Updated: Feb 1
A friend of mine calls women girls. He likes to complain about their presence in gay bars, because he thinks of these spaces like gay gentlemen’s clubs, a place where an Oscar Wilde who didn’t die might do some Molly and entrap twinks in horny monologues about why centrist politicians aren’t that bad. My friend figures these spaces as homogenous, homosocial stomping grounds where he need not be confronted with the complex of queer identity that extends far beyond the rigid framework by which he understands his own. He was late to come out of the closet, too.
Circumstances meant I was able to come out of the closet relatively early, at sixteen. Circumstances also mean that I think any woman has a place on the dancefloor, at the bar, in the smoking area, living it up and enjoying herself, or even just feeling, hopefully, momentarily safe in an intentionally queer space. Reader, I’m a white gay man, so I understand that claims like these in only the second paragraph of a personal essay (groan) might have you thinking, ‘this is virtue signal-ley,’ or, ‘wow I hate this!’ Valid! But I have a point, I promise.
The same friend also always says he believes gay women have just as much a right to be in the gay bar as he does. When we hear this, of course, we all leap to our feet in a standing ovation, healed by the grace of his magnanimity 😌 Jk. By presupposing what womanhood on the dancefloor looks like—whether someone is a gay woman or not, or whether what’s being performed at a given moment is one or another kind of womanhood or femininity at all—one imposes uninvited categories of sex and sexuality out of a sense of entitled duty that’s completely paranoiac. This line of thinking reinforces mechanisms of the queer closet cathected with outing and the essentialization of gender and sex, this based on material performance and sidelong glances across a dancefloor. This line of thinking erases bisexuality and pansexuality. It erases trans and non-binary femininity. It’s despotic in its rigor, it’s violent, and its deferral to policing and the male gaze is indisputably patriarchal. It’s also so sad and lazy.
And it’s not a far cry from the same kind of paranoid outing that I know my friend and I have both suffered. Like at the famous 2007 pool party in the Orchard Brook subdivision of my hometown, walls paneled in plastic oak, air rank with chlorine and pubes, folding tables buckling under the weight of all the blanketed pigs. The hot and evil Freddy Palma points his finger at me from across the room, I surrounded by my girlfriends, and mouths the most damning word of all: faggot. ‘He’s just sad and lazy, just sad and lazy,’ I’d reassure myself in an uncertain whisper some nights, rocking back and forth, listening to the Cocteau Twins and wondering what Europe was like.
My friend and I have clashed extensively about his failure to connect the violence of outing that he’s experienced to that which he imposes on others whose identities he can’t comprehend. He is the youngest boomer I know.
I’m personally a proponent of a definitional queer sexuality that encompasses any expression of sexuality that’s anti-patriarchal. And a woman, a femme, a person enjoying herself on her own terms and for enjoyment’s or safety’s sake, pursuing sex, romance, friendship, a good time, a laugh, a dance, and a night of freedom, is inherently antipatriarchal. It’s queer.
The critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick took a lot of flak in the 1990s for her self-identification with gay men. Sedgwick theorised the queer closet as a construct imposed on queers by heteropatriarchy, with the construct’s instrumental mechanism being a phobic paranoia of how the closet’s unthinkable open secret could potentially threaten the ever-precarious institution of the nuclear family, if not rigorously and violently policed. Her incredibly (and for my brain sometimes impossibly) erudite cultural readings and accompanying theorizations radically impacted Western/White/Colonialist ideas about what sexuality and gender are and are not. But many people (gay men) felt that she was encroaching on their turf.
Listen up gaytriarchs: this isn’t even our dancefloor. You’re the TERF, the music isn’t really ours, nor is vogueing (or whatever it is that you’re doing with your arms), and please, for the love of god, it’s 2020: stop saying ‘werk’.
