Sitting on a train back to Manhattan from Westchester recently, I reached the last page of the only book I’d brought with me. The sole reading material I had now was an advertisement a few feet away from my face: “HOW BIG IS THE PERFECT FAMILY?” If your family felt just right, why not get a scalpel-free, outpatient vasectomy? A father and what I suppose was his perfect family enjoyed the sunset together on a beach, not knowing that above them was an invitation to undergo a bit of family-planning mutilation. Yet if they were to see this text, it probably wouldn’t make much difference. Their identity has already been immortalized in this image, perfect because immutable.
Quentin Crisp wrote: “I didn’t come out. I was never in!” By Crisp’s standards, I’m a late bloomer. I didn’t feel gay until after I started college, after almost 20 years of wanting a “normal,” heterosexual family arrangement. For me, the straight world just hadn’t been the nightmare that it is for some gays. My unexplored desires seemed incidental at most. I described my sexuality in the way that has become chic: “open-minded.” Once I got to college, I discovered that my mind had been far from open. My desire for male companionship grew in a way that caught me off guard, in that way hidden selves often do in university. The place I found myself in was not the fabled Closet or any of its so-called “epistemologies.” By way of my own desires, I was forced to face how much of what I thought I wanted had been shaped by my upbringing and social class.
What we are failing to see today, even as we speak more of “intersectionality,” is the convergence of sexuality and aesthetics. That is what gave birth to my gay self. Pre-Stonewall identity was especially attractive to me, because it flourished, unlike today’s politicized atmosphere, mostly out of sight. Through books, films, art, and cultural history, I realized that I was included in a millennia-spanning tradition of outsiders, despite my bourgeois upbringing and unwavering sense of security. Gay filmmakers, such as George Cukor and Jean Cocteau, made a particular impression upon me, because they seemed to provide windows into an alternate state of consciousness in which everything, even suffering, was beautiful.
For all the scholarship and “deconstruction” the academy has churned out in recent years about homosexual (or “queer”) aesthetics, it’s as simple as Oscar Wilde’s four-word philosophy: art for art’s sake. This reverence for style, in resistance to axiomatic moralism, remains the most potent argument against censorship, from both outside regulators and inner reluctances. Gays should be proud that their heritage helped produce it. Championing the imagination’s powers is more necessary than ever in our careerist atmosphere, in which young people are encouraged to “network” over polite business lunches and follow-up phone calls, constantly running on the gerbil wheel of cramped and predictable office lifestyles. I clung onto the identity of gay aesthete because it seemed the only antidote to life’s banalities and disappointments. But, as college came to an end, commitment to my chosen version of gay identity began to feel like an evasion tactic. Like the father in the vasectomy advertisement, I’d ignored everything less than perfect outside my identity cage.
I’m speaking out as a fresh college graduate against the identity obsession on campuses because it’s important people see that critiquing identity politics doesn’t have to be vapid, “alt-right” thinking. Identity can be wonderful — as long as we know it’s a theatrical mode of self-preservation. The strained seriousness that our culture is using to propagate identity like an alchemical cure to all of life’s problems is deeply troubling. The trend on campuses for student “identity collectives,” though they should be free to meet without administrative interference, is a bad omen for my generation’s mental health (not by coincidence, another campus craze). As my friend, the writer and painter John Sandbach, likes to say, “Most identity is bad art.”
Yet all the media proselytizing against “political correctness” will fix nothing. Only a change in education can do that. The way that my generation frames its critiques of contemporary culture essentially mirrors the content of college syllabi, a testament to the university’s power. The expansive survey of world cultures that I received in my own degree, Classics, is desperately needed in the wider curriculum. It’s simply impossible to study intellectual history seriously and maintain belief in identity’s all-importance. Aeschylus’ Oresteia is essentially a dramatization of Athenian identity politics. Like today’s students who stridently dismiss the “patriarchy,” the god Apollo says, “The mother...is not the parent, but the nurse of the newly-sown embryo.” Yet Agave, mother to Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae, performed 50 years later, decapitates her own child in the throws of Dionysian delirium. By violently resurrecting the mother, Euripides reminds Athens of its constricting identity delusions, anticipating later psychological concepts of repression. All our own fixations and struggles with identity have happened before. The complexities of history elude both utopian liberals and snide conservatives.
In a perfect world, every university would brand onto its iron gates a Gertrude Stein remark: “Anybody can see that identity has nothing whatever to do with the human mind.” Each generation must fight its unique oppressions. Yet in doing so, we set up barriers if we view everything through the lens of sex, gender, race, or class. Time pushes us forward even when when we feel trapped in idleness. Surging into uncertainty, we grab onto identity after identity, monkeys swinging through trees. Like the Tarot’s Fool, it takes much more courage to risk the drop.