On Identity

I’m Shira, and I was inspired by Maria’s post on identity! 

Rubin opens “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” with an exploration of the politics and history of sex-oriented social movements largely centered on morality and homosexuality. Identity is part of the subtext of much of her writing; she discusses the use of the terms “sex offender” and “child molester” as code for homosexual (269) as well as the frightening history of San Francisco in the 1950s: “Homosexuals were, along with communists, the object of federal witch hunts and purges…. The FBI began systematic surveillance and harassment of homosexuals which lasted at least into the 1970s” (270). She goes on to reference sexual migrations in places like San Francisco as social progress: “In modern, Western, industrial societies, homosexuality has acquired much of the institutional structure of an ethnic group” (286). The implication of Rubin’s argument is that identification as homosexual and the agency to form a self-identifying “group”, as it were, are advancements.

She later references Esther Newton’s study of gay life in the 1960s, and I believe that this is where Rubin and Butler’s arguments would diverge: “There were some fortunate individuals who could be openly gay and earn decent salaries. But the vast majority of homosexuals had to choose between honest poverty and the strain of maintaining a false identity” (292). She does not recognize the potential negative implications of self-identification that Butler worries about; identity categories, to Rubin, are something to be gained by social progress, not “invariable stumbling-blocks” and “sites of necessary trouble” (Butler 14). I believe that Rubin idealizes the “out and proud” homosexual- she writes that “sex is a vector of oppression” (293) and references a pyramid scheme of heteronormativity, so the equation of “fortunate” and “openly gay” implies the modern notion of general equality in existing categories as opposed to Butler’s reservations regarding these constructions. Butler writes, “Can sexuality even remain sexuality once it submits to a criterion of transparency and disclosure, or does it perhaps cease to be sexuality precisely when the semblance of full explicitness is achieved?” (15). Perhaps it is a difference of perspective- Rubin writes as a historian who acknowledges the power in proud, ethnic groups, whereas Butler writes as a lesbian who claims that “To install [her]self within the terms of an identity category would be to turn against the sexuality that the category purports to describe; and this might be true for any identity category which seeks to control the very eroticism that it claims to describe and authorize, much less ‘liberate’” (14). And so identity is a relative term when used as a historical or personal device.

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2 thoughts on “On Identity

  1. In a way, Rubin is responding to the question that we touched on last class, which is whether the avoidance of self-labeling dismantles the possibility of a politically active, effective group of individuals.

  2. While I might agree that Rubin would like to see “out and proud” individuals, I think her focus is less on those people, and more on the surrounding society that disapproves of them. She is more concerned with getting the rest of society to adopt a more progressive and radical form of thinking so that the stigma and underlying biases towards sexual thought can be eliminated, thus allowing for these “out and proud” individuals to truly be out and proud.

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