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Radical Masculinity, Sumptuary Gender, and The Unfriendly Queer

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!

24 Comments

  1. Lilly wrote:

    One of the things that tires me when talking to some straight feminists is being labelled a ‘bad gay’ because I insist on being heard when we’re talking about my oppression. I think that for me the hardest part of being, and labelling myself, radical (feminist, queer activist) was giving up on being liked in order to live a life that I could respect myself for living.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  2. Seth Gray wrote:

    Part of the reason Tom of Finland exists, and slash fiction exists is that there are no queer characters.

    Queer characters don’t get to have epic, arc-spanning loves. We don’t get kiss our beloved back to life. We don’t get to move at superspeed to put our glasses back on before our lover comes back into the room.

    With no place for us, we read ourselves into that which already exists. Because there was nothing else, and we didn’t really have a choice.

    Things are marginally better when it comes to queer representation these days, but not much. Most of the stories are still about being queer. They aren’t just about being.

    There’s actually a really lovely blog post on this right here: http://bluefall.livejournal.com/82012.html

    Sorry for the tangent, but slash fiction is vital and important, and I really don’t like that bad rap it gets.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  3. GallingGalla wrote:

    Paraphrasing Lilly:

    One of the things that tires me when talking to some cis feminists (queer or straight) is being labelled a ‘bad trans woman’ (or even, “not a real woman” or “takes up space like a man”) because I insist on being heard when we’re talking about my oppression.

    Stated because the OP is erasing trans folk, because cis queer radicals have a habit of becoming anything but when it comes to trans issues, and particularly issues faced by trans women, and because I don’t think that being a friendly trans woman is radical.

    I am in NO WAY questioning the legitimacy of Garland’s points vis a vis sucking up to heteronormativity, but I want the voices of the T of to be heard and respected by the (cis) QUILBAG folk.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Tabs wrote:

    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.”

    Amen!

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  5. Tabs wrote:

    Okay, holy crap. It was supposed to be that paragraph.

    …Still, amen.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  6. Em wrote:

    I think the issues you touch on here could easily be a multi-post miniseries. Like a Garland Grey’s State of the Blogger for 2011.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  7. [dave] wrote:

    This.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  8. The thing is, too, that when a person decides that they will be The Friendly Face, often this means making choices that are both very difficult and very false. Like deciding that other sexual minorities need to be thrown under the bus in order for your minority to get acceptance.

    The people who want Queerness to have a Friendly Face, and to be Palatable, and to be Politically Viable, are the same people who throw trans people and BDSMers under the bus because we are so very inconvenient for them. They are the same people who argue that putting the “T” in LGBTQ endangers marriage equality, so let’s not do it. They’re the same ones who say that gay leathermen aren’t welcome at Stonewall re-enactments, because that’s a little more scandalous than the gay movement wants to be.

    They are also the BDSMers who make threads in our fora that attack sex workers and say they’re immoral and dangerous people.

    And sometimes these people will sigh over these choices and say, “It is such a hard choice, and it makes me feel sad, but we’ve got to do it,” and everyone nods gravely and there’s no questioning of whether that choice is false and whether we really want to be part of a movement that has no loyalty and no ethical consistency; that throws other people like us, other people who need help, under the bus.

    All this having been said, I’ve got my own Friendly Activist face, and I wear it sometimes, and I wonder whether I am going to come upon a point at which I actually believe it would be most useful to throw some more-hated sex-positive community under the bus For The Sake Of some other aspect of the community. And when I do that, will my Friendly Activist face sigh and say, “What a hard choice, but we did what we had to do”?

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  9. Juliet wrote:

    “You still have to speak in that voice without flinching. Without feeling like you need to apologize for it or explain it.”

    This has been the hardest part for me. Everytime I even have a discussion about privilege (which always get contentious), I want to apologize after it’s over. I don’t, but I really want to. One of my friends who I knew for years pre-transition said “no one cares that you’re trans” as his way of saying that all my fears and paranoias were exaggerations. He said he was just trying to provide an “objective” perspective since I was “so close to the issue.” And I know that’s ridiculous, but I just couldn’t stop talking to him. I couldn’t give up, I couldn’t let go. I eventually settled on “you don’t know people better than they know themselves,” which he kind of accepted, but it was quite pyrrhic and I felt terrible afterwards.

    How do I do it? How do I not listen to him and think that he’s probably right? That the only reason I’m angry is because of “all those other trans people” who are, you know, getting killed and disowned, which is no reason for *me* to be afraid, right?

    Rhetorical questions, yeah. But I really look forward to better understanding what, exactly, took you from “friendly” to “unfriendly.”

    [For what it's worth, I didn't consider the post to erase trans people since it's a personal narrative about one gay man's growth not commentary on all queer identities, but that's just how I reacted to it.]

