In Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Josh Atwater (TD ’24) examines how his left-wing convictions are at odds with American liberalism.
I’ve always cringed at the sound of the word bisexual. It’s been a decade since I first landed on that label, and I still seldom say it. Over the years, I’ve used increasingly vague phrases (first gay, then queer, and even not straight) to evade identifying myself on certain terms. Nowadays, I often don’t tell people my sexuality outright—especially not in the form of an “I am…” statement.
I’ve been told that this is a form of internalized homophobia—that it stems from my discomfort with speaking truth to my identity. But as time passes and I grow more confident in who I am, I only feel more distant from any labels of my sexuality.
In my last opinion article, I argued that gender labels are a reductive means of understanding one’s gender and that creating a more expansive system of labels only reinforces the fundamental problem inherent to publicly “identifying with” gendered traits. I think this logic is useful for understanding identity in our sociopolitical moment more generally. The present social justice discourse is entrenched in obsessive scrutiny of what identity truly means—and, in its frantic self-examination, has exalted an amorphous meta-concept of identity that essentially muddles all the unique and varied facets of an individual’s life. Behaviors and personality traits, emotions and personal experiences, historical narratives and power dynamics—our identity discourse demands that none can be considered without the others.
While this level of analysis is useful in many cases, identity heuristics run the risk of becoming an intellectual crutch that hinders our ability to consider individual circumstances with the nuance they demand. Identity politics aims to understand people based on patterns and generalizations, imposing expectations on them according to the labels they’re assigned. And while publicly claiming an identity can help us construct a sense of community and solidarity, it also invites people to make misinformed assumptions about each other.
Personally, I don’t feel that my experience of sexuality influences my self-concept or dictates any aspects of who I am fundamentally. How I experience my own sexuality and how society identifies me are two entirely separate things—any attempt to reconcile them is reductive.
When thinking about identity on economic terms, a more sinister implication arises: identity-based generalizations are a convenient metric for advertising. In the information age, to be identified is to be targeted, made vulnerable to commodification.
This reality is articulated succinctly in a lyric from Laurie Anderson’s song “O Superman”: “You can come as you are, but pay as you go.” I’ve written before that contemporary American liberalism will accommodate most social reforms, as long as they don’t pose a threat to capital’s status quo. In other words, you can get gay-married if you continue to participate in the free market. So while identity helps us to progress in some ways, it simultaneously opens us to exploitation and distracts us from imagining a radically different future. It seems like an impossible problem.
I don’t know what an ideal solution would look like. But I do know that I’m tired of my Instagram explore page pushing me dating apps, sexual health products, and RuPaul’s Drag Race memes—just because the algorithm believes it has pinpointed my supposed identity. I’m tired of feeling like I have to say that I am anything, constantly measured against standards that don’t suit me. Surely I’m still bisexual, at least empirically. But I’m tired of having to say it in order to reconcile my private feelings with others’ demand to know them in brief—I long for the day when I can simply love who I love (and, yes, be a fan of Taylor Swift) with no further explanation necessary.