I grew up in a generation in a place where “queer” was still a word owned by bigots and bullies, and so it took me a long time to warm to it in adulthood. Right about the time I was ready to come out, because the AIDS pandemic was at its height, it meant a lot for a kid from Indiana to come out as simply “gay” (which was also still a slur, but was becoming increasingly normalized in the mainstream media). Just uttering the word “gay” with pride was a liberating journey, but over the decades since, I’ve realized it was only the beginning. Sometimes even I forget how difficult getting on that road was, though.
My generation (Gen Xers) did not have very many life-like role models in popular culture when we were growing up. We did not have the internet and smartphones. Aside from schoolyard taunts, I remember getting my first ideas about what “gay” connoted from Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, a straight character who pretended to “be gay” (which basically consisted of lisping, and “mincing and prancing”) in order to share an apartment with two sexy young women he was constantly lusting after. The premise seems utterly alien to us now, but it made complete sense in the early ‘80s. (For a pretty good primer on how sitcoms handled this stuff back then click: here.)
I could write a whole dissertation about the layers of fucked-uppedness here, but for now, just understand: this is what we had back then. Intersectionality, which seems so obvious today, was simply not widely understood or spoken of, especially in popular culture, at the time. “Gay” had certain associations, but the main thing as far as the dominant culture was concerned was: “two dudes doing butt stuff.” The very fact that in popular discourse the diversity of human sexuality and relationships was emptied out of all but this tells you how fucked up and stupid a time it was. Seriously, except for the music: fuck the ‘80s.
But the heroic activism of the AIDS era, which cannot be denied, gave new layers of meaning to the word “gay” in the public mind, not least of which was the uncompromising liberative politics that many from older generations still take for granted as universally understood and accepted whenever the word “gay” is uttered. We are rightly proud of this epithet, and the struggle it connotes. Did this chapter of the liberative story eclipse, even sidetrack the Stonewall narrative of twenty years before, which had centered trans people of color? I would say: yes, for a time, it did. Much can be said about why this is. These were generational struggles, and we are lucky to have access to both. There is continuity here: both are vital to the bigger narrative of liberation that is marching on, that we celebrate each Pride.
Ok. Now fast-forward twenty years. In my thirties — in the early naughts — an only slightly younger generation was coming out that had little real connection to the AIDS-era valorization of the word “gay,” but it took me awhile, as a gay cis white male born the year of the Stonewall riots who had come of age in the darkest days of the AIDS pandemic to grasp the wonderful layers of nuance in queer identity and culture. I had been living abroad — in Central Europe mostly — for some years and had been very out and very sexually active, but had no real cause to think explicitly about cis white male “exceptionalism” in gay culture. My sexual practice fell into the profligate category (i.e., I was a whore — I think everyone was in the late ’90s, early naughts) and I had no asterisks for race in my little black book. But like many cis white male gay men, I didn’t interrogate systems of oppression. The narrative was all about people like me.
When I came back to the states in the mid-naughts, I was still going full-throttle, but with smart phones and apps on the scene I was seeing how some cis white gay men were perfectly comfortable advertising their racism in their profiles. There was a sense of cis white gay exceptionalism that had always been there but that was not always in your face, at least not if you were white as well, and never saw it with your own eyes. Most defended their racism by saying “I can’t change what I’m attracted to,” using sexuality as a kind of exemption. This had its flipside as well, in the old-school fetishizing of racial and “ethnic” types in gay hook-up culture. And it wasn’t just race. There was something about the apps that made folks feel safe voicing their hatred and disgust of different body types and ways of presenting and enacting “masculinity.” And it seemed to only get worse and worse with time.
When I say this was a form of exceptionalism, I mean that many cis white gay men seemed to think that they could be racist while gay, implying that to be “gay” was simply a category of sexual desire, which, of course, means ignoring a whole history of liberative praxis associated with the “gay rights movement.” “Gay” has always been a political word. It cannot be simply excised from the Civil Rights Movement, Stonewall or the struggles of the AIDS-era for human rights and full citizenship for all.
In my forties my use of apps and my participation in hook-up culture — which had once been very liberative for me, no question! — dwindled, and by the time I hit fifty last year, it had been three or four years since I had spent a day scrutinizing tiny thumbnails of torsos and answering endless ‘sups, inevitable “top or bottom”s and inane “how hung”s. I had had two monogamish relationships in my forties, and the apps during those breaks in my usage had turned into the equivalent of the gay bar on the corner they had put out of business, where everybody knows your name. Same faces, same lines, everybody ready to pounce on the new kid with their decades-old dick-pics. The age of innocence over, the apps all seemed to me to have become havens for pathological personalities and behaviors, where a kind of ugly sexual entitlement, with its “exceptional” prejudices, often reigned.
So at fifty, and fresh out of one of those monogamish relationships, I didn’t reload my phone with apps. I had been out of any kind of “gay scene” for years, and had just finished my first year of grad school, in theology, at a wonderfully progressive university. Among the majority of straight folks, there were also lots of queer students, most half my age, several trans and non-binary folks, and of course plenty of gay men and lesbians from my generation, too. I had an opportunity at the end of my first year to take a course in Queer Theory, and — I had read some Foucault years ago, and so on, but, well, my notes on my week six reading, James Penney’s After Queer Theory, start to get at what happens when you start to really interrogate systems of oppression. Note that by midterms we were already looking beyond queer theory, in a course on Queer Theory.
Penney argues that the universal queerness of sexuality is an “inauspicious starting point for a project invested in genuine social change.” He says class antagonism has always divided the “queer community” from itself. “Class is a diagonal difference that cuts through all the other differences – with the exception of sexual difference.” The book thus “foregrounds the strong, if not absolute, determination of sexual identities by economically structured social relations.” The author “aims to clear the terrain for a fresh start,” and “looks forward to the day when the concern for sexuality in cultural and political studies is wedded to a genuinely emancipatory and transformative vision of anti- and post-capitalist social change.”
This relentless interrogation of systems of oppression ripples out into every part of the world we’ve constructed, and which now must be deconstructed. Queerness is a powerful lens through which we can see liberation for everyone, but it’s not quite an “identity.” It’s a tool to critique and get beyond identity. I’ve realized as I move beyond my own “gay” identity — which has lived out its usefulness — that my wild years were a kind of liberative praxis that happened to have sex and sexuality as its modality. And that’s legitimate liberative praxis. But when liberation becomes synonymous with personal freedom that perpetuates systems of oppression, when we ourselves through this praxis replicate these systems in personal encounters and relationships, there’s no cause for pride in it. To me, now, this celebration is about embracing a broader movement of radical hospitality that doesn’t end until everyone is free. That’s a goal we can all take pride in.
So, long and short of it: I’m coming out as Queer.