Less than a year after I came out, I took a rare excursion—occasioned by a weeklong seminar on medieval Catholic philosophy—to a different America, far away from the self-certainties of liberal New York. A few days in, I received a surprising, almost aggressive email from two fellow participants that directed me to a long article in which a prominent (ex-)Jewish scholar explained why he had converted to Catholicism. Being the only Jew, let alone queer, in the seminar, I was taken aback. The email contained nothing but the link. As if the Catholic choirboys were themselves a bit embarrassed by their letter, they cast their holy bread upon the waters, too shy to hand it to me. Still, I was stimulated. There was something refreshing, even thrilling, in their desire to change me, in the realization that people cared about my identity. In their eyes, my identity was not only a personal affair; it was their business, too. For them, our identities tell the world: I know a truth and I live it. And in turn the world might disagree.
Not every public engagement with identity, nor even every disagreement about identity, constitutes an attack on personal freedom. Allowing for a disagreement between one’s self and the world can be a form of respect, of oneself no less than of others, a way of taking one’s choices seriously. For me, it was only here, among the Catholics—where differences, rather than being sequestered in private, became themselves a public concern—that I felt I was out of the closet, that I felt I was free.
After four years in New York, I moved to Berlin. Like my Catholic saviors, people there seemed to care about my identity—but in radically different ways. At a party in Berlin, populated mostly with people whose desires were like mine, a man told me that this desire had changed him. At first he was disgusted, but after he overcame that, he said, he learned new ways to be a man. “Here, I can approach a woman unguarded. I wear my desire on my sleeve. I’m weak and soft. I can finally connect.”
I, too, felt disgusted at first. Desire in such spaces overflowed its typical limits: rather than in the privacy of bedrooms, it was played out in full force on the dance floors. And rather than seeking to be vindicated by the liberal guidebook, homosexuality celebrated itself unabashedly as a sinful spectacle. Desire rejected indifferent acceptance; it wanted a transgression, a conflict. Perhaps it always does. I wanted to return to Columbia and ask my friends yet another question: Doesn’t the excess of gay sex disgust you? Have you ever bothered to imagine it? If I, the homosexual, was disgusted—and still am, sometimes—you should be too. Can we talk about disgust, about fear?
A few months ago, I returned to an America that was different from the one I left behind. A few days before the election I tried to chat up an Uber driver in Chicago, but she was reluctant to talk politics: “There’s no point in talking, we all make our personal choices.” As if such choices were beyond the reach of conversation.
A memorable OkCupid profile reads, “I’m a lesbian, genderqueer and pansexual. I may also be polyamorous, but I’m not yet ready to identify as such.” I want to ask: Who says you even need to identify? The multiplication of differences today, at least in certain circles, points to the risk of asserting difference without a public sphere in which such assertions can be gauged, shaped and challenged.
Trump’s victory seems to mark a shift in liberal discourse. Days after the election, Mark Lilla wrote in the New York Times that “identity liberalism” was at the root of the upset. “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan,” he warned. “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”
I can see why Lilla prefers to present identity politics as nothing more than a childish quest for a personal voice. Treating it seriously could undermine his own self-certainties. But then, identity liberals make such simplifications far too easy.
Identity liberalism is, obviously, still liberalism. As liberal, identity politics has indeed often been, as Lilla describes it, merely “expressive.” Identity liberals have very little to say about other peoples’ identities and too much to say about their own personal identifications. They defend the right of others to identify themselves as they please but rarely ask how the other’s identity implicates their own. The problem is not that we express our identity, but that we don’t take each other’s identity expressions seriously enough. Identity politics has become a series of OkCupid profiles that never elicit a response.
Don’t get me wrong. It is especially clear in Trump’s America that a particular kind of indifference to identity is politically necessary. American history is marked by the expansion of the set of differences that do not exclude individuals from full political participation. I cried watching Obama’s victory speech in 2008 when he mentioned a woman, Ann Nixon Cooper, born “when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons—because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.”
But not using difference as grounds for exclusion from public participation doesn’t mean we must exclude difference from the public sphere. Difference shouldn’t matter for access to public participation, but it could and should matter in public.
Homosexuality, let alone blackness or womanness, can be much more than a demand for self-expression and the rights necessary to secure it. It can be a universal call for everyone to live their lives differently.
For me, being a gay man meant obviously more than being attracted to certain bodies. “What is it to be gay?” I found myself asking, but nobody else seemed interested, or, if they were, they were too afraid to exercise an influence that might come across as aggressive. As one friend told me, “It is for you to find out.” But his liberal sensitivity felt worse than indifference; it felt like a rejection. I’m not sure I can find out anything by myself, without others.
It seems that in the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral triumph, gay men—or, say, trans women—are hardly an enigma. If anything, the most familiar subject has reemerged as a riddle: What is the white straight man? That’s the question of the day, especially if this man is from Michigan or rural Pennsylvania and doesn’t hold a college degree.