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Who Is Queerness For?
And where do our identities come from? And what do we owe them?
In 2013, my Tumblr bio proudly announced that I was a depressed, bisexual aromantic SuperWhoLockian with generalized anxiety disorder. This is the closest experience I have to “coming out of the closet.”
At the end of Plato’s Symposium, the orator and statesman Alcibiades, often regarded as the one of the most handsome young men in Athens, drunkenly bursts into a dinner party filled with some of the most prominent thinkers of his day, and—to put it delicately—begs for Socrates to fuck him. Socrates declines.
In 1900, Oscar Wilde dies at age 46, penniless and in exile after spending two years imprisoned for homosexuality. Upon one of his final trips outside his hotel deathbed, he is reported saying, "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go."
James Baldwin writes, I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night.
Candy Darling dies in 1974 in New York City. Peter Hujar photographs her on her deathbed—she has never looked more beautiful. Thirteen years later, Hujar dies ten months after being diagnosed with AIDS. His former lover and protégé David Wojnarowicz would die five years later, two and a half weeks after the Fourth of July. A year after Hujar’s death and four years before his own, Wojnarowicz would be photographed wearing a leather shirt decorated with a pink triangle and the words, “If I die of aids - forget burial - just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A." Three years later—two months before—six ex-boyfriends—ten hospital visits—fifteen city blocks—a thousand empty chairs—seven presidents—a hundred milligrams of zidovudine—another empty chair———
In 2012, a pimple pops on my forehead at the school dance. I don’t notice. A pinprick of blood dots my forehead, half the size of one of my freckles. I cross the cafeteria, the long blue tables folded in half and relegated to the edges of the room to make space for tweens covered in Axe body spray and Maybelline purple eyeshadow, to look for a friend. I pass by a popular boy with a buzzcut who stops me, then turns to his friends and says, “you better not touch Charlotte or you might get AIDS!” They all laugh. By this point I’ve been called a dyke and a faggot more times than I can count and more than once those words have come with a swift punch to the stomach. Two months before, his father saw me crying in a snowstorm because of something my brother said and slipped me a chocolate bar and told me it’s easier if you don’t let other people’s words get to you. He said he had a son about my age and I might know him. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I don’t know how everyone knows something about me that I don’t understand about myself.
It's November and I’m seventeen, visiting my parent’s house from college for the first time and my mother asks me if my friend from high school is “still, you know, doing that whole they them thing.” I roll my eyes and take my defrosted Trader Joe’s dinner back to my room.
Is it LGBT? LGBTQ? LGBTQ+? LGBTQQ2SPIIA+? Queer? People of marginalized sexual and gender experience? Are kinky people queer? Are poly people queer? Are demisexual people queer? Who gets to be queer?
Here is an opinion I never thought controversial until I voiced it out loud: you can have gay sex and be straight. In fact, you can have gay sex every day for ten years and still be straight. Because being “gay”—being queer—is not an identity formed by action, inaction, or attraction, but by politics. Actions alone do not form identities, identities are formed when actions are contextualized (and moralized and marginalized) by political and legal systems.
In Ancient Greece, penetrative sex between men was commonplace, largely during the practice of pedastry, a mentor-mentee relationship between an older man (the erastes) and an adolescent boy (the eromenos). It takes a Google search to find out about the history of homosexual sex in the United States Navy or the British Navy or probably most other navies. The ocean is vast and people get lonely and people get horny and that’s that. This is, of course, an absolutely gross oversimplification, but hopefully serves as a condensation of this point: there is a distinction between homosexual acts as institutionally acceptable forms of sexual release and queerness as the identity we understand it as today.
The through-line of queerness as an identity throughout history is political opposition—policy and violence specifically meant to silence queer voices and queer futures. But it is not only pain that defines queer identity; because under the crushing weight of this structural antagonism, joy in the face of persecution becomes a radical, revelatory, communal action. There is community in the shared experience of feeling like you’re doing something wrong for wanting something you shouldn’t have, something that is spoken about as the punchline of a joke or the corrupting force of a society. There is community in the joy that comes from deciding you will suffer stares and punches and swift goodbyes from family members and maybe other things that are much, much worse, because the deep and complex love given freely and honestly between people like you is vital and downright magic.
The history of LGBTQ+ activism is not perfect, it is not without racism and classism and transphobia and in-group fighting. But what movement is? We shouldn’t let the unserious and narrow-minded individual go uncriticized, but we also shouldn’t forget the lessons of Stormé DeLarverie and Felix Gonzales-Torres, Vito Russo and June Jordan: solidarity as oppressed people is an inherent challenge to dominant power structures, identifying how power manifests and inflicts violence is paramount in dismantling it, love and joy and intimacy in the face of persecution are materially meaningful statements.
Anyone can invent an identity made up from social justice words if they want something to talk about, the frat boy on Adderall who wants to sleep around and choke women during sex can label himself as neurodivergent kinky aromantic heterosexual polyamorous and not be incorrect (though I think the biggest usage of microlabels comes from teenagers who want to feel unique and special—hardly a crime) with no broader assessment of power. What is it about queerness that is so threatening to capitalist, imperialist, Christian fundamentalist power structures? What does the practice of “being queer” offer the world that is perceived as dangerous?
Perhaps it is the undermining of the nuclear family as the sole pathway to happiness and meaning. Perhaps it is the resistance to the idea that men must dominate women and women must give themselves to men. Perhaps it is the fact that being out and being proud displays a commitment to something other than dominating political systems. But most of all, perhaps it is the assertion that we don’t have to believe in the myths of capitalism or patriarchy or empire, that when we build our own communities and take charge of our own happiness, we find something far more profound than we could ever get from following the pre-determined pathways laid out in front of us.
