1. In Noah Baumbach’s film The Squid and the Whale (2005), Laura Linney delivers a line so perfectly that the words still sometimes echo in my head, like playback from a recording. Linney’s character is weathering a divorce made all the messier for her professional success: she’s just published a story in the New Yorker, while her husband’s writing career founders, it appears, on the reef of his arrogant self-regard. Linney’s obnoxious son, played by Jesse Eisenberg, tells her he regrets dumping his sweet but ordinary girlfriend so he can find someone better. There is an arch curiosity to Linney’s brittle pitch: “Better how?” she asks.
The conversation escalates to an argument. “You have a way of saying things sometimes that are a way I don’t want to hear them,” Eisenberg snaps at Linney. “I know, chicken,” she replies—contrite, but needling him with a pet name that would annoy any teenager.
2. The names I was called as a teenager were worse, but perhaps less embarrassing—they weren’t all that original. “Faggot” was only traded for “fairy” or “homo.” The hatred stung, but the words grew banal. It was small but satisfying recompense to know my dullard bullies would never get far with such a limited vocabulary.
3. “It gets better” was the hip thing, for a while, to say to a webcam. Tyler Clementi’s sad leap from the George Washington Bridge in 2010 spurred a chorus of assurances: the refrain was intended to stem the tide of suicides that had finally gained empathy in the media. “It gets better,” mouthed the faces in the videos, so put down the knife, the gun, the noose.
4. Better how, chicken?
5. An essay is a trial, an attempt. A striving, a struggle, persistence. I’m queering the form, to lift a phrase I used to hear in college. Can I reach you?
6. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was the ultimate social outcast: a Jew of Portuguese extraction, Spinoza was excommunicated from his own synagogue in Protestant Holland and damned for expressing heresies in his philosophy. His refusal to kowtow to rabbinical authority is reflected at the core of his life’s work. Spinoza wrote that everything strives to become and remain itself, to achieve a singular perfection: the expression of its unique essence. This struggle, or conatus, extended to humankind: “The mind … strives to persevere in its being.”
7. The “It Gets Better” campaign began with video posts by Dan Savage and other prominent LGBTQ+ celebrities: wealthy, pretty people who had overcome some kind of hardship brought on by their queerness. It quickly went viral, as we say now without irony, spread around by all kinds of allies, many of them straight. Everybody was urging teen queers to wait it out. Persevere in their being.
8. The queers in my high school: we bided our time. Avoided all but the nerdiest of associations. There was no question of coming out. We all knew who was who and who was what. It gets better, we knew that. But only if we got out, got to some place where it was already better, marginally at least. Somewhere we could recognize each other, get the respect we were denied, let ourselves unfold. Naturally, what came to my juvenile, rural-reared mind were cities and foreign countries, and particularly cities in foreign countries. California, too. Things couldn’t get much worse than getting stuck where I was: the Bible Belt of central Pennsylvania.
But I had a library card. Capote, Baldwin, Tennessee Williams. Had this not been a parochial small town, I might have exchanged knowing glances with the librarian.
On cable TV you got a different glimpse over the rainbow. There was The Real World and My So-Called Life. There were certain films that Blockbuster dared to carry. Hollywood said, “This is who you are,” and I was straining to listen and learn my lines. More accessible than books, cable and VCR were still the main portals to the world beyond Red State, USA. Their influence was weak when compared to the hateful things I’d heard in church. But in those more or less pre-internet days of the mid-Clinton years, they affirmed there was still something more. An “alternative” culture, however compromised by drugs and co-opted by industry, had bloomed in wet Seattle. New York’s arms were still open. Or so it seemed, at least, through the lag of tapes and cable reruns.
9. Did the life I was seeking ever exist outside of MTV and manufactured nineties subculture? I’ve spoken to queers who tell me it did. They wax nostalgic for the heady old days: the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties. The decade depends on who you’re talking to, but the takeaway is usually the same: it’s not all getting better.
