Gay identity after Foucault1

por David M. Halperin


“Je vis dans un monde où plein de choses que je pensais impossibles sont possibles”.
Guillaume Dustan
Dans ma chambre

It is with great joy, as well as considerable astonishment, that I find myself addressing you this evening on the topic of gay identity and gay studies, here at the Pompidou Center in Paris, on the eve of Europride. And, pleased as I am to be here, I cannot deny to you that I am even more amazed.

      For this is an event that it would have been utterly impossible for me to picture to myself a mere thirty years ago, when I was a schoolboy in Paris. I don’t even know which element in the present circumstance would have struck me as the most improbable: that a public celebration of gay pride would take place in Paris, that a cultural institution of the French state would open its doors (and its purse) to a series of conferences on gay culture, that a reputable academic field of lesbian and gay studies would come into existence, or that I myself would be part of it.

      If, at any rate, I begin on this unabashedly personal note, in which moreover I can make no claim to individual distinction, my excuse is that the unexpected course of my own life dramatizes the point I want to develop in what follows –namely, how completely the future can exceed and surpass even the most extravagant hopes and desires that one might entertain for it. Contemporary lesbian and gay life is not only an example of such unanticipated change but an instrument of it, and it is precisely in its transformative potential that I propose to locate its greatest promise.
What, then, is gay identity? What does it signify today? What does it do, how does it work, where can it take us?
Even a few moments’ reflection on that topic are sufficient to lead one into an apparently inescapable impasse. For gay identity has long since become entirely and impossibly paradoxical. As an identity, it is at one and the same time politically indispensable and politically catastrophic.

      Gay identity is absolutely necessary, essential, and crucial, because it is perennially threatened by denial, refusal, suppression, and “invisibilization.” And so it is always and everywhere important to insist on gay identity at all costs, to claim it and to affirm it, over and over again, precisely because it is continually treated as something shameful, deviant, pathological, and out of place.

      But gay identity is also dangerous, even treacherous. It is an identity which must be ceaselessly resisted and rejected, precisely because it normalizes and polices sexuality, because it functions to contain sexual and social difference, both in heteronormative culture at large and in lesbian and gay culture in particular. It is a politically catastrophic identity insofar as it enables society serenely to manage sexual diversity and in fact to stabilize and consolidate heterosexual identity itself (which would be a much more fluid, unstable, and insecure entity without gay identity to shore it up).

      Gay identity, then, is both a thoroughly homophobic identity, in its totalizing and normalizing effects, and at the same time an identity which it is no less homophobic to refuse, to reject, to deny, or to criticize.

      Gay identity has therefore been the target of strenuous, sustained critique in France –both by political reactionaries, who see identity politics as the enemy of social consensus and democracy, and by gay activists and intellectuals, who see gay identity as a means of social control, of cultural homogenization, of the eradication of sexual, social, and ethnic differences within gay communities. But there is a great distinction to be made between the critique of gay identity carried on by our political adversaries and the critique of gay identity carried on within gay communities, as part of a continuing process of cultural self-constitution and political resistance.

      In the United States, the gay critique of gay identity has recently been conducted in the name of an anti-identitarian brand of sexual identity politics which goes by the name of “queer.” (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s paper at this very conference provided a magnificent example.) But gay resistance to gay identity is nothing new; it has produced a long tradition of self-reflection and cultural ferment within lesbian and gay communities. The tradition of gay auto-critique has been particularly prominent in France, especially in the wake of the upheavals of May ’68, in such movements as the FHAR or “Antinorme,” but it has a long history among lesbian and gay communities on both sides of the Atlantic, as Leo Bersani’s reflections on the writings of Gide and Genet eloquently demonstrated to you, and as Monique Wittig’s writings have also illustrated. That habit of self-interrogation and self-examination has produced as well a multitude of quite specific popular practices in lesbian and gay social worlds, such as camp humor, which, by puncturing pretensions to seriousness, to stable identities, fulfils a concrete social function of internal critique. One might say that one of the most distinctively gay dimensions of gay culture has been its constant criticism and reevaluation of what it means to be gay. In that sense, gay identity has always been a critical identity, never taken for granted for very long, always interrogated, and constantly contested by gay people themselves. Almost no one is willing to be called gay except on the proviso that the meaning of the term itself remain open to redefinition, resignification, and renegotiation.