This is to say, I believe passionately in an inclusive and flexible definition of what it means to do queerness in ways that I will never personally experience. And the limitedness of any one person’s horizon of experience is part of the project’s political potential: a foreclosure of the possibility to appropriate and aestheticise another’s terms of existence out of an inherited sense of egalitarian entitlement. As reductive as it may sound, the radical acceptance of our inability to comprehend all personal truths, and to thereby defend the legitimacy of other peoples’ stories in which we play no direct or visible role, is an extremely urgent political project that all within the queer community must work to legitimize. And the truth is, the overwhelming majority of the community does.
To make matters worse, however, it’s the appropriation of elements of personal stories and their cultural artefacts, by factions within the community, that actively undermines this project. In this case it’s important to note that ‘appropriate’ means to seize, borrow, plunder, and thereby profit, from another in a way they’re unable to reciprocate. Hear me out: there is a clear and ineluctable link between the unthinkable violence that Europeans enacted and continue to enact upon the people and the land of the Americas beginning in the 15th century, and what happens when permissive neoliberalism sells music to middle class white people that was created by communities ravaged by police, or whose members are imprisoned in cages and experimented upon medically in the 21st century. It’s history 101 at the Iggy Azalea Memorial Academy of Branded Identity. And whether we’d like to acknowledge it or not, these appropriations have material consequences for people we maybe never interact with. What I’m arguing here is that the active refusal to acknowledge this fact as even a possibility also has deleterious material consequences. And this frequently happens when dry-as-dust gay dog-dads who work in marketing for ING, love drinking and dating flat whites, and speak fluent sarcasm (I just dissociated), feel personally attacked because their fragile performances of respectable heteronormativity suddenly feel thinner than a fragile on-screen performance by Armie Hammer.
Don’t get it twisted: this political project isn’t activist. Short of existing, it’s truly the most essential politics in which any queer person can participate. It’s the very least we can do. One’s thoughts matter, and it is possible to think material conditions into existence. Being trapped in a metaphorical closet someone else forced you into is a great example of this.
This is not to say, however, that the reproduction of patriarchy in lots of white gays isn’t probably partially (def only partially) some twisted rearticulation of internalized homophobia. Sedgwick demonstrated that the very construct of the closet, predicated on the ‘double-bind’ of simultaneous hypervisibility and erasure, mortal anxiety and theatrical performativity, can leave its subjects/prisoners so bent out of shape that they end up hating their very liberators, and themselves. A few decades after Sedgwick, and in the post-gay-marriage neoliberal conscience, ‘coming out’ is both celebrated and to be expected. Staying in the closet foisted upon you can only be the result of a characteristic weakness or fear—not, of course, because of mortal threat, cultural incompatibility with the metaphor itself, socioeconomic exclusion from the discourse of a productive coming-out, because it fucking sucks, etc. The closet looms incredibly large and none of us asked for it, and its incongruous and contradictory mechanisms live on inside us whether we wish to name them or not.
I’ve spent way, way too much of my adult life pining after straight men, for example (feel free to take a break at this time to stretch or clean the vomit from your keyboard). This is bonkers patriarchy and I know this even when it’s happening—which is, to be sure, nothing but fuel on the grease fire of the shame spirals that I’ve come to greet like old and familiar friends that turn out to be the bullies of my nightmares. But one of the great gifts of getting older and accruing life experience as someone in queer relationships and rendezvouses is my increased ability to cope with murky memories that still feel current by reminding myself that there is nothing hotter, more soul-affirming or spiritually fulfilling than being with a queer on any given goddamned day (or night, or dead of night, depending on your style). I also know of course that not every gay experiences these kinds of attractions, but it’s not a coincidence that some keyword variation of ‘straight’ is always the most searched item on Pornhub forward-slash gay (a joke by Pat Regan). Shakespeare holds a mirror up to nature, and Pornhub holds a mirror up to the nature of cusp millennials.
My most significant relationship (to date) taught me a lot of things: that four years is a long time to be in a relationship, that I shouldn’t date someone old enough to have parented me, that old traumas will inevitably rear their ugly heads no matter how hard you try to forget them or keep them at bay, and that it is possible to be loved. What a wonderful gift that relationship was, and I miss him and am glad it’s over every day.
