queer rights and game theory

In my social theory class, we had a week where we covered theories of sexual identity. A theme in writings from the 1980s or so is that the public adoption of a sexual identity is a political act. To say that one is gay or lesbian is to take a political position. Some people disagreed with that view. The two arguments go something like this:

  • One needs to take an open political stance on one’s sexuality because not doing so allows repression. Call this the militant approach to identity.
  • One needs to make their identity “regular” – queer people should not confront people so that being gay will be seen as an unremarkable identity. Call this the mainstreaming approach to identity.

This debate has a long history in queer politics, but there is one response that is usually absent, an argument based on game theory. One could argue that given the choice between militancy and mainstreaming, one should employ a strategy that combines militant and mainstream.

How does this argument work? Assume you have two “players” in the model – “society” and “LBGT.” The first mover is society and it can be nice or mean. But you don’t know what will happen. Maybe society is mean today, or nice. LBGT doesn’t find out until they encounter society and they have two responses – militant and mainstream. What does LBGT want? They want a repeated interaction with society that is nice. One strategy that will work is “tit for tat” – mimic what the first player does, hope he gets the message, and then they become nice.

Often people talk about how queers (or other minorities) should deal with allies and enemies. This model suggests an answer that is intuitive and supported by theory and research – tit for tat. Punish bad behavior and reward good behavior.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 10, 2014 at 12:01 am

7 Responses

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  1. Sorry, but I don’t think this works. The tit for tat analysis assumes that there is some aggressive about existing. Is it taking a political position for me to say I’m female? Is it taking a political position to say what my name is? (see my complaint on scatterplot). I’m not gay; my heterosexuality and cisgender identity is kind of out there in people’s faces all the time. (I suppose I should say for the record that I’m not making passes at people all the time, but the fact that I’m in a heterosexual marriage is pretty well known.) Is that flaunting my sexuality? Should I be careful not to offend people who are bothered by that?

    Or racial minorities. Is it aggressive to exist while Black? I agree that some racial/ethnic groups are not necessarily immediately identifiable. Canadians talk about visible minorities: people whose minorityness is unavoidably identifiable. Pre “coming out,” gays (& queer etc people more generally) could try to avoid notice, but it is not clear that having other people know you are not gay is society “playing nice.”

    But I’ve never hear anybody say that hiding who they are is “being nice.” I think it feels like oppression.

    I think the problem with this analysis is that whether saying who/what you are is a “political act” depends on whether someone is trying to suppress/repress you.

    Tit for tat would be more like I won’t call you a racist or homophobe or sexist unless you act like one first. Right? What am I missing?

    When you abstract it to the choices of militant vs.mainstream, it kind of plays better. But “forcing’ people to know your sexuality or ethnicity as militancy strikes me as off the mark.



    December 10, 2014 at 6:17 am

  2. Olderwoman: It depends on the identity. For example, to publicly say “I’m queer and I am here” (i.e., I exist) IS a political statement. That’s why people still say that. In other cases, it is more about interactional style. Should minorities openly be hostile to the mainstream?



    December 10, 2014 at 6:45 pm

  3. New Social movements challenge norms and assumptions about social identities. “Coming-out” for sexual minorities routinely breaks the assumption that everybody is a heterosexual (compulsory heterosexuality). This makes disclosure processes about power and politics. Moreover, out identities are generally an antecedent to doing political acts for LGBT rights (people going to a protest, contesting homophobic jokes, etc.).

    The mainstreaming approach focuses on respectability matters. This often is a technique to win over heterosexual allies. Mainstreaming is still political, but it is the older sort of coalition building politics.


    Lesbian Avengers

    December 10, 2014 at 9:14 pm

  4. But Fabio, where is the line between what’s a political act that militarizes identity and a public act that doesn’t? Sure, some identity claims are politicized statements. But is it also a politicized statement for a queer person to use clothes, tattoos, jewelry, or other expressions of the body to project their sexual identity? What about going to a gay bar, or holding hands with a same sex partner in a fancy restaurant? Some members of society might not play nice with those actions, but it doesn’t mean that they’re political statements.

    I think your argument works better in terms of organizational protest dynamics. Movement organizations and advocacy groups might find it effective to play tit for tat with other civil society actors, in order to develop alliances and coalitions (as LA mentions). But the model you propose for individual actors seems to always end up in repressed identities for non-heterosexuals in all but the most welcoming social environments.



    December 10, 2014 at 9:48 pm

  5. Jack: All models have simplifyino assumptions. Most social situations occur on a continuum.

    On your second point, tft actually implies the opposite, IIUC. The strategy says to be outspoken immediately upon repression.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 10, 2014 at 10:06 pm

  6. So I actually agree that there is value to thinking about mainstreaming vs. militancy and the tit for tat strategy. When the topic is strategy.

    What I was challenging is the idea that this is helpful for understanding the problem of whether to come out. And I don’t think it is. Being in the closet isn’t mainstreaming, it is being repressed. The mainstreaming vs militancy debate (which is of course real) around identity (as I understand it) is/was about whether gays/lesbians should basically present themselves as straight people who happen to love the same sex, or whether they should emphasize their critique of the whole nuclear family heteronormativity gender binary schtick. And even THAT has the problem that it can be repressive to hide one’s polyamory and other non-straight lifestyle preferences or complex identities.

    Where I think the OP was/is muddleheaded is in trying to apply the mainstreaming vs militancy and tit for tat ideas to the question of whether or not to reveal your identity. Passing isn’t mainstreaming.

    But of course, it is a political act to insist on your identity, when that identity is either being denied or stigmatized.

    Again, I’m saying that the two ideas — 1) it’s a political act to come out and 2) mainstream/militant consider tit for tat — are both useful ideas, but trying to combine them is a flawed analysis.



    December 10, 2014 at 11:51 pm

  7. I, for one, would be happy if I did not have to deal with this highly sexualized society. It is like an aging exotic dancer trying to get one more tip in her favor by being that much more lurid. It is sad and unconvincing.
    Making politics about what one does with one’s genitals and with whom reduces political dialog to farce. Any politician who tries to gain traction by applauding or denigrating such fluff is unequal to the task of ruling.
    The ONLY argument that builds up the body politic is equality under the law and individual rights. Any special pleading based on previous wrongs or perceived biases should have no moral suasion. Where do you take the snapshot to decide what is fair? How much do I pay for being old and white? How much should I get back for being the child of an immigrant, the great grandson of a Union Civil War soldier? The nephew of an abolitionist? A man who has served the poor of color for 40 years. Any abrogation of rights to “right the wrong” places our collective feet on a slippery slope.
    Do not tell me what identity you imagine will gain you esteem or disdain in my eyes. Show me your character and substance!


    W. Clark Boutwell

    December 12, 2014 at 2:33 pm

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