Last month I wrote a commentary that explained that there is a difference between men who have sex with men and LGBT identity. Critics immediately became enraged and claimed that I had no right to label someone’s identity. I didn’t write the article to indict anyone’s personal character or integrity, but rather to show — based on historical evidence — how the notion of LGBT identity began as a political identity. Coming out as “gay” or “lesbian” was not just about announcing one’s sexual preference but it was also about espousing a political commitment to advance equality. People increasingly identified as gay at the height of gay liberation in the 1970s to create a sense of community and culture and to offer a language to come out of the closet. Few, if any, came out of the closet in order to support homophobia.
That’s not the case today. There is a large and growing population of people who identify as “gay” based on their sexual preference and as conservative or Republican or both. They don’t see a contradiction between their sexual identity and political affiliation. The ideology of the right speaks to them, and they view their dual identities not as a contradiction but rather as evidence of “diversity.” And just the mere utterance of this one word “diversity” exposes the larger problem.
Words have a history. Their meanings develop at a particular time in response to specific questions and debates. “Diversity,” for example, emerged as a term that the left adopted in order to advance the goals of yet another historically laced term, “multiculturalism,” which referred to efforts to value the experiences of marginalized and oppressed peoples. That so-called gay Republicans can co-opt that term for their conflicted plight is an abomination. Gay Republicans, by and large, are not oppressed, nor do they suffer from the lack the financial capital or social status that would qualify them as marginalized. Yet they use the term with zero historical consciousness.
Similarly, they refer to themselves as “gay” without realizing the origins and meaning of that term. They think it just means same-sex desire. It does not. Culminating in the 1970s, large numbers of men and women who had same-sex desire rejected the medical profession’s belief that they suffered from a disorder; they opposed many religious authorities’ claims that they were sinners; they fought against legal authorities who criminalized same-sex acts. Declaring they were “gay” was a way for them to give a name to their sexual practices and to create an identity that stood in opposition to the medical, religious, and legal language that oppressed them. They said they were gay to find other people who shared their desires,and who could join them in their fight against these oppressive authorities. At the time, there were only two sides: LGBT liberation and those who opposed it. While people within the movement differed on strategies and argued over various issues, they remained a solid political alliance.
No one who was “gay” would also be on the side of the medical, religious, and legal authorities who actively sought to oppress same-sex intimacy and desire. There were certainly people who continued to have physical and romantic relationships with people of the same sex and did not therefore define themselves as gay. They rejected the outward, public declaration of their sexual preference and did not embrace or accept gay identity.
Today, many people have overlooked the distinction between politics and sex in their self-identification of being gay in part due to the rise of equality and the social acceptance of same-sex intimacy. They have come to believe that being gay is just about having sex with someone of the same sex. Yet the whole point of announcing one’s sexual preference is a political act — whether it is to one’s family or employer or to an audience at the Republican National Convention. Coming out is inherently political, because it is always done with the hope of changing perceptions and gaining acceptance.
Coming out also names one’s inclusion within a very specific community and culture. That community and culture, however, exists only because people have worked very hard to ensure that there are gay newspapers, lesbian bars, transgender groups, LGBT churches, queer neighborhoods. If these same people all supported oppressive regimes, there would be no community or culture. Historically, the LGBT community depends on people who embrace the political connotations of the term and who work to establish a distinct culture. So when people come out as gay and Republican, whether they realize it or not, they are slowly chipping away at the community that LGBT activists in the 1970s made for us. They are devoting their energies to a party that seeks to dismantle gay liberation.
That does not mean we all need to agree on every political and social issue, but we at least need to understand the implications of our words and the historical forces that allowed us to speak in the first place.
While I realize that people will nonetheless continue to identify as both “gay” and Republican even if there is an embedded conflict with their meanings, I ask you, What will you do now in Trump’s America to support your people? Do you even see LGBT people on the left as your brothers or sisters? Do you believe in the notion of the “LGBT community”? Or do you turn your nose up at the sight of gay bars, gain street cred by only having straight friends, or take pride in your ability to pass as straight? As protests continue to mount throughout the country in response to the election of Donald Trump, where will you stand?
JIM DOWNS is the author of Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016) and is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College.