“I do not think that [sexual] exclusions are indifferent. Some would disagree with me on this and say: 'Look, some people are just indifferent. A heterosexual can have an indifferent relationship to homosexuality. It doesn't really matter what other people do. I haven't thought about it much, it neither turns me on nor turns me off. I'm just sexually neutral in that regard.' I don't believe that. I think that crafting a sexual position, or reciting a sexual position, always involves becoming haunted by what's excluded. And the more rigid the position, the greater the ghost, and the more threatening it is in some way.”
– Judith Butler.

The above quotation from pivotal feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, suggests that identity is fundamentally relational. Thus, identity labels – heterosexual, bisexual, American, Guatemalan, White, Black, gay, upper class etc… – do not exist without their opposite – an “other” identity that supposedly represents everything that the original identity is not and defines its boundaries. To take a non-gender/sexuality example, one of the main ways that Soviet identity was constructed during the Cold War was through the “othering” of the United States, which was portrayed as a nation full of criminals, capitalist exploiters, imperialists, and as a place where the working classes generally suffered a terrible fate. This representation of the U.S. situated Soviet communist identity and established its limits, giving it ideological meaning and justifying Soviet policies towards the other “superpower”.

Does this relational constitution of identity always imply at least some level of violence? Butler seems to think that it does. Indeed, aside from taking a major swipe at libertarianism (the ideology of indifference to social problems), she claims that any rigid identity label must be “haunted” by that “other” which defines it. Thus, any attempt to strictly define oneself in such a way will involve a (potentially violent) tension with that particular identity’s opposite. In this sense, relations between straights and queers are bound to be fraught with passive-aggressive tension and distrust (at best) and dangerous hostility (at worst).

This perspective has important implications for queer or GLBTQ activism. It suggests that there is no way to completely trust “straight people,” that no matter how outwardly supportive they are of GLBTQ rights, their very self-definition will trigger a level of discomfort that will undoubtedly emerge at some point and impede the proper functioning of activism. This is particularly significant in light of the fact that college Pride groups have, in recent years, begun to include more heterosexual members – for instance, the rather large membership of my university Pride group is about 60% heterosexual. Are these “straights” not to be trusted? Should they be excluded from leadership positions? Should there be a requirement for identifying as a G, L, B, T, or Q to be on the executive board or committee of a queer political organization or Pride group? Should Pride groups be “GLBTQ-only”?

My answer to all of the above questions would be: “No.” Such an approach would assume that people are tied firmly and irrevocably to their identity labels, and that consideration, critique, reconsideration and reformulation of them are impossible. Indeed, it would – by cordoning off “straight people” from “queer people” – reify the very identity labels that queer organizations should seek to destabilize, decenter and question. A better approach would be to encourage discussion of identities and identity politics within Pride groups and to promote awareness of the mistrust and violence that rigid identity labels appear to wreak. As Robert Reid-Pharr demonstrates in his book, Black Gay Man, the holding of a particular identity does not necessarily need to be as rigid as society mandates it to be: identities do not have to be taken seriously – they can be twisted, molded and explored in a myriad of fulfilling ways. Further, by engaging with the “other,” and not isolating hir/him/her it is possible to develop freer, more congenial relationships in which the strict boundaries between hostile identity groups can be dissolved. The rigid relational aspect of identity (as suggested by Butler) does not have to be so dangerous. It is hostile and (often) violent in the dominant social context – thus, it is up to queer groups to create an alternative context in which a relaxation of identity boundaries can occur and in which we can develop conceptions of identity that take fluidity and uncertainty (and not fixity, stability and closure) as their starting point.

As far as “straight” leaders of Pride organizations go, I would not discourage them. Indeed, it is possible for someone who has been recognized as a heterosexual all his/her life, and who generally tends to have sex “heterosexually,” to become queer: by rejecting the normativity of heterosexuality, fully engaging in queer community activism and culture, and by refusing to be “indifferent” to questions of gender and sexuality. Indeed, GLBTQs are not the only ones who have a stake in the transformation of the dominant gender-sexual system. The project of its deconstruction, destruction, and reconstruction should be open to all.

***For More Information***
The opening quotation was taken from a 1993 interview with Judith Butler, published in Radical Philosophy (you can find it here). She is a must-read for Queer Theory enthusiasts. Her book, Gender Trouble, is often cited as the founding text of Queer Theory (make sure you read the Preface after you’ve given the main text a try!). Bodies That Matter and Undoing Gender are also highly recommended.

Robert Reid-Pharr is a professor of English at the City University of New York. His book, Black Gay Man, provides a stunning alternative to the way we normally conceive identity – I would particularly recommend the chapter, “Living as a Lesbian.”

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