During an inspiring Wednesday Master’s Tea about the 34 Million Friends foundation, which aspires to raise $34 million to support the United Nations Population Fund, co-founder of the organization Jane Roberts explained her passion for this cause by saying, “I suppose I’m somewhat of a feminist, in the best sense of the word.” Scholars of the feminist movement remember that once, feminism meant that one believed in equality for women. Now, the word “feminism” has for many people an unpleasant connotation. This is partly due to the backlash of conservatives against this particular movement, but conservatives are not the only ones to blame. Those who represented this cause are also partly at fault, because they created an identity — consciously or not — that took on many meanings beyond the original definition. Today, bringing the true meaning of “feminism” back into mainstream America may be a lost cause. But feminism is certainly not the only case of identity politics gone bad.
I am gay, in the best sense of the word. I am gay. I think girls are great; I am attracted to them; I have a wonderful girlfriend. But beyond that, being gay means little else to me. I often struggle to participate in what might be called the “gay cause,” and feel often as though I am disappointing the group to which I have an automatic, lifelong membership. Like those women several decades ago, today the gay community has pulled together to fight for equal rights. The only difference is that nonpolitical women had a community to which they felt they could belong — the nonactivists, the homemakers, the traditionalists. By contrast, to be gay in society today — and particularly at Yale — implies to most people a certain political responsibility.
It is not that I do not feel a personal responsibility to be political. It would be preposterous to suggest that it is not often difficult to separate one’s personal life from one’s ideals. Historically, those who have a personal stake in an equal rights movement, for instance, tend to be those who are the most willing to put their personal lives on the line. But unlike others, I feel that the choice to feel responsible is just that — a choice, not a reflex. I don’t have a choice about being gay — not in the same way one has a choice in whether to ascribe to the identity of “feminist” (which I do). I would embrace the queer community more happily if its currently defined parameters didn’t foist on me an identity — and a politic — with which I don’t necessarily agree.
The trouble is that those who place importance on representing their identities ostracize not only those “outside” of their said identity, but also those of the group they purport to represent. Perhaps one of the most discouraging features of identity politics is the way they pigeonhole those of the said identity group. An identity that is political too often morphs into being social, economic and all-encompassing. At Yale, what we wind up with is a tight-knit group of, say, queer people, who throw queer parties and listen to queer music and do other queer things. Certainly one can understand why an ostracized group would defend itself by forming a community outside of society. I myself attend gay parties, and feel very comfortable there. But I would argue that this is self-defeating. At Yale, and much more so on a national scale, this type of community-building serves largely to rigidly define an identity group that could be blissfully more fluid. Wouldn’t it be silly to throw a straight party? Not only would it be seen as politically incorrect, but one must stretch to think of a reason why such an identity needs to be codified in some college drinking-dancing-socializing ritual. The gay community would do well to remember that a time will come when people will feel no need to throw gay parties, and that may be the biggest success of all.
Although the social aspect of identity groups is disappointing, the politics of such communities can be even more so. When Roberts said that she was “somewhat of a feminist,” she was saying, in a way, that she was considered thoughtful enough to pave her own ideological path. By assuming that the personal is political, people assume that all other members of their cohort should appropriate certain (political and other) ideals. But what one does with an identity should be a personal decision. People tend to assume that I back pro-choice legislation, support affirmative action, listen to Dar Williams and do not eat meat — in my case, because “gay” often gets equated with some ethereal, hyperextended notion of “liberal.” This does not mean that I do not do all of these things (although, for full disclosure, only one of these is true about me). I am largely quite liberal, but that is separate from my other identities. As a woman and a gay person, I may have a personal stake in decisions that are made on behalf of these groups, but I do not have a responsibility as a woman or a gay person to act. The responsibility comes in that I am a citizen who has beliefs about equality that far surpass the importance of my own identity. I wear my “activist” pins proudly, not because I am gay or a woman, but because I believe that the causes are vital. Ultimately, one would do well to remember that it’s important not just because it’s personal, it’s important because it’s right.
Jessamyn Blau is a junior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.