Collective identities: trap or tool for empowerment?

Collective identities — „we" as queers, as whatever group you like — are often perceived as empowering, as providing a sense of belonging. On the other hand through their very existence, collective identities produce new boundaries of „in" and „out", and new norms of behaviour that limit peoples’ freedom to be and to do. Not only can identity be disempowering, but it can also threaten peoples’ lives, as nationalist and homophobic attacks show. Maybe I’m stating the obvious here. I consider none of all the collective identities normally discussed (be they ethnic, gender, or nation-based) as „natural"; all of them are social constructions. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or that they don’t have an influence on our lives, but it means that we have an active role too in our collective identities, in stabilising or de-constructing them. As I am a gay man, I will mainly write from this perspective. However, I’m convinced similar processes are at work in the construction of other collective identities, and therefore my thoughts are not limited to issues of gay identities.

Constructing „the Other"

It is probably no coincidence that Western European/Northern American, heterosexual, middle-class white men are generally unaware of their identity: they represent the „norm", against which all and everybody is measured. Collective identities are very often definitions of the „Other", different from the norm, therefore „of less value". Yet at the same time these descriptions of „the Other" are necessary in themselves to define the „norm". One of these „constructions of norm" is heterosexuality. Here something is „shown as normality, what is actually a social construction, which serves to maintain power and to secure control [1]". This is possible not because of a definition of heterosexuality on its own, but through construction of „the Other", the „not-heterosexual": the homosexual. The demarcation, the exclusion from the norm leads to the construction of identity, and the description of a collective identity of the homosexuals [2]. In this process there is no awareness that „normality", although it is the dominant form in society, somehow depends on the excluded other, ie hetero depends on homo. Those who do not belong become painfully aware of their own collective identity through this very exclusion. A collective sense of „not-belonging", of „being different" is felt. „Coming Out" as gay or lesbian then can be seen as a first step in the process of empowerment, and there is little doubt that this is crucial for one’s personal development and self-confidence. But at the same time this homosexual (or gay/lesbian) identity wouldn’t be possible without (hetero) „normality".

Redefinition of identity: first step of empowerment

One prerequisite of the gay/lesbian emancipation movement was to redefine the inferior collective identity, given from the outside, as positive. „Gay Pride", „Gay is good" were slogans which attached positive values to one’s own identity. „The development of a political awareness of identity ... is a first step in the politicisation of the resistance of oppressed groups ... Awareness of identity is a result and a means of liberatory politics, identity a (temporarily) term of struggle: a response to discrimination and the view of the norm. Identity in this sense means awareness of a common history of exploitation and oppression ..." says Susanne Kappeler [3], and this means empowerment on both a group and personal level. In the beginning, many of these movements had to struggle to overcome definitions inherited from the outside. As many „people of color" in the US (and elsewhere) had a socially-inherited view of „inferiority" compared to white people, which they had to overcome and reshape in the process of organising, so many gays and lesbians agreed with a negative view of themselves, which led to a policy of claiming to be very much the same as „straights". The gay and lesbian movement emerging after „Stonewall" was, to a great extent, a „Coming Out" movement, where gays and lesbians empowered themselves in working on their own political „outing". In the women’s movement women’s groups first serve(d) the need to share with each other the common experience of oppression and to empower themselves „as women", and then to develop political action. For both movements (or all three, if you count the gay and the lesbian movement as two different movements, which somehow makes sense) a shift can be identified from identity as a common experience of oppression towards a „politics of identity", in which the newly found gay, lesbian or women’s identities are prescribed and defined as the basis for political action. „As the gay movement consolidated, however, this frontal assault on the very notion of boundaries between sexual identities rapidly lost popularity. Gay activists began to argue that gays were a sexual minority deserving of the same rights as other citizens. Instead of tearing down the system, the new goal was to rearrange it, allowing homosexuals to participate on a more equal basis [4]." So identity looses its character as a (temporarily) term of struggle and itself becomes a means of constructing norms —at least for the group on which this identity is imposed.

Dominant identities: invisible norms

„Male identity", „heterosexual identity" or „white identity" exist as a norm, although there is no awareness of them. It does not make sense to strengthen them as a „term of struggle" or a „product of liberation politics" as articulated by Susanne Kappeler—quite the contrary: through their norm-setting character they are a means to shape and oppress, and doesn’t need an awareness of identity to achieve this. Rüdiger Lautmann states for heterosexuality that it is „not suitable for identity". It is only a „category of exclusion", a „category of the rest" („everything, but not like this"—not homosexual). „Maybe heterosexuality just wants to be seen as the same as being a human being, and this rather immodest claim is the reason for its universal success [5]." This reflects the structural power relations of society, which are a prerequisite for the power to define, for forcing through the white, male and heterosexual norm. It is therefore necessary to question this form of „identity" more and more. On the one hand to snatch this norm-setting identity from its claim of being natural, on the other hand to weaken it, to make it unsafe, to achieve its collapse. On the other hand it shouldn’t be our aim just to deny these identities, to pretend they don’t exist. As „white"—and as „German" too—I have the view of the norm. Without reflecting on it, I’m always likely to judge others according to this norm, to divide them into categories according to how much they match the norm, maybe even pressurise them to comply with the norm, to play out my power. „Male", „heterosexual", and „white" are attributes of power-over, not of liberation. At the same time they limit those to whom they apply, as the norm robs them of the potential diversity of other behaviours; somehow makes them slaves to the norm. Anyone who has ever really tried to break with masculinity should understand how powerful the pressure of the norm is—even for „non-heterosexuals". It begins with banal issues like clothing, but in a way it is through these superficialities that society’s pressure to comply with the norm can most easily be seen (ever tried cross-dressing in public?). Although „empowerment for (heterosexual) men" might sound strange in a patriarchal society, I see it as crucial to break the cycle of re-producing oppressive masculinities. But in this process it is important to acknowledge men’s power-over (women, gays, people of colour) in order to overcome the longing for power-over and to replace it with power-with other people, be they men, women or whatever.