Like others I’ve met in my intermezzo generation, born amid the exploding epidemic and raised in the years gayness equaled death, I must beware of romantic nostalgia. Older queers’ wistful reminiscences are tempered with reproach aimed at my generation, too young for the best of it and too green to know the worst. Don’t forget they were tough times: AIDS and crime and discrimination and beatings and abuse and shunning. But in the face of all, a kind of courage.
Conatus, perseverance in being. Of course it wasn’t always glamorous. But I never wanted to live in a Calvin Klein ad.
10. Read today, in parallax view, Gary Indiana’s gorgeous 1989 novel Horse Crazy conveys the bivalent better/worse of the times. The narrator is a writer fixated on a younger man. Like Indiana himself, he lives alone in an East Village apartment, supporting himself by writing criticism for art magazines—circumstances that clearly date the novel to another era. Other details complete the period: our protagonist’s infatuation is for a flaky and troubled young photographer, and his obsession leads him to wait in vain for his beloved on street corners at appointed hours. When Gregory, the photographer, stands him up, the narrator frets he’s missing exculpatory messages on his answering machine in which Gregory thoughtfully rearranges the time or place of their rendezvous.
AIDS is a looming specter in the novel. As in Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now,” the name of the disease laying waste to the neighborhood is never stated. Indiana’s narrator dare not speak it: Gregory is bisexual and—worse—a junkie. It’s the mid-Eighties, and still within recent memory everyone was having tons of sex. But not anymore: every few weeks news arrives of former lovers falling ill, or friends dying with little prior sign of malady. It is a brutal time for queers, but Indiana also describes the way queer men and their allies banded together even as fear and suspicion and misinformation about the causes of the “gay plague” conspired to drive them apart.
Nostalgia is often misguided; the romancing of death always is. The documentary, historicizing impulse of Horse Crazy suggests Indiana already understood this peril in 1989—the year the Wall came down, signaling Fukuyama’s “end of history,” the final victory of Western liberal democracy and the inauguration of a global consumer-capitalist order.
11. In dark bars where my blotched skin and white hairs don’t show, I’m sometimes kindly mistaken for one of a newer generation who, we hear, traded condoms for Truvada and never waited days wracked with anxiety for test results to come back. At a lace-festooned drag performance of Rocky Horror in the Castro late last year, I was chastised for not singing along: “This is a gay classic,” I was instructed over the din. “It started in London, and then….” Older fags are given to didactic mansplaining, but the code of conduct, at least when I came of age, was to let them have it. Be saucy, but polite. They earned it. So it goes for the misty-eyed tales of the good old days.
12. But it’s true these bars don’t look the same, even compared to the way they did when I first gained legal access. Cruising and flirting and fucking have been reduced to the efficiencies of profiling and swiping and hookup by appointment. The soft blue glow of smartphone screens sets the mood for a sexual arena now founded on the logic of late capitalism. The end of history certainly spelled the end of some things.
13. In his 1992 essay on control societies, Gilles Deleuze described a social trajectory different from the final triumph of democratic liberalism proclaimed by Fukuyama. Deleuze foretold the shift from a society composed of liberal individuals to one populated by “dividuals”—persons who have fully internalized corporate logic into all aspects of their conduct. One can hardly begin to list all the vindications of his warning, the ways we’ve all become entrepreneurs of our own brand. Perhaps we need no further evidence than dating and hookup apps, which respond to the slow creep of the workday by rationalizing “nonproductive” off-the-clock activity, especially that which is not intended as procreative. What the revolutionaries of the Sixties and Seventies called free love and the liberation of libidinal energy have been tamed by algorithms into a sexless flow of code. Online, consumer choice masquerades as freedom—to confine desire to the more “productive” rubric of commodity exchange.
