Vancouver
4 min

Competing for victim status

Many of us still roll our eyes when we think of identity politics

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the struggle to be considered the most oppressed group in the queer community, ever since Morgan Brayton mentioned it in her final column and made me laugh out loud.

I recognized myself in that struggle and a lot of the activists I have known over the last 15 years.

Those of us who have been part of feminist or queer politics in North America have had plenty of experience with this competition to be named MVP —Most Victimized Person.

Many of us dropped out of political activism because of the hellish hours we spent sitting in circles accusing each other of racism and homophobia until someone “won.”

These hours of scrambling for the bottom rung were the result of people using identity politics for their own benefit. If you’ve been through this kind of thing, or even if you’ve heard about it from other people, there’s a good chance that the term “identity politics” makes you roll your eyes.

Which sucks, because identity politics started for a reason, and there really are classism, racism, homophobia, ableism and other oppressions within feminist, queer and other progressive communities.

Identity politics is based on the assumption that certain groups, like women, people of colour, gays and lesbians and people with disabilities, are oppressed simply because of who they are. It proposes that members of these groups reclaim their identities as positive and powerful, rejecting the negative conceptions imposed by the oppressor. Identity politics demands that the dominant culture accept and value oppressed groups, instead of tolerating or assimilating them.

There has always been backlash against identity politics. One of the main tactics has been for members of the dominant culture (usually white men and women) to complain that oppressed groups are trying to enforce “political correctness,” and that their demands are unreasonable, too expensive, too time-consuming, or even oppressive.

Lately I get the sense that in much of the queer community identity politics are simply passé. Why talk about sexism when gender is just a construction/performance? Aren’t we post-gender? Does homophobia really exist anymore? We’re all queer in some way, right?

At the last Queer Film Fest, when audience members at the Queer History Project questioned the absence of people of colour, panel members responded with frustration and defensiveness. I imagined people thinking, “We did this anti-racism stuff in the ’90s. Let it go, already!”

And not to pick on the Film Fest again, but I can’t help thinking about the panel discussion after Female to Femme. The film was specifically about femme dykes’ expression of femininity, and the negative response to them from other dykes. The film was grounded in an understanding of how sexism affects lesbians —our rejection of femininity, our self-hatred, our body image problems. This is identity politics: naming and resisting oppression against a specific group. And yet the panel afterwards included a man, and at least one woman who did not identify as a dyke.

This is not a criticism of these members of the panel —I’m just wondering why the panel wasn’t focused on the specific identity, culture and history of femme dykes. Do we just not do that anymore?

Or consider the recent discussions on superdyke forums about creating a separate forum for queer people of colour that would be closed to white queers. A lot of the comments indicate that many people don’t understand why this forum would be necessary.

Clearly we still need identity politics. At the same time, there is a reason why lots of us feel like barfing when we remember our experiences with it.

Identity politics got really fucked up in a lot of political organizations for a ton of reasons. First of all, as we were fighting sexism, racism and homophobia, the last thing we wanted was to acknowledge that we were part of any dominant group —or even that we had any power at all. Power was evil. And by extension, lack of power was virtuous. Which meant that lack of power was in fact power, within those activist groups. If you follow me.

Another significant factor was that class privilege was often overlooked in discussions of racism, homophobia and other oppressions. In the feminist anti-violence collectives that I was part of, the vast majority of women were middle to upper-class university-educated women. We had a certain sense of entitlement and we knew how to use the language of identity politics.

Many white lesbians and women of colour were quick to list their experiences of homophobia and racism, while remaining silent about details like full financial support from their parents, the servants they had growing up, or their Master’s Degrees in Women’s Studies. I am not saying that these privileges erase the experiences of oppression, but they do complicate claims to full-on victim status.

I remember an Aboriginal woman getting kicked out of a collective for being “anti-Semitic” because she said she had grown up on a small reserve and never even knew what a Jew was.

I remember a mixed-race woman disclosing that she had been treated better than her brother when they were children because she had lighter skin; she was accused of being racist just for telling this story.

I remember bisexual women being told they were oppressing lesbians just by talking about discrimination they faced as bisexuals. When trans women started to join women’s organizations, some claimed that they should be allowed to join because they were even more oppressed than women who had been born women. Many feminists responded by saying, “No you are not oppressed at all; you are actually men and therefore you are the oppressor.” Seriously, some of the stuff was really ridiculous.

I have done my own share of twisting identity politics and witnessed others doing the same. But I still see the value in naming oppression, and claiming and celebrating our identities as sources of strength and community. Let’s just not be assholes about it.