Post-Identity Politics

A month or so ago, the Globe & Mail ran a piece about Toronto mayoral hopeful George Smitherman, notable for potentially being the first gay mayor of a major urban centre in Canada (I guess Glen Murray doesn’t count). It was fabulously titled, “Gay politicians come out of the closet and into the cabinet – Is being gay a political non-issue now?” The age of identity politics is on its way out, if you believe the author, because gay politicians can now openly marry and kiss their partners in public, and don’t have to campaign on traditional “gay issues” like social welfare or multiculturalism. Instead, they are free to do the serious business of governing health and education policy. We are in an age where being gay is becoming an interesting tidbit on a biography instead of a factor influencing job performance – even for politicians.

And before we start thinking (as I did) that this is only a possibility in our wonderful Great White North, consider that Houston (yes, that’s in TEXAS) has just elected an openly gay mayor, and a woman at that. According to the Economist, the prevailing opinions in Texas’s largest city were that her experience mattered more than her diversity cred. Fancy that.

It is indeed a historical moment. Yet it seems funny to me that, if we are past all that minority representation stuff, these papers bother writing the articles at all.

I was reminded of the parallels in the corporate sector at a panel discussion at work aimed at discussing LGBT issues in the workplace.  One speaker noted that, since she had chosen to come out, it was part of her role as someone who was “out in the workplace” to educate those around her.  It made me wonder about the tension between acceptance – the point at which we can all just observe that someone else is gay, or black, or blind and have it not be a factor in our relationship, whatever its nature – and responsibility, namely the responsibility to promote this understanding and acceptance. Are we ever going to get to the point where a black woman can become the Prime Minister of Canada without her race and gender being a significant part of her identity? Will it ever be “business as usual” for the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to kiss his husband at a fundraising dinner? Or is the celebration of difference a key part of the responsibility of those who support equality and anyone who is considered “different”?

I am not a minority, in any sense of the word, in Canada – certainly not in any of its targeted “diverse” demographics. (Even with all of the inherent disadvantages I do believe are still present for women, we are technically not minorities – especially where I work, in HR. Recent statistics also show that women are now overtaking men as the majority of workers in rich countries.) So I don’t really understand this tension, or what it would feel like to have to always play the role of an educator.  Is it a burden? A privilege? Both? And to play devil’s advocate, if education of the ignorant is the end goal, isn’t this what empire builders and missionaries throughout history felt compelled to do when they  set out — to civilize the world and teach the poor, intellectually starved souls of far-off climes their superior way of thinking and living? Could they (or we, as members of the majority) ever hope to truly understand and accept, or will difference always need to be highlighted and set apart? What is the value in preserving differences when they can so easily become markers of value and worth?

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