14. The minimalism of so-called social media—free expression dialed back to 140 characters, personality to an easy-to-use template, sex appeal to a few carefully lit selfies—is complemented by the crushing maximalist imperative of Big Data: simply, More is More. There are a lot of fish in the sea, and Big Brother is busy cataloging their collective genome to find a perfect match. Still feeling unfulfilled? Just wait. Or better yet, keep swiping and browsing. The algorithm: it gets better.
15. Of course these apps have also targeted and accommodated the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, this was where many of them enjoyed their first real success. Before Grindr, primitive digital cruising forums on Craigslist and the anything-goes site Adam4Adam had already provided a convenient and anonymous apparatus for scheduling sex. These websites eliminated some of the danger of public cruising, especially in suburban and rural areas. But they also diminished the possibility of chance encounters and gently guided sex back into private spaces.
16. I moved to California in 2008, just as the state campaigns for and against Proposition 8, the voters’ ban on gay marriage, had gone full-tilt in the run-up to the election. Spending on both Yes and No campaigns was stunning: a combined total of over $80 million. The Yes campaign—in support of the marriage ban—was outspent by the No side by about $6 million, but still took 52 percent of the vote.
Fury and finger-wagging followed the results. African Americans, and particularly the turnout of black congregations at the polls in support of Obama, were blamed for the ban’s passage. The numbers didn’t support such scapegoating, but the right-to-marriage movement discerned an opportunity amid the misconception, understanding the PR spin that might be wrung from the cruel irony it implied: one oppressed minority group was stripping another of its rights.
Likening their situation to that of interracial couples facing midcentury anti-miscegenation laws, same-sex marriage enthusiasts declared the right to state-sanctioned matrimony the new frontier of American civil rights. The dissonance of this “civil rights” rhetoric was acute in California, where millions of low-wage earners, often domestic service workers intimately tied to family life, must labor under the constant threat of deportation. Nor did the wording sit well with the black community. But white liberal gays did not need the black community’s alliance. The $40 million had come from elsewhere.
17. In ancient Greek, pharmakon is a word for both poison and cure, venom and antidote. Everything depends on context and objectives—whether the recipient gets better or worse.
18. That the mainstream media routinely referred to the politics surrounding same-sex marriage as a “struggle” or a “fight” signaled the PR success of well-funded special interest groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which eagerly promoted the civil rights narrative. Taking place almost entirely in the media and in courtrooms convened by wealthy litigants, this “fight” hardly justifies a comparison to any of the 1960s social movements, gay liberation included. But the comparison of right-to-marry litigation to the civil rights movement is doubly baleful for implying that the legal status of gays resembles that of blacks under Jim Crow, and for ignoring racial disparities within the gay rights movement.
CDC records show that almost half of all HIV diagnoses in the U.S. are among “black/African Americans.” Historically underserved by education and health-care systems, black Americans would become, not surprisingly, the principal victims of the disease. But anyone expecting solidarity from lobbying behemoths like HRC would have been sorely mistaken. For their constituency, things were getting better.
19. As Mark Greif wrote after the California Prop 8 hullaballoo, the real antecedent of today’s gay rights movement is women’s liberation. The demand for self-determination in matters of reproduction, the rejection of homebound housewifery, and women’s entry into the workplace were developments that restructured the American home and reshaped the way we think about family roles. “Gays are our utopian heroes,” Greif explained, because queer lives offered similar imaginative potential: of partnerships, erotic relations and families created and lived outside the sanctioned norms of gender and family.
As is well known, the millions of dollars spent to expand same-sex marriage achieved significant results. Espousing the belief in the right to marry became fashionable in mainstream liberal American politics. And beyond: even David Koch filed an amicus brief in DeBoer v. Snyder, a case that was consolidated into the landmark Obergefell decision of June 2015, handed down by one of the most conservative Supreme Courts in decades.
But instead of picking up where seventies-era feminists left off, special interest groups like HRC and Freedom to Marry narrowed the once-ambitious political and social goals of the gay community into a single demand. In so doing, the gay-rights lobby signaled a clear break from the coalition-building strategies that characterized the queer politics of the Eighties, when many gays understood AIDS activism as allied with struggles for fair housing and equal access to health care carried out by feminist, anti-poverty and black political movements.
