Queering Up My Identity: How Critical Theory Made Me Inauthentic.

As a gay man, I’m supposed to recognize that I belong to the LGBTQ+ community. As a white man, I’m supposed to recognize that I have the “original sin” of privilege.  Intersectionality within critical theory exists to tell me that my queerness is somewhat canceled out by my whiteness. The following statements have been said to me, “yeah, but you’re white, so you can’t say that,” “Gay white men have too much power over the community,” “You’re not really queer, you’re just another gay white guy.”  Somehow, because of a biological marker, I have been told I hold less value. But to whom, I guess I can’t really say. This leads me to the conclusion that my identity is really only valuable if I can claim victimhood. As a white man, I cannot, but as a gay man I can. However, someone who is gay and is not white holds more victimhood, and therefore, must surely be a bigger victim than I. There is a reductive dehumanization at the core of the current critical theory movements that has permeated the pop culture landscape and is threatening to infiltrate every aspect of our lives.  But this isn’t just a cultural criticism, it’s an exploration of self and identity. I will undoubtedly be forced to examine cultural implications that led to my current ideology, as well as the need for victimization that I find so prevalent in our everyday conversations now.  It seems what we need is the opposite of critical theory, a kind of recognition of human similarities, or at least awareness of our inclusive ability to be terrifically wrong about things, which we are. All the time. All throughout history. It’s not a dig at anyone, it’s just scientifically accepted that human beings are bad at estimating and deducing things in the absence of physical evidence.

I am not authentic. This realization, which I woke up to recently, literally, I’m using the expression “woke up” because I literally opened my eyes one morning with the pang of how inauthentic I’ve become. This sudden realization has led me over and over again to one unanswerable question; who am I? I know who I’m not, and so this seemed like a reasonable place to start. What are the things that absolutely do not define me? I spent months searching for all the things that I think the world sees me as, but are definitely not me. Who am I not? This discursive, cursory query only led me to angled, albeit astute alliterations. I won’t bore you with the list, but at the very top sits the word I cannot seem to escape from: authentic. I’m not authentic. This was at the beginning of the self-reflective journey that I now find myself entangled in.

I’m a student of critical theory. I went to grad school for creative writing, playwriting specifically, with an emphasis on “rewriting queer history,” a thought that now makes me cringe. I became a theater reviewer with a heightened mission of deconstructionism. I was a kind of post-colonialist arbiter of language. I would identify, through the lens of identity politics, the cultural implications of a piece, and if it was a commentary on a race, gender, sexuality etc. from outside the group itself, if there wasn’t a heap of irony and/or satire, I would eviscerate the weakness of the narrative, and call the thing a dated and misanthropic exercise in heteronormative conformity.  Why did I do this? I was inauthentic. I thought I was speaking as a member of a disenfranchised group, and I had some moral high ground to point out oppressive forces at work. At the same time, I thought I was a member of a dominant and inherently racist system that I had to point out as well. In short, I was virtue signaling. I used victimization as a sort of flag to plant in some ethereal, and entirely invented landscape of my own devising. Granted, I devised it from what I considered evidence in the world around me. Evidence, that turned out to be fallacious, illiberal and self-defeating. My writing suffered because of this. I externalized my internal struggle with victimization because I’ve quite contentedly always lived with the thought that rejecting victimhood is antithetical to real self-improvement. I do not wish to diminish actual victimhood. I do not claim that there are no victims in our society. What I do find, what I applied to my own life, and what troubles me deeply, is the idea that projecting victimization, while at the same time ignoring progress, seems to be considered morally correct, instead of being a recipe for self-hate, self-segregation, confirmation bias, anger, and ultimately a reversal of the liberal ideologies that have literally changed the world for the better.

