This still makes me really uncomfortable.
2010 was, I believe, the year when more people read what I wrote than ever before. It’s like I’ve activated a latent superpower, for all that it has changed the way that I live and work. I can’t lift cars or shoot seminal metaphors from my wrists, but I can speak and be heard. Looking back at the archives I see a body of work, a constellation of successes and failures that I feel proud to have written. That is an odd and amazing feeling. But I’m still somewhat ashamed of it.
Finding a voice and having that voice amplified by people you respect and being the recipient of so much support and encouragement and hand-holding has been wonderful. But this honesty still terrifies me. So for my first few posts of the year, I’m going to talk about things that make me uncomfortable and give voice to the negative, censorious ideas that make me wince every time I write something for Tiger Beatdown. I mean, you just don’t talk about your problems to strangers. That reflects poorly on your family, your friends, and your municipal community. It makes you a traitor to your poor beleaguered ancestors trundling across continents to produce an heir who does what? Sits around all day being conflicted about the utter lack of bones in his wrist? I MEAN JESUS GARLAND, THERE ARE BOXES FULL OF PICTURES OF GOOD DEAD CHRISTIANS TO CONSIDER. Covered wagons were employed to transport your genetic material from the East Coast to the West, and this is how you thank of all of these poor sad people? Those people went through Oregon Trail so you could exist, and this is how you repay all of their river fording and oxen losing? If life hands you lemons, shut up and suck on those damn lemons. If you’re different from other people you should keep that to yourself. No one wants to hear any of that. Be a good representative of your family crest or your tartan, and bear your burden with silence.
That isn’t external. All of that is going on inside of my head. You think that once you embrace your identity that you’ve slayed the beast. But all those nasty things you used to say about yourself just get modified, they don’t go away. It stops being “I’m worthless because I’m gay” and starts being “I’m worthless.” You don’t deal with this when you come out because you think the hard part is over. You’re surrounded by people who seem to have their self-hatred shit ironed out, and when you try to discuss these sorts of things you get shut down by the emotional policing of your peers. “Come on, man! Ditch that internalized homophobia! Love yourself!”
When I came out I was still very homophobic. I felt like I needed to give strength to an emerging consensus that painted me as calm, rational, and masculine. A friendly, innocuous queer. I did this by comparing myself with men I considered weaker, sillier, braver, and more obnoxious. I looked at queer culture and queer history and wanted everyone to assimilate, to pipe down, to be silent. I dressed like a slob and cut my own hair and tried to affect a very apathetic masculinity. I felt like if I could do things like work in hardware stores I could transform myself in pain and silence from the sissy to the man I was meant to be.
While I was attempting this desperate metamorphosis, I hated the radical parts of queer culture and felt I needed to distance myself from them. I knew these things could be and would be and were being used against us and opposed them for the good of the movement. I felt like homophobes were looking at things like Tom of Finland and it was shutting down conversations before they began. If you’ve never run across the work of Touko Laaksonen, he drew erotic drawings of men. Very rough, butch men. Anatomically-confounding men, cavorting in and out of uniforms of masculine power and dominance. If you’ve ever flipped through an old issue of Honcho, you can get an idea of the amount of moustache and leather boots we’re dealing with here.
Tom of Finland was emblematic of all of the ways in which queers occupied and “perverted” traditionally masculine costumes. It was hostile and sexually transgressive. It held up masculinity as a performative sham by exposing the ways in which masculine costumes are arbitrary cultural signifiers, rather than immutable facets of male conduct. It attacked the rigid Sumptuary Laws of Gender that radical queers define themselves against in order to create a space for a fluid gender identity. It was like asking if Abraham Lincoln was gay, or putting a handkerchief in your back pocket, or smashing the crotches of two male dolls together to prove a point about possibility.
That was the sort of thing unfriendly queers did.
Unfriendly queers, LIKE, got all up in your face about it. I wanted to be a friendly queer. I wanted to amuse and delight the straight people I met, to show them how safe and lifelike and unthreatening queers could be. This was my job. I had to set an example. I’ve tried to do that to the best of my ability on the Internet, to always be patient and understanding. Even when straight people are showcasing some MATRIX-LEVEL dodging skills in the comments in order to miss the point and make it all about them. I’ve read the catty blog posts and the snarky tweets and I’ve been quite a good sport about all of it.
I knew that becoming The Unfriendly Queer and getting angry about this shit wasn’t conducive to doing my duty as the representative of all queers, everywhere. I would be continually available for interrogation. I would be nicer than you deserved. I would never disappoint anyone by insisting that I was the authority on my own experience. My entire life would be one long debate. FULL DISCLOSURE: Part of this was my fault. We teach people how to treat us. If you absorb a certain amount of abuse, they start testing the fences for weakness. Once you’ve taken on that siege mentality you try to play it safe, you try not to offend, and your writing nosedives.
This is a muzzle I’ve put on myself. Out of a really embarrassing need to be liked. Because even after you’ve learned to love yourself, and gotten respect from some of the smartest people currently working and writing in social justice, you still have all of those old ideas about queer identity in your head. You still see yourself as a monster, or a jester, or a Tom of Finland picture. Something hideous, something that should remain silent and polite and inoffensive, until its voice is deemed safe enough for general consumption.
Finding your own voice is only the first step. You still have to speak in that voice without flinching. Without feeling like you need to apologize for it or explain it. You still have to teach other people how to treat you. At some point you just have to stop being polite, and start getting real. You have to stoke the engine of your activism and polite, submissive anger isn’t an adequate fuel source.
I understand Tom of Finland now, even if I’m still a gigantic prude about it and prefer to employ an alternate storyline a la “Garfield Minus Garfield” that pretends the whole thing is about a produce smuggling ring menacing the post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland.* I understand that hypermasculine fetish cartoons are meant to be sexual, erotic, comical, radical, and confrontational. Like slash fiction, they take the trope of the virile, sexualized male and repurposes it, bringing queer sexuality into the realm of male work and play. Instead of being able to retreat into masculine mummery whenever they feel threatened by queer sexualities, straight men must face the fact that we are supremely among them. We are wearing your clothes and listening to your music and performing your gender. WE’RE UP IN UR BASE, GETTING ALL QUILTBAG ABOUT IT. Being a radical queer can sometimes mean embracing and excelling at traditional gender roles. It can mean flounting those gender roles, and flaunting your flouting, and just generally getting your swish over everyone’s nice furniture.
But being a friendly queer isn’t radical. It reinforces the idea that queer voices are only worthy of being listened to if they cater to heterosexual sensibilities. If we clip our wings and don’t talk too much about sex and grovel and beg for attention. If we never make mistakes and never push too hard and try to avoid argument and discord. If we disconnect our desire for civil rights from our right to modify and adorn our bodies in culturally meaningful ways, if we separate our sexual orientation from our sexual behavior, and if we never write about sex. If we never compare the way we fuck to the way you make love. But we’re up to our eyelids in sexless jesters and theoretical queers and Heterogenomy. It is time to put the sexual back in sexual minority. It is time to be The Unfriendly Queer.
For the good of the movement.
* TROUSER SNAKES RULE!