I’m a barrel of contradictions, I must admit. I’m poor, but feel rich. I am a man and I also have qualities that are generally called feminine. Long ago I stopped worrying about that. My identity as a Dutchman is under pressure, now that I feel more and more European or even a citizen of the world. I was born a Catholic boy, but since a few years I am now an atheist without any registered religion.
I love Holland and I am against Black Pete and xenophobia. I love football, but I cannot stand the heterosexism of the supporters and sports journalists. Yes, I like soccer players but I don’t identify with them. And I don’t particularly care for the hysterical masses that ritually cross the Amsterdam canals during Pride. Yet, I personally love queens just as much as I like tough guys. I am certainly not the only one who is a barrel of contradictions.
The String from the Letterbox
Experts would say: Michiel, you are having an identity crisis, just like Western society as a whole. Populists solemnly speak of a loss of values and norms, and that this loss is disrupting society, even destroying it. Words like orphaned and uneasiness are often repeated in their plea. I can only tell them that I have done my very best to question and shake off those old norms and values. They will then claim that I am the typical product of my time and upbringing. The 1960s did a lot of harm in their eyes. Opinion leaders say: we have to go back to the old days, when a piece of string could still hang from the letterbox so that everyone could just go in, without knocking or ringing the bell.
My answer to that is that every age will have its variation to that theme. In the twenty-first century it is not a physical string, but a spiritual string of resistance, pride and creativity. Because it may be that the silent majority gets stuck in nostalgia in well-secured enclaves, in their own identity of acting “normal.” Many gays are guilty of that as well. Behind their computer they have a go and pick fights, safely in their internet bubble that was created by dark algorithms from marketing companies and social media.
They are made scared of other people who do not meet their standard, have a different skin color or religion, have a different culture or have different sex habits. Yes, that may all be true. But what should we do about that fear? There are new allegorical pieces of strings tied to the mailbox necessary. And they are not put there by frightened people, but by people with courage and an innovative spirit. We need cross-grained thinkers. New commitments. And it is precisely the people who dare to go against the grain who encounter the most aggression in this time of shouters and angry people.
I am a cross-grained thinker. I have never felt tempted to come out of the closet since I found out that I love men, on the contrary, the socially enforced confession of every gay youth was something I saw no need of. That may sound strange for someone like me who was on the barricades for gay liberation in the late 1970s. But even then, I thought our fight had nothing to do with the ritual of coming out. There are many other ways to make it clear that you are attracted to men. The coming-out is the worst option. It is a heteronormative confession and has nothing to do with freedom.
Gay sex is, in my view, an act, not an identity. So: I am not “gay,” I have sex with men.
The coming-out is relatively recently a means of combat, but it comes down to an embarrassing humiliation, a public penance. As a boy I felt intuitively that I had to let go of this ritual for my own mental and physical health. I was too proud for it. Why should I have to confess my deepest desires, and not heterosexuals? The GLBTIQ alphabet soup of recent years is confessional politics squared. It is a cry for help from frightened minorities who are tolerated by a heteronormative compulsion, just as society also tolerates soft drugs: in a hypocritical way and full of contradictions.
For example, as a gay person today you can get married, but unsuspecting homosexuals are still regularly abused on the streets. The law protects us, but the chants in the football stadiums spill their hatred of our kind every week. In the classroom at school, “homo” is the most used word of abuse. One still needs to be careful on the street, every gay person knows the danger, actually just like in the old days. Not much has changed. Being gay still is not a picnic. What was constructed a hundred years ago, to know a homosexual identity for the purpose of emancipation, is now perhaps a dead end, as our social identity as a gay minority has not brought us security.
I’m the Other Person
People cannot be put in quantitative or qualitative boxes. I strive for respect for everyone, not by claiming my own gay identity, but by putting into perspective and problematizing this whole caboodle of modern identities. I repeat after the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa: I’m the other person. I exist only in relationship to others. In 2019, however, identity politics is booming, in right-wing and left-wing circles, among gays, Jews, Muslims, and black or Caucasian people. The so-called ordinary people are also getting involved to the teeth. It is a cultural struggle to the death, and whoever wins remains to be seen.
Unsurprisingly, these different identities are played out against each other.
I’m white, you’re black, I’m straight, you’re gay, I’m female, you’re male, I’m trans, you’re gender neutral, I’m Muslim, you’re Christian, I’m sexist, you’re feminist, I’m pro, you’re anti.
It seems as if the traditional Dutch divide in socio-political blocks of the beginning of the twentieth century has been replaced by an individualized form of these blocks, namely a conglomerate of different identities opposing each other. In the past on the street, a Catholic boy did not play with a Protestant girl, even though they were neighbors.