I also recognize we do not live in a utopia. Racism, homophobia, sexism, bigotry in general does still exist and is still a very real problem. However, I believe hate is an outlier. How could it not be?  Reading books like Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, has opened my eyes to the lightning fast progress toward peace and away from violence that human’s have made. I know the world isn’t perfect, and hate and crime are still real. But, why do we insist these are the dominant traits of our culture? And why do so many people care how other’s define us? I think the clinging to victimization will only serve to erase what civil rights pioneers fought and died for. And that would be a tragedy on so many levels. Equality doesn’t mean everyone agrees. Democracy doesn’t work if diversity of opinion is quashed.

I reduced my own humanity and the humanity of others to a set of political ideologies. I used intersectionality and postmodern demagoguery as a myopic lens through which to interpret the motivations, intentions and moral worth of my fellow humans. As a gay man, I believed I was perceived as less than my straight counterparts. What this meant, I couldn’t really say, because it wasn’t my own voice, but rather the collective voice of what I perceived to be coming from the gay “community.” I was being fed the pessimistic notion that all of humanity can be summed up by the haves and have nots. I saw no room for argument. I would apologize for my whiteness, my shortcomings as a man, and I would stand on my “gayness” as the only authentic voice I could ever communicate through or from.  Thus, making my voice as a writer, limited and slightly confusing to most people who read it. And I was no exception to the ever-increasing ideology that a victimized “people” are always right and the oppressor, the dominant culture is always wrong. As a gay white man, however, am I half right and half wrong?

Why did I think this? I was inauthentic.

George Orwell- I know, I know, way too on the nose- said, “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” I assume there are other queer people who understand this quote, and can relate it to their identity. I now also equally assume there are straight people who can also relate to this. I grew up refusing to let myself even consider that I was gay. I forced myself to lie to myself to change the biological truth that I was powerless to change.  I was hiding the truth from myself, almost to the point of believing it. I really thought it would go away. Why did I think this? Inauthenticity has but one imperative, avoiding self truths. I wanted to be straight. Why? It seemed easier to be a part of the majority. I was bullied in school, sometimes to the point of running and hiding from physical threats. I dropped out of high school on my sixteenth birthday, when it was legal for me to do so, and got my GED. Why? High school, just like middle school before it, felt like a prison sentence, and so when an out was presented, I happily, ecstatically grabbed the shit out of it. I couldn’t conform, so I ran.

This idea that it seems easier to be a part of the majority has been a catalyst for me for as long as I can remember. And it didn’t even abate, in fact, it seemed stronger than ever the day I first woke up and had the thought that I wouldn’t change being gay if I could.  I was in my thirties when this finally happened, and I see it now as the product of my refusal to let go of the disillusionment that as a white man, if I were straight, I would have more privilege, and more access to success. I was certain that I would have been better off. I was caught up in the fantastical illusion of  “if” instead of the reality of “is.”  If only I could be something more. And success was defined only by materialism.

From an early age, I jumped aboard the political identity train in the wholehearted and earnest belief that it would lead to queer futurity. I believed the creation of “queer spaces,” was carving out a clearer and approachable queerness that would relish the individuality of queer people. My inchoate faith in such tactics filled me with the belief that in order to deconstruct hegemonic bigotry, queerness must stop being “othered” by the dominant culture, which was the heteronormative heterodoxy that can be seen in every aspect of pop culture. I went looking for confirmation that the world was homophobic. I only allowed myself to deal with things that I could interpret as negative toward my group.  I viewed everything I saw in pop culture including literature, film, television and theater through the critical theory lens that forces us to resort to Verificationism, which is like confirmation bias, but much more contrived. Confirmation bias, as I have come to understand it is when you cherry pick data, even so far as to only investigate evidence that will support your own theory or point of view. Verificationism is when you disregard the meaning of unfalsifiable claims, or everything that can’t be objectively proven. Like gravity, we should reject anything that seeks to undermine the clear evidence we have that gravity exists. Any claim to the contrary, is most likely an irrational conspiracy theory-style argument against it. Verificationism, as a philosophical doctrine has roots in positivism and logic, but when weaponized leads to illiberal argumentation that, like religion, requires faith in order to thrive. I had to disregard evidence, even truths, that didn’t align with my moral beliefs. I believed that homosexuality was an identity marker that was diminished by heteronormative culture, and I could find examples of this in anything I watched or listened to or read. I found it in Queer literature, in supposedly LGBTQ+ friendly television shows and in anything else that claimed to be diverse or inclusive. My Verificationism argument was: queer people are discriminated against by heterosexual society, and everyone is involved as either willing participant, victim, or ignorant dupe. In my mind, this was an unfalsifiable truth. If you argue this point, you are homophobic. Therefore, I can use as an example, anything in pop culture that addresses homosexuality. Anything at all, and it will prove my point. I, therefore, as a gay man, am compelled to scream in anger against anything I see as homophobic. And because the world is shifting toward this glorifying of victimhood, I am seen as an authority by straight people when it comes to gay causes. To doubt me, is to doubt all gay people, because my personal experience represents my group, so long as what I’m saying points to our victimization. If I pointed out that gay men are not victims and that the “gay community” is a social construct of self-segregation, I would probably have been seen as a “bad” gay man. #groupthinkisreal

What I didn’t recognize was the universality of confirmation bias. Homophobia does exist in the world, so if you look for it you will find it. This is true of every nuance of humanity. But to suggest that there is a utopia at the end of the tunnel that is current day life, a queer futurity that sees every gay and queer person as being seen appropriately, is to be blinded by ideology to the point of religious fervor. It’s also not reasonable to suggest that people will behave the same according to a biological marker like sexuality or skin color. But I used to believe the opposite was true. I was so far into groupthink that I actually mistook my own myopia as a side effect of being gay in a straight world. I would also get caught up in the idea that gay men who didn’t think like I did were somehow self-hating. I called many a gay republican a self-hater because there can be no other answer in the mindset of one who is clutching to groupthink as dearly as identity politics demands. And so, I became a kind of deep-sea diver of literature and subtext. I swam through the murky waters of pop culture and pointed out the shortcomings of heteronormative patriarchy when it presented its anti-queer, homophobic self- which of course, I saw as its truest self. If a deep-sea diver thinks that sharks are committing a seal genocide, he will be able to prove this to himself when he sees a shark eat a seal. He will also, however, be forced to dismiss everything else that make up the existence of both sharks and seals. He can then make it his mission to stop all sharks from “hating” and “discriminating” against seals before he can call the ocean safe for anything that isn’t a shark. It seems idiotic, right? I’m not making any comparisons to human experience, I’m just exploring confirmation bias. But the parallels to postmodern thought can be seen in the action of the deep-sea diver seeing only the negative experience of both sharks and seals, and discounting everything else.

