This page contains a summary of the research project I did for my masters degree in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Please note that when I use the term sexuality, I do not refer only to sexual orientation but to ideas of the sexual in general.
I have tried to make this as short as I can, but it is still around 3000 words long. If you can't be bothered reading all of it, you could skip ahead to the conclusion. If you have any questions, comments, constructive criticism, or want to read more, feel free to leave a comment or email me.
The purpose of this study is to examine how people relate to Pride Scotland as an example of identity politics. Identity politics are political movements based upon group identities (e.g. Jewish, gay, white, woman). I have looked at how organisers and participants of the Pride Scotland March and Festival understand relationships between sexuality, identity and politics. I have then analysed this data with respect to three specific criticisms of identity politics.
Although the strategy of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) identity politics has a long history, it has been contested from it's very beginnings. Early radicals argued for releasing 'the homosexual in everyone.' Instead, homosexuals concentrated their energies on social advancement as homosexuals. Certainly, there were specific historical reasons why this was chosen. However, that does not necessarily mean that we should continue following this path. In fact, these criticisms suggest that we should not.
In order to develop an understanding of how participants in LGBT identity politics relate to these criticisms, I have gathered data through participants observation and a series of interviews. I interviewed 14 participants ranging in age from early twenties to late forties including men and women and gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual identified individuals. Each interview lasted between 1 and 1 1/2 hours. I analysed the interviews by categorising quotations and looking at the similarities and differences among the interviews within those categories.
The purpose of this section was to examine the ways in which participants draw on ideas of identity politics in their understanding of Pride and how that might reinforce categories such as LGBT/straight. As I am very interested in political strategy, I have focused on the relationship between the means and the ends of the Pride Scotland March. I was particularly interested in seeing how participants relate the strategy of the March (means) and what they hopes to accomplish (ends).
The theme of visibility came up frequently in discussions of the value of Pride Marches. Most of the participants felt that simply being seen was the most important part of the March. Betty said simply, "If society doesn't know you are there, it can't respond to you." Therefore, it is important to be seen by as many people as possible. Each year, the March route is negotiated to include the busiest areas of the host city. This visibility also serves as a form of transgression -- breaking the rules. The March is seen as a taking over of public space which is normally reserved for heterosexual people. Richard said, "the March is the reclaiming [of] public space... The thing that gets the adrenaline going for the March is that you are walking through the same street you might have walked down yesterday alone, but you are with x-thousands other people and it's yours space. You've taken it over." However, Sean thought that the march was not threatening. He said, "we're here... and we're not particularly threatening because we're having such a laugh."
However, others were not so convinced that the March only has a positive effect. Gloria was dubious of the inherent connection between public displays of visibility and social change. "I think it can be ridiculed sometimes.... you know, like the Christian guy who hangs out in university. He's kind of... like a weird person that you're kind of interested in but kind of ridicule as well. I think that can encourage... people [who] are going to react negatively -- they can just ridicule you and put it down." Henry was concerned about the divided nature of the March. "I think that's why I've never really gone along with the idea of going to Pride.... All the gay people are marching and all the straight people are watching.... it's like a poke in the eye ... at straight society." Several others who generally supported the March recognised that this strategy had limitations. Both Richard and Fiona also noted that the Pride March could raise negative emotions. Fiona seemed concerned about the long-term political impact of Pride Marches.
We mustn't confuse our kind of ... more obvious ... profile in society as ... necessarily being one of more acceptance. It may also ... [make] people address the issue which perhaps they hadn't bothered to think of before. So there's maybe a stage that we are going through just now. ... That having raised our visibility... and public awareness of LGBT people, that it will also have a negative [effect] in [that] people feel threatened, people feeling we're on a take-over of their... traditional values or way of life.... So you know one day of carnival atmosphere and a march is not the be all and end all of equality for LGBT.
Fiona was well aware of the fear that can be created by taking over the public streets, which is interesting in comparison to Richard's previous statement that this is one of the great things about Pride Marches. Several others were simply unsure about the value of Marches.
