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Along the same line with the post on labels, Sartre’s essay “Portrait of an Inauthentic Jews” provides the necessary framework for us to explore the “inauthenticity” of an identity, whether it is Black, Asian, of gay. In Sartre’s formulation, “authenticity for [the Jew] is to live to the full his condition as Jew; inauthenticity is to deny it or to attempt to escape from it.” In other words, a Jewish person had to accept the reality that others saw him as a Jew, with all the prejudices and mythologies that went along with that identification, before he could truly be himself. The alternative, according to Sartre, was pursuing “avenues of flight” that made the Jew complicit with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

While I was riveted at Sartre’s words at Cafe Flore this morning, within earshot a guy was raving on the phone about a man he hooked up with the night before at the gym. He certainly wasn’t shy about publicizing all the details of his number even though the audience didn’t ask for them. I ruefully reflect that these are the things about gay men–the uninhibited sex, the soliciting, the multiple partners–that I want to tone down. In this post on social covering, I discussed how toning down a disfavored identity (usually a minority one) and downplaying a stigma help one fit in the “mainstream” at the expense of the true self. So if I were to live to the full my condition as a gay man, does that mean I have to live with all the prejudices that go along with this identity in order to be authentic? To be complicit with anti-gay stereotypes is the last thing I want, but instead of going with the flow like cruising, clubbing, hooking up, dressing in leather, being in the scene, can’t I assert some individuality here? Why do we have to make sense of the world with labels and categories?

2 Responses

  1. Indeed. Out with labels and categories. I would argue you ought to assert some individuality. I think perhaps “autonomy” is the key word; “authenticity” seems more like something dictated from the outside–handed down from on high, as it were. We confirm our legitimacy not so much from conforming to this or that “identity” (or how some authority might define that), but through our own careful observation of what it means to live and relate as human beings. And individuals must take responsibility for this themselves. We accept labels and categories at our own peril–especially when we do so in the absence of examination or thoughtful experience. The notion of authenticity can be very misleading, not to say damaging, if accepted within the context of glib or prejudicial generalizations. As our life proceeds, we gradually discover who we are; as we acquire experience we require less and less “authentication”from outside sources; we learn to give ourselves permission to live according to our own lights, to exercise our own tastes, to live within our own mores and values. And surely we should encourage and extend that freedom of judgement and all its attendant responsibilities to others, as well.

  2. To quote Belinda Carlisle, lead singer of the Go-Go’s (and I don’t do this often), “I just couldn’t be a Go-Go 24-hours a day.”

    When I came across that quote, I felt down on myself because I didn’t live up to the stereotypical image of a gay man. Reading that quote made me laugh and created a shift in consciousness.

    We’re individual pie charts. We are made up pieces that reflect ancestry, ethniticity, religious, socio-economic background, sexaulity, career, physical appearance, our psychological and emotional makeup, personal taste, etc. Any one of those pieces of pie may be used to describe a part of us, but like a photograph, it doesn’t give a three-dimensional image of who we are. Authenticity is living with your hear congruent with your soul in my book.

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