Before coming to the ultimate conclusion, that I will henceforth explain, I found myself embroiled in a debate with a friend about the toxicity that Queer Eye has on the gay community. I saw the five men on the show as all having a sinister agenda. First and foremost, they are all some form of gay stereotype perpetrated by a heteronormative imperative. I’m not defending this argument at present, I’m saying that this was my view when I had this debate. Each of the five Queer Eye guys, I argued, must look perfectly tailored, they must be physical with one another because gay men are highly sexually charged, they must use the word “girl,” when addressing men, they must be caught up in “appearances,” and no matter how disguised behind the idea of self-love their words seem, the actions of these men is to make people “appear” a certain way, thus projecting a false image of success as something as easy as making yourself look less fat, or getting a better hair-cut. Basically, falsifying confidence based on what you look like. It’s more important how people see you, then to be who you really are. Image culture at its worst. I saw them each as nothing much more than a representative to a category of stereotype. Why did I see this? Two important reasons; first, my clinging to victimization told me that I had to look for the stereotypes, which seems easy enough. Second, I believed all gay men represent all other gay men. Plain and simple. I applied basic ignorance to an entire group of people. This was not my own doing, we are absolutely taught this by postmodern ideology. Bad representation of a minority is unforgivable. Why? The only logical answer I can come up with is that all gay men are the same and therefore, we must always be represented in a universal and positive way. We say this about ourselves. When we say things like Chris Cooper’s character in American Beauty is an unacceptable portrayal of a gay man, what are we really saying? Look at all of us as the same? Gay men can only be good people? Nuance is for straight people? What are we really saying when a fictional character literally becomes a representation of all of us? Same thing is happening in the black and Latino communities. I hear the same rhetoric. I hear people say things like, “that’s not a true representation.” Of what? All of you? So, what this seems to be saying is that all minorities should only be seen as a group and not individuals. We should all be rejecting this on humanitarian principles. The men of Queer Eye may be leaning into inauthentic versions of themselves, but they might not be. And it doesn’t matter. They are not me, and the fact that I may share a biological marker with them means as much as if we were all left handed, or shared the same eye color. There’s no logic in my thinking they represent me. Because they don’t. Nor should they have to. Believing otherwise, is the road to a kind of circular suffering of identity that will never be solved. I understand that representation is important, and everyone has the right to want to see themselves in the world. But when an entire group of people are represented by one character, or one story, the burden of responsibility on that one representation is too great, and humanity gets stripped in the name of political causes.

Hence, the idea of queer futurity must be utopian. Because I’m a victim, and victims must be morally right. The only real conclusion I ever got from this illogical syllogism was that in order to thrive as a gay man, I have to glorify my victimization. This logic is also applied to critical race theory, gender studies, and all postmodern beliefs that place identity politics ahead of individuality. Our educational systems are promoting pre-enlightenment stances on science, logic and mathematics because of things like identity politics, critical theory, and positionality or the political idea that one’s identity is completely dictated in terms of race, gender, or sexuality.  Positionality suggests that biological markers are socially created, and where you fall in terms of skin color, sexuality or gender will determine your outlook on the world. So, the combination of identity politics, critical theory, and positionality tells us that identity is nothing but a political abstraction. You are not an individual, you are an extension of others who share your skin color, gender, or sexuality. And if you are not in the dominant group- straight, white and male- you must shout your victimhood, and hold onto it, for it is the main component of your being. That is how I had to be gay. And before I could have the realization that led me to writing these very words, I had to reconcile my race. I was fueled by the thought that I’m questioning all of this because I have the privilege of being white. Gay white men are in a strange position, a kind of dual citizenship in the world of identity politics. How do I deal with the white thing?

Am I trained to see bigotry? Why do I assume it’s always happening? This is the direct cause of a system of beliefs that first seeks to dehumanize and then to shame. I have friends, family members, professors, and co-workers who are white, black, Asian, Latino, and Native American, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary and all of us spout vitriol about white oppression and privileged systems of power that cause actual physical harm. The system is rigged to favor white people.  And while this sounds an awful lot like religious dogma, I felt guilty for a long time for being the wrong race. But it didn’t stop there. I would feel transphobic if a transgender teacher challenged my ideas of gay male power, whatever that is. I would feel misogynistic if a woman told me I said something offensive. I would walk on eggshells around certain people, policing my language in an attempt to protect them, which I now see as an offensive form of coddling. But I also believed as a white man, that I was part of the problem. There is only an underlying violence toward all subjugated peoples, a caste system as Oprah recently reiterated, that exists ignorant of any effort. It just simply is. This is a cultish argument of trust us by our authority that the world is broken. You can’t see it, but we can. But how can we fix something if we can’t see where it’s broken? And you can’t ask minorities what to do to make it better. And you can’t question the veracity of the claim that the system is racist, without proving yourself to be a racist. It’s a perfect tautology. It’s exquisitely incomprehensible and impossible to fix. The solution, then, is to confess to your participation based on your skin color or gender or sexual orientation, commit to stopping your participation in the system, and then to do penance to apologize for it. The problem is what is the “it” we’re talking about? When I investigated what the proposed steps should be for eradicating bigotry, in the wake of the George Floyd killing, when I really believed white people had to do something to change the anti-black sentiment in the country, I came up with the following:  As a white man, gay or not, I am to feel the stain of original sin. Noted activist Ibram Kendi has written this out in a Tweet, he used the phrase “original sin” to describe white privilege. And I can vote. End of list. I already did both of those things. So, the answer was basically just live in shame. I’m familiar with this line of thought, it’s how I spent the first twenty years of my life trying to avoid being gay. It broke my heart a little when I would hear my friends telling me that my biological existence inherently has hurt them. Growing up gay this was my greatest fear. I understand that they are the myopic ones in this scenario, and I reach out to them with compassion and love because people who feel traumatized need it the most. And the trauma is real. The thing about perception is that it is what we say it is.