Those who supported the strategy of public displays of visibility did so with the political aims of promoting equality (sameness) and acceptance of diversity (difference). I asked Patrick what he hoped visibility would lead to and he replied:
Just general acceptance within the wider community. Whether or not that general acceptance itself can then make it easier... for folk to accept ... greater equality or the equalisation of the age of consent and stuff like that. ... I think it's the visibility, then the acceptance through that, then like the political goals. I think just being visible and just being accepted is ... another bit of the tapestry of life that I think itself is a big enough goal.Patrick echoed the beliefs of many others: that visibility leads to acceptance of diversity (difference) which leads to the granting of equality (sameness). This perspective was related to the general belief among the participants that sexual orientation is in some way 'natural'. They perceived being LGBT or straight as an inherent characteristic rather than a product of social ideas about gender and sexuality. This leads to a conflict between wanting to be treated the same and knowing themselves to be different.
The contradictions between the ends and means are quite severe. On the one hand, most of the participants had a goal of sexual orientation being a non-issue. They desired a peaceful society which was accepting of diversity and embracing of equality. On the other hand, the means used are symbolically violent: marching, claiming territory and ramming messages down throats. Opposition is inherent to identity politics. Gay is defined as opposed to straight and vice versa. This opposition will only reinforce the artificial division which has caused so many problems to begin with.
LGBT is not an identity, but an idea (or set of ideas). Both Pride and homophobia are based on this idea: that 'LGBT' describes an easily defined section of people and lives which is somehow different from those who are labelled 'straight'. Identity, on the other hand, is how an individual understands their relationship with the world. In other words, identities are personal and ideas are political. But isn't the personal political? This statement from the feminist movement refers to the idea that some aspects of life were traditionally considered personal and not political. For example, family arrangements were considered to be private issues. With this logic, domestic violence was considered not to be a concern of the State, or indeed anyone else. So I would agree that issues from personal life are often political. However, they are not the same thing. For example, sexuality is a political issue while individual sexual acts or desires are personal. To see how participants in identity politics understand the relationship between the personal and the political, I looked at the example of coming out.
Most of the participants felt that coming out should be a purely personal decision -- not political. At the same time, several of them discussed the political value of choosing to do so. Gloria said, "But I would do it as a political thing if I thought it was going to be useful. Like if I was in a group and people were being anti-gay, then I would be like well, you know, I'm bisexual, you know, this is me." Furthermore, she didn't want to pressure people into coming out but, "I think that if they do then it can be useful in furthering the cause." Richard saw coming out as more political. He said that coming out as LGBT is the basis for individual Pride and the Pride movement. He went on to say that the more out person should be more proud, though he acknowledged that it is more difficult for some people to be out.
Many of the participants argued that coming out is good because straight people who knew LGBT people would change their attitudes. Some people described it almost as a duty to future generations of queer people. But not everyone thought that coming out as a political strategy was entirely good. Some people mentioned the pressure put on LGBT individuals. Although Fiona thought it was politically beneficial, she worried about people being bullied for the cause:
And I don't really see why people, because their sexuality is other than heterosexual, have to go through this parade ... for everyone else. ... But... I don't see why people individually should all be political markers for an explanation. They can only do as much as they feel comfortable with. And I don't think people's lives should be made a misery for, for a greater political good.... I think people should be encouraged to, and supported to, to be strong for themselves and for others. But they shouldn't be kind of bullied into having to be sacrifices.... They deal with enough without having to be charged with not being, you know, gay enough because they've not done this and they've not done that. (Original emphasis)
Similarly, Mark commented "Sometimes martyrdom can be very important and can be a very powerful motivator for political change but it tends to be a bit of a fucker for the martyr..."
Finally, Patrick gave an example from his personal experience where coming outs lead to people changing their attitudes about him, but not about homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism in general.
