friendships with women were essential to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf.


Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Burr, Chandler. "Homosexuality and Biology." The Atlantic 271.3 (1993): 47-65.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cady, Joseph. "'Masculine Love,' Renaissance Writing, and the 'New Invention' of Homosexuality." Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England. Claude J. Summers, ed. New York: Haworth, 1992. 9-40.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. I. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random, 1978.

Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

LeVay, Simon. The Sexual Brain. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.

Pequigney, Joseph. Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

_____. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Summers, Claude. "Homosexuality and Renaissance Literature, or the Anxieties of Anachronism." South Central Review 9 (1992): 2-23.

Wittig, Monique. The Lesbian Body. Trans. David Le Vay. Boston: Beacon, 1986.


    Citation Information
    Author: Hall, Donald E.  
    Entry Title: Identity  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 28, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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