Identity Politics: Battery No Longer Included

Yonge St. is just black and white without Pride

Yonge St. is just black and white without Pride

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I want to say something about identity politics, alienation, and inclusiveness.

I have argued that Pride depends for its relevance on its undiluted gayness.  To maintain this quality of spectacle, it should keep straight folk from being over represented in its events.

Now I’m having second thoughts.

Membership in minority groups is a powerful way of building political influence and effecting change.  Identity provides an organizing principle around which otherwise unrelated people can join in common cause.

It works when a movement is driven by the people who care, but not freighted with the contradictory expectations of groups that are just along for the ride.  An example would be the federal conservative party which chugs along on econo-centric policy direction, impeded at times by its faith-based founders from the old Reform and Alliance Party days who are more interested in issues of conscience such as abortion.  Somehow Harper has managed to juggle the demands of these two constituencies, shuttling from prayer breakfasts near the parliament buildings to boardroom confabs with godless captains of industry intent on rape and pillage.

The difficulty is in correctly drawing the boundary of inclusion.  In contrast to the Tories, the Liberals are traditionally the party with the largest tent, welcoming to any and all, especially those who don’t know precisely what they stand for.  This has worked well in the decades before the Conservatives perfected the angles of identity politics, driving wedge issues between interest groups until the whole electorate became so fractious, they couldn’t stand being under the same roof.

Unqualified inclusivity takes on an air of desperation when no one wants your invitation.   Dion, Ignatieff, and even Bob Rae have felt the anguish of rejection by all but diehard partisans.  Now Justin Trudeau labours valiantly to spin ideological straw into policy gold before the next election.  Whether or not that will fill the tent again remains to be seen.

Identity politics gets painfully personal when distinctions are drawn so finely that people are left out when they wish they were in.  I marvel at how “black” has become a culturally subjective term that is so sensitive that no one objects when it’s falsely applied.  For example, there are organizations that are publicly or charitably funded to encourage the development and exposure of black artists, without any requirement of a definition for “black.”  There is no possible proof of blackness under these circumstances, yet dark skinned people can be excluded from participation because of false supposition that “black” has some commonly understood meaning.  These fine distinctions, repeated across a wide range of programs and institutions, can have deeply felt personal consequences.

This exclusion by consensus has been used in First Nations politics to control the distribution of treaty monies among the many claimants to Aboriginal descent.  Years ago, women could lose their privileges if they married non-Aboriginal men or lived off reserve.  The rights of the Metis and the Dene to the benefits of their Aboriginal descent have also been disputed at times by less racially mixed groups.

This is understandable and even logical to the extent that minority groups have to fight for recognition of their needs and rights.  While the fight is on, it can be difficult to enlist allies to your cause.  Once victory is achieved, suddenly everyone becomes your brother, and the point of the movement becomes blunted.  Hard decisions have to be made, not always in a principled way, about who is in and who is out of the group.

Referring to the pride parade again, I remember being a student standing in a crowd outside the St. Charles Tavern.  It was Hallowe’en, and people were waiting to see the gay guys parade out before and after their costume contest.  The police were required in force to keep the crowd back.  Some of the crowd were there to see the costumes, but some where there to heckle and throw things.  I later learned that the area surrounding the Tavern had acquired a deserved reputation for gay bashings.  “Bashing” now pertains to insults and hurt feelings, but back in the 70’s, it was a literal term denoting violence and physical harm.

I contrast this grim history with the recent Pride celebration because it highlights how dramatically the social context for minority rights struggles can change.  Historically, it has served the purpose of gay people to include as many people as possible in common cause against injustice and intolerance.  This helped overcome the impediment of secrecy.  Too many people were hiding their identities in order to meet social expectations, and as a result, weren’t able to lend their support to the movement.  So it made sense to call in everyone who had an interest in the cause until, over many years, straight society got the message that there many, many ways to live, and untold numbers of queers among them.

It evidently worked, and left the movement in far better shape than, say, the Harper Tories, with their western Bible thumpers and their Central Canadian industrialists yanking the cabinet to and fro.  The LGBTTIQQ2SAA movement has remained publicly cohesive for the most part.

I was amused to see a group marching in the Pride parade under banners advising people, in solidarity with repressed Palestinian homosexuals, not to visit Israel.  It was funny because, at a very safe distance behind them, were counter-protesters who marched under signs welcoming tourists to Israel.  Neither belonged in the Toronto Pride celebration, and neither was a threat to the other.  They could have been marching side by side, armed only with water pistols, amicably trying to shout over each other and waving to supporters.

However the movement is so inclusive, it hardly excludes anyone except me.  If you simply added “Straight,” to “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transexual, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, Two Spirited, Asexual and Ally,” wouldn’t you have the entire population of the planet?

When group identity includes a few and excludes the many, it’s perfectly acceptable.  But when it includes the many and excludes a few, it becomes discriminatory.  To maintain its high moral standing, I think that someone should sneak an “S” into the acronym, LGBTTIQQ2SAA.   Only then can the movement avoid alienating the straight population in the way that society once excluded queer folk from full participation in the mainstream economy and culture.

Better add a “C” after the “S,” as well.  It will stand for “Confused.”

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