I was through in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago. My parents live in a Glasgow housing area. [laughs] So not exactly in the most liberal of environments on earth. As ever, some mates of my brother started talking about gay, talking about the Soho bombing and stuff. And they're still making a point that for a lot of them, I am still the only gay they have ever met. Although they still manage to bring it down to, 'We hate poofs, but we know 'Patrick' so he's fine'. I have this protective bubble from the fact that they've known me for the last 20-odd years.
So making the personal political doesn't necessarily work. You can come out and mean it in a political way while it is understood in a personal way.
Perhaps the most interesting thing in this discussion is the idea that only LGBT people needs to come out of the closet. It is only these people whose gender and sexuality requires explanation. The idea of non-transgender heterosexual people coming out is absurd. This idea is based in a medical model which suggests that traditionally gendered heterosexuality is normal and anything else is an illness. Thus, heterosexuality is not an issue (personal), but queerness is (political). As the participants pointed out, this puts pressure on queer people to be political. At the same time, it discourages heterosexual people (especially men) from being involved in politics of gender and sexuality. Furthermore, this reinforces the idea that heterosexuality and traditional masculinity and femininity are normal and do not require discussion. Once again, LGBT politics reinforces the divide between LGBT (the problem) and straight (the norm).
The third criticism of identity politics is that they are inherently exclusive. Not only is there pressure for one to be a 'proper dyke' or 'queer enough,' but 'straight' people often have to prove that they are 'straight enough.' The borders of LGBT and straight identities must be policed in order to maintain the idea that these are 'natural' groups. Furthermore, to have an LGBT politics, you must have an LGBT group which you can define.
To look at the issue of exclusion, I decided to focus on the ideas of sexualised spaces. One point of the Pride Scotland March and Festival is to redefine 'heterosexual space' as 'LGBT space.' But what is LGBT space? And, indeed, what does it mean to be LGBT? Just as visibility is seen as a political strategy to demonstrate numbers to the 'heterosexual majority,' queer visibility is also necessary to show each other that the festival is actually an LGBT space. Paint and black triangles, rainbow rings, shaved heads, pierced nipples, tight tops, drag, leather, chains, sailor uniforms, and a same-sex partner are all potential queer signs. What about LGBT identified people who don't show the signs? And if the space is 'LGBT,' what does this mean for 'heterosexual' people who choose to attend? Should they be excluded in the same way that LGBT people argue they are excluded from public space?
All the participants thought it was very important to create an LGBT space. Many of them spoke about feeling safe and included. Others spoke about the positive sense of community they felt. Patrick also commented on the value of seeing the diversity of LGBT people. "You do get quite a buzz and you do actually... begin to see that it isn't simply the same folk you see week in, week out in certain pubs. That there is a huge whole other walk of life going on there. And it's not even necessarily those of the same age group, you know you would tend to see folk who are gay but exist outside the gay scene. And sometimes it's only at events like Pride that you get an opportunity to view these people [laughs]." Likewise, Betty said "I welcome straight people as long as they behave appropriately.... It would hack me off if a high percentage of people attending Pride were straight. Because I think you get an energy out of visually seeing a lot of people who you identify with. Straight people aren't like me -- on Pride day. You know, Pride day is about how I'm different from straight people." (emphasis original)
Most of the participants felt strongly that Pride should be primarily for 'LGBT' people. This led to some debate on the role of 'straight' people at Pride. A lot of people were worried about too many 'straight' people attending or flaunting their heterosexuality. This was partly due to fear of 'straight' people acting inappropriately or oppressively. This led to questions of why straight people go. A number of participants felt that straight people should only be there to show solidarity or support. Others thought that Pride should be educational for 'straight' people though not everyone was convinced that it fulfilled this role. Erica are commented, "there wasn't really great deal happening on the [day] that actually kind of educated me at all about anything."