20. Aside from diverting attention from other social concerns, the right-to-marry movement adopted a rhetoric of family values once used by conservatives to vilify gays. This has in turn rehashed an old schism within the LGBTQ+ community, one that can be detected in the nomenclature of the HRC, Freedom to Marry, GLAAD and other lobbying groups. They call themselves advocates of the LGBT community—a pointed effacement of the Q from an acronym where it has become inconvenient and unwelcome.
The Q, of course, is for “queer,” a term intended to complicate the stable sex and gender identities implied by “homosexual,” “gay,” “lesbian” and even “transgender.” The term first gained currency in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when it was reclaimed by non-heterosexuals who did not want to assimilate into the broader, normative American culture. There are no stable or clean boundaries that define what is queer. And that is part of the point: it denotes a conscious decision to reject hierarchies used to define and confine non-heterosexuals. Radical queers remained largely indifferent to the marriage movement, refusing to celebrate an institution antithetical to their anti-assimilationist politics.
21. The Prop-8 blitz that blanketed California now seems a memory from another generation—nearly as dated as the payphones and LES bohemia of Horse Crazy. Thirty-something states and counting. Then the avalanche in June.
It was in the aftermath of the 2008 election that I first gave online dating a whirl myself. I discovered that especially on dates arranged through the more respectable platforms that existed at that time, the men I met often felt obliged to hum through the doxology on marriage before the first round of drinks was finished. Many hurried to tell me that they’d personally worked on the No campaign.
My admiration of the cause was assumed, and the self-congratulation often droned on until I finally came out as opposed—personally, politically—to marriage. From there the situation played out with a déjà-vu consistency: perhaps even more than the straights I’d come out to as anti-marriage, the gay No campaigners were ruffled by the wrinkle I’d just ironed into their worldview. Usually I’d get pamphleteered talking points: “What you don’t understand,” they’d explain in earnest exasperation, “is that all rights start with marriage.” I marveled at how this had come to be considered an argument-winning declaration.
Linking property, health care and other rights to state-sanctioned marriage has only strengthened the privileges of the married over the unmarried or merely partnered. But I’m expected to be grateful. As Justice Kennedy wrote in his decision, people like me are no longer “condemned to live in loneliness.”
22. It almost makes me nostalgic for the days nobody ever asked me if I wanted to get married or have children, when being “gay” still conferred an outsider status—I was a fag, and that was that. Sure, there was a lot of judgment—but no expectations. Questions about my personal life were politely avoided by relatives, coworkers, acquaintances. The closet was mimed around me. This was uncomfortable, it’s true. Yet the opportunity to politicize the conversation—to make it awkward, but also take back control of the discomfort—was always there.
Aside from its political slant away from normative terms and institutions, the Q has proven irksome to the LGBT lobby for other reasons: its potential to inconvenience the T.
Trans people and trans issues have achieved unprecedented visibility in the past year. As the spate of murders of transgender women across the U.S. has demonstrated, things have not gotten better for everyone in the LGBT community. Given the continued dangers of exposure, the LGBT lobby has identified transgender rights as the new frontier of civil rights and has succeeded in convincing most liberals to agree.
Many of these rights should be uncontroversial: equal protection under the law, equal access to employment and housing opportunities, and an end to official discrimination regarding the use and presentation of one’s body. But some of the other rights and recognitions being demanded are more complicated. And they expose another rift within the LGBTQ+ community.