When I finally came out, I shifted the source of shame and inauthenticity to the straight world around me. When in truth, I didn’t experience homophobia on a regular basis. I’ve had maybe two encounters of actual homophobia in my adult life. And I was never unsafe because of an opposing point of view.  I thought I was. I thought I was discriminated against all the time. I would interpret people’s behavior toward me based on whether they knew I was gay or not. Anything anyone did that was negative was because I was gay. It was exhausting. I was growing hateful toward total strangers and I had to stop.  

I witnessed fear of gay people all around me when I was a kid because of the AIDS epidemic. I grew up in the 1980s and 90s when attitudes toward gay men and the community were rooted in genuine fear. The gay men I saw represented in pop culture were flamboyant, hyper-sexual, and usually the butt of jokes, unless they were really attractive, then they could be objects of desire. I took all of this to mean that I should assume the world would see me as a dangerous and sexually promiscuous effeminate scourge on society that is totally disposable. Identity politics was taking real shape at the same time the gay community was forming its own liberation, and the combination has led to the current day political gay identity. I say political, because I see no real reason to consider the idea that an actual community of gay men exists because making a sexual desire the basis of an identity is as preposterous as doing the same because of skin color.  What connects gay men? Their same sex attraction. So what would a community of gay men do? Have sex? Critical Studies would also elude to the fact that all gay men are victims, and that our voice of what it is to be gay can be the only voice of authority on the subject. Unlike multicultural studies, Critical Studies seeks to remove even the possibility of a homophile. Homophile was what the early gay activists of the 1950s dubbed themselves and their allies.  If an Anglophile is someone who learns and loves English culture, without having to be English, or a Francophile does the same with the French, why couldn’t a straight person become a homophile and dive head first into the gay culture that Critical Studies insists is not only very real, but also very fragile and needs to be coddled to for fear of erasure. Also, science demands objectivity, and so how can a gay man objectively view himself, if he and his sexual orientation are speaking for everyone else who happens to have been born with the same sexual orientation? It seems any queer studies, based in any science, are a clear conflict of interest if studied by someone who is queer.  The only answer with any real logic is that gay culture doesn’t exist, and that a biological marker of sexuality isn’t enough to build a community around. It would be the same as having a culture of left-handed people. There’s not enough difference from right-handed people, plus you have to ignore everything you don’t have in common to justify a self-segregation.  This is not to negate the huge strides necessary by the gay liberation movement of the 1970s and 80s. Liberalism demanded progress, and slow as it may seem, gay people are winning the fight against prejudice and anti-homosexual legislation in America. The fight was for equality, not uniformity. American culture has widened every decade since the 1960s.  The organizing of Pride, of marches against discrimination, and the creation of groups like GLAAD and the HRC are all products of a fight for equality. If we look for confirmation in how America has become gay friendly, we’ll find it. We’ll find more instances of progress than people looking for only the negatives will find.  Queer theory feels like a huge step backwards. It’s telling us none of that progress matters. If one homophobe still exists, we have all failed. It also says that the “invisible” homophobia that we’ve all been complicit in has been poisoning culture in secret all along. That we haven’t actually made progress, but just been blind to the truth. Religious dogma again. It feels like how a conspiracy theorist argues his point.  I reject this as unreasonable and impossible to maintain. If a baker doesn’t want to make a gay wedding cake, that doesn’t prove that the world is against gay people. I wouldn’t want to make a MAGA rally cake, and who would blame me? Opposing viewpoints are essential to maintaining democracy. It is not violence to state your views. It does not make people actually unsafe because you don’t want to serve gay people. Ignorance is not treason. We will lose all allies if we start pretending that everyone is against us. I am resolved to not only stop believing in the awfulness of my fellow humans, but also to learn to do the opposite, and trust that people are coming at the world with what they think are the best intentions. You can’t hold the view that people are generally good and be involved in any way in critical theory. Critical theory doesn’t allow a different opinion, or an opposing view. These two premises lead me to the logical conclusion that critical theory is illiberal, and anti-democratic.

