Gay Particularity, Reconsidered

By Armand M and Dean E

Gay rights, particularly the legalization of gay marriage by the Supreme Court, is often touted as a successful model of identity-based politics. However, with a reactionary judiciary ascendant, a reversal of many gay rights victories is possible. While these potential reversals should not be taken lightly, it is worth reevaluating how material or lasting these victories in fact are, to whom go most of the spoils under identity politics, and what potentialities still exist for particularist politics surrounding gay identity. We postulate that the centrality of identity to gay organizing has actually limited the scope of material victories, demobilized potential coalitions, and is conceptually faulty.

In the wake of the recent Roe leak, the mainstream media has already conjured the image of a “gay community” bracing for backlash. Yet, the focus on the Supreme Court as the locus for gay activism belies the political weakness of the Left. From the Burger Court to present, the Court has filled the political vacuum, largely inadequately, produced by Congress’s inaction and the demobilization of popular political movements in favor of elite brokerage politics dominated by professionalized interlocutors like NGOs. While marriage equality and abortion rights were won by often narrow court decree, this institution also oversaw the erosion of workers’ rights and the entrenchment of corporate power in labor relations and politics. The Supreme Court is not the locus of societal change our political elites hold it to be. The Court’s current outsized role highlights the Left’s acquiescence to the ruling political order. 

Marriage has sucked up much of the oxygen in gay rights struggles for broader social reform. As late as the 1990s, gay marriage was largely absent from gay activism. Only with the professionalization of gay activism in the NGO sector did gay marriage ascend as a priority while the issues of housing, employment, and healthcare were sidetracked. The struggle for universal healthcare at the height of AIDS activism dramatizes this shift in gay activism. In the late 80s and 90s, activist organizations such as ACT UP participated in civil disobedience actions against insurance rate increases and worked to expand Medicaid benefits to include AIDS treatment. In 1990, when Congress refused to release funds already earmarked for AIDS services, claiming that patients with other conditions were more deserving, ACT UP called for national health insurance. ACT UP realized that “only universal coverage would ensure that patients with different diseases and conditions would not be pitted against each other.” But the push for gay marriage effectively diverted financial resources and political energy away from organizations prioritizing healthcare and employment. In this light, the shift toward gay marriage can be viewed as a conservative turn in queer politics.

Upon closer examination, the primary beneficiaries of gay marriage are elites within the “gay community”. Edith Windsor was the plaintiff in the seminal Supreme Court decision that, in 2013, ended the federal ban on same-sex marriages. Windsor’s marriage to her late wife had not been recognized in the US, so she was found liable to pay estate taxes on her inheritance. Windsor forked over $350,000 in taxes to the IRS, roughly a 10-percent levy on a bequest of some $6 million. The federal estate tax only applies to inheritances over $5 million. Her own net worth was an estimated $10 million. As scarcely few straights or gays will ever accumulate assets subject to this estate tax, Windsor’s victory cannot be described as a victory for queers at large. It was a victory for gay elites intent on hording and passing on their wealth. Even the quotidian benefits entailed by the legalization of gay marriage, such as access to spousal health insurance, presume a partner with adequate health insurance to begin with. Thus, the healthcare benefits of gay marriage are not only irrelevant to couples without a member fortunate enough to have employer-provided health insurance, but also shift the goalposts of healthcare equity in favor of the bureaucratic, for-profit healthcare system that regularly gouges and denies care to working people. Indeed, in order for spousal benefits to support the argument for marriage, the aspiration of a universal system had to be sacrificed.

The trajectory of queer politics from universal healthcare as late as the 90s to its contemporary politics of recognition was brought about directly by the tactics and presumptions of particularist politics itself, in this case under the ascriptive moniker of “gay” or “queer.” The starting point of particularity is the assumption that egalitarian policy must be culturally specific. Issues such as homelessness are repackaged as foremost matters of gay “identity,” not one’s economic position. The victims of homelessness are vulnerable queer youth; the abject failure of our capitalist system to provide the most basic of necessities—shelter—is consequently bracketed from consideration.  Organizations emphasize that queer homelessness is a product of individual homophobic attitudes  instead of structural problems concerning employment, wages, and rents. When the issue is perceived in merely cultural terms, the door opens for the solution to be cultural instead of material. Yet gay nonprofits insist, as Yasmin Nair has cogently argued, “on treating the problem solely as an issue of homophobia… issues are reduced to their simplest, most heartrending narratives, which raise a lot of money very quickly from sympathetic donors.” This lens may inspire elite charity but obscures the role of the capitalist system in bringing  the situation about to begin with. Viewed through this lens, the tragedy is the disproportionate allocation of homelessness across identity groups, not the reproduction of a capitalist system indifferent to human need. When subjects require a particular identity to be worthy of relief, the coalition against homelessness narrows in accordance with the identitarian and technocratic, means-testing imperatives of the professional class employed by NGOs. In short, the reason identitarian politics garners capitalist donors is precisely because it perpetuates rather than challenges the status quo. Viewing the issue of homelessness through its disparate impact on queers actively works to mystify the causal mechanism behind homelessness and prevents a coalition that would be capable of solving the problem.

