Identity, Politics, and “Authenticity” Post-St. Pat’s

BY KELLY COGSWELL | Two weeks ago, Irish queers marched behind their own banner in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade for the first time ever in New York. In the photos they look so happy. More importantly, the crowd did, too. Most of them didn’t even know it was a landmark year, assumed that battle was long over if they knew about it at all.

Nevertheless, I remember how faces in the crowd were twisted with hate the first time we tried to march in 1991, and all those years afterwards. They’d spit and curse. Scream that we had our own parade. The gay parade. And that they hoped we’d all die of AIDS. Then they’d go home and dig up the phone numbers of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, as well as of our spokespeople, and leave death threats on our answering machines. Some of us were bashed, some attacked. Some lost jobs.

I participated because I was queer, though not particularly Irish. And watched how these activists were gradually exhausted, frustrated. Even bored by a battle that went on year after year after year. The group splintered and reformed. Friendships and relationships were strained, sometimes destroyed. The broader LGBT community abandoned the fight because the parade was ridiculous after all. An excuse for straight people to get drunk on green beer. Or ogle underage girls in skimpy costumes smeared with lipstick and twirling batons.

I heard more than once: If they don’t want you, why would you want them? Irish queers took pains to explain that identity is complicated and you can have more than one at the same time. You can be Irish and queer. Irish and female. Irish and Jewish. Irish and black. Marching as out LGBT people was a way for Irish queers to assert their existence within their broader Irish community. Other queer immigrant groups understood, and fought their own battles for inclusion in similar parades.

Identity was the heart of the problem. Not just what queers deserved to do as citizens. But, in fact, who got to be Irish in the non-Irish world of New York. The ultraconservative Catholic parade organizers there, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, were quite clear that being gay somehow disqualified you. Ideally, you would be not just straight but safely married with a passel of kids.

There were also issues of identity within the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, where some were Irish-Americans and others recent immigrants, a little puzzled about how the hyphenated identities in America worked. Each had very different understandings of what that word Irish meant. Nevertheless, they organized around it. Like they organized around “lesbian” and “gay”. Then eventually “queer.”

This battle, and plenty of others, wouldn’t have been won without “identity” politics. I’m not sure what other kind of politics there is. There is always some aspect of “identity” uniting us. Race. Class. Nation. There are just as many dividing us, though, so that if you start pulling threads the whole thing unravels.

Abroad, I’m visibly American, but it’s complicated to define my relationship to those tourists demanding ketchup or those soldiers in Iraq. I have tits and a cunt but women sometimes scream at me in the bathroom. I have a certain amount of privilege associated with this skin, but beware of the assumptions you make because of it. And as a lesbian, well… There is something we recognize in each other when we pass on the street, but sit a bunch of us down at a table and we’re suddenly mute strangers.

We need to begin to think about this contradiction in coherent ways. The main argument for marriage equality was that our identity was meaningless. Lesbian and gay couples were the same as hets and deserved the same rights. Nevertheless, activists found enough in common to organize together as queers. In fact, that’s the only reason they could organize at all.

I see identity as an artificial thing that takes root. It has meaning and consequences which vary from one person to another. In one person over time. Activists are lost when we begin to believe our own PR — that these differences actually mean something specific and fixed. We end up with territorial battles like the bitter feuds between some dykes and some trans women. As if it matters what a “woman” is, when none of us is safe in the street.

The word “Muslim” has become so weighty it is almost impossible to pronounce. Some hear it as an equivalent for terrorist. For the so-called progressive left (of all races) from the US to Britain and France it often seems to mean victim or saint. They denounce troublesome secular-minded Muslims as “inauthentic,” “self-loathing,” or even “Islamophobic.”

I’m not surprised. Despite this month’s St. Pat’s victory, it sometimes seems we’ve gone nuts. That we’ve increasingly become our own Hibernians, dividing into camps, imagining there’s only one way to define things — ours. And everyone else is an enemy.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.