But however they saw the place of 'straight' people at Pride, it was always different to that of 'LGBT' people. Sean, who identifies as heterosexual, agreed that it was necessarily different for straight people because
"People like me who go to Pride can walk away from it at 7:00 when the Festival finishes, go home and put our feet up. ...I mean, for straight people ... we can walk away from sexual politics in that sense, straight people, any time they want. Um, because we're not having to define our identity or defend our public space, because we are the in-group by definition. ...So in a sense, I think I'm a kind of guest on it more than a kind of core participant. But I think that that's necessary, but the positive thing is that I'm made to feel absolutely welcome. So it's your party, sort of thing, but thanks for inviting me."This is an example of how Pride events flip things upside-down. 'Straight' people, who "are the in-group by definition" become the out-group in this queer space. Heterosexism (assuming that heterosexuality is natural or ideal) is replaced by homocentrism (focusing on homosexuality). While some might argue that this is fair turnabout, they both have similar effects.
Not only does homocentrism keep 'straight' people on the outside, it polices those on the inside. Queer identified women with long hair or a feminine appearance are often questioned. Men who have no fashion sense, or can't dance, or don't like Madonna can't possibly be gay! Likewise, bisexual identified people in mixed-sex relationships with are often assumed to be straight. Or if they are recognised as queer, they are not as queer as gay and lesbian people.
The same thing happens on the other side. Heterosexism is usually seen as harmful to 'LGBT' people. At the same time, it also polices the actions of 'straight' people (especially men). One person talked about how adult men are not allowed to show (non-sexual) affection for each other. Sean said "...the number of times I've been called a wee fuckin' poof, um, homo, or whatever, is incalculable. ... It's an act of control -- using these terms ... of abuse, saying don't be one of those." Also, women with short hair or a butch appearance are often assumed to be queer. In fact, queer-bashing isn't just directed at queers but anyone who does not act straight enough (masculine or feminine enough). Increasing numbers of heterosexual identified people are coming forward as victims of gender-based hate violence (example story).
Inclusion/exclusion is the basis of both heterosexism and homocentrism (are you one of us or are you one of them?). It is this us/them division which is the underlying problem. It leads to questions of being queer enough or straight enough which in turn leads to abuse and exclusion.
The purpose of this study was to relate experiences of Pride Scotland's participants and organisers to three criticisms of identity politics. The first criticism was that identity politics reinforces opposing categories (LGBT/straight, us/them). The Pride March serves as a good example of this division. This strategy reinforces the divide while participants wanted to work toward a world where sexual orientation and gender identity are not issues. The second criticism was that identity politics confuses the personal and political. Coming out, as a political strategy, puts pressure on LGBT people to politicise their lives. At the same time, it is reinforces the idea that heterosexuality does not needs to be discussed, and is not political. As ideas, both heterosexuality and homosexuality (as well as bisexuality and transgenderism) are political. However, individual lives and relationships are personal. The third criticism is that identity politics are inherently exclusive. Identity is based on inclusion and exclusion -- are you one of us or are you one of them? Making identity political makes this questioned even more loaded. It makes us wonder which side someone is on -- is he really straight? Is she queer enough?
The main connection between these three criticisms of identity politics is that it can only reinforce many of the problems it is attempting to solve. It reinforces the categories, but changes the names. Homosexuality as mental illnesses becomes gay pride. This response is inherently limited because it inhibits all of us from seeing gender and sexuality as social issues which affect everyone.
So what is the alternative? Rather than trying to change things through identities, I would suggest that we focus on the underlying issues. Gender and sexuality are human issues, not LGBT issues. These issues can be addressed by social movements. Instead of demanding equality for LGBT people, we should work toward society which is more comfortable with gender and sexuality.
This alternative can also be directed towards legal change. For example, section 28 could have been promoted as an issue of sex education rather than a gay issue. It is important for all young people to get a decent sex education. This includes the fact that different people have different desires. Likewise, discrimination against same-sex partnerships can be seen as sexism rather than homophobia. It is sexist to say that men should only be attracted to women and that women should only be attracted to men. It is also sexist to say that sexual attraction should always be based on sex/gender.
Looking at gender and sexuality as social issues rather than identity concerns enable us to move beyond the limitations of identity-based politics.
Do these ideas intrigue you? If so, check out resources for alternatives to identity politics.