MARK D. JORDAN, Gender and Sexuality: Our Identities, Ourselves? Boston Review, May 27, 2020
Adhering to a particular sexual or gender identity may mean abandoning the things that make us most unique. So why has identity become the default for talking about who we are and what we desire?
In the years since Sedgwick wrote, identity has become by far the most popular tool for conceiving people’s differences in sex and gender. We plot ourselves onto identity grids to fix our individuality. More: identities are now among the chief objects of our political and ethical concern around sex. We are urged to defend our own identities and schooled to respect those of others. Comprehensive classifications of sex/gender even provide a place for those who resist them. You refuse to choose a sexual identity? We have a checkbox for that.
The quick triumph of sexual identity should astonish us. After all, the terminology is recent: it didn’t really circulate until the 1970s, and then only over the objections of influential thinkers such as Sedgwick and Michel Foucault. Speaking at a conference in 1979, Foucault puts his objection to sexual identity bluntly: “Pleasure is something that passes from one individual to another; it is not the secretion of identity.” In Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick worries that identity “seems to begin with a self but is legitimated only by willfully obscuring most of its boundaries.” You shimmy into an identity by starving your self.
If it is so recent an invention, and if it was faulted from the start, how did talk of identities become inevitable? Where do sexual identities come from and how did they take charge?