The Compartmentalized Identity Model
and How it Affects Today’s Queer Community
When we try to compartmentalize identities to a miniscule level, things get out of hand and become unintentionally harmful. Singular identities such as “gay” or “lesbian” or “bisexual” are not just used to label who we are — they are also shorthand for how we occupy space. I occupy space as a trans gay man. It’s easy to say that; it helps me align myself with a specific community, history, and identity. But I do not list the multiple facets of my identity — it is egregious and unnecessary.
The sexual/romantic dichotomy robs social identifiers of their historic usage and context, and delineates them to pragmatic, scientific terms. When “homosexual” or “homoromantic” become norms, then people are allowed to use the terms “heteromantic” and “heterosexual.” Straight people, by taking apart their identity, distract others from the fact that they are cis and straight — inherently oppressive toward queers. This isn’t always intentional, but its effects are indisputable.
Cis ace heteromantics or cis aro heterosexuals are not queer. They have only compartmentalized their identities, tore apart the social identifiers which once labeled them as non-queer, and are now trying to enter queer spaces. They say they are asexual or aromantic, but forget to mention they are also cis and straight.
Labels help define social standings. Cishet aro/aces are still cishet, and therefore still benefit from the privilege gained by being implicit in queer oppression.
I had a riveting conversation with another queer person yesterday about anti-indigenous sentiment in the queer community, and they said something I will probably never forget, which I am going to paraphrase now: in a community like the queer community, where we put so much emphasis on the common identity which separates us from the rest of the world, we forget that there are other axes which separate us from each other.
This phenoma is what has been bogging queer politics down for the last few years, and it is key to understanding the compartmentalized model of identity.
It is true that asexuals/aromantics face hate, but it is a hate unique to acephobia, separate from homophobia and transphobia. Ace people have a lack of sexual/romantic attraction; queer people have a non-normative sexual/romantic attraction and/or gender identity. This is an important distinction to make, as it influences the mechanisms of the violence inflicted upon us and how we react to that violence.
Queer has a specific history related to gay, bisexual, pansexual, and transgender people. In the 1990s, at the tail-end of the AIDS epidemic, a group called Queer Nation arose. They wanted to create a political body which included cisgender queers as well as trans people; in previous decades, trans people were often excluded from rallies and demonstrations. Cisgender queers believed trans people were too eccentric and would hinder the advancement of queer rights. More often than not, they would specifically harm transgender women; in 1973, Sylvia Rivera was booed off stage while she tried to talk about incarcerated trans women.
Queer Nation knew of this exclusion and sought to remedy it. In their manifesto they said: “when spoken to other gays and lesbians it’s a way of suggesting we close ranks, and forget (temporarily) our individual differences because we face a more insidious common enemy.” As their influence grew, people began replacing “gays and lesbians” with “queers,” a single word which denotes victims of homophobia and/or transphobia.
You may be asking yourself “why is this guy quoting a passage about forgetting differences in an article attempting to emphasize them?” Allow me to clarify: I am not focusing so much on “forgetting our differences,” but the “insidious common enemy” mentioned, which is, naturally, the cisnormative heteropatriarchy.
The compartmentalized identity model takes queer politics to a micro-level of simplified identity, when in reality everything is influenced by a larger social web. Cishet aces benefit from the cisnormative heteropatriarchy but try to enter our spaces, forgetting the other axes of identity which separate them from real queer people. A lack of sexuality is not the same as a non-normative sexuality, and, historically, it has been preferred over being gay or transgender (see: Alan Turing’s torture and death).
With gay marriage legalized and trans rights on the horizon, the queer community must remember that its members occupy many spaces within society. Cishet aces mistakenly calling themselves queer is not the only blunder we face.
As Caitlyn Jenner skyrockets to mainstream attention, we cannot forget trans people forced into sex work, or young trans children forced into reparative therapies.
As gay people around the country celebrate their freedom to marry, we cannot forget the homeless queer youth left on the streets.
It is a mistake to push for a singular queer collective when numerous queer people need specific needs. By creating a heterogenous political body, many members are going to get left behind. If the queer community only focuses on queer rights, then queers who also face racism, ableism, or another form of violence, will be unable to join the fight.
If we do not acknowledge the differences between us, nothing will be truly accomplished. It is harrowing to think that there is still so much to be done, but if we talk to one another and come to a consensus on what we all need, then our community will become stronger than ever before.
Today’s queer community is obsessed with academia and articulation. What is the right and wrong discourse? Where do I stand, as an individual, in the queer community? What language can I use? How do I use this language?
Perhaps this is because the days of public demonstrations and protests feel far away. Stonewall was forty-six years ago. The AIDS crisis is now a scary, abstract concept instead of reality. With the birth of the internet, our power has shifted from the street to online petitions, articles, and thinkpieces. We are obsessed with critiquing queer ideology without knowing our own history; we turn against each other instead of larger society. The compartmentalized identity model is only a small symptom of a larger problem: we have forgotten how to be a true community.
Many of our past leaders such as Leslie Feinberg, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Lou Sullivan, and more, are now gone. The torch has been passed onto the current queer generation raised in an individualistic age, and we are so focused on the future that we often forget the past, or even worse, the present moment.
Navigating the future of queerness requires action, not the expansion of words or theory. Some believe that the hardest battle is over, and the next step is to broaden the definitions of our vocabulary in an effort to reach a larger understanding of our identities and world. Candid conversations between marginalized populations is necessary, but not the creation of an all-inclusive demographic. Dissolving our differences weakens our purpose and results in a loss of resolve.
A quote from Sara Ahmed summarizes this best: “Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.”