In Praise of Identity Politics and the Long History of Desire

In Praise of Identity Politics and the Long History of Desire

In Praise of Identity Politics and the Long History of Desire

Fifty years after Stonewall, the much maligned politics of identity remains our best means to exert power collectively—and a starting point to freedom.


A few years before the Stonewall riots, I became a gay-history buff. I wasn’t driven to uncover hidden troves for the world. Nice thought, but no. I had sex on my salacious young mind. When, under the stall in Hamilton Hall at the University of New Hampshire, I happened to run into an old queer who happened to be cruising the campus, I got my chance to ask, “Where are they? As we were zipping up, he said, “Go to Boston.”

I snuck away every chance I got. I was turned on by older guys and loved hearing sex  party stories from the 1930s and ’40s, the kind Ted Rolf from the merchant marine would later tell in our film Before Stonewall: “We’d have bathtub gin with a splash of grenadine to make it pink. These were gay parties!”

So, for me, history came from the territory of desire. Just a few months before my forays to Beantown, I’d been in my dorm room lamenting that there were no other folks like me in this world. Now here I was, barely legal and cute as a button, at Sporters, a bar that catered to mature men, with all those older guys giving me the eye, and then the lowdown about their same-sex adventures. World War II time, it didn’t matter, they’d get together and do the deed. After that war, the bars exploded as homosexuals by the droves moved to the port cities where the ships had dropped them off. Hello, sailor! Some of them made home movies, as I’d later discover, of picnics and dances and cocktails in the backyard. Oh sure, I heard stories about police entrapments and ruined careers, bashings, commitment to the mental wards and suicide, but somehow that was not important then. I had had my face smashed into the pavement often enough as a kid in Texas to know about cruelty. What excited me was learning that in spite of oppression, gay people lived. They took risks, made love, and partied—and painted masterpieces, wrote secret love poems, and bashed a few straights back in the process. They made their own history, which, as it turns out, is also the history of the world. Thanks to close encounters in Hamilton Hall, I would become a keeper of the flame, a receiver of same-sex memories, and explorer of hidden things.

My favorite poem by C.P. Cavafy went unpublished when he wrote it in 1908. He obviously left “Hidden Things” not terribly hidden, knowing some gay snoop would expose it to the public.

From all I did and all I said
let no one try to find out who I was.…

Later, in a more perfect society,
someone else made just like me
is certain to appear and act freely.

And so, almost 50 years after Stonewall, my tired old legs were trekking up a craggy hill on some unpopulated Greek isle in the middle of the Aegean with a camera crew to record graffiti etched in a rock 2,500 years ago. My latest film, Before Homosexuals, opens with this scene—me still turned on by the idea that ancient guys had had sex in this remote place and then memorialized their lovemaking in stone. What a gift.

Back in the day, I was hardly alone sniffing out a hidden past. The determination to see and be seen may be the most remarkable innovation of all the liberation movements of the late ’60s: countless people making history by reclaiming it, revitalizing the language—blackgaylesbianherstoryChicanoNative AmericanLGBTqueer…—renewing their own (and everyone else’s) understanding of lived reality. Only kindred spirits would do it. Hundreds of archives opened up. Eventually universities realized how rich neglected history was. It took identity politics to do that. No straight person was going to dig up the stories of, say, the marvelous Harry Hay and the Mattachine movement (named after medieval traveling troupes of men, who sang of social justice and organized not only to stop police harassment in the 1950s but also to spread a radical politics of freedom).

When we began making Before Stonewall, first broadcast on PBS in 1986, the National Archives didn’t have a category for homosexuality. We built one ourselves with our interviewees, from out of boxes stashed under beds, in attics, and in memory. Here was a treasure house of material preserved; and, yes, thank you identity politics, we lapped it up. Wonderful pictures of lesbians hanging together at softball games or holding weddings. Delightfully overdressed “gay young lads” partying it up at the Pines. Recordings heard in a new social key: Ruth Wallis crooning in the 1950s, “I might have sown a few wild oats, but he preferred ba-na-na boats.” Mabel Hampton reminiscing about the 1920s with blueswomen Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey: “We were all in The Life. I wouldn’t be messing around with any straight people ’cause you’d get yourself in trouble.” It was the curiosity of amateur historians and archivists, organic intellectuals and storytellers, borne along by the adamant spirit of ’60s movements, that propelled those saved memories into hundreds of books and films that took seriously the past lives of homosexuals.

That exploration isn’t finished. As long as people exist, it will never be finished. So all the talk bubbling up about identity politics being finished just sounds absurd. Tell that to the lover of the gay teenager who didn’t get the memo when his partner’s head was chopped off by the Saudi government for doing what comes naturally. This, in 2019.

