In America I was set free.
I want to say: in America, Obama’s America, I was set free, because in America, or rather in New York, I came out. But I hesitate—not because I’ve never been in the closet, but because I feel that I’m still there. If being in the closet means staying inside, then leaving it implies that there is an outside, a place where the formerly closeted self can be seen and engaged. I’m not sure I can find it in America. I’m at a loss. In my old country, Israel, the gaze of the public is all too intense: the slightest gesture immediately classifies you under this or that category, whether you identify with it or not. I hardly miss it, and it isn’t a coincidence that I didn’t come out there. But I do miss something.
I came out as a doctoral student at Columbia University. I can hardly complain about the reactions because there were, by and large, none. The appropriate expression of tolerance—indistinguishable from indifference—was silence.
It was my first encounter with a familiar feature of American society: the firm boundary between public and private life. My sexual or romantic difference wasn’t considered relevant to the professional relationships I was developing at Columbia.
Some of my colleagues ultimately became friends. But they had scarcely anything to say about my homosexual desire, and my decision to live this desire as I chose. Had I prodded them, I imagine them protesting: “There’s obviously nothing wrong with gay people!” The identification of homosexuality with a voluntary decision has long been understood as the exclusive staple of the Christian right. Perhaps even saying that I chose to be gay would have raised some eyebrows.
What is it that I wanted? To have my identity doubted? To be told that there was something wrong with me?
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.
But such seasonal mysteries hide a deeper fact: America is not interested in difference. American public conversation focuses on the right we all have to define who or what we are. But if there’s no public conversation that helps us work out why we define ourselves and what it means to be something, we will remain just as ignorant about whiteness and straightness as we are about being gay or trans.
I had a gay friend in New York who rarely missed the opportunity to shock. His crass sexual tales, clearly designed to defy American middle-class sensibilities, were told with much ado in front of often embarrassed audiences. He wanted to come out, over and over again. As if the tolerance he encountered upon saying, for the first time, “I’m gay,” felt like a lie. As if the tolerance of others was actually a denial of what they pretended to be tolerating: “We can accept you as gay as long as there is nothing more to say, as long as there is nothing that you’re forcing us to see, either in you or in our own unfathomed souls.” So he just kept throwing it in their faces. While I, arguably, could never come out, he never stopped trying.
It is not a coincidence that my friend and I both came to these shores from the same place, a land where identity is seldom one’s personal affair. I remember a question asked in a political discussion about my homeland. “You’re describing spaces,” he said, “in which people who identify as Palestinians and people who identify as Jews live close to each other…” This phrase—“people who identify”— betrays a misunderstanding of how identity works there—or by contrast, a truth about here, about America.
The use of “identify as” reduces the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a perverse role-play, and puts in relief the alleged levity of American liberalism against the depressing gravity of Middle Eastern realities. People there don’t “identify as”—they are Jews and Arabs, their identities written on their genitals. Even when not religious, they are enlisted into ethno-religious wars, abiding by the commands of an invisible, ruthless God. Differences there are hardly left to the discretion of individuals.
One could point to my homeland as a good (or poor) example of what happens when the public not only engages with difference but also explicitly cultivates some differences to the exclusion of others. Still, much as liberal America is the space of my American freedom, I sometimes feel like a wheel spinning in the void. Without friction, the momentum is easy, but the wheel can make no contact with the ground. It remains in its place.
Art credit: Robert Joseph Sandler