- The First Ten Years
By 1986 it had become clear to me that enough new scholarship about lesbian and gay (the limited signifiers we used back then) life had emerged during the preceding fifteen years to begin thinking about institutionalizing gay studies at the university level. The time had come, I felt, to attempt the establishment of such a center at the CUNY Graduate School, where I taught. My aim was political as well as intellectual: I felt that lesbian and gay scholars had much to tell the mainstream world about gender and sexuality and that their findings needed to be widely disseminated, not least as a way to contest right-wing propaganda about homosexuality as degenerate and criminal.
I wanted to encourage an activist scholarship that would be at once scrupulous in its methodology yet productive of the kinds of insight that would challenge a host of rusty assumptions (“homosexuality is a mistake of nature,” “people become homosexual because of faulty genes,” etc.). I believed LGBTQ scholarship held the potential to become a major engine for social change, a kind of Trojan horse whose hidden force, introduced within the gates of traditional academia, would vanquish stereotypic views on gender and sexuality. I wanted to change hearts, minds—and laws. The research center, in my view, had to exemplify in its own structure the kind of change it hoped to foster in the culture at large. Accordingly, I emphasized from the start that CLAGS must be based on the principles of gender parity and also include substantial nonwhite representation as well as independent researchers without university affiliations.
In trying to get gay studies institutionalized, I was aware from the beginning that we ran the danger of trying to fix in place an “identity” which was in fact fluid and transient. I’d long wrestled with that issue, and on the [End Page 306] eve of setting CLAGS in motion, I summarized my troubled thoughts in a journal I kept in 1986: “I’ve begun to wonder whether the whole emphasis on ‘identity’—sexual or otherwise—isn’t at bottom a strategy for de-limiting our options as human beings, which is itself part of the general plague of over-categorizing experience, of the endemic insistence that we must choose, that we must agree to become one thing (gay or straight, male or female, etc.).”
The emphasis on establishing a sense of common values and goals (an “identity”) may be a necessary prerequisite for forming a political movement, but when we factor in diverse cultural, class, and racial loyalties, we necessarily complicate the picture—along with better appreciating the difficulty many individuals have in establishing a hierarchy of obligations and allegiances. Though I feel that identity politics remains an essential conceptual tool, I remain troubled at the inability of overarching categories or labels like “black,” “female,” or “gay” to represent accurately the multiple, often overlapping, identities that characterize individual lives. Some of us are no less uncomfortable about referring to “the gay community,” a term which suggests that it’s one homogeneous unit rather than a hothouse of contradictions. We’re concerned, too, about the inadequacy of our efforts to date to create bridges that would connect marginalized constituencies to each other, thereby increasing the impact of our combined strength.
A full decade later, issues relating to identity continued to bother me. In 1996, when I stepped down after ten years as executive director of CLAGS, I again tried to summarize my views:
One holds on to a group identity, despite its insufficiencies, because for most non-mainstream people it’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to having a political home—and voice. Yes, identity politics reduces and simplifies. Yes, it’s a kind of prison. But it’s also, paradoxically, a haven. It is at once confining and empowering. And in the absence of alternative havens, group identity will for many continue to be the appropriate site of resistance and the main source of comfort. Critics of identity politics employ high-flown, hectoring rhetoric about the need to transcend our “parochial” allegiances and unite behind Enlightenment “rationalism,” to become “universal human beings with universal rights.” But...