‘Recently I forgot I was gay because I was too busy doing something else.’ The words of Colm Toibin, the Irish novelist resonated for me because reading them 35 years after I had first come out I realised that I was lucky enough to forget that I was gay most days. Something which had been a more declaratory part of my identity earlier in life had finally become a part of me that was unremarkable. In early middle age, I was comfortable in my own gay skin. And thank goodness for that. Like every other gay man I’ve ever met I’ve actually no desire for my sexuality, let alone what I allegedly do in bed, to define who I am in the world.
But when I met Toibin briefly at a book signing and remarked on the phrase, his response was that he had been speaking of his dislike for identity politics. And I’ve recalled that moment many times these past few weeks because identity politics has been such a constant refrain. As the case for progressive liberalism has been ripped asunder, it is identity liberalism in particular that has been in the firing line. Commentator after commentator, from right and left, has sought to question identity liberals and to attribute the rise of Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton’s championing of our causes.
The case against identity liberalism goes something like this. In our relentless drive for equality, we have excluded white, able-bodied, heterosexual men who have now had enough. Worse still we have short-circuited democracy and unreasonably foisted our rights on others not ready to accept them. As an agent of so-called identity politics, and particularly the cause of LGBT rights, my reaction to these charges has perhaps inevitably been defensive.
It has felt as though rights hard won and patiently fought for over decades are now to be fair game in the revisionism we are told we need to engage in. But they have been secured through a long struggle. And I’m not sure I’m ready to listen to those who have always been able to take such rights for granted saying they feel left out by our achievement of equality, let alone that we are to blame for the rise of Mr Trump. For us this is not an academic point, it’s an existential one.
So far, so defiant. But if those gains really are on the line, responding to the current predicament requires a little more soul searching. And in all the thinking I have done, some words from three decades ago have loomed large. My part in the ‘struggle’ took place largely within the trade union movement. As part of a self-organised lesbian and gay network in the white collar union, NALGO, in the early 1980s, I was asked to participate in a national working party on positive action, by the union’s NEC. I did so alongside people from similar groups representing the interests of women, black members and disabled members. An early paragraph in our report to the union’s annual conference in 1985 read as follows:
But despite the fact that the trade union movement has done more than most, a century of white, able-bodied, male-dominated trade unionism, purporting to treat all members equally, has not seriously challenged discrimination.
No wonder those words have come back to haunt me as identity liberalism has come under fire. It is apparently because people like me have pushed those kinds of sentiments to the limit that the backlash against political correctness has finally come of age. Except here’s the rub. While I and my fellow identity warriors were engaged in this campaign we were simultaneously working away representing the interests of the common man. Even at the height of my involvement in such activity, I spent far more time representing the interests of members at large than those of lesbian and gay workers in particular. And my experience is hardly unique.
So what are we to do? The American writer Sohrab Ahmari argued in a fascinating post-Trump debate hosted by the Blavatnik School of Government that if we are to find our way again as liberals, people need a reason to believe, a larger aspiration which moves beyond tribal identity. In short, we liberals need to be less tribal. And the American academic Mark Lilla has argued that we need a post-identity liberalism which concentrates on broadening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasising the issues that affect a vast majority of them.
There is a theme here. And it is one that has been picked up by the British MP, Stephen Kinnock, who has said that Labour must stop ‘obsessing about diversity’ and focus on the interests of the white working class as if somehow the two are mutually exclusive. There was an immediate irony for me when I heard this which anyone who has seen the film Pride will understand. It was in the neighbouring constituency to Kinnock’s that one of the most audacious examples of liberalism broadening its base took place during the miner’s strike of 1984/5 when a group of lesbians and gay men from London came to the aid of striking miners.
I’m sure many of my liberal friends would simply tell me to shun Ahmari and Lilla. They will certainly be frustrated by Kinnock’s words, as am I. But I have always believed that we make progress through dialogue and by reconciling apparent contradiction, so I don’t want to do that. Rather I want to work out if we can find some common ground. But before I do that I feel the need to start by explaining that identity politics isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be and that its apparent tribalism is, in fact, nothing more than the kind of self-protectionism which any marginalised group will resort to when faced with a denial of its identity.
For LGBT people, the most critical point of all is this. Our sometimes reluctant focus on identity is simply borne out of a desire to be regarded and treated as normal. And its urgency is rooted in our experience of being told that we are not. From an early age, we are forced to negotiate our identity in response to a dominant story which stigmatises us. This is why concern about Pence’s alleged belief in a gay cure is not trivial. When you have to respond to that sort of pressure, asserting your identity is not tribal, it is survival.
I have focused largely on sexuality not because I think it’s any more important than any other so-called identity cause but because it’s the one I personally best understand. Is a dialogue with identity liberal sceptics possible? Yes probably. And in any case, I just don’t think we can duck it in a time of peril for liberal gains. I’m certainly up for having the conversation and in my next piece, I will be returning to Ahmari and Lilla’s arguments to explore how we might begin to do that.
However, before we get too carried away it is worth reflecting on Toibin’s words again. I have lived through a remarkable change in attitudes to LGBT people and the commensurate gains in policy and legislation were unimaginable to me as a young gay man who first engaged in the struggle for rights back in the early 80s. But for me, the prize is even greater than any of those specific gains. It is the ability to forget that I am gay and to have the opportunity to live a life not defined by it.
It is for precisely that reason that I am not ready to pull up the ladder for those who are still on that journey, particularly those away from the middle-class, metropolitan comfort zone that I am lucky enough to inhabit. And certainly not those who are still growing up in response to a dominant narrative which, for all the gains we have made, still mostly defines normality as something other than what they feel themselves to be.
But it is also because I am lucky enough to be a beneficiary of those gains and understand something about how we achieved them that I am ready to talk about how we can move on the current predicament and protect them for the future. I know that I will have to do that with a degree empathy for the sense of dislocation and loss felt by those who found change difficult. My only ask, in return, is a little understanding of our cause and a dollop of reciprocity.