Identity Politics and Sexual Identities

by Elliott bat Tzedek

This article is excerpted from a much longer essay analyzing the role of Identity Politics in Feminist and Lesbian communities. I wrote this work as part of my MS in Women’s Studies, and was therefore free to combine theory and metaphors from political science, anthropology, and history with a free-flowing form of autobiography. The larger essay, entitled “Suckled at Sarah’s Breast,” is mainly concerned with the creation and defense of boundaries around various identities.

The section included here examines the question of what we mean when we say “sexual identity” and explores one potential way to re-consider power and affiliations. To get there, I need to first give a (very condensed) summary of a long review of the role of Identity Politics as I came to see it, and those of us who have used it, through my writing and activism.

Identity Politics: Background and Strengths

Let me give you a vastly oversimplified, yet still basically true, version of how Identity Politics came to be. By the middle of the 1960’s, the heady, heroic days of the Civil Rights movement were ending. Major battles had been won, territory had been granted, and the vast, multi-racial group of people who had won so much were faced with having to settle in for the long haul. Like all movements, there were splinters and splits and disagreements; the unity began to wear, as Black participants began to live the message of self-love and pride and grew weary of the continuing liberal racism of their white co-horts.{1} Black activists began to build Black Power, and women, who had had it with the macho posing, began to come see themselves/ourselves as members of the group Women and break off in search of their/our own agendas. As the New Left reached its final days in the late 60s and early 70s, Identity Politics — that is, the direct association of one’s membership in certain categories with one’s political outlook and agenda — became the guiding philosophy of social-change groups and communities. IP is what I learned as Lesbian Feminist politics, learned so deeply and well, in fact, that reading and theorizing about its history sometimes shakes me up; for my first dozen years as a Feminist dyke, IP seemed not like a political theory, but a description of how the world actually is.

Like the permeations of New Left groups before it, Identity Politics is based in a search for “authenticity,” meaning, and civil power. Within IP, each person’s identity is based in membership in various social groups or categories, and that membership is seen as inherently politicized. Each identity group took from the Civil Rights victories the political stance that their identity is an inherent, immutable category. Because membership in this category is innate and not chosen, the argument went, full membership in Civil, democratic society must not be blocked. “This is who I am,” the Civil Rights argument said, “and I didn’t choose it and I can’t change it, so you must give me rights based on this.” The fallout of this choice of strategy is still with us in many ways, including the horrified proclamations by many Black clergy that the call for Gay and Lesbian civil rights is nothing like their own fight, for Blackness is immutable whereas “homosexuality” is chosen.{2}

And before I go on to talk about the huge limitations that came with defining identity and politics in this way, I need to say that the version of Identity Politics I came into as a Feminist and Dyke has been of tremendous value to me. As only one example: going off to a middle-class college and learning to pass as middle-class was really destructive to me. I got a BA in literature, but lost my ability to write because I could not give voice to my now-silenced working-class life. Recognizing that I had been raised working-class and connecting with other working-class women gave me my life story back. It helped me identify and laugh at the shame I had internalized, helped me find pride and strength again, made space for me to write a story such as this. I don’t think the questions IP asked, the positions it built or the answers it invented are at all silly or useless or wrong. I think they are limited by the nature of the political world around us, and by their own nature. The strategies, the activists, and the demonstrations accomplished a lot of change. The emphasis on cultural pride reconnected people to their lives, and encouraged the construction of historical narratives of resistance that greatly strengthened “identities” that had been devalued in the U.S., such as women, Chicanos/Latinos, lesbians, disabled people, and more. And, of course, the groups that invented the strategy which became IP, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, accomplished amazing things. As Paula Rust argues at length in Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics, the adaptation of IP (alongside Feminist politics) created space for lesbian identity to take shape and to become a social force, for “any group that could adapt the language of ethnic politics to its own ends could tap into a well-developed social change ideology.”{3}