Transgender phenomena have appeared throughout the history of Western civilization, especially in the realm of mythology and religion. In her 1990 doorstopper Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia (a self-identified libertarian lesbian who says she has long considered herself a “transgender being”) detailed culturally specific forms of transvestism and transgendering across the centuries, ranging from the religious cults of ancient Egypt and classical Greece to the subversive, promenading crossdressers of Victorian England, and onward into modern times. Genital and bodily alteration—castration, circumcision, etc.—have likewise been practiced since antiquity. The Greek legend of the Amazons, for instance, held that these warlike, androgyne women would amputate the right breast in order to more swiftly draw a bowstring. Likewise, as Paul Preciado suggested in his “body-essay” Testo Junkie, chemical management of gender characteristics has also been practiced throughout the twentieth century, and is consistent with broader attitudes toward sexuality, gender and identity in Western consumerist culture.
What is new today is not the notion of gender as a flexible category. Rather, a series of high-profile cases have brought transgender phenomena into the public eye, raising questions about the complex nexus of legal, medical and corporate power that now adhere to them. And as with the movement for same-sex marriage, the most visible and vocal activists have prioritized the battle for inclusion in existing social norms and institutions, as opposed to a more radical agenda that would emphasize the need to transform them. This has especially been the case with the fraught conversation surrounding body-altering procedures.
Although celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner can afford any medical service on offer, sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) and related therapies, such as hormone replacement, are still routinely denied by insurance providers, placing them beyond the means of many who desire them. Liberal transgender advocacy organizations have aligned to challenge these policy exclusions—but doing so has entailed certain tradeoffs. While it took years of lobbying for gay liberation activists in the Sixties and early Seventies to persuade the American Psychological Association (APA) to declassify homosexuality as a “disorder,” convincing insurance providers to cover transition-related therapies has required a medical pathologization. Those seeking coverage for such procedures are now diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” (formerly “gender identity disorder”). According to the APA’s diagnostic manual, DSM-5, gender dysphoria is “manifested in a variety of ways, including strong desires to be treated as the other gender or to be rid of one’s sex characteristics, or a strong conviction that one has feelings and reactions typical of the other gender.” U.S. federal agencies and some district courts have begun to accept this diagnosis, determining that SRS and related therapies are protected under Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In 2012, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services stated that protection “extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”
Let us pause to consider this notion of failure.
In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam likens the experience of queerness to a sort of muddling through acknowledged failure—the failure to satisfy social gender roles and expectations. Sontag had already said so in her “Notes on ‘Camp,’” even if she used the more antiquated and narrow term “homosexual” to refer to what was then the queer subculture. Also from “Notes on ‘Camp’”: “The most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex.”
My childhood and adolescence composed a long catalog of gender failures. I was uninterested in watching sports and bad at the ones I was expected to play. My friends were the weird kids whose families blew into town one year and suddenly pulled up stakes in the middle of the next. I didn’t walk right (light in the loafers) or talk right (no lisp, but a high lilt) or have girlfriends. The list goes on. So I doubled down on my schoolwork, determined to get out. In middle school, I stayed late for math club and rode the late bus with the theater kids. They were nerds and failures too, and I liked them. Some disappeared before graduating.
Even before this, as a young child, I sensed there to be something transgressive about favoring women’s clothes when playing dress-up, about my predilection for dolls and my fascination with perfume. A desire “to be treated as the other gender” was present, if not vocalized. Obliquely repressed at home, my queer tendencies made me easy prey at school. Classmates watched me fail at boy things. The taunts and malice were learned behavior: I was not from a tolerant place.
As I navigated adolescence, my idols remained women. I aped the caustic ennui of Roseanne’s vinegary daughter Darlene and cultivated the dry superiority of Daria and Jane on MTV. I passed hours deciphering the lyrics of songs on Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele for clues to my future life (another failure), and listening to Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville at don’t-knock-on-my-door volume. These “feelings and reactions” made me wonder: Why had I been born a boy?
I did not dislike my body so much as distrust it. Gestures, carriage, inflections, undesired changes: it was always betraying me. Giving me away. If you had suggested to twelve-year-old me that I was in the wrong body, I would have rushed to agree. Of course, I had not yet heard the word “queer,” except as a slur.
