One of the projects of queer theorists has been to analyze and critique the use of identity politics, and to propose a notion of sexuality that is much more fluid than contemporary labels such as heterosexual and homosexual allow. However, at the same time that identity politics are being critiqued as inherently regulatory and stifling, they must also be recognized as a useful tool in struggles for equality.
Judith Butler sees identity as a double-edged sword. "Identity categories, she writes, "tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression." Butler's view of identity canbe compared to the term "stumbling block" as used by Foucault. Butler refers to Foucault, saying, "a Foucauldian perspective might argue that the affirmation of "homosexuality" is itself an extension of homophobic discourse. And yet 'discourse', he writes on the same page, 'can be both an instrument and an effect of power but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance, and a starting point for an opposing strategy. The words "stumbling block" is key to Butler's perception of identity. If fact, she uses it three times on the same page in her discussion. Butler finds identity categories useful in that they can be stumbling blocks for homophobic discourse; they are potential sites of resistance. However, she is also wary of the capability of hegemonic discourse to prevent revolutionary uses of its terms, and to reassimilate those who attempt to do so.
Butler's ambivalence has to do with the limitations of speech, and the impossibility of knowing or affirming sexuality. She says that "[My ambivalence about identity categories] does not mean that I will not appear at a political occasion under the sign of a lesbian, but that I would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign signifies." Butler is aware that ignorance, silence, and exclusion from discourse is one of the ways in which discrimination is effected against queers. However, she would also like to support silence because she believes that sexuality is precisely that which cannot be known, pinned down, or categorized. For her, it is the publicness of compulsory heterosexuality, the publicness of "coming out" with its impossible promise of making ones homosexuality known, that she disagrees with and sees as being inherently connected to homophobic discourse. This is the focus of her distrust of identity categories as being inherently regulatory, and she would like the unknowability of "homosexuality" and of all sexualities- to be a site or resistance.
Butler's theorizing about the unknowablility of "homosexuality" and sexuality in general, takes specific sex acts and desires from the center of "queer". Butler writes, " I'm permanently troubled by identity categories, consider them to be invariable stumbling blocks, and understand them, even promote them, as sites of necessary trouble. In fact, if the category were to offer no trouble, it would cease to be interesting to me; it is precisely the pleasure produced by the instability of these categories which sustains the various erotic practices that make me a candidate for the category to begin with. " In these sentences, Butler locates pleasure, not only in erotic acts, but in the escape from regulatory categories and compulsory heterosexuality. she sees "installing herself within an identity category" as "turning against" lesbianism. thus she makes being a lesbian -- a set of sexual desires, acts, fantasies, grounded in certain perceptions of sex and gender-- identical to the fluidity, the differance, the instability that those acts/identities create on compulsory heterosexuality and the binary systems of sex and gender. Butler embraces the use of identity categories such as lesbian only because they can destabilize compulsory heterosexuality. Once this project has been effected, she sees identity categories as harmful and contradictory to a more fluid, unnamable conception of sexuality.