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink
  10. mulierosity wrote:

    <3

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  11. CelloShots wrote:

    You, sir, have greatly improved my own queer life since I found your writing here. I find myself unable to engage in discussion and instead just want to write gushy fan letters that would make my boyfriend very, very jealous if he ever read them.

    You’re one hell of a writer, and you keep writing the sorts of posts that make me feel like you’re hiding behind me somewhere, staring into the inside of my head. Especially this one.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink
  12. DonnaL wrote:

    My more-radical-than-he-used-to-be son recently and thoroughly explained Tom of Finland to me (assuming that I was entirely unfamiliar with the name, because of course I was born yesterday, and didn’t live in New York in the 1970′s).

    But, re comment # 8. Don’t kid yourself. There are plenty of self-styled radical queers who are perfectly happy to throw trans people (particularly trans women) under the nearest bus. Especially if they’re not queer enough, which makes them guilty of reifying the gender binary, among other sins.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 1:05 am | Permalink
  13. Spreading.Tree wrote:

    Bravo, dear sir.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 1:57 am | Permalink
  14. Jess wrote:

    I remember uttering in my younger days, as a self-accepting (or so I thought) bisexual, that the aim of the queer rights/pride movement was to ‘make itself irrelevant’. Because I couldn’t see that there was joy in just celebrating who you are for its own sake, I guess? Because once the suburban heteros accepted us we would have achieved apotheosis? I’m not even sure any more why I ever thought it, but that was just step one in weeding out the internalised bullshit I have believed in my life.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 2:48 am | Permalink
  15. fn-ka wrote:

    This was a perfect text about embracing one’s identity and of the difficultness of it. I’m very much betting that a huge bunch of people have had the same feelings; about being queer, or feminist or a queer feminist or…

    For me, all those words could’ve been about being a feminist, about the eager will to be a non-threatening one, the one who somehow manages to be the exact opposite of all the malicious stereotypes of feminists, to be the perfect woman and yet still a feminist – all the while realising it’s untruthful, imbossible, to never be annoying or up in patriarchy’s face. That no matter how perfectly you balance your feminine acts and your masculine acts and whatnot, it will never cover up the fact that you want things that will make a lot of people angry.

    I’ve been wanting to put these similar thoughts into words for such a long time, but I haven’t been able; now I no longer need to (and it hasn’t been the first time when reading tbd, you people always know how to put things :) ). So thank you!

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink
  16. Xenu01 wrote:

    I wonder if every serious activist comes to this point sometime. Renee of Womanist Musings, I know, wrote a post about this several months ago, about being the nice, explain-y, “non-threatening” black woman with white feminists. I just want to say, power to you embracing yourself, and that breaking down the last walls, the ones we use to oppress ourselves and others like us- is the hardest process of all.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  17. Lucy wrote:

    One thing that I think is very difficult to deal with is that many people feel that the number one thing you should do in a discussion is not to make people feel bad. But if I make a comment on, for example, race issues, that is privileged and ignorant, maybe I should feel bad. Like, not end-of-the-world bad, but even if the issue is an obscure one that I couldn’t be “expected” to know anything about, I still said something that hurt someone, and maybe, just maybe, it’s more important that they get recognized than that my feelings get coddled.

    Also, something I’ve been wondering about for a while…does being the “nice” queer/feminist/person of color/etc. actually work? I mean, maybe it keeps people from getting defensive, and therefore keeps the discussion going, but is that a discussion worth having? Or does it just reinforce the idea, even for nominal allies, that those who don’t conform are responsible for defending their existence?

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  18. Lucy wrote:

    *And when I say an issue that I couldn’t be “expected” to know stuff about, I put that in quotation marks because there’s this thing called the internet. There’s never been any excuse for ignorance, but especially not now.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  19. InfamousQBert wrote:

    hear, hear!

    Friday, January 7, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  20. a.b. wrote:

    Things and people that are considered different will eventually just become things and people, but not if we have to blend into the background.

    Friday, January 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  21. sph wrote:

    Thank you for this.

    One random thought about Tom of Finland which may be of interest is that he served in the Finnish army during WWII. Not only is he eroticising and playing with images of hyper-’straight’ men, but they’re also images both of the men he fought alongside and the Nazis he was fighting.

    Friday, January 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  22. checarina wrote:

    I would never disappoint anyone by insisting that I was the authority on my own experience.

    Wow, but did this ever leap out and speak truth to me.

    Thanks for this excellent piece.

    Friday, January 7, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Permalink
  23. vahinkoelain wrote:

    “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.” Excellently put!

    SPH: You probably know this already, but I’ll just point out that for most of WWII, Finland and Nazi Germany were allies.

    Saturday, January 8, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  24. A. wrote:

    I needed to read this. I’ve been needing to read this for at least a year now. Thank you.

    Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink