Guest post by Cathy Brennan
The following is not a theoretical discussion. Rather, I propose a method of political organizing that will help move conversations forward. The ideas expressed herein are derived from my own experiences with political organizing and the limited theory I have read. I strongly encourage readers to read John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice if you are interested in learning more about my own theoretical framework.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the political world around me. I blame my mother for this, as I recall her making me write a letter about how I felt when the U.S. hostages in Iran were freed under Ronald Reagan (go look it up, I am not a history teacher) in 1981. My mother – an Irish immigrant who never graduated from high school but who worked a union job to send me to a fancy-schmancy college – taught me that we need to identify common interests in order to move a political agenda forward. That is, we must look outward and find ways of making connections with others who support a common goal. Working in this manner – in solidarity with people who might not be exactly *like* you, but who share your goal – has been successful on issue campaigns, most notably labor organizing and, most recently, health care reform.
Enter Identity Politics.
Identity Politics teaches us that we must organize by Identity. So, it matters not that I am a progressive who wants to advance education and health care for working people. Instead, I should advance causes that benefit my *Identity,* whatever that may be. Of course, individuals have numerous Identities, so there can be some difficulty in picking and choosing which *Identity* one most claim. But for many lesbians, for better or for worse, we have been thrust into the GLBT Identity.
As a GLBT-Identified person, one is supposed to favor repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, favor hate crimes penalties based on sexual orientation and gender identity, marriage equality, and antidiscrimination protections based on “gender identity.” We organize as a community around this Shared Identity. This Shared Identity is supposed to give us Solidarity (or Unity) of Identity, with all persons in the identity happy to work towards a common goal that benefits (allegedly) the Identity. In reality, however, solidarity of identity does not always occur or exist; rather, laboring under a GLBT Identity can create cognitive dissonance, particularly for progressives (as most progressives are anti-military, so we don’t care about DADT, and anti-prison/industrial complex, so we don’t favor criminalizing more conduct) and feminists (or lesbians) as many feminists reject marriage as a patriarchical institution and find the concept of “gender identity” deeply conservative.
Identity, then, while a useful proxy to signal to others who share our Identity how we are supposed to think about specific issues that impact the Identity Community, is ultimately and entirely not useful as an organizing tool, as Identity Politics quickly devolves into a game of “who’s the Mostest Oppressed Identity” – this is a game members of an Identity Group can play all day long without advancing the discussion. For example, in the GLBT Community, I and many lesbians have had to endure endless discussions about how we – as the Sub-Identity of Cisgender Lesbians – oppress Transgender Women simply by virtue of our Cisgender Identity – and we are expected to ignore the fact that many of these Transgender Women have lived much of their lives as males (or, if you prefer, the Identity of White Heterosexual Man – in Identity Politics, the White Heterosexual Man is *The Man* who causes *all the problems*). This can lead to infighting among Sub-Identities in the Identity Group or, as is far more likely to happen, the silencing of Sub-Identities who haven’t been able to convince anyone that they actually are the most oppressed group (and really, what a depressing waste of time and energy to work for the title of Most Oppressed).
Identity is a tricky thing– it can be claimed and clung to; it can be thrust upon you. But in all instances, it has to be Constructed. It has to be teased out and tortured to death, to make sure you describe every last single nuance of the Identity. Identity derives meaning from culture and society, and it needs a great deal of energy, oxygen, attention and nurturing. And all of this energy is time-consuming, time-wasting and incredibly self-absorbed. This is particularly true in the GLBT Community, with its endless iterations of gender queer pansexual abbreviations. For 95% of the world (an unscientific percentage, of course, but let’s just say for most of the world who doesn’t live in Queer Land), people Exist, regardless of whether they fret over their Constructed Identity.
As a human being (insert whatever Identity you want here), I am wholly uninterested in playing Identity Politics any longer. Indeed, I refuse to do it. Identity politics is narcissistic and vain. Identity politics is inward-looking and finger pointing. Identity politics creates hierarchies of oppression that do nothing to address underlying, systemic failures of society – failures in providing for the basic needs and safety of people, failures in ensuring equality of educational opportunity, failures all around. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Identity Politics is a trick to keep us all fighting with each other while *The Man* continues to profit. Some days I think The Man deserves to profit, as at least The Man is able to stick with an agenda and advance it. The Man is smart. You don’t see The Man endlessly babbling about his Identity.
In the hope of ending the endlessly irritating conversations about one’s Identity and the numerous stories that one has to endure to learn how one came to claim their Identity – and also in the hope of actually accomplishing something – I propose an alternative: Solidarity of Interest. Rather than framing all of these discussions in terms of who I am, who you are, or what our Identities may be, let’s try framing these issues in terms of the goal.
In other words, rather than looking inward at ourselves – or judging others based on *your subjective assessment* of who other people are – Solidarity of Interest demands that we look outward at all people in terms of the skills they can bring to bear to advance the goal. For example, I am currently a plaintiff in a lawsuit to ensure that the Maryland DREAM Act is not repealed by referendum. I am doing this not because I Identify as an “Undocumented Immigrant.” Rather, I am doing this (in part) because I have an Interest in seeing an educational system that is as free and fair as possible, not only for other children, but for my own – my children benefit from having the opportunity to meet people who are “not like them.” In other words, my participation helps advance the goal of fair education access (among other goals).
Solidarity of Interest – it matters not who you are and how you Identify – it only matters as to what you can bring to the table to advance the goal. Solidarity of Interest requires us to put forth what skills we can bring to bear to advance a cause. Sometimes, this inventory of assets might include one’s Identity – but it is not the only thing that’s important to the conversation. What does this mean? It means that sometimes we need our allies – and the Identities they claim – to give a push to the goal we seek to advance. This is why GLBT Organizations prioritize getting straight people to support marriage equality (which in this example serves as the goal) – as there are a lot more straight people on the planet than gay. But marriage equality, for example, has been successful because advocates have advanced numerous Interests that will be served by allowing it – stability for the children of same-sex couples, for one.
Solidarity of Interest welcomes all people to the table who share common Interests – Solidarity of Interest doesn’t (necessarily or exclusively) care about your Identity. Your Identity only speaks for you and other *like you* who find meaning in the Identity. And, much like the personal stories that swarm the Identity Politics Orbit, your Identity does not necessarily advance a goal, unless the goal is to endlessly and unceasingly talk about the Identity. Solidarity of Interest demands more of us and from us – it calls upon us to acknowledge that there are goals more important that ourselves, even more important than our Identity. At the very least, it demands a certain level of altruism in the cause of advancing an Interest that will benefit people generally.
Political work is depressing enough without the narrowing of workers available to get stuff done that comes from Identity Politics. Solidarity of Interest opens the field to all comers who care about the goal. And if you want to get stuff done, you need workers. There’s been enough talking and processing, people. Let’s get stuff done.
Cathy Brennan is a lawyer and longtime lesbian activist in Baltimore, Maryland.