Identity Politics: Structural Flaws

Yet–and a very large “yet” it is–from here and now, my mid-30’s in the late 90’s, I know this about Identity Politics (at least the versions I learned and lived within): we messed up, at the very beginning, first by choosing to reify identities as they were already defined in the world, and then by describing these identities as if they were inherent to us in some way instead of as descriptions of positions within extremely hierarchical, pre-existing social structures of power. “Woman,” for example, was one of the main identities of IP, as a statement of biology. “Of color” was another main category, with groups dividing around the racial categories recognized within the U.S. at the time, as if those categories were physical features and not a colonial classification system. “Class” was another group, although its boundaries were never as tightly guarded because it couldn’t be treated only as a physical or inherited “true” self. “Jewish” was a group; “Muslim” should have been, too, as people “oppressed by the tyranny of X-tianity,” but there was only silence around the different but overlapping categories of Muslim and Arab women.{4} “Lesbian,” as opposed to “heterosexual,” was the other main identity of Feminist IP, although not until after years of skirmishes around defining “lesbian” as a statement of feminist politics, when it settled into being a “sexual orientation” or a “sexual identity” determined in early childhood or at birth.

So what was wrong with these categories, since all of them do describe who we are in the world? What they describe are places within a broader society which, at its very foundation, uses gender and racial categories to establish and maintain a small powerful elite. The problem with them is that simply restating the categories ignores the deeper truth that all of these categories are a creation and expression of social power. Race and gender aren’t pre-existing reality; they are socially constructed categories.{5} By choosing to build identities around these constructions instead of choosing to attack the ways the categories had been constructed, IP created a position that was a strong base for fighting for civil and/or equal rights, including the right to live within one’s own culture. But I think now that this base came at a tremendous price; we went to work building comfortable bases, but threw away our best weapons — questions. As long as we could ask questions about how power around us was constructed, we stood a chance of cracking open the foundation. But after we began to think of our social positions as identities that were “real” or “inherent,” the question of how they were built, or why, became unnecessary, maybe even unthinkable.

Once Identity Politics became the organizing structure of our social change groups and communities, defining and defending our identity groups from challenges and threats, including being or feeling “silenced,” became the main focus of our political lives. Sometimes I now look at myself in my 20s and think that I, and the lesbian and feminist world I moved and loved/love, were doing Feminist gangs, defining ourselves by what we wore and what words, phrases and theories were in or out, “liberatory” or “tied into oppressive thinking.” Don’t get me wrong — we were also doing tremendously important work in the world staffing hot lines and book stores and lesbian concerts and protesting and spray painting, but we also spent a huge amount of energy in fights over the boundaries of our identity groups.

These border skirmishes, along with building cultural pride, seem to me now to be one of the defining characteristics of Identity Politics as we lived them. I don’t necessarily think we were completely wrong, especially when the only alternative seemed to be a mushy, Love Everyone Without Distinction liberalism which was unwilling or unable to hold any one or any system accountable for oppression. But when we reduced our lives to pre-existing, “by birth” categories, we created two major stumbling blocks. First, we created a huge contradiction in our own life stories, for most of us felt that “Feminist” and “Lesbian” were inherent parts of our identity, statements about our deepest selves, even while knowing none of us was born Feminist and that most of us didn’t feel we were “born” lesbian. Instead, we talked about choice, even while enshrining identity groups that were, supposedly, not chosen. Second, we lost, undervalued, or disappeared the richness of our life experiences, and too often threw out the chance to make profound connections around everything we’ve shared after the womb and early childhood. By embracing “by birth” identities, those of us using Identity Politics missed the chance to embrace the strength of groups based in the life experiences.{6} These groups, which have grown up around oppressions, goals, problems and dreams that were shared, could well have done much more damage to the foundations of white/male/rich social power than reifying any pre-existing category.

As one example of the limits of an IP category, and of how an identity based in experience could have/might well yet create space for real social change (not just social adjustment), I want to explore the IP argument that reduces our “sexual identity” to a “sexual orientation” that we are born into. As dyke and a Feminist, I’ve never been easy with the entire notion of “sexual orientation,” which sounded more like needing a compass than anything else. Thinking about it now, in the context of looking back into IP, I can (more) clearly see why.

