Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
May 27, 2020
19 Min read time
Adhering to a particular sexual or gender identity may mean abandoning the things that make us most unique. So why has identity become the default for talking about who we are and what we desire?
In Epistemology of the Closet (1990), that classic of queer studies, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick begins with axioms. The first: “People are different from each other.” The sentence is so starkly obvious that Sedgwick adds at once, “It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for dealing with this self-evident fact.”
If it is so recent an invention, and if it was faulted from the start, how did talk of identities become inevitable?
In the years since Sedgwick wrote, identity has become by far the most popular tool for conceiving people’s differences in sex and gender. We plot ourselves onto identity grids to fix our individuality. More: identities are now among the chief objects of our political and ethical concern around sex. We are urged to defend our own identities and schooled to respect those of others. Comprehensive classifications of sex/gender even provide a place for those who resist them. You refuse to choose a sexual identity? We have a checkbox for that.
The quick triumph of sexual identity should astonish us. After all, the terminology is recent: it didn’t really circulate until the 1970s, and then only over the objections of influential thinkers such as Sedgwick and Michel Foucault. Speaking at a conference in 1979, Foucault puts his objection to sexual identity bluntly: “Pleasure is something that passes from one individual to another; it is not the secretion of identity.” In Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick worries that identity “seems to begin with a self but is legitimated only by willfully obscuring most of its boundaries.” You shimmy into an identity by starving your self.
If it is so recent an invention, and if it was faulted from the start, how did talk of identities become inevitable? Where do sexual identities come from and how did they take charge?
• • •
Undergraduates who take queer studies courses these days learn that proper answers to these questions start with the old sexologists. At the close of the nineteenth century—in the decades that also germinated psychoanalysis—the new scientists of sex hoped to compile a taxonomy of human sexuality. The result was what Foucault called the “entomologization” of sexual kinds: the sexual proclivities already known to nineteenth-century psychiatry were reconceived as so many insect species demanding exotic names. (Perhaps you remember Marcel Proust, in the 1913 prologue to Sodom and Gomorrah, likening the flirtation of two men to a blossom’s trembling welcome for a pollinating insect.)
A hundred years ago, a man could call himself a homosexual without claiming a sexual identity or imagining that such a thing existed.
Among the new species names was homosexualität, coined shortly before 1870 in German, rendered into English two or three decades later. That lexical invention gave classicist David Halperin a piquant title for his book One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990). The title means that however old same-sex yearnings might be, their classification as “homosexuality” is recent. Halperin thus rejoined the battle between so-called “constructionists” (who believe that sexual classification is a social construct keyed to mutations in power) and “essentialists” (who conceive homosexuality and other nineteenth-century taxonomies as somehow invariant components of human nature). The battle between constructionism and essentialism figured prominently in earlier versions of queer studies courses. On university score boards, at least, it ended when constructionists took possession of the trampled field. Looking back from our world of sexual identities, their victory seems less than decisive.
If I were renaming those contending sides today, I would relabel the “essentialists” as Fundamentalists and the “constructionists” as Allegorists. Their battle was not about (male) homosexuality so much as the adequacy of any names for our volatile, elusive sex. Once I reconfigure the old debate in that way, I see that both sides can now claim victory. After all, the so-called essentialists’ commitment to positivist statements of fact survives in a fundamentalism of transparent labels. Meanwhile, the so-called constructionists’ subtle paraphrase of all terminologies, past and present, has ended in doubt whether anything in sex finally escapes paraphrase. The orthodoxy of sexual identity: we can name ourselves in changing ways, but we must have faith that each name is literally adequate. Sexual identities are like an allegorical scripture in the hands of fundamentalists.
This is not the old sexology. The nineteenth-century multiplication of species names did not generate sexual identities—though some historians have confused the two. A hundred years ago, a man writing pseudonymously in English could call himself an invert or homosexual without claiming a sexual identity or imagining that such a thing existed. I have in mind the first-person pamphlet published by “Anomaly” under the title The Invert and His Social Adjustment (1927). The author knows the scientific or medical categories, but his pseudonym places his self beyond them. Again, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928)—sometimes crowned as the first lesbian novel—circles around medical terms for its protagonist’s condition but uses them under a sort of erasure. In both the anonymous pamphlet and Hall’s novel, sexual inversion may imply a weakened physiology or a tormented character, but it does not supply an identity. The word “identity” appears neither in the pamphlet nor in the novel. You can repeat this terminological hunt with the same negative results in hundreds of texts written before 1950. Early queer literature doesn’t feel the compulsion to identify.