      In France, the most intellectually distinguished example of this tradition of gay auto-critique can be found in the work of Michel Foucault. It is evident in Foucault’s published work on the history of sexuality, but it emerges even more clearly in his interviews with the gay press. “I think that now we’ll need to take a kind of step back,” Foucault remarked to Jean Le Bitoux in 1978 (though the complete transcript of their conversation appeared in print only in 1996),

[…] a kind of step back which does not mean a retreat, but means rather a chance to address the situation in more general terms. We’ll need to ask ourselves, “What, really, is this notion of sexuality?” Because, even if it has enabled us to fight, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also carry with it a number of dangers. There is an entire psychologism of sexuality, an entire biologism of sexuality, and therefore an entire stranglehold that can be exerted on this sexuality by doctors, by psychologists, by various agencies of normalization. Shouldn’t we then champion against this medico-biologic-naturalist notion of sexuality some alternate possibility? The right to pleasure, for example?

      And Foucault added, “In other words, what we need to do is not only to liberate our sexuality, we also need to liberate ourselves from this very notion of sexuality.”

       That is the very same exhortation which Foucault makes at the climax of La Volonté de savoir, an exhortation which, in its very resistance to the notion of sexual identity, identifies that book, in my opinion, as a preeminent example of specifically gay political philosophy: “We must not believe that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power,” Foucault wrote:

[…] on the contrary, one thereby follows in the track of the entire apparatus of sexuality. It is from the agency of sex that one has to free oneself if one wishes, through a tactical reversal of the various mechanisms of sexuality, to assert, against the hold of power, the claims of bodies, pleasures, and knowledges in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance.

      Foucault made it clear that the point of critiquing gay identity was not to disqualify it, or to do away with sexual labels altogether, or to advocate some avant-garde suspension of all sexual meaning and all sexual categories. Rather, the point of critiquing gay identity was to open the way to the formation new multiplicities of gay identities which the insistence on a singular, already established and defined gay identity served to impede.

      “Homosexuality is a historic opportunity to open up new relational and affective potentialities [virtualités],” Foucault told the members of Gai pied in 1981. Foucault saw homosexuality not as a newly-liberated species of sexual being but as a strategically-situated marginal position from which it might be possible to glimpse and to devise new ways of relating to oneself and to others.

“To be gay is to be in a state of becoming,” he explained in 1982.

The point is not to be homosexual but to keep working persistently at being gay […] to place oneself in a dimension where the sexual choices one makes are present and have their effects on the ensemble of our life […] [T]hese sexual choices ought to be at the same time creators of ways of life. To be gay signifies that these choices diffuse themselves across the entire life; it is also a certain manner of refusing the modes of life offered; it is to make a sexual choice into the impetus for a change of existence.

      Homosexuality, in other words, is not a psychological condition that we discover but a way of being that we practise in order to redefine the meaning of who we are and what we do –and in order to make ourselves and our world more gay. Foucault proposes to us that instead of treating homosexuality as an occasion to articulate the secret truth of our own desires, we might ask ourselves, “what sorts of relations can be established, invented, multiplied, modulated through [our] homosexuality […] The problem is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex but rather to use, from now on, one’s sexuality to achieve a multiplicity of types of relations.”

      Foucault insisted that homosexuality did not name an already existing form of desire but was rather “something to be desired”: our task is “to become homosexual, not to persist in acknowledging that we are.” Homosexuality is not a determinate form of psychosexual life or a species of erotic being, a sexual positivity, but a marginal location and a form of resistance to sexual regulation, a non-normative sexual positionality.