To see a mass resurgence of homophobia and transphobia is, in some ways, surprising; in other ways, it seems like the natural evolution of right-wing fundamentalists trying to find marginalized people to exploit, to manufacture social panics that position themselves as moral authorities. To see gays, lesbians, and bisexuals distance themselves from the trans struggle is, in some ways surprising; in other ways, it seems like an inevitable vow of loyalty for the sake of self-preservation that has always infected the most individualistic members of all sociopolitical movements.
At its best, engaging with the fundamentally political nature of queerness allows us to see our position as subjects of systems who must work to dismantle those structures of oppression. This examination of what queerness means—or more importantly, what queerness is—necessitates a sense of solidarity across the LGBT community, and with all other marginalized communities. If what we want is to feel free while working and resting and playing and fucking and dancing and loving, we must understand that the form of violence seeking to destroy joy and community for queer people is the same form of violence that seeks to destroy joy and community for the disabled, the poor, the incarcerated, and the racially marginalized. The mass attack on trans people, socially and politically, is the result of transphobia. It is also the result of an empire struggling to assert control over its population by dictating its own definition of who we are, and who we can be.
It is difficult to write about things that feel so obvious—as I write this piece, I wonder why I am writing it at all. When I sit down to write, I like to focus on the things that I need to work out in my own mind, ideas that are half-baked or hard for me to understand, and through the process of putting them to the page I find my conclusions and convictions. Why am I writing this? I suppose, if nothing else, it is because I feel guilty that I can’t do more to help. The time and energy of putting words on a page feels like doing something, even in the increasingly likely situation that this essay lives forever as a .docx file buried in the MISC folder on my desktop. I don’t think I am articulate enough or important enough to change many people’s minds, but I do hope that, if nothing else, someone somewhere can feel like there is a large group of people who care about them.
You should care about the struggles of trans people first and foremost because they are people who are suffering at the hands of a hostile system. Empathy is the deepest basis for solidarity and community and thus transformation and change. You should also care about the struggles of trans people because their struggle is the queer struggle, drafted in Washington by politicians and enforced in the streets by cops and regurgitated in PTA meetings by fearful, empty people. To be queer is to be in celebration of the present because of an understanding of the past and a hope for the future.
The brunt of this current iteration of this transphobia is directed at trans women for the stated goal of “protecting” cis women (though, of course, trans women are not the only victims of transphobia). This line of rhetoric is remarkably convenient for patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia because it is able to use “feminist” rhetoric to assert the following: people with penises are biologically predisposed to violence against people with vaginas. People with vaginas are biologically predisposed to be the victims of violence. Women are biologically driven to greater gentleness and maternal instinct, they are defined by their ability to give birth and receive gender-based violence. No matter how transphobia tries to frame itself, it is premised on the assumption that men are violent beyond their control and that women are cursed from conception to be the dialectic recipients of that violence.
Take, for example, the belief that Daniel Radcliffe’s pregnant girlfriend is a trans woman, or the slanderous and contested article written by a Tory councilor about an interaction she had in a women’s bathroom. The author writes, “I emerged from mine at the same time as the woman next door, who, at about 6ft tall, towered over me. She wore a skimpy top which made her shoulders seem bigger. And she spoke with a strikingly deep voice. A trans woman.” Both stories, one about a cis woman and one about a trans woman, are told from the point of view of a cis woman who is afraid of another woman because she is not suitably feminine enough, because she fails to exhibit or perform a certain image of womanhood. Being six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and deep-voiced is hardly a dead giveaway that someone is trans—I myself am only three inches short of matching that description. Yet these so-called feminists believe themselves to be in imminent physical danger when they see a woman who is not proportioned like Marilyn Monroe. Even transmasculine people face ridicule for perceivably “corrupting” a sex object from men—how many right-wing Twitter accounts claiming to be bastions of logic and reason have posted about a trans man’s transition only to lament that they no longer want to fuck the after photo?
The threat of queerness has always been its unabashed collectivism. Queer solidarity is a statement—it screams that the rewards of capitalism and empire granted upon assimilation, the job and housing security given to those who play straight or cis, will never be as powerful as the love and strength of those who are out and proud. It is this rejection of state control that defines the political movement of queerness. To fall in love (romantically or sexually or platonically) with someone of the same gender is to say “I am more than a cog, I will do more than reproduce a nuclear family, I understand that beauty and truth cannot be bought and sold.” To this effect, the trans struggle is not a component of the queer struggle—it is the queer struggle. The attack on trans people is fundamentally an attack on body autonomy, politicians are loud and clear that their hatred of trans people comes from a resentment that their adaptability and resilience is a fundamental threat to reactionary conservativism.
This is all to say that the parameters of what is or isn’t queer is fundamentally meaningless if it does not consult with the material, political realities of power and marginalization. We cannot view recent legislation against trans people ahistorically, we cannot pretend like it isn’t motivated by the same violent struggle for control that motivates anti-abortion or even anti-union legislation. We must be enraged for our siblings suffering under these policies, but more importantly we must understand that our rage is the product of a deep, real, radical love for everyone whose bodies and hearts and minds are treated as disposable pawns for politicians and CEOs. There is no pathway to liberation but the collective rejection of bio-essentialist prescription, and no pathway to collectivism but learning and love and light.