So far as I can tell, current meanings for “sexual identity” and “gender identity” were elaborated beginning in the 1950s by authors who wanted to shift from deterministic biological models to more flexible therapeutic ones. Their redefinitions were suggested and then amplified by larger shifts in sociological and psychological notions of identity. In his influential Stigma (1963), for example, the eminent sociologist Erving Goffman describes “personal identity” as the “single record of social facts” that becomes the “sticky substance to which still other biographical facts can be attached.” Homosexuality is one of his examples of “spoiled identity.” Goffman both echoes and clarifies the usage around him, from Erik Erikson’s ego psychology to commentaries on Richard Wright’s Native Son.
The rise of identity language is general, but the new clinical terms for sex/gender are especially consequential. For example, a 1959 paper by Thomas Colley sets out to define “total sexual identity” by drawing together earlier authorities. Colley boasts that his notion of identity can combine biological, sociological, and psychological insights. He stresses that sexual identity, like the human identity that contains it, results from the unpredictable interaction of many elements. Still, however complex, the identity authorizes therapy. A parallel trajectory is traced around the emerging term “gender.” A few years after Colley’s essay, Robert Stoller promotes “core gender identity” to name the ways a person “unquestioningly feels that he or she is a member of the assigned sex.”
A gain of identity is the ability to name difference as a social fact. Being a lesbian is not a crime against nature, it is an identity. Indeed, sexual identity is the kind of fact that underwrites concerted political action.
What does the addition of identity do for clinicians like Colley and Stoller? On the one hand, identity correlates or aligns explanatory models from various fields—biology, psychology, and sociology, but also medicine and ethics or politics. On the other hand, identity holds together contradictory claims about human persons. For example, a sexual or gender identity is both shaped by socialization and deeply felt as the individual’s core. It is an artifact and an essence, an accomplishment and an endowment. It yearns to express itself through the body but does not always match the body of its birth. In short, an identity is a circuit or container for all kinds of powers.
The tensions felt in clinical writing tighten as the new terms pass into activist use. Consider a single passage from the Radicalesbian manifesto, The Woman Identified Woman (1970):
As the source of self-hate and the lack of real self are rooted in our male-given identity, we must create a new sense of self. . . . Only women can give to each other a new sense of self. That identity we have to develop with reference to ourselves, and not in relation to men. . . . Together we must find, reinforce, and validate our authentic selves. . . . With that real self, with that consciousness, we begin a revolution to end the imposition of all coercive identifications, and to achieve maximum autonomy in human expression.
The word “identity” moves around in this passage. It is first used negatively: a woman’s real self is lost when men impose a patriarchal identity on her. The antidote is to create a new sense of self. But this new self is also an identity: “the identity we have to develop with reference to ourselves.” According to the manifesto, the problem is not identity but “coercive identifications.” Of course, a combative reader might point out, another sort of problem then pops up in the tension between maximum autonomy and group validation. How do you express your authentic self when you have to receive it as a gift from the group of women around you?
Tensions are plain enough in this and many other manifestos, but they hardly hampered the spread of identity language into hundreds of other texts, whether articles in the underground press, pulp novels, or prophetic calls for church reform. If imitation is flattery, early adopters of the language of sexual identity were smothered with praise. But what did all these activist authors gain by popularizing the once clinical language of sexual or gender identity? One gain is the ability to name differences without insulting them or hushing them up. Being a lesbian is not a crime against nature or a perversion, it is an identity—a speakable social fact. Indeed, sexual identity is the kind of fact that underwrites concerted political action. If clinical advocates of “sexual identity” promised that the new term could correlate various sciences, activists hoped that it would unite various causes. The strongest defense of essentialized identity has always been pragmatic: you have to claim an identity to gain legal or political traction in these United States.
That has been the argument, but our arguments don’t always reveal our motives. Just as Foucault analyzed the proclamation of sexual liberation as today’s version of prophecy, so I tend to see identity as our attempt to replace the Christian concept of soul. After all, having an immortal soul is said to be a nature and a gift, a fact and an achievement. The human soul constitutes individuals that come to fullness only in community. It is born to be born again. Listing these likenesses, I don’t mean to say that identity simply is the new soul. There are interesting differences. For example, as the Radicalesbian manifesto sometimes makes clear, the true self of identity is a sociopolitical artifact. It is not a divine creation: it is a political compulsion or socially confirmed choice. There are also crucial differences with regard to naming. In the most canonical Christian texts, soul or spirit always exceeds language. But with sex/gender identities, nothing is held in reserve. The revolution will rightly name what it alone can remake.
• • •
I tend to see identity as our attempt to replace the Christian concept of soul.
