Radical Queerness: Destabilising “Normality”
First Published: Newsletter 17/06/20
Author: Riley W
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I don’t think it’s controversial to say we’re living in a time of unprecedented change for LGBTQ+ people: gay marriage has been instated in the UK for years now, pride movements around the country are being praised across the board, and trans rights are on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Suffice it to say what was the rising gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s has emerged, mutated, become “accepted”. Some would argue we are accepted now, that things are better, but such acceptance only goes so far. With the emergence of the popular LGBTQ+ movement comes the emergence of the popular queer individual, one constructed by and for the purpose of upholding a regime of normativity under the guise of the liberated. For those of us who do not fit into the normative standards of queer existence in 2020, society is perhaps not so liberating, it is perhaps a threat to our own history as a queer community, and a denial of our suffering. Normativity enforces what traditional discrimination cannot: the ability to be yourself, but within reason.
In her essay ‘How To Bring Your Kids Up Gay’ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes that to the revisionist analyst ‘the healthy homosexual [man] is (a) one who is already grown up and (b) acts masculine.’ This is of course as true today as it was in 1991. The discourse around queerness - around sexuality and gender identity both - is still one that screams ‘don’t rub it in people’s faces’ or ‘save it for pride’ or ‘think of the children!’ In other words: ‘act normal, assimilate’. Sedgwick’s healthy homosexual perhaps ceases to exhibit what we might call “queerness”, instead belonging to a homogenous idea of the “normal individual”- one whose performance of sexuality is non-essential, one who cannot be seen for their difference, but who is fully entrenched in normative masculinity – the “normal” gay, the “ideal” gay, is the invisible gay, one whose sexuality is hidden behind closed doors- cannot be seen unless in private or else on dating apps. Normativity denies difference, it re-closets sexuality and gender, renders those discriminated against for their sexuality or gender identity hidden in plain sight – and because it hides our difference, it also hides our abuse: if you cannot see us, then you cannot see your own bigotry, if the idea of seeing a feminine man or a masculine woman, or a visibly nonbinary individual upsets you, then that is yours to change, but if we are invisible – and we are taught that that is the best way to be – then you can freely ignore our difference, and our history of abuse, you don’t have to be challenged.
We can of course see this in our media, through the establishment of characters who “just so happen to be gay”. I for one don’t just so happen to be queer, it’s a vital part of my identity, it shapes who I am- it has challenged me, hurt me, and given me pride. Queerness ought to be more than a “just so happens'', our sexual and gender differences are small compared to the rest of the stuff that makes up a personality, yes, but they are nonetheless major components of our selves. When art reflects that LGBT+ identities simply “don’t matter” then it enforces that same denialism of discrimination, refuses to acknowledge inherited trauma and the existence of a present discrimination against sexually and gender diverse people under the state and capitalism. It pushes the narrative that gays are “just like you and me”, and while this humanizes it once again homogenizes.
Think about the LGBTQ+ people you’ve seen on TV, think about how much they’re praised for good representation, while resting in nuclear-family units in big houses in the suburbs, how the clean cut and wealthy masculine gay man overwhelms where the poor non-normative masculine trans woman might fall. Think about what that says about us, that we privilege the wealthy, the male, the “passing”, while demoting the different, the experimental, the poor. We queers have been messing with gender at least since “queer” hit the dictionary, but the mainstream only picks it up when it’s reasonable, profitable, and therefore acceptable. You can’t be yourself until you have the money to prove it.
And this unfortunately invades our own communities too, discourse on whether trans people can call themselves trans if they don’t pass, haven’t had SRS (despite the price), don’t have the right voice (despite the difficulty), shape (despite fat people’s existence), clothes (despite personal taste)- all things that are driven by white normative standards of gendered beauty under capitalism. Even I, as a nonbinary person, struggle with this- always persisting to standards of androgyny that I could never in a million years meet, in the hopes I’ll pass, I’ll be accepted. And sexuality persists in these stereotypes too- “no fats no fems” discourse surrounds the gay scene, particularly on apps like Grindr, and limits the autonomy that MSM have over their body. We are infiltrated by normative discourses, they harm us even when we know their source, and it is okay to feel their pull, the draw to be “normal” in the hopes it will provide us less scrutiny and more safety, it is similarly okay to fit into those normative standards of presentation if that’s what makes you comfortable- but we should still be critical of these institutions and systems that demand normativity of us, of how they operate and how the structures they establish can harm us.
To be queer, then, is to embrace difference, to challenge the status quo with a visible history of trauma. Heather Love describes ‘queer’ as a word that ‘you can hear the hurt in’, and indeed by experimenting, performing a weird, queer antinormativity we can establish a radical kind of selfhood oppositional to capitalist and establishment values of sexuality and gender, values which have seen us criminalised, pathologized and violated- by performing queerness we can push through hardship to a powerful selfhood where our difference matters.
The truth is that these problems are systemic and institutional, they are enforced by the doctrines and narratives that persist in the space and culture around us. The dismantling of the queerphobic ideal gay is part and parcel with the destabilisation of the state and capitalism, it is the tearing down of an ideal that is too safe, too restrictive, too ignorant. In order to be ourselves we must avoid the sticky labels, have respect, responsibility, and above all representation for those of us radical enough to screw with the gendered and sexual presentations- we must condemn the nuclear family back to its bunker and reimagine the self in wild and original ways. The future needn’t be normative, the structures that render us similar ought to be able to be distorted: don’t save your pride for Pride, be weird and wonderful and united in this world- then one day maybe change will come.