The Queer Case of David Sedaris

Sedaris demonstrating his resting kvetch face (rkf).

I haven’t been keeping up with CBS Sunday Morning, but somehow David Sedaris as the new Andy Rooney makes perfect sense. Sedaris has a reputation as an America’s sweetheart type, from his tart tales featured for years on NPR, but he is complex. And he, like all complex people (and spoiler alert: all people are complex), particularly as we grow old and dwell too long in our comfort zones (his happens to be in West Sussex, England, these days), can also be tedious. Last week’s monologue was an example of a grumpy old man having a pet peeve and a platform to patter on about it.

The essence of it is: he doesn’t like having to “rebrand himself” as “queer.” He’s done with the “rebranding,” he says, having been through three other rebrandings in his lifetime: from homosexual to gay to LGBTQ. So he’s coming out as “straight,” tee hee hee. That’s the punchline. Honestly, this isn’t even Andy Rooney level stuff. Not clever, not funny, not insightful, and also: ungenerous, incurious, and… elitist. There is more than a whiff of “old white dude complains about woke/cancel culture” here. I mean, he’s right to come out as straight.

I should back up. I’m a decade and change behind Sedaris, agewise, but it’s a pretty big generation gap. (For example: I didn’t get the Homosexual branding, I came in at — and out as — Gay.) I have approached “queer” with genuine curiosity, but also: I know it’s not for or about me, in that as a gay, cis, white male of considerable privilege, I’m expressly not centered in queer theory. That can sting when you’re used to being the center of the discourse, but I’m here to tell you, you can survive — and thrive — as queer!

Some of you get annoyed at language like “cis white male,” but there is a reality attached to these identifiers, whether you like it or not. Going back to school for an advanced degree at 49, studying and mingling with people half my age, I realized pretty quickly that “cis white male” was part of how I was seen and understood, and that in the context of identifiers like gender and sexuality taking on a social reality, constructed as it might be, the very real privilege of those three identifiers had the effect of neutralizing any social or political cachet in marginalized and minoritized quarters that had accrued to “gays” in a previous generation.

I’m not debating the great strides made by generations preceding Millennials and Gen Z, the profound tragedy of the HIV/AIDS era that radicalized so many gay men from previous generations, and lent moral heft and momentum to the struggle for gay rights in the US. But what Sedaris is kvetching about is just run-of-the-mill passing of the torch stuff. This “rebranding” is not worth getting up in arms about. In fact, it’s worth celebrating as a clear proof of progress, rare enough these days. Language changes. It has to. It needs to. That can feel like an affront. Sometimes it is. Sometimes what’s needed is effrontery. Gets us all out of our comfort zone. That’s a good thing.

But “Queer” isn’t just a “rebranding.” And what Sedaris is tapping into here without maybe knowing it, certainly without admitting to it, is, I think, a sneaking suspicion that Queer Theory’s origin story is a little too close to feminism for even the low-key male supremacist impulse (and male supremacy is rampant in gay culture, if I remember correctly). All movement toward true equity and inclusion, even (maybe especially) within the LGBTQ community, is going to be a threat to the cis, white male establishment, whether the cis white male in question is straight or gay. That’s the larger picture of “queer” that, I think, rubs some people (not naming names) the wrong way.

Why does any of this matter, outside of quibbling peeves? We lucked out so far in the midterms, because the price of gas has lately taken the spotlight on the right, rather than the old staples of gay-, trans- and queer-bashing (among lots of other bashings, mind you) that the right pulls out in election years to energize the base. Queer-bashing is definitely still in the mix this year, but a little off to the side at the moment. It’s always at arm’s length and at the ready, though. All summer they were churning out horror stories for the base. Two months ago Ted Cruz couldn’t shut up about pronouns, and if gas prices dip, the GOP will roll out their ready made house of horrors: the bathroom panic, the groomers in the schools, Drag Story Hour, all of which put gay, trans and queer lives in real danger.

Not to give Sedaris too much power in the popular discourse, but there is a pricking here at delegitimizing “queer” as a cultural category that is for all practical purposes indistinguishable from nostalgia for “queer” as a slur. By complaining about the semantics, Sedaris demonstrates his active incuriosity about the challenges faced by those who identify as queer. I’m going to say it again for those in the back: it doesn’t matter what your opinion of the existence of identity politics is. If there are kids who are exploring identity through queer theory or cultural queerness, and calling themselves queer, it’s not for you to shit on them because you have some notion that their use of “queer” inconveniences you. 

If “queer” for them is an incantation, a prayer, a hymn, a safeword, a rallying cry, it’s real. If it’s not for you, shut up about it. Sashay away. 

In the political context of the continued existential and mortal danger queer people face, a cute little monologue about how inconvenient it is for Mr. Sedaris, who spent the last many years as an expat in rural France and now lives with his husband in rural England, to have to learn a new word, is a grotesque display of the generational privilege that necessitated the rebranding he’s kvetching about in the first place. 

And for the record, Andy Rooney did it better.

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