For the sake of clarity, the authors do not intend to imply that gay marriage is simply a goal prioritized by an elite gay cabal that has duped many queer people into supporting it. Rather, we are arguing that it is an inherent tendency of identity-based organizing to transmute working class energies into the priorities of the most economically empowered members of the ascriptive group in question. In other words, identity falsely suggests that members of the same ascriptive group have the same material interests regardless of class background. This false conflation of interests is misleading at best and class collaboration at worst. In short, contemporary queer politics works to enlist queer working people into a bourgeois project that mystifies the material interests they share with workers of other groups and, as such, functions as a containment structure that limits the political horizon to goals compatible with elite interests. Identity politics, queer or otherwise, cannot be redeemed by more “authentic” or “radical” posture utilizing the same premises. The narrow focus on “gay identity” splinters the critical solidarity needed to win material victories for the majority of queer people.  The struggle must remain one of sexual and political liberation.

Furthermore, the particularist mode of queer politics  stands on weak conceptual grounds. It substitutes identitarian notions of community for the class analysis and class solidarity necessary for effective left politics. This notion of community transcends time, space, and class hierarchy, and only has coherence as a means of ideologically lubricating elite brokerage politics; as such, “community” can only coalesce elites lobbying for their own interests, on behalf of a fictive identity group. Further still, to posit a preexisting gay or queer identity is transhistorical and smuggles in essentialism. Gay identity emerged at a specific point in history. The productivity brought about by the socialization of production under capitalism and movement away from feudal modes of production was what allowed for the proliferation of persons capable of acting on same sex desire. Under feudalism, the agricultural household was a workplace where the interdependent labor of the family unit determined survival. As production shifted out of the household, workers  independently sold their labor power for wages. As wages displaced family members for acquiring subsistence, ostensibly heterosexual relations were no longer compulsory. Homosexual behavior existed prior, but it was only when sufficient numbers of people were able to construct ways of living without the familial household that this group could be perceived as separate from the norm. In other words, the queer as a  social category has not always existed, but became possible when production transitioned from agricultural subsistence on the family farm to the wage labor relation brought about by the industrial factory. 

Identity is a regression from the politics of freedom the Left championed a century ago. The Left has historically defended the decriminalization of sodomy and cross-dressing not from the position that queers or homosexuals were some essentialized type of person, but the expansion of freedom of the human subject to express their own desires whether they be acquired or innate. As David Faes puts it: “The struggle for socialism and sexual emancipation can be understood as epiphenomena of the historical problem of advancing the project of freedom, rather than as interest groups within the state… The contemporary Left attempts to use them to mobilize constituents as pressure groups to agitate existing civic institutions and the Democratic Party. However, their more powerful effect is the political miseducation of the youth they aim to enlist to such a cause.” The miseducation Faes refers to is demonstrated above in regards to gay marriage and homelessness: when identity is the locus of analysis and organizing, it capitulates both conceptually and practically to the very forces of capital it claims to oppose. Furthermore, argument on the basis of identity for relief acts as a type of special pleading that can only demand the perfection of the status quo instead of an alternative thereto.  Chris Cutrone has argued that freedom “has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom… pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom.” The particularist mode of queer politics, and social justice at large, therefore is not about freedom and will not result in meaningful material gains to the constituents it purports to represent, let alone a broader constituency.

Queer politics remains trapped in a cycle of identitarian aesthetic rebellion and elite dependency. That gay marriage has been enshrined, however tenuously, in law, while the number of queer homeless  increases demonstrates the limits of particularism. Identity cannot deliver material benefits to working people. For not only do identitarian frameworks actively mystify capitalist relations, the incoherence and divisiveness of identity group categories precludes the clarity of thought and unity of action required to ever solve the most pressing  problems the left faces today. To be truly liberatory, we must turn away from the divisive rhetoric of identity. There cannot be a broad, transformational movement starting from the position that all of our problems are different and all have a different source. To fall prey to identity politics is to dash our only hope for the urgent solution we need. Indeed, “gay politics” must give way to class politics, plain and simple. Class politics recognizes that all people—of whatever sexuality or identity—who are genuinely interested in liberation from the grinding indignities of this life have one struggle to win: class struggle.

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