Why are folks so afraid of identity politics, especially on the left? They can’t believe that racism, sexism, and homophobia have been washed into the sea. Can they really believe they know everything there is to know about life—in other words, the history and politics of the world, including their own? Only a tiny percentage of PBS’s national programming is about LGBT people. In the Life, the public TV series I created, ran for 21 seasons on 250 PBS stations, but it never saw prime time. You’d be lucky to be awake at 11 pm on a Sunday to see it. In any public high school, how many teachers tell the kids about Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings? (“Who?” you ask; watch After Stonewall and see how heroic they were.) How many middle-schoolers reading A Raisin in the Sun also learn that Lorraine Hansberry was a lesbian? Only in our own recorded history will you see Gittings exclaim, about her first Daughters of Bilitis meeting in the 1950s, “I was in a room with 11 other lesbians for the first time and, oh, what a thrill that was!” We are still looking for Lorraine (to borrow from the title of Imani Perry’s new biography), whose first letter to the Daughters’ magazine, The Ladder, began, “I’m glad as heck that you exist.”

So I was disappointed to see our first top tier gay candidate for president, Pete Buttigieg, throw some shade with his put-down of “so-called identity politics,” which he thinks leads to division and extremes. We are building walls, he says, and walls are so Trumpian. I know Mayor Pete reads a lot, so he might brush up on his history. From the pink triangles sewn on the shirts of gay men by the Nazis to “sexual psychopath” laws used to purge queers by J. Edgar Hoover to the efforts to erase Title IX protections (and even recognition) for transgender people today, it is we who have been segregated out. Straight society created identity politics by labeling us criminal, mentally ill, sinners, disgusting. We corrected the record by creating a politics of liberation and declaring ourselves. One of the most important interviewees in In the Life was a gay man who had survived Hitler’s death camps only to be jailed by the Allies as a homosexual criminal when the camps were liberated. We got the receipts, as Nina Turner would say, and that one is in our archive at UCLA. You can download it.

Maybe Mayor Pete has bought the caricature, or maybe he just wants to fit in. But however much individuals may try, social-liberation movements are not about fitting in, because the conventions into which one might “fit” have historically led to the killing field, the prison, the ghetto, the criminalization or suppression of somebody’s difference. Dismissing “identity” is like dismissing human personality, along with every experience—individual, group, class, regional, sexual—that forms it. Dismissing a politics forged out of oppressed identity is like dismissing justice. And pooh-poohing the most profound aspect of people’s lives—who they are, whom they love, whether they even can live and love—isn’t smart politics, if you ask me.

With my late partner, Andrew Kopkind (a big macher at The Nation, its chief political analyst and reporter from 1983 to 1994), I used to play a game in the early days of gay liberation. Every mixed party always had its sprinkling of gay folks. Eventually, we wound up in one room at the house, doing what gay people did when together—Lord knows, think The Boys in the Band or The Killing of Sister George. Andy and I would try to guess how long before the straight people left. Five minutes, Andy figured, and, sure enough, typically in five minutes we had cleared the room. We weren’t building walls or pushing anyone out, but our cultural history was speaking. Maybe the others were uncomfortable as the cues turned unfamiliar. “Their space” had become a gay and lesbian space, and we are different. An old Mattachine Society poster showed two zebras in the background with a gayish giraffe front and center proclaiming, “Homosexuals Are Different.” That doesn’t mean we don’t have differences among ourselves or don’t need straight folks or don’t love them. But when you’ve had to battle just to be yourself, and when, still in the 21st century, 16-year-olds write letters thanking LGBTQ filmmakers and authors for giving them a reason to live, identity politics is anything but a distraction.

Politics is always about power. Along with every other group that historically has been “damned and despised,” Jesse Jackson’s phrase from Rainbow Coalition days, LGBTQ people need some. Getting what you need is one form of power. Challenging others to question what they always took for granted as quite normal and unchanging is another. “Once you find yourself in another civilization, you’re forced to examine your own,” James Baldwin once told an interviewer. He was speaking about the benefit of having lived in Paris and Istanbul, but it can also apply to seeing your own country once you’ve recognized the reality of others within it, those who have been unknown, with histories that have been obscured. Once people who are supposedly beyond identity (and what a silly concept that is) have to contend with identity politics, they have to contend with everything they don’t know, or have chosen to ignore, about themselves and the forces that have shaped their history. They have to examine “civilization” without illusion. Identity politics is our means to exert power collectively, and a starting point to freedom.

Today we are a few steps closer to Cavafy’s vision of free souls, and for the millions of LGBTQ people taking to the streets in cities across the country to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, we just might get a glimpse of his imagined tomorrow here or there. Take a close look, and “do not speak of guilt or responsibility when the brigade of pleasure passes with music and banners, when the senses pulsate and tremble, do not keep your distance.”

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