In the stress Foucault placed on becoming instead of being, we can recognize once again the purpose and the point of gay resistance to gay identity. Foucault’s critique is not designed to invalidate gay identity so much as to prevent it from serving as an obstacle or barrier to the formation of new identities, new modes of existence, new possibilities of pleasure, and new cultural forms. The ultimate effect of Foucault’s intervention is to warn us against accepting gay identity as a thing, already in existence, and to urge us to see it as something desirable that remains to be created and recreated, a placeholder for a future identity still to be constructed.

      Lesbian and gay cultural theory in the United States has emphasized that the gay critique of gay identity performs a similarly constructive function. As Lee Edelman writes in the Preface to his brilliant series of studies in the politics and poetics of gay inscription, entitled Homographesis, “the explicitly (if paradoxically) gay-identified purpose” of his book is to challenge:

[…] the reification of identities, not excluding gay identities, while insisting nonetheless on the political importance of conducting this challenge under the ensign of a criticism that would define itself as gay. That the interrogation of identity proceeds in the name of the very identity it sets out to interrogate testifies, as I see it, to the importance, on the one hand, of resisting the temptation to set aside any pre-defined space for a fantasmatically coherent and recognizable, because totalized and prematurely closed off, “gay” identity, while continuing, on the other hand, to affirm the energies –always potentially resistant energies– that can be mobilized by acts of gay self-nomination that maintain their disruptive capacity by refusing to offer any determinate truth about the nature or management of “gay” sexuality.

      For Edelman, as for Leo Bersani who emphasized the same point in his presentation to you, the betrayal of gay identity is an ethical necessity for gay culture.
The same is true for lesbian and gay history. For the very task of recovering the history of our predecessors and forebears raises the question of who, exactly, counts as our predecessors, and, ultimately, the question of who qualifies as “we”. If, as George Chauncey has written, “much historical research [in lesbian and gay studies] has been an effort to locate the antecedents of those characteristics a given historian believes are constitutive of contemporary gay identity,” then the very practice of gay history raises the question of what those characteristics of gay identity actually are. What defines the gay identity of which we wish to recover the history: “sodomitical acts, cross-dressing, or intimate friendships”? As Chauncey’s own research into gay history has shown, to inquire into the history of homosexuality is necessarily to destabilize the very notion of (homo)sexuality as a universal category of historical analysis, for it reveals a plurality of homosexual identities and experiences which resist facile homogenization into a single, unified, and totalizing notion of gay identity.

      Conversely, to destabilize sexual identity-concepts by inquiring into their historical and cultural construction is to realize the radical potential of lesbian and gay studies, which is to disrupt the entire system of (hetero)sexual signification, to explode the very categories of thought (“homosexual,” “heterosexual”) on which heterosexism depends. If neither Edelman nor Chauncey is the least bit averse to claiming a lesbian or gay identity, either for themselves or for their work, that is because neither sees any real contradiction between claiming such an identity and resisting it, or between inhabiting an identity and inquiring into the political and discursive functioning of identity-categories. That the resulting struggle with the very categories that define us will prove to be powerfully, productively enabling, both for scholarship and for politics, has been from its very origin the fundamental wager of lesbian and gay studies.

      In a formulation that exactly captures the excitement, the difficulty, and the risk of gay identity politics, Foucault once remarked, “For me, what must be produced is not man identical to himself, exactly as nature would have designed him or according to his essence; on the contrary, we must produce something that doesn’t yet exist and about which we cannot know how and what it will be.” That ability to cultivate in ourselves the ability to surpass ourselves, to enter into our own futurity –that sometimes dizzingly scary, and obviously risky, but also exhilarating personal and collective experiment, performed on ourselves by ourselves– is what ultimately defined for Foucault, as it still defines for many lesbian and gay cultural activists today, the transformative practice of gay identity politics and gay studies.

1 David M. Halperin, “L’identité gay après Foucault”, Les Études gay et lesbiennes. Colloque du Centre Georges Pompidou, 23 et 27 juin 1997, ed. Didier Eribon (Paris: Éditions du Centre Georges Pompidou, 1998), 117-123; English translation by me in Gay and Lesbian Cultures in France, ed. Lucille Cairns (Oxford/Bern: Peter Lang, 2002), 17-24.