For me, it comes down to something that has nothing to do with cultural beliefs, and yet, strangely enough, has everything to do with why culture is where it is in 2020. And I will only speak for myself. I didn’t know myself. This concept is deceptively difficult to grasp. I am inauthentic because my identity relied on how others saw me. My beliefs were deeply rooted in a group ideology that I didn’t question. The world was a bad, hateful place to me, and it was decades of thinking like this that led to my being a cog in an imaginary system that determined my worth. I now believe the opposite is true. I believe opposing views are important. I believe people have a right to speak out against what they think is wrong. This means all people. Not just the ones I agree with. An advocate has the right to say “transgender is a mental illness,” as much as I have the right to say that transphobia is anti-humanistic. I do not have a right to say that I have more of a right to say what I believe because I deem it morally superior. That’s not how freedom works. When one loses the right to say their beliefs, we all lose chunks of our freedom. Democracy is not one-sided, and it must never be. No matter how awful a person’s idea seems to us, they must, must, must have the right to have it. Democracy is when the people of a society are the voice of that society. Blaming everything on a broken “system” is really just saying our fellow humans are broken. I refuse to believe that’s true. And I am determined to start finding the evidence of the good, of the progress and leave behind the negativism that we must not allow to become the voice of our democracy.

I’ve been inauthentic enough as to nearly be devoid of coping mechanisms for my own individuality. I’ve relied on my assumed identity, based on what my group should be for so long, I felt immediately lost at sea on a faulty raft that I purposely built to sink. And so, before I ended up in the deep blue void of existential angst, I began to question myself. I began to believe that other people’s beliefs are not facts, but just patterns of thought, either their own (authentic) or a product of groupthink (inauthentic). I stopped value-judging the difference between authentic and inauthentic, and focused instead on really learning who I am. No one else can ever know us better than ourselves, and what a tragedy it would be if we saw ourselves through eyes that aren’t ours. And so, the answer became, that I should stop looking for answers outside of myself, and instead find out who I am, and what I believe, and never let anyone else define me. Ever again. No matter the cost, the pain and the alienation that may come from people who don’t want to call me their friend anymore. Knowing myself means I don’t have to worry what someone else might think of me. Knowing myself means honesty trumps political correctness, and each human being I encounter is an individuals worth so much more than to be thrown into a group because of their biological markers. So, the slate is being cleaned. And there’s a lot of excess ideology, a lot of knee-jerk reactions, a lot of old behaviors slowly being wiped away. They still creep in every day, and I acknowledge them and wait for them to pass. It’s a challenge, but the days are brighter, the world is kinder, and the future is hopeful. For the first time in a long time I have no outside expectations for myself. I get to be just whatever I am. I feel like I’m coming out of a cult or some deeply felt religion and into the light of something much more peaceful. It may be a little late in life to suddenly get born all over again, but as Neil Simon wrote, “at least I got the walking part over with.”