From here and now, in fact, I can without reservation say that I detest the definitions of lesbian and straight as “sexual identities,” of continuing to label women by who we have sex with instead of by what sex means for us. And I hate defining lesbian as just one of many “sexual preferences.” I hate it because it masks the social power of the institution of Heterosexuality. I hate it because it implies that, in a world in which nearly everything is connected to heterosexual power, choosing to live as a lesbian is merely a different but equivalent “choice” than “choosing” to live as a straight woman. I hate that “lesbian,” which is my culture, my position as a social and political being, the speaking of my heart, the shape of my cornea, gets reduced to yet another identity by opposition: a lesbian is a woman who doesn’t sleep with men. I hate it most when it is supported by the notion that “sexual identity” is about biology, about being “born that way,” an argument that protects people who identify as heterosexuals from ever having to be accountable for choices they make about participating in the social institution of Heterosexuality.{7}

Thinking about how “sexual identity” used in this way hides and blurs a powerful social institution, I’ve found that there is no more space in my life for the idea of an inherent and nearly unalterable sexual identity. I know both men (a lot) and women (a few) who always “knew” they were sexually attracted only to members of their sex. I don’t want to deny their knowledge or insight or feelings, but I do want to say that even this kind of knowledge can’t justify the idea of a “sexual identity” built solely around which gender arouses one’s sexual organs. Our identities are not just what we were born into, but are also, even more so, our experiences in the world, the understanding we create from those experiences, and the choices we make about enacting our understanding. When I consider these three aspects of identity, then “lesbian” is not the whole story of my sexual identity, no matter how young I was when I first wanted to kiss a certain female classmate. On days and months when I am overwhelmed by the sexual violence enacted on and in me, “victim/survivor of sexual violence” says much more about my sexual identity than does knowing the gender of my sex (sex? on these days and months? are you nuts?) partner/s.

What if I, what if we, as women, stopped defining our sexual identities around who we have sex with, and insisted instead on talking about what sex means for us? What if we, as Feminists, as a political strategy, began to define sexual identities around our experiences and those of other women? Instead of the gulf between those identified as “straight” and as “lesbian” (with bisexual women being marginal and perceived as a threat to both sides), what would an identity look like that includes the experience of these women:

  • women for whom sex and violence have been the same
  • women who are terrified of orgasm because they have been made to feel sexual excitement during torture;
  • women who would most like to not ever again have to think about sex
  • women who completely understand Lorena Bobbitt

Imagine what this group, Women Who Have Been Hurt By Sex, would look and feel like. Imagine the numbers of women who could claim this Sexual Identity. Imagine the common experiences women within this group could identify around, the view of social power they would share. And when they/we spoke, imagine the truths that would be revealed, the very way speaking the group name would challenge embedded social power. Within U.S. culture, and the culture of IP that exists within it, sex carries a tremendous social, emotional and symbolic power. The truth about this power is disguised by a mythology that says sex is by definition good, that more sex is better, and that sexual experiences are always positive. The only allowable exception to this is if one participant came into the experience with clear and documentable criminal intent, clear enough that the encounter can be removed from the realm of sex into the realm of crime, thereby keeping the definition of sex as inherently good unchallenged.{8}

This mythology is so necessary for maintaining male power and is so indoctrinated as to be unquestionable reality: the right of men to need and have orgasm is THE moral imperative of our society, for it is upheld at any cost and challenges to it are not allowed. The mythology of sex intentionally hides that fact that sexual experiences are not always positive even for people (especially women people) who choose to engage in them. The mythology also tells a grand lie about orgasms, proclaiming that their emotional and physiologic aspects are indivisible; there is, as Sheila Jeffreys points out, no word in English for having an orgasm from which one feels no pleasure and may even feel revulsion{9}. Yet this experience happens to many women, who find themselves being physically aroused by images of violence done to them,{10} and I’ve read accounts by Vietnam vets who now must live with tremendous shame that they were aroused by the violence they perpetrated.{11}

The identity Women Who Have Been Hurt By Sex would challenge this ruling mythology, would point out that the actual boundaries of “sex” include so much that is violent, coercive, and is not perceived (by the victim) as pleasurable. By making the boundaries obvious, we could open up space for discussion and change, space which is not addressed by reducing sexuality to “how we were born” or who we “prefer.” By building any sexual identity based in experience, we could open up space for women to stop passively accepting sexuality as a given-at-birth declaration and begin to talk about what we want for ourselves, our communities, and our futures. As Joyce Trebilcot writes in Taking Responsibility for Sexuality:

On this view [sexuality determined at birth], one’s sexuality is clearly a given only; it is inherited, or acquired in childhood; it is something that happens to you. So this way of thinking about your sexuality tends to keep you docile: you are passive, submissive, with respect to it; […] and there is no space in these causal accounts for women to participate in the creating of our own sexual identities.{12}

If we make identity groups from our lived experiences, we can begin to make a way out of the corner IP painted itself into. While I believe that the groups within Identity Politics were, at first, organized around shared experiences as women, lesbians, African Americans, and others, the adoption of the “ethnic” political stance had to reduce these complex experiences merely to expressions of pre-existing identity groups. By doing this, we surrendered the vast strength of our creativity and the tremendous sense of hopefulness about building new selves and a new world. But I can also see that basing identity in experience can have its own drawbacks and hazards, especially if the IP assumption that identity is inherent and unchanging is not challenged; if we see identity labels as a direct representation of our “true, deep” selves, any experience that is taken on as identity will also become frozen and determinist. I’m thinking in particular about three areas of danger in taking on experience as a way to create group identity: the risk of making everything merely personal and idiosyncratic; the risk of making ourselves nothing more than our experiences; and the tremendous violence we are likely to encounter if we advocate identities that do actually challenge the foundation of white/male/rich power.

Taking these in reverse order, how much do I need to say about the level of violence? Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Malcom X, both killed not when pushing only for civil rights or Black self-power, but when each had come to a point in theory and organizing when he stood the chance of breaking down barriers between all poor people and so challenging economic power. Or think about the tiny ways we’ve been creating something like the identity Women Who Have Been Hurt By Sex, with sexual abuse survivor support groups and speak outs and microscopic legislative changes. Now think about the panic this has created within male power, producing some of the nastiest and most well-funded of the backlash groups, including the Fathers’ Rights movements and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Both of these organizations are willing to state quite clearly that their agenda is to defend themselves against Feminism and Feminists, who they claim are attacking the Family because they attack male power. The Fathers’ Rights activists are even quite clear about their plan to keep women and children legally bound to, dependent on, and available to men; their publicly stated strategy is to change custody laws, change divorce laws, and end welfare to single mothers and their children so that women can’t afford to leave marriages, and are afraid to take their children out of an abusive home, especially their daughters.

This point is so important, for what the Fathers’ Rights men and the False Memory Syndrome parents have in common is that they sprang up not when adult women were fighting only for ourselves, against rape and battering, but when we began to talk about holding men accountable for their attacks on girls, and about denying men further sexual access to their daughters and other girls. Why? From here and now, I think that male power realized that defending the identity “rapist” would expose too much of the foundation of their power, so instead concentrated on defending the boundaries of “father” and “family” so these could continue to hide and protect sex as a sheer statement of male power. Or maybe these men’s identity as “men” is completely built on the right of ownership of women and children, and they are threatened by what makes the ownership explicit. In either case, I know that basing theory/identity in life as we live it, not as we’re told life is, will always threaten hidden powers, and that we need to know this, daily, and plan for our safety in any way we can.

Another risk of building identity groups around experience is that identity could be easily reduced only to experience, the same way it was reduced within IP to inherency. For my example, Women Who Have Been Hurt By Sex, there looms the danger of being The Victim. Feminists and other groups fighting for social change, in part by listing the effects of the current world on their lives, have been accused of having a “victim mentality” for years now. Most of these attacks are just pure backlash strategy, trying to discredit uncomfortable truths. But I do have deep concerns about suggesting that women work within such an identity. I worry that organizing around what has happened to us will leave us stuck in place, able to say nothing after we say what has happened, reproducing the situation where we stand, staring into oncoming headlights, believing that if we can only explain clearly enough that being run down is painful, the power roaring down on us will brake in time and repent of its previously careless driving. How many women found out, with shock of betrayal so great that they left activism, that telling men that rape hurt us didn’t stop them, and that, in fact, they had always known this and just didn’t care? Telling those in power that we are victims of their power, or appealing to them for aid to mediate their ongoing violence against us, hasn’t changed anything,{13} although revealing that their comfort relies upon our pain crosses a serious boundary, and may well move them to use any means necessary to silence us. If an identity such as I suggest were used only to plead with power, instead of challenge and undermine it, it would not be a useful identity statement. As bell hooks writes in “Refusing to be a Victim,” such a stance of pleading with those in power to stop hurting us creates a mindset in which the only power around is the power “they” have: “To name white males as all-powerful victimizers was to pay homage to their power, to see them as possessing the cure for all that ails.”{14}

