Celebration and Suppression: The Strategic Uses of Identity by the Lesbian and Gay Movement1
Mary Bernstein Arizona State University
Critics of identity politics decry the celebration of difference within identity movements, yet many activists underscore their similarities to, rather than differences from, the majority. This article develops the idea of "identity deployment" as a form of strategic collective action. Thus one can ask under what political conditions are identi- ties that celebrate or suppress differences deployed strategically. A comparison of strategies used in four lesbian and gay rights cam- paigns shows that interactions between social movement organiza- tions, state actors, and the opposition determine the types of identi- ties deployed. The author suggests the model's application to the Civil Rights and feminist movements.
[The organizers of the 1993 lesbian and gay march on Washing- ton] face a dilemma: how to put forward a set of unsettling demands for unconventional people in ways that will not make enemies of potential allies. They do so by playing down their differences before the media and the country while celebrating it in private. (Tarrow 1994, p. 10)
Sidney Tarrow's portrayal of the 1993 lesbian and gay march on Wash- ington highlights a central irony about identity politics and the decline of the Left: Critics of identity politics decry the celebration of difference
1 I thank Edwin Amenta, Ellen Benoit, Nancy Cauthen, Kelly Moore, Gilda Zwer- man, Yvonne Zylan, and the members of the New York University Politics, Power, and Protest Workshop for comments on earlier drafts of this paper, as well as the AJS reviewers for helpful suggestions. I greatly benefited from both discussions with and comments from David Greenberg and Francesca Polletta. I would also like to thank Elizabeth Franqui for her crucial assistance on this paper. This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Dissertation grant (9623937) and by a New York University June Frier Esserman Dissertation Fellowship. Direct correspon- dence to Mary Bernstein, School of Justice Studies, Arizona State University, P.O. Box 870403, Tempe, Arizona 85287-0403.
1997 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0002-9602/98/10303-0001$02.50
AJS Volume 103 Number 3 (November 1997): 531-65 531
American Journal of Sociology
within contemporary identity movements, charging them with limiting the potential for a "politics of commonality" between oppressed peoples that could have potential for radical social change (Gitlin 1995). On the other hand, the lesbian and gay movement seems largely to have aban- doned its emphasis on difference from the straight majority in favor of a moderate politics that highlights similarities to the straight majority (Seidman 1993).
Over time, "identity" movements shift their emphasis between celebrat- ing and suppressing differences from the majority. For example, the Civil Rights movement underscored...