Is identity enough?


Kath Gelber

"Identity" in the gay and lesbian community means many different things. It includes the personal identification of same sex desire, a process of realisation and recognition of a desire which challenges dominant sexual norms. Combined with this is an identification as part of a community, a collective empowerment and solidarity.

A corollary to this collective identification is developing a political understanding that sexual orientation makes you a target for discrimination and oppression. Accepting one's own gay or lesbian sexuality means confronting institutionalised homophobia.

Homophobia is an ideology that presents non-normative sexuality as deviant, immoral and unnatural because it threatens the heterosexual nuclear family — the economic bedrock of our society.

In this sense, the notion of identity for gays and lesbians is politically empowering, a politically progressive step. It equates with the recognition of the existence of systematic oppression.

From that point on, however, the way in which an individual chooses to act on their sexual identity is formed by other factors. In the gay, lesbian or catch-all "queer" movements, there are differences of opinion and approach in terms of how to end oppression. Differences over the notion of identity form part of these debates.

Although coming out and being out is politically empowering, some sectors of the movement take this further. Some argue, albeit indirectly, that identity is enough to win rights for lesbians and gay men.

For example, some argue that being lesbian or gay or bisexual is politically progressive. The corollary to this is that all activities undertaken by or for the lesbian and gay communities are politically progressive.

This position faces a number of dilemmas. For example, women are also discriminated against in society. Does this mean that being a woman makes a person radical or progressive?

Recognising that, as a woman, you are discriminated against as part of an institutionalised system called sexism, is a radical step. But this is not an essential part of being a woman. There are plenty of right-wing women around. Margaret Thatcher is an obvious case in point. Leonie Kramer, vice-chancellor of Sydney University, is another. In last week's Sydney Morning Herald, Kramer argued that discrimination against women academics does not exist.

In the same way, there are right-wing blacks who side squarely with the status quo. The conservative Bush-appointed US supreme court justice, Clarence Thomas, is a case in point.

Being gay or lesbian doesn't automatically make a person's actions or beliefs progressive. The movement struggling for lesbian and gay rights has a collective responsibility to assess the progressiveness or otherwise of its tactics at any given point.

An example is the advocacy of equal status for same sex relationships. Clearly, this is an important issue, as same sex spouses are currently denied many of the rights afforded to heterosexual couples. These include child-rearing and adoption, access to IVF programs, tax benefits and access to a partner's superannuation.

In NSW, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby is pressuring the state government to grant equal rights to same sex spouses by replacing the De Facto Relationships Act with a Domestic Relationships Act, such as was passed in the ACT last year. This would mean any personal relationship between two adults in which personal or financial commitment or support could be demonstrated would be granted the same rights under state law as heterosexual relationships.

The implications of this are far reaching. On the one hand, same sex spouses would be able to demonstrate in court their right to access a spouse's superannuation, for example, or would be legally entitled to make decisions for an ill partner who was unable to express their own wishes.

On the other hand, reform of this nature could have some negative implications. If same sex spouses were treated equally with heterosexual couples in federal law, it would mean that someone who is unemployed and whose partner works would lose their right to unemployment benefits. Similarly, same sex spouses whose partners work would be ineligible for Austudy.

Winning recognition for same sex relationships within the current legal system is fraught with potential problems because this same legal system makes any and every attempt it can to shift social costs on to individual family units. It would be more progressive, for instance, to argue that all individuals, no matter what their relationship status, should be eligible for unemployment benefits if they are unemployed and looking for work, or Austudy if they undertake study. Same sex couples could then win the same rights as heterosexual couples without losing out in the process. At the same time, equal opportunities for heterosexual couples would expand.

Such negative ramifications will undoubtedly occur if changes are advocated from a narrow perspective which seeks only to place same sex relationships within our current legal framework, rather than challenging more fundamentally the assumptions on which that legal system is based.

A second problem exists in relation to the perspective that identity is enough for political change. This is in relation to building alliances or coalitions.

A politics that sees being lesbian or gay as politically progressive by virtue of its identity implies that heterosexuals, especially white heterosexual men, are not likely to support the struggle for lesbian and gay rights.

Gays and lesbians make up, at most estimates, approximately 10% of the population. Winning gay and lesbian rights is therefore, even from a purely numerical point of view, not going to occur without winning the support of heterosexuals who are also against discrimination, violence and homophobia.

There are good examples of how to make alliances. During the British miners' strike in the '80s, a group called Lesbians Against Pit Closures and another called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners agitated in solidarity with the striking miners. They held a benefit called "Pits and Perverts" which raised 5000 pounds. The 1985 London Lesbian and Gay Pride march was led by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The work of these groups directly confronted homophobia within the miners' communities and led to significant changes in attitudes as well as forging important alliances.

Closer to home in Sydney, a council plan to enhance inner-city Oxford Street's character as a gay and lesbian area has attracted some criticism. The plan is said to include development proposals to restrict businesses from setting up in the area which are "likely to attract perpetrators of violence". Such businesses could be pinball parlours, for example, around which large numbers of young (predominantly heterosexual) men congregate.

The proposal has received support from some community spokespeople on the basis that it will assist in combating the real and escalating problem of homophobic street violence in the area. Others, however, are of the opinion that if such zoning restrictions are put in place, perpetrators of violence could continue to come into the area anyway. Their targets — gays, lesbians and trannies on the streets — would be easy to find.

The proposal may in fact not achieve its objectives. It may only succeed in regulating the profits of those businesses which are permitted to operate in Oxford Street.

The struggle against homophobic violence needs to reach out to all people who are against violence and homophobia, regardless of their sexual identity, if real and lasting change is to take place.

These kinds of issues need to be included in debates that occur within movements for lesbian and gay rights. This is necessary to ensure that the demands put forward are in fact progressive.

Reinforcing the current power structures, with some gays and lesbians in the executive chairs, will do little to combat the oppression faced by lesbians and gay men in the longer term. Current power structures do have room to accommodate a few gays and lesbians at the top, but the liberation of gay and lesbian sexuality will require the participation of the rest of us as well.