I worry, too, that if identity is organized around experience, we may repeat the mistake of solidifying experience into an unalterable trait of our “real” selves; the clearest example of this is our adoption of the phrase “battered woman” instead of saying “a woman who has been battered.” “Battered woman” has two tragic flaws: the woman who has been battered has been reduced to a sub-category, verbally removed from “normal” women’s “normal” experience; and “battered” has become an adjective, an agentless passive (to use its formal name within Linguistics), which serves to collapse both the agent (whom was she battered by?) and the action (she was beaten, terrorized, raped) into a quality of the woman herself.{15} If we begin to consciously build groups around shared experience, the labels we use will be important, will be part of our resistance.{16} We’ll need a way to use language that, as bell hooks describes, “does not embrace the rhetoric of victimhood even as it vigilantly calls attention to actual victimization.”{17}

The final pitfall of making identity groups from experience, a pit that is entirely too familiar to me, is the process of making an Identity out of even the most personal, isolated, and idiosyncratic life experience. We’ve all seen these little episodes of control: “None of you can sing/eat burritos in my presence, ever, because once a man who is a singer/Taco Bell employee hurt me, and your insistence on singing/eating burritos oppresses me.” Taken out of context, such statements are laughable. But we brought these scenes on by seeing identity as inherent and unchanging, so that “who we are” is a little kingdom with vulnerable boundaries that must be defended if we are to survive, and by insisting on a link between the political/social and the personal. If some experiences are to be honored, why not all experiences? Toss in a little overdose of oversimplified therapy-speak (“when you, I feel, so you must not”) and, voila, identity=experience=my right to defend myself=my right to exert total control in any situation. What can I say? We need to constantly explain to ourselves and each other that feelings are not the same as oppression, that painful experiences can be honored in ways other than group control, that Revolution is about creating justice, not about feeling safe.{18} And we need to wrestle with the painful truth that not all needs for physical and emotional safety can be met; no single space, for example, can be “safe” for both women with dangerous allergies to animals and women who move through the world with guide dogs.

Within the world of Identity Politics, where the “identity,” the “self-hood” of both of the women living with these disabilities would be threatened by the need of the other to have access to any one Disabilty/Access area or event. That is, too often at our festivals and in our communities, this situation would lead to charges of abelism, of not caring about disability, even, in the occasional out-of-control argument, to charging that the organizers are fascists or nazis because the nazis also wanted to destroy people living with disabilities.{19} When identity is seen as both inherent and as the basis for political action and inclusion in community, I think that we all ultimately suffer. We are, all of us, so much bigger than the categories of IP. Yes, those words describe us, and say so much about what power, privilege and basic needs we have access to in the broader social world, but are they actually the only or the best way to choose those people with whom we want to build a future? Does who we were born to be determine more than our experiences? Does what has happened to us matter more than the choices we make from here forward about where we want to go? And if our “identities” aren’t going to be the driving force of our political and community organizing, what will be?

Elliott is a dyke writer who, although born to be a small-town Midwesterner, seems to be settling into being from a large east coast city. If you are a publisher and would like to see more of the approaching-book length work this is excerpted from, she can reached via PO Box 4124, Philadelphia, PA 19144.


