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Identity politics, feminist legal reform, and intersectional alliances

In an essay entitled "Against Proper Objects," Judith Butler discusses the border wars that often play out between feminist and queer scholars. [50] Typically, queer theorists maintain that sexuality 'belongs' to their field of study, whereas gender identity is the 'proper' object of feminist theory. Naturally, feminist theorists disagree. In Butler's view, the attempt to distinguish acts from identities in this battle over intellectual turf generates reductive versions of both discourses—and limits their political potentialities. A radical theory and politics of sexuality cannot be separated from an analysis of gender roles; politically, the costs would be too great. Feminist, queer, and transgender theory all share the imperative to 'unfound' and dislodge the putative truths that 'follow from' the body, gender identity, and sexuality.

One of the key obstacles for identity politics stems from the complicated way in which the law gets 'stuck' on group-based identity in its attempt to promote equality. Identity is no less contested within legal debate and strategy than it is within post-structuralist and deconstructionist theory. Transgender identity is a particularly intense source of legal anxiety because it explores the "murky interface" between individual pleasures, "unruly" bodies, and the constraints of public law. [51] The transgendered subject is unavoidably a subject of the law, but he or she also haunts or exceeds the law by questioning its operating premise of binary sexual identity.

Although the law is our most powerful tool for social change, it is also a fully human endeavor. As such, it often reflects and reinscribes, rather than challenges, the sociocultural biases and economies of its time. The reflective or specular nature of the law is compounded by its commitment to putatively 'universal' values, which serve to protect a status quo rife with sexist, racist, and heteronormative inflections. As a result, identity-based claims for legal redress bear the battle scars of daily and violent skirmishes with a legal system that cannot escape a stultifying and internally contradictory framework of 'equality' versus difference. Because of its commitment to upholding the status quo, the law manifests a certain illiteracy and inarticulacy with regard to difference—as is especially apparent in the law's reluctance to extend identity-based protection to minority groups. Many changes in women's legal status, for example, have relied upon essentialist or paternalistic notions of female identity, whereas other efforts to promote sexual equality have emphasized the legal ideal of neutrality. This legal stalemate between equality and difference points out a need for new forms of feminist politics that can exceed the identity of 'woman' in order to promote social change.

Identity politics has reached a limit of sorts, one that demands new feminist strategies for organizing. All too often, identity-based movements reinscribe reductive and exclusionary fictions of group identity. Furthermore, these fictions impede political efficacy. As Devon Carbado points out, "part of what renders current civil rights activism ineffective is its compartmentalization. Black civil rights efforts often are not connected to women's civil rights efforts, which often are not connected to gay and lesbian civil rights efforts." [52] Fragmented and mutually exclusive discourses of identity artificially pry apart the interwoven components of women's oppression. They necessitate an impossible prioritization of the various aspects of identity for purposes of political activism. Such discourses ensure that individuals who are defined by intersecting 'subject-effects' [53] or strands of identity will experience themselves as fractured and, ultimately, disabled subjects under the law.

What seems politically necessary at this juncture is a form of coalition politics to unite groups across the boundaries of race, gender and sexuality. To dismantle one form of oppression, we must attack all forms of oppression—precisely because they are interrelated and mutually sustaining. [54] To this end, coalition politics might more effectively address race, gender and sexuality not as identities, but as civil rights. A contemporary American human rights group, Gender PAC, seems to embody this approach. [55] Gender PAC is a national advocacy organization fighting for "the basic right to express one's gender, free from stereotypes, discrimination, and violence, regardless of how others perceive his or her sex or sexual orientation." The group offers a promising model of coalition politics by addressing gender as a civil and human rights issue. Yet its emphasis on civil rather than group rights also supports feminist efforts to specify the female body as a particularly brutal site of struggle.

Intersectional politics, universality and the 'human'

Intersectional alliances promise to yield alternatives to the reductive narratives of identity that inform both identity politics and the legal ideal of neutrality. Such alternatives might include an ethics that does not 'follow' from sexual difference, but that questions the very terms with which difference and deviance are described and ascribed to particular bodies in society. Intersectional alliances have the capacity to force the formal principle of universality into an unsettling confrontation with its 'other', the 'inhuman'—all that is defined in opposition to humanity, and all that universality excludes by way of its purported neutrality. In this way, intersectional political alliances might create 'troubling' new grammars for speaking about difference, asymmetry, and violation within the legal system. Even more importantly, a transformed legal vocabulary would have salient effects for personal identity. To allow previously excluded or inadmissible bodies, identities, and sexualities to infiltrate the realm of the 'universal' would put universality itself into disturbing contact with the porosity of its borders, and with the excluded or abject on which its existence depends. Ultimately, this contact might disable exclusive narratives of the 'human' that authorize brutal forms of dehumanization. It might allow us to "imagine the human beyond its conventional limits...The human must become strange to itself, even monstrous, to reachieve the human on another plane." [56]