Are identity politics inevitable in order to stand up for (one's) rights?


Left-wing identity politics must be more about foregrounding people’s common concerns and not their common characteristics, says Dr. Julia Ehrt, Executive Director at ILGA World.

Schriftzug über einer Treppe: "Welcome to the common room"

I have been active in the LGBTQIA+ movement for over twenty years – in Germany, Europe, and the world. For our movement – or movements – that bring(s) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and non-binary people together and stand(s) up for our rights, identity politics approaches seem inevitable at first.

A look at history confirms this point of view – it is full of lesbian and gay, as well as transgender, intersex, and non-binary people who have struggled against exclusion, discrimination, and violence. Identity – be it homosexual, bi, transgender, non-binary, intersex (Note: the majority of intersex people see themselves as male or female), or otherwise defined, functions as an intense, often movement-shaping experience that connects people across many different political, ideological, cultural, and geographic differences, amongst others. ‘Deviating from a norm’ unites us.

This holds true for many groups: the clearer a group is defined and the more extreme their societal marginalisation and discrimination, the stronger the bonds within that group. This has led to severe demarcation and exclusion within the LGBTQIA+ movement – many campaigns, in particular the early ones, were supported or even led by transgender people, who were then ostracised over the course of the assimilation movements of the 1980s and 1990s, especially in the Global North. As a result, the LGBTQIA+ movement continued and continues, to be dominated by gay – for the most part, white – men. Despite everything, being LGBTQIA+ is creating a tremendous, unifying moment across many social boundaries. As with any other marginalised minorities, the shared experience of structural discrimination and disenfranchisement forms the basis for group cohesion. In this context, identity politics approaches are a means for negotiating for rights in the face of discrimination. This does not apply to all identity politics approaches.

The big difference

Approaches towards identity politics by the right and the left differ on a fundamental level: It is indeed about access to social resources and power for both. But the Identitarian approaches of the right bolster the respective hegemon – that is, the dominant group with respect to power and resources – at the expense of all groups labelled as ‘different’ (women, non-white, non-heterosexual people, etc.). Left-wing, progressive identity politics approaches, however, are about strengthening the societal and socio-economic participation of marginalised and disadvantaged groups. The objective here is the levelling of resources and power in terms of equality. Hence, a general critique of identity politics without specifying which kind is unproductive.

As stated at the beginning, identity politics approaches have not only proven themselves in the negotiation of equal participation for LGBTQIA+ people in Germany and elsewhere but also appear to be an opportune, legitimate, and even inevitable means in the political sphere. Ultimately, our representative democracy rests on concepts of identity, or at least on the notions of group affiliation, in that it assumes that politicians represent their voters, their constituencies, their party, and their federal state, and ‘get the best out of it’ for those same groups – as well as to be re-elected. Even the recognition that our parliament should depict a cross-section of our society and the associated insistence that more underrepresented groups (women, BIPOC, people with a migrant background, people with a disability or disabilities, people from financially poorer families, and so on), must enter parliaments, is rooted in notions of identity or identities.

Are identity politics approaches inevitable?

The flaw in or danger of identity politics approaches lies in that they easily enforce exclusion. It is also a fact that group-focused representation and organisation often hampers the forging of alliances and can lead to intersectional discrimination and marginalisation: If the LGBTQIA+ movement is always first about LGBTQIA+ people, this can be at the expense of the inclusion of other socially marginalised groups. Thus, women, BIPOC, people with a migrant background, and people with disabilities within the LGBTQIA+ movement are marginalised and placed at a disadvantage in that they are frequently not kept in mind when it comes to political demands. This in turn contradicts the (left) values of equal participation. It is precisely this seemingly intrinsic contradiction that left-wing identity politics is attempting to resolve, by concentrating less on identity-creating characteristics and much more on same or similar experiences. I would like to provide an example of this:

Almost fifteen years ago, I founded the Berlin-based organisation TransInterQueer with other activists. Back then, we did not just want to establish an organisation for transgender, intersex and queer people and advocate for their/our concerns, but make a political statement beyond that. We opposed traditional identity politics in equal measure and created an organisation for which the binding element was a common concern: the examination and critique of the gender binary. This made it possible for us to be an organisation that was open and connected people across the narrow boundaries of trans, inter and non-binary identities – TrIQ has kept it this way to this day. If we come together and organise as people because we reject the practice of the gender binary – hetero cis women and men can also be part of the organisation.

Today I work for ILGA World – the global umbrella association of LGBTQIA+ organisations with over 1,600 member organisations worldwide. And a change in mindset has also taken place at ILGA: In 2019, our general meeting adopted a new organisational strategy with an emphasis on reflecting diversity within our movement and empowering previously marginalised groups. In our language too, we are increasingly moving away from categories conceived in relation to identity politics, such as ‘LGBTQIA+ people’ and shifting to speaking of ‘people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC).

Putting the focus on experiences

At first glance it seems to make hardly any difference – the rewording, however, makes it clear: Every person has one or more sexual orientations, gender identities, and sex characteristics. Precisely this aspect enables us to detach our work from rigid identity categories and enter into alliances and cooperation with feminist organisations, for instance, and adjust our actions to be intersectional.

Identity is based on this perspective of mutual confirmation and recognition within a group of people with the same or similar characteristics and experiences. These commonalities can engender strong group cohesion that is ultimately based on the exclusion of others. This same exclusion is the flaw of any identity politics approach, as it ultimately contradicts left-wing values of equal participation and solidarity. Left-wing identity politics must therefore be more about foregrounding people’s common concerns and not their common characteristics. If we manage to build bridges across the shared experience of mechanisms of marginalisation and make that experience the foundation of political action, we will not only turn conservative identity upside down but also create a basis for political action that pushes beyond social boundaries for the good of all.