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Social Science History 26.3 (2002) 531-581

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Identities and Politics
Toward a Historical Understanding of the Lesbian and Gay Movement

Mary Bernstein

Critics of identity politics often wax polemically as they charge contemporary social movements with narrowly and naively engaging in essentialist politics based on perceived differences from the majority. Such essentialism, critics charge, inhibits coalition building (e.g., Phelan 1993; Kimmel 1993), cannot produce meaningful social change, and reinforces hegemonic and restrictive social categories (Seidman 1997). It is even responsible for the decline of the Left (Gitlin 1994, 1995). Social movement scholars similarly view "identity [End Page 531] movements" as cultural rather than political movements whose goals, strategies, and forms of mobilization can be explained better by a reliance on static notions of identity than by other factors.

In this article, I use the national state-oriented lesbian and gay movement as a case study to challenge the dichotomy, dominant in the social movement literature, between cultural and political movements. 1 I integrate political process and identity theory to create a "political identity" approach to social movements, which shows that the lesbian and gay movement alternately and even simultaneously emphasizes both political and cultural goals. I argue that structural and contextual factors, rather than an essentialist view of identity, account for a movement's emphasis on cultural and political change. Drawing on primary documents and key informant interviews, as well as secondary sources, I show that the materialist practices of the lesbian and gay movement do not support the critique of identity politics.

The Critique of Identity Politics

Identity politics, to both critics and defenders, refers to politics based on essentialist or fixed notions of identity. In the case of lesbians and gay men, homosexuality is seen as fixed, whether it is conceived of as a result of nature (genes, hormones, etc.) or of nurture—etched indelibly in early childhood socialization resulting in a unitary identity that cannot be altered. Defenders view identity politics as a strategy necessary to obtain liberal political goals of freedom and equal opportunity in order to gain entry into the political mainstream on the same level as other groups, without altering the structures of society (Sullivan 1997). Critics of identity politics, by contrast, see the result of embracing an essentialist identity as a limited and flawed politics because it relies on claims to a racial- or ethnic-like minority status (Altman 1982; Paul 1982; Escoffier 1985; Epstein 1987, 1999; Seidman 1993; Gamson 1995; Vaid 1995). Despite these contrasting views, neither side explains why activists at times embrace or at times fail to embrace such politics.

Critics from the Left as well as social movement scholars level two broad categories of criticism at identity politics. First, they attribute the failure to articulate a universal vision for social change to a reliance on fixed identity categories. Because identity groups tend to splinter into ever more narrow categories, they cannot agree on or sustain anything but an opposition to [End Page 532] a common enemy—the omnipotent white, heterosexual male. By targeting white heterosexual men, identity politics leaves no space for them to participate politically, resulting in an unproductive defensiveness (Kauffman 1990). Such politics leads to an inability to form coalitions that could agitate for progressive or revolutionary social change (Gitlin 1994, 1995; Lehr 1999).

This critique, however, falsely attributes causality to the reliance on fixed identity. Instead, it is the failure to articulate a shared vision of social change that included, for example, heterosexual women, gays, and lesbians that inspired the fragmentation of the Left. Feminists and other commentators have shown the limits of Marxist and even neo-Marxist thought to adequately conceptualize or simply address discrimination based on gender (e.g., Jaggar 1983; Tong 1989) or sexual orientation (Padgug 1989). Furthermore, as the discussion below illustrates, when lesbian and gay activists eschewed fixed identity categories, other oppressed groups still refused to work with them politically. Until the stigma associated with homosexuality lessened, alliances would not be possible. And finally, even when activists relied on fixed identities, coalitions with other groups...


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