I’m in a new relationship with someone who’s maybe lowkey the most soul-matey of the finite number of people I’ll meet in this lifetime (sadcore nihilism masking twee sentimentality is I guess my generation’s romantic shorthand? ✌🏻 the textual equivalent of that kind of panicked smile that Timothée Chalamet does on the one half of his face). My boyfriend is the most wonderfully idiosyncratic person to know, because it feels like the contours and topography of his idiosyncrasies coincide and chime uncannily with my own. We share a lot of pain, a lot of joy, and we laugh extremely hard. We respect and admire one another, and we work through the anger that we’ve clung to individually forever in order to make it productive. We talk about the things that we’ve shared, the things we’re grateful not to have endured, and how we want to change. I feel whole with him.
Queer solidarity is the naming of a past that’s hypervisible and also partially erased or willfully misremembered. It’s sharing deep and historical hurt. It’s co-existence with pervasive and often material violence, and the constant threat of it. The threat or fear of death. It’s the story of an adolescence that was especially bad. The story of yearning. A story of wondering and dreaming. Disenfranchisement and far-away role models known to us only through media and art. Of recherche cultural consumption. Of radical hope. Of survival. Of being the only ones that get it. Of shared taste. Of intentionality. Of making, and being the brunt of, jokes. Of devised community. Of emergency communalism. Of righteous defiance and activism. Of emergent selfhood, the sharing of stories, of experiences, of pain, and of forward-motion. Of laughing until you actually pee. Of joy. Of overcoming. Of love. Of art. Of colour. Of music. Of dance. Of food. Of comfort. Of family.
And the experiences don’t have to match up, either. The solidarity is about the hallowed and heterodox space that their concomitance can collectively foster.
Which is why I fucking hate it when the white gay men with whom I share community and space and experience disregard or disavow the need for continued solidarity with our queer siblings and extended cohort. Where is your compassion? Where is your understanding of our history? If you can post a thirst trap you can Google Marsha P.
If you are a white gay man, do you ever consider the material terms of community in your life? Who do they exclude? What is their material cost? Do they require abs?
Are your aspirations juridically and economically probable? Will you own a house? Is gay marriage of consequence to you?
Do you depend on a kind of solidarity? What is the language of that solidarity? Instagram? Branded Prides? Who is it with?
I’m not attacking anyone here, so much as I’m begging the others like me to consider this way of thinking not as an exclusionary, threatening one, but as one that can ultimately protect and confirm. Solidarity comes from the Latin solidus: free from empty spaces; full, whole.
That’s why I haven’t given up on my friend, because by railing on and begging him to consider the possibility of what he can’t understand I can also radically believe in the wholeness of us. I’ve usually got the energy to expend on his resistance to change, and he is changing.
The solidarity I believe in is even something I’ve seen practiced between my mom and step-father, as wild as that may sound. Each of them lost a spouse to a long, tortuous, blood-and-bile soaked battle with cancer. Each of them was the primary caregiver to a spouse who died, and the primary parent during sicktimes to young children. Susan Sontag’s elaboration of the metaphors of illness under capitalism reminds me of Sedgwick’s metaphorical vocabulary of the closet. Both critics proposed skeins of imaginaries and metonymies that twist and swerve through tireless signifying epochs of hegemony, accreting multiple and ‘contradictory applications’ across time. Their repeated usage is to be escaped, thwarted, or repurposed if it’s to be survived.
Is the love that my mom and Pete have found with one another queer? They have found peace and solidarity with one another within a topography of heterosexuals who do not and cannot really understand the contours of their romantic identification with one another. My mom and Pete speak freely and lovingly about their deceased partners. They co-parent children who are not their own. They love and lift up their queer children. They have founded a household and a community on a solidarity that transforms lacerating trauma compounded by time into scar tissue, and meaning, and identity.
Their love is queer, I think. But really, it’s not for me to say anyway.
I would love to have them in my bar.
Derek Mitchell is a writer and performer with two degrees in English lit, an unbridled passion for Meryl Streep (but in a cool The Hours slash Cry in the Dark way, not a Devil Wears Prada way or something), and a vast wig collection. He splits his time between London and Amsterdam (when there’s not a pandemic).