Marginalised identities

The collective identities of marginalised, oppressed groups are also ambivalent. I believe that advocates of identity politics tend to overvalue this aspect of empowerment, stemming from a collective awareness of oppression, and from attempting to reshape identity in a positive way. Although this is an important aspect, the principle of exclusion is inherent in these collective identities. They too are always constructing norms and therefore limiting inclusion. Judith Butler warns that through fighting the violence of being made invisible we have to make sure we don’t produce new forms of violence—in this context norms of identities [6]. Susanne Luhmann explains this with the example of the „women identified lesbian identity", which was widely discussed in relation to Adrienne Rich’s work [7]. Here again a new „regulative ideal" is constructed, that at the same time leads to marginalisation, and controls which forms of gender and sexuality are legitimised and which are not [8]. In effect this might lead to disempowerment, when I start to recognise that I don’t (want to) fit the norms of the collective I identify with. Susanne Kappeler makes the point: „The content and reason of a political awareness of identity is not to celebrate a newly found identity, but to overcome the racist, sexist, heterosexist identity and the abolition of all criteria of discrimination and exploitation... . Politics of identity, a politics of interests out of so called identities, means the de-politisation of the struggle for self-liberation of oppressed groups. With this politics of identity—women’s politics instead of feminist politics, lesbian and gay politics instead of anti-heterosexism politics, female culture instead of criticism of patriarchy—with all this politics of identities and ‘differences’, which is emerging today, the political sense of building a collective ‘awareness of identity’ of oppressed groups got lost. ‘Identity’ was run-down to a psychological and cultural term, and lost its meaning for liberation politics." [9]

Queering, the identity dilemma?

This is what „queer politics" is about. With the weakening of oppression resulting from empowerment on all three levels —from the personal to the social—„queering" of identities is one option to avoid the trap of identity politics. Although at the same time, insisting on the „awareness if identity as an oppressed group" might still be an important political tactic. While nowadays it might be easier to identify as gay—at least in the cities of western countries, and still far away from just being a „choice of lifestyle"—I still have to assign to one of the collective identities „gay" or „straight"? But aren’t these just new norms and therefore limitations to my personal options? Would assigning this identity to myself mean that I accept the norm, wouldn’t it mean that I had voluntarily complied with the norm? There are many practical difficulties in refusing to assign. One is that society’s norms have a lot of power to shape reality, this affects me too. Of course I’m a grown up man, and have my share of the advantages patriarchy offers to men, no matter that I’m gay. The other is that society very often imposes an identity on me, whether I like it or not. But do I have to take part in perpetuating the „homo-hetero" binary, to take part in cementing it, only to comply with the norms of the „gay community"? Where is the „liberation" in this? For me, empowerment is the means to get rid of the need to comply with collective identities, to see being gay as just one of many aspects of my individual identity, no more important than the others. This poses the question of how to liberate ourselves from societies’ constructions of the norm? The danger is to just deny the power of existing collective identities, to be unaware of how one is part of them. If we manage to refuse to take part in constructing and stabilising these norms, then—maybe —possibilities for liberation will emerge.


1. Astrid Albrecht-Heide & Christine Holzkamp: Lebensformen und Sexualität. Vielfalt quer zu patriarchalen Leitbildern – Dialogreferat. In: Jutta Hartmann u.a. (ed.): Lebensformen und Sexualität. Herrschaftskritische Analysen und pädagogische Perspektiven. Bielefeld 1998

2. see for example: Jonathan Ned Katz: The Invention of Heterosexuality. New York 1996

3. Susanne Kappeler: Kofra 61, December 1992/January 1993

4. Jan Clausen: Beyond Gay or Straight. Understandig Sexual Orientation. Philadelphia 1997, p. 90

5. Rüdiger Lautmann: Paradoxien der homosexuellen Identität. Identitäts(ge)rede. In: Manfred Herzer (ed.): 100 Jahre Schwulenbewegung. Berlin 1998

6. Judith Butler: Imitation and Gender Insubordination. In: Dianne Fuss (ed.): Inside/Out, Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. London 1991

7. Adrienne Rich: Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. In: Ann Snitow and others (ed.): Powers of Desire. The Politics of Sexuality. New York 1983

8. Susanne Luhmann: Verquere Pädagogik? Queer Theory und die Grenzen anti-homophober Bildungsarbeit. In: Jutta Hartmann and others (ed.): Lebensformen und Sexualität. Herrschaftskritische Analysen und pädagogische Perspektiven. Bielefeld 1998

9 Susanne Kappeler, 1993

Andreas Speck is on the WRI Executive and presently works as coordinator of WRI’s Nonviolence and Social Empowerment project.