With such origin stories for “sexual identity,” first among clinicians and then among activists, I don’t imagine that I’ve satisfied curiosity about exactly why we now speak of sex/gender as identities. In fact, I fear that my stories have been misleading. They make it seem that the success of a new sexual terminology depends on its predictable benefits—as if we were free rational agents calmly comparing languages in a free market of ideas. In fact, the effects of identity language are more elusive—or, perhaps, masked.
Setting history aside, try to enumerate from daily conversations around you what a sexual identity is supposed to do for its bearers. You might conclude—as I have—that such an identity consoles, trains, organizes, and markets those who wear it. Consoles: it grants a stable sense of belonging to something very much like a natural kind, a new family. As Lady Gaga says, you are “Born This Way.” Trains: belonging to this natural kind requires a good deal of education. You have to be taught to listen to Lady Gaga, for example, rather than Anita Bryant. (Before and after she was an emblem of anti-queer politics, Bryant recorded velvety love songs, old-fashioned hymns, and patriotic favorites. Her “Paper Roses” reached No. 5 on the pop chart. Listener, beware.) More urgently, you have to acquire a range of tastes, memorize a series of codes, and affirm a prescribed politics. Organizes: if a sexual identity is supposed to be a natural kind, it has also been, for several decades now, a political declaration or act of allegiance. Finally, most important, an identity markets you. It is your license to participate in various specialized exchanges, especially for sexual pleasures or, at least, motions.
With Sedgwick, I fear that the last point may be too obvious, but it can also disclose the multiple incoherence of claiming that the choice of a sexual identity is a free and authentic expression of your innermost self. Take as a concrete example the so-called gay handkerchief code. (It became popular about the time that identity language began to spread in gay manifestos and the underground press.) The idea was that you would stuff a colored hanky in the back pocket of your Levi’s—because of course you were wearing Levi’s and a black T-shirt, as perfectly autonomous declarations of your unique sense of style. The handkerchief’s color would signal what you were offering or seeking in the sexual marketplace. Wearing the hanky in the left pocket meant you were top or active; on the right, bottom or passive. If all of this strikes you as unbearably passé, glance at the “Tribes” on Grindr (Bear, Twink, Daddy, Geek, Jock, Leather, and so on) or the drop-down menus of self-categorization on any other hookup app.
Whatever identities promise, one of their actual consequences is the oscillation between restricted choice and endless multiplication.
The code was simple in theory, troublesome in practice. For example, the system supposed that you could distinguish, at 1:30 a.m., under dim bar lighting, fuchsia from lavender. A mistake could be awkward. You might end up being spanked when what you really wanted was to compare notes on drag queen hairstyles. But there were other troubles. In early iterations, you had to squeeze your desires into one of a handful of recognized colors. If there was no suitable color, perhaps there was something wrong with your desires. Then, after a while, there were just too many colors—and competing guides to decoding them.
So it goes with sex/gender identities. Whatever identities promise, one of their actual consequences is the oscillation between restricted choice and endless multiplication. If you haven’t looked lately at an online list of sex/gender identities, you should do so. The lists vary wildly in length and do not always agree on definitions. An average list will run to a hundred or so. If you combine all the possibilities on other lists, you end up near a thousand.
Sex/gender identities multiply because there are no clear criteria for how much of what kind of human difference constitutes a new one. For example, have you dated any Therians? Are you yourself perhaps a Therian without knowing it? According to one Internet questionnaire, you are a Therian or Therianthrope if you feel that you are a particular animal, experience a connection to that animal, find yourself at peace when you picture that animal, or transform into that animal (psychologically, to be clear). But Therians are not to be confused with furries or puppy players or any others who don animal costumes or mimic animal behaviors during sex. Some Therians do consider their identity to be a sexual identity. Others heatedly deny this. What is incontestable is that Therians have maintained websites, conducted actual and virtual meetings, run a YouTube channel, and circulated fan fiction. So why not count Therian as a new sexual identity? But if any variation of human fantasy can constitute a sexual identity, what is the meaning of the term?
Perhaps it was never meant to have a meaning in the ordinary way. From the beginning, the language of sexual identity has been candid about its contradictions. They are part of its charm, if they are not necessary to its core functions. A sexual identity is a same that is not the same. It doesn’t resolve the tensions of intimate individuality and political community, real self and revolutionary cadre, authenticity and group acceptance. It just restates those tensions with a smiling both . . . and. “Identity,” like older sexual terms, is powerful because it means whatever you need it to mean. Foucault once wrote, in an aside, “sodomy—that utterly confused category.” Not only sodomy.
