On Identity, or Calling Things by Their Name









These are apples.

How about calling me by my name? My name is Gay. Queer. Unsettled. Marginal. 

     And a few other things.

     How about not calling me by your name? Your name is Straight. Heteronormative. Comfortable in Your Skin. Mainstream.




There are a couple of tendencies that we see in many Western countries these days, that go by many names. One of these trends is called Tribalism, Populism, Xenophobia, Identity Politics, Nationalism, or even (Heaven help us!) Trumpism. The other is called Universalism, Globalism, Open-mindedness, Liberalism.

     The general feeling—not surprising given the names we use—is that the latter of these movements is Good and progressive, while the former is Bad and backward-looking.

     But under these broad labels, there are many things going on. Let me talk about all of this in the light of sexual identity for a second.

     The general notion would likely be that people who are tribal—who voted for Brexit, who elected Italy’s anti-establishment government, the gilets jaunes in France —also skew homophobic; these people are conservative, regressive, narrow-minded, so the thinking goes. Whereas people who are for a universal world-view are open to a range of identities, and would therefore be cool with queers.

     I’d like to turn that on its head a bit. As a gay man, I am tribal. My tribe is gay men—and, more widely, gay people generally and, even more globally, queer people. (Or, to use Christopher Isherwood’s word, these people are my “kind”.)

     The fact that I am tribal does not mean I hate other tribes (straight people, for instance). It just means I know who I am.

     Behind so-called “progressive” views is often a weird return to traditional values, a kind of colonialism of the spirit. “Open-minded” people will say that we choose whom we love at any moment, and that we can be many things, sexually speaking, over time, and ultimately all things. In this view, a guy having sex with another guy is first and foremost a human being having sex with another human being, and, as such, should not be subject to any judgment or discrimination. This is named Open-mindedness.

     But in fact, most guys who have sex with other guys aren’t just Anonymous Atomized Individual choosing to have sex with another Anonymous Atomized Individual. These guys are mostly what we might call gay, or homosexual, or bisexual, or queer. We’re different.

     We’re not less. We’re different. We’re not straight.

     The same way a black person is not less than a white person. But these are two different groups of people.

     To smear a whitewash of so-called “progressive” views over everyone is to deny people’s identity. To deny their tribe. Their kind. To refuse to call them by their name.

     Everything I am today is profoundly influenced by the fact that I’m queer: my relations with other people, my political views, my life choices, the way I live, what I read, whom I hang out with. It’s been a long road to come to an understanding of why so many things have been so difficult for me, why I’ve been subjected to so much abuse, why I so often feel I’m watching the game of life from the sidelines. But now I know. And it’s my identity (or a big part of it).

     It’s my name.

     So when someone suggests that we’re all on a spectrum when it comes to sexual and gender identities, I tend to see this as a way of denying who I am, of belittling it (yet again), of minimizing what I’ve lived through as a result of being queer. Of suggesting I could have made other choices.

     I tend to experience this as them calling me by their name.


* * *


To move on from the question of sexual and gender identity and return to my earlier talk of global political and social movements, I must admit to having a lot of sympathy with the forces that are currently balking at the increasing erasure of national boundaries and cultures. While it is true that nationalism has an extremely ugly side to it and that this needs to be managed and confronted, what we are really talking about here is identity. As someone who has struggled for literally decades to understand and accept my own identity as a gay man, I don’t take kindly to those who would now drown all identities (sexual, cultural, racial, linguistic, spiritual) in the name of a supposed universal commonality.

     Yes, we are all human beings, I get that, and we owe respect to every other person on the planet. We should love one another.

     We should love one another.

     But we aren’t all the same. We have identities.

     I’m white. I would never presume to tell a black person or an Indigenous person that I can step into their skin.

     I’m Christian. While I do believe that ultimately there is one deity, my references are the Bible, crosses, Christian saints, the Virgin Mary, bread and wine. That’s where I come from. It’s my culture.

     And also, I’m gay. (And, just to be perfectly clear, I’m never heterosexual.)


* * *


So, Call Me by Your Name. The 2017 film.

     Here are two guys, straight-acting, who are attracted to girls and have sex with them. Then the guys fall in love ... with each other! And then they part, the one goes back to the USA and gets engaged (to a girl), the other is probably going to go back to his girlfriend.

     This is all possible. And it could even be interesting. But here, there is not the slightest whiff of “sexual identity”. There is no context. These two don’t identify as gay, or bi, or queer, or straight. They’re just two human beings who fall in love. As a friend said to me, "You forget that it's two guys, and it becomes just a love story."

     So what’s wrong with that, you might be asking.

     My problem with it is the following: what is it saying?

     Two possibilities. Possibility number 1: It’s not “saying” anything. It’s an individual story. A love story. An entertainment. Okay, in that case it’s fine. Pretty mediocre, I’d say, but it’s a fantasy that will appeal to some.

     Possibility number 2: It’s a work of art, with a message, or at least something to communicate. So what’s the message? The message seems to be that two guys falling in love and making love are just like everyone else.

     Hey gays, we can be just like everyone else!

     Does this sound vaguely 1950s-ish to you? It does to me. Whereas sixty years ago society was saying to gay men to straighten up and get a girl, now we have mainstream films saying to gay men that, really, we’re just like straight men, nothing to be ashamed of!

     So, after decades of struggle to come out of the closet and be visible, this is what we now have: We’re just people like others. Even though we engage in same-sex love, we’re more or less straight. We’re all straight. Or, to be more nuanced, we’re all on the same spectrum—which is a straight line, on which we fit and move around. We can choose to not be all “tribal” and uncomfortably “gay” and just be mainstream movie lovers, as if John Wayne and Gary Cooper had been allowed to have love scenes together and retain their macho, and then go on to woo Ava Gardner or Joan Crawford.

     I suspect that people who feel really good about this vision of things are straight. For me, it’s a slap in the face for an identity that has been constructed with great pain and difficulty.

     Which is maybe why I understand Italian and French and English folk who see their cultural identities being demeaned and erased under a bland, bureaucratic pan-Europeanism or an idealized humanism (as if the manifest destiny of the whole planet, ultimately, is to be European).

     Or perhaps this is why I empathize when Black and First Nations people get upset because white people are telling their stories for them and then justifying it under the slogan “Art Is Universal”.

     I believe that gay people represent a distinct, necessary and beautiful voice in society. We are different. We have a role to play. The fact that, in 2018, we’re heaping praise on a film that tells us we’re just like everyone else—that we can be called by their name—is just sad.

     There’s still a lot of work to do.           

Write a comment

Comments: 2
  • #1

    Cathleen (Saturday, 05 January 2019 11:41)

    Very thoughtful essay. The topic is very timely, of course. I've also found myself empathizing with nationalist-type tribal movements. Not so much because I think that's cool or anything, but more because it's human I suppose. It screams out loud that people need simple things to identify with, otherwise they'll feel lost. We forget that many or most of our last names hail from professions or places. People also used to identify primarily with their profession or guild. And even today among ever-so cool postmodern hipsters, start a conversation with anyone and one of the first things people ask each other is "Where are you from?". It's not just small talk. People need brick-and-mortar things to identify with. ... I suppose it's a philosophical challenge, or an art, to see how we can steer clear of xenophobia all the while achnowledging such needs rather than vilifying them.

  • #2

    John Arthur Sweet (Sunday, 06 January 2019 18:50)

    Thanks for your kind words, Cathleen. Indeed, there should be some middle ground between xenophobia (right-wing extremism) and homogenization of all identities within some overarching "philosophy" (I guess this would be left-wing extremism, like Communism).