The Dutch emancipation movements of a hundred years ago (socialists, Catholics and Protestants) ensured that their youth grew up in a completely separate block from the cradle to the grave: school, leisure, church, marriage, sports and club life, university, union, burial ground and mass media such as newspapers, radio and TV - all equated in an ideological block or pillar, as it was then called. Nowadays, segregation reigns supreme, but on a much more individual level and down to the most intimate matters. And again, the emancipation movements are the driving forces behind these social definitions.
Coming out is compulsory. Like-minded seek each other out, and if you do not belong, something must be wrong with you.
Me, Myself and I
There is another group that has declared its identity King. I’m talking about smooth and slippery marketing guys. They create an identity around a product, service or company. Without identity that is not possible, they say. Thus, they invent the necessary backdrop to sell toothpaste, flowers or vacuum cleaners. In the Netherlands, if you choose Becel butter you will always remain healthy and happy. Grolsch beer is only for the happy few, and Amstel for real men. A true queen loves the Eurovision Song Contest. In this moment to yourself, the brand determines your identity. It’s all me, myself and I. If you don’t act normal, you’d better piss off. This unfortunately also holds true in the gay community. It is indicative of the harsh social climate of today.
The color of your skin determines which school you attend, your political preference determines which TV programs you watch and which newspaper you read, your income determines which district you live in, your internet behavior determines your political voting behavior, gays exercise at their own gay sports clubs, and highly educated people have their own exclusive dating site and insurances. Identity determines everything nowadays. Identity is not only a commodity (see Facebook), but also personal self-esteem and added value socially speaking. It all boils down to social segregation.
With the increasing influence of algorithms on our lives, the issue of identity has only become more urgent. It even seems that the two developments of identity movements and internet algorithms are reinforcing each other. Because modern people are retreating into the save haven of their internet bubble, populism from the left and the right only gets a stronger hold on us. The algorithms of the new media give the impression of you’re being right - and justifiably so. They confirm their own identity against the others that need to be fought. It is a snake that bites its own tail.
I’m not going to take any part in that. I refuse to embrace one certain social identity, although the whiz kids at the government and the capitalist high-tech companies will beg to differ. They have already put me into the statistical post-modernist elite group, a typical early adapter - they pretend to know me better than I do myself, based on my browse behavior on the internet. I can try to protect my privacy, but that is not possible in the current state of internet affairs. It is put up or shut up. Furthermore, there are the identical fanatics who set the tone of the debate, the nationalists, populists, racists and fundamentalists of all kinds, xenophobes, homophobes, the people who call themselves “normal” and think everything is fine as long as others adapt to their normality, actually only because they have a right to speak and others should not.
But there are no normal and abnormal people. The distinction makes any discussion impossible. It puts a stop to the conversation. It is an absolute exclusion. I am opposed to that as respect should be mutual. The social cliché is my enemy, the algorithm is my devil, the statistics must be approached critically. Let a thousand identities thrive in every individual.
Facebook’s bad behavior when it comes to privacy indicates that we have to take matters into our own hands again, because otherwise Big Brother will indeed be watching us. Social media form a threat to democracy. Our social identity compulsion has become the all-encompassing enemy of ourselves. It limits our scope of action and our view of the horizon. It is a conspiracy? No, we are the ones who make identity that important.
Digital Zeros and Ones
Let’s see some issues in their correct proportion. Sex is lust, horniness, desire, call it love, but don’t call it orientation or identity. The fragmentation of the homosexual identity in all kinds of GLBTIQ letters is a rear-guard action without a winner. It will only lead to more segregation. There is a world to be won in the open space between pro and anti. We as humans are not meant to be limited to digital zeros and ones, our lives are not digital, we vibrate outside of clichés, our blood is not a different kind of red than others have.
We want to love and touch other people, flesh and blood, we live in an open space under a radiant sun. We all dream of the infinite galaxy, of happiness and boisterous sex. We do not belong in boxes. And yet we constantly put each other in one, and with unwavering enthusiasm. Who will oppose what you could call a voluntary form of apartheid?
I am the other person. I am many identities. That gives me no identity crisis but a less restricted life. Not to get away from every problem, but to be able to take on any challenge, with the right nuance and the necessary determination and courage. Let us stop the identity politics of the left and the right. Cherish the many identities that shape your life. That is better than having just one. Be rich in who you are or aspire to be.
Queer people, dare to live!
Michiel Bollinger (1957) is a freelance text writer and theatre maker. He was once a member of the Amsterdam “Red Faggots” (1976-1980), a collective of friends in opposition to the coercion of the heterosexual norm.