Choosing a sexual identity no longer needs to be a vulnerable report of actual loves. It is closer to choosing a flag.
If we find ourselves clinging to sexual identities because they are so usefully confused, we really should ask another question: Do we even want “respectable conceptual tools” (in Sedgwick’s phrase) for the diversity of sex and gender?
For some decades now, the constitutive queer performance has been an act of naming: “coming out,” we call it. The rite now means assuming the name of a group. You enlist in a particular group because its members are supposed to share your sexual desires or behaviors, as well as a range of other tastes. At least among the undergraduates I teach, coming out is assumed to require some self-awareness, but it also demands group involvement. Strikingly, for many of my students, it does not require sexual experience. You can rightly claim a specific identity without having engaged in the specified practices. In fact, declaring a sexual identity can be, for some, a way to participate in sexual communities without having any sex. It is like a membership card you get just by requesting it.
On older accounts, “coming out” broke a risky silence around your desires, acts, or relationships. You had been struggling with shameful feelings. You had done things in hiding. You had fallen in love with the wrong sort of person. Now, you decide to admit this in public: you come out. That admission is not the same as selecting a group name from a list of a hundred options. Choosing a sexual identity no longer needs to be a vulnerable report of actual loves. It is closer to choosing a flag.
What’s wrong with that? I can offer at least three answers to that question. The first, following Sedgwick, is that identity language conceals the aspects of your experience that don’t fit within the identity’s common, current definition. It also, and obviously, segregates a part of your experience as sexual. Among other things, this may be an erotic loss. (Foucault: pleasure is “not the secretion of an identity.”) A second answer, drawn from Foucault’s objection to treating sexuality as entomology, is that agreeing to a sexual identity submits you yet again to the form of state power that specializes in managing human populations scientifically. The third answer is implicit in these two—and it is one I am happy to speak in my own voice. Putting on an identity blocks the practice of ethics as ongoing self-shaping. Since an identity is both like a natural species and like a group membership, it displaces the queries of self-shaping with already established ends. “You are born this way. You really do belong to this group. What you are to become is already settled.” But at this moment in the United States, very little is settled for sexual ethics—and even less for those who love queerly.
• • •
Putting on an identity blocks the practice of ethics as ongoing self-shaping, displacing such queries with already established ends.
At his trial for indecency, Oscar Wilde was famously asked to explain the meaning of a line of poetry: “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” Because of this courtroom exchange, the line is often misattributed to him. It is in fact the concluding line of a poem written by Alfred Lord Douglas, Wilde’s lover and betrayer. In Douglas’s poem, nighttime Love, the yearning of male for male, is shamed into silence by the solar Love between women and men. But the poem’s line recalls another association between queer love and silence. The sin of sodomy was originally called the “sin that cannot be spoken” or the “sin without a name” because of a misreading of a passage in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:3). This was developed by some theologians into a theory that sodomy rendered a person speechless. For example, Jerome, the great biblical translator, speculates that the etymology of the name Sodom is “mute beast.”
There is a provocative idea lurking here—one that we could reappropriate by “queering” Jerome. What if the love that dare not speak its name isn’t silenced from outside or muzzled by animal muteness? What if it dare not speak its name because it knows that no ethics has yet prepared for its ways of life?
The logic of sexual identities truncates sexual ethics. You can see this by using one of the oldest tests in Mediterranean philosophy, Socrates’s “What do you mean?” question. What, after all, are sexual identities names of? Are they natural species, secondary characteristics of sexed organisms, inherited cultural patterns, social groups, gerrymandered political districts? I choose my possibilities carefully because I believe that the deep work of sex/gender identities remains what it originally was: to bridge biology and sociology. That is where the urgent problems of sex are judged to be located. There and only there they must be solved.
But what if the problems of sex are not exhausted by identities that bridge biology to sociology? What if the ethical challenges of sexual naming go much further than fixing Greek-sounding labels on insect specimens? In the work of famous queer feminists—such as Mary Daly, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Monique Wittig, and Eve Sedgwick—you can see so much grappling with languages for desire that cannot be reduced to identity. You can find it, again, in queer spirituality and science fiction. You can hear these other tongues in the dazzling bursts of trans writing, in Susan Stryker or Paul Preciado.
The work of queer literature—of queer thinking—is not just to find new labels for the identical boxes on an endless sorting bench. Queer language-making wants ethical narratives for lives that haven’t yet been lived. It hopes to shift the field for conceiving erotic life. If homosexuality is neither sin nor crime nor disease nor social problem, what could it be? And how would you begin to say that now?
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.