  1. For more on the history of this, see Douglas Rossinow’s book The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
  2. I saw this in particular here in Philadelphia when the city was debating a domestic benefits bill for city employees. One of the leading proponents of this line of argument was then-City Council President, now Mayor-elect John Street.
  3. Paula Rust, Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics: Sex, Loyalty and Revolution (New York: New York University Press, 1995) p. 173. In a very interesting discussion in the chapter “The Pink and Blue Herring,” Rust explores the tensions within lesbian identity created when both “ethnic” discourse and feminist discourse were used to explain lesbian identities.
  4. In her introduction to the anthology Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Women (Boston: South End Press, 1994), editor Joanna Kadi writes: “…after one particularly bad day, I coined this phrase for our community: The Most Invisibles of the Invisibles. […] It raises questions about how the other invisibles are, and whether Arabs really are the most invisible. I believe we are. In the United States and Canada, it is not only white people who refuse to see us, it is other people of color – Latinos, Africans, Asians, Natives – who do not acknowledge our existence.” (pp xix-xx)
  5. This should not be read as saying categories of race, gender and culture aren’t socially real. People are discriminated against, tortured and killed everyday because of belonging to these categories. We can’t ignore social reality, but we also can not treat it as the only reality.
  6. But wasn’t Feminism exactly about women’s shared life experiences as women? Well, yes and no. I think it started that way, but the pull of Identity Politics became so strong that membership in the category Women became far more important than understanding the commonality of our life experiences. IP, after all, taught us to focus on understanding all of the differences between us, in clear rebellion against a liberal view of Universal Woman-ness.
  7. Until writing this essay, I would have said that “gay” people who argued “we were born this way” were a big problem in my understanding of sexuality and social power. Now, though, it’s very clear that the most pressing problem is heterosexual people who believe they were “born that way.” As usual, infighting among the oppressed group was keeping us away from the foundation of male power. Quel surprise.
  8. Which is why, of course, only “violent” [sic] rapes by total, preferably darker-skinned, strangers stand a chance of being prosecuted in ways that don’t destroy the victim’s life. The courts and the media simply cannot handle something which may have been “just sex” to one of the participants.
  9. Sheila Jeffreys, “Sexology and Anti-Feminism,” in The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism, eds.. Dorchen Leidholdt and Janice G. Raymond, The Athene Series, (Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press, 1990), pp. 21-22.
  10. Selma Miriam, of the BloodRoot Collective, hearing Sheila Jeffreys describe this absence in a speech at BloodRoot Restaurant, coined for it the concept of a “dis-rotic” experience. Thanks to Lierre Keith for telling me about the discussion that evening.
  11. What do these two groups have in common? That they were quite consciously trained to be aroused by violence. So maybe we need this identity too–people who have been hurt by being trained to be turned on by violence. Imagine the size of this identity group, and the way it would bring together, around a common experience/problem, women and men (at least the ones who see being trained to be turned on by violence as a problem and could demonstrate to women’s approval a desire to change).
  12. Joyce Trebilcot, Taking Responsibility for Sexuality (Berkeley, CA: Acacia Books, 1983), pp. 6-9.
  13. And we should keep in front of us our own wisdom: Don’t Agonize, Organize!
  14. bell hooks, “Refusing to Be a Victim: Accountability and Responsibility” in Killing Rage (Boston: South End Press, 1995), p. 56. hooks is examining this situation as it plays out between African Americans and white power. Her strategy deeply influenced the shape of my thinking here.
  15. I learned this from linguist Julia Penelope’s amazing work on English, misogyny, and women’s power in her book Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Fathers’ Tongues (Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press, 1990), especially the chapter “The Agents Within.” Anyone attempting to use English to describe power in society would be well advised (by me) to begin with this work.
  16. Well, you may ask, why then do you call your example “Women Who Have Been Hurt By Sex” instead of naming the agent who did the hurting? A good question. Partly because agency is complicated, being both the people who do the hurting and the ideology they use to justify it. Maybe a better name would be “Women Who Have Been Hurt By People Using Sex and by the Ideology that Sex=Good for You.” This, of course, would be immediately shortened in the media to “Women Who Have Been Hurt” or “Hurt Women.” Or, even better, just to “Women,” which is exactly where we are right now, with that label hiding all kinds of agents and actions.
  17. hooks, p. 61.
  18. For an excellent analysis of the role of therapy-speak and the tyranny of “I feel so you must,” see Joan M. Ward, “Therapism and the Taming of the Lesbian Community,” Sinister Wisdom 36 (Winter 1988/98) pp. 33-41.
  19. And hey — the only women who can shake their heads about this are the ones who lived through a similar blow-up. We do this to each other, all the time.