“Dysphoria” derives from the ancient Greek dysphoros, which refers to a state of discomfort, something “hard to bear.” Dis-ease.
The other gender. The definite article rankles me now. Binaries die hard. Meanwhile: in 2014, Australia and India legalized the recognition of a third nonspecific gender that is simply “other” than male or female.
Queer theory flourished late last century, on the heels of Judith Butler’s landmark 1990 book Gender Trouble. Butler theorized that gender was not a natural consequence of biological sex, but rather a learned and negotiated social performance. Many aspects of this theory hardly seem radical today, having been thoroughly absorbed into liberal ideals about parenting. Boys and girls do not emerge from the womb desiring trucks and dolls. Men can be graceful and nurturing, women uncouth and aggressive. These “expressions” of gender identity are the observed and performed reinforcements of social types and do not directly correspond to the sex phenotypes “male” and “female.”
Though initially embraced by contemporary transgender intellectuals like Kate Bornstein, Butler’s notion of gender as performance is now sometimes criticized for reducing gender to theater and play—the signature of other power relations. Many of today’s transgender theorists argue, contra nineties-era queer theory, that gender is not defined by behaviors at all, but is “ontologically inescapable and inalienable” (The Transgender Studies Reader). Often with reference to brain science, some even assert, with former Harvard University president Larry Summers, that gender traits are biologically fated. In this schema, an inalienable gender identity, like the female soul Jenner described in the Diane Sawyer interview, is not a learned public performance but an innate sense of self. Gender is shepherded from the queer free-for-all back into a binary that corresponds to male and female sex categories, except in the case of transgender people, for whom gender identity and socially assigned gender are mismatched.1
While medical evidence has supported the assertion that sex is not the clear-cut binary that we might have once assumed, the claim that gender is “ontologically real,” “inalienable” or the inevitable result of brain chemistry effects a more pernicious adjustment to queer theory: it naturalizes gender. This is a variant of the politics that motivates the quest to find a “gay gene.”2 If only we could prove that all of this were out of our control, decided, if not by God or Spinoza’s Nature, then by some other unidentified Power. “Cisgender” and “transgender,” terms meant to describe socially assigned gender conformity and nonconformity, respectively, have thus reintroduced binary division into a conceptual space from which queer theory had hoped to banish it.
Beyond the hairsplitting halls of academic gender theory, the conversation about transgender phenomena has centered on celebrating the ways trans women—usually not trans men—proudly adopt conventional beauty standards. Journalistic profiles of these women often embrace the trappings of hypertrophied female gendering: remarks on trans women’s hair, nail polish, and makeup are the set pieces for reporting on their experiences. Bruce Jenner had to theatrically let down his hair for Sawyer to begin her interview in earnest. And when Jenner came out to the world as Caitlyn, it was via a Vanity Fair cover shot by Annie Leibovitz, featuring Jenner styled and posed in a fashion that recalled a 1950s pinup girl.
Back in 1991, when the third wave of feminism in the U.S. was swelling, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth lamented the stranglehold social demands still placed on women’s physical appearances, identifying both eating disorders and cosmetic surgeries as behaviors women undertook to comply with media-driven beauty standards. The so-called “transgender moment” has not changed this. The “failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity” is still disdained, even if a choice between the two is now available.
Mara Keisling, of the National Center for Transgender Equality, has likened the slow uptake on the transgender right to surgery to the “inevitability” of same-sex marriage. The analogy may prove correct in more ways than one. Justifying a “right” to surgery, like justifying the “right” to marriage, requires advocates to endorse traditional roles or institutions. When doctors tell Diane Sawyer, and the rest of America, that nearly pre-linguistic babies can be diagnosed as experiencing gender dysphoria and that gender-nonconforming adolescents must be treated right away, they reinforce the notion that failure to perform one’s socially assigned gender role—to the varying satisfactions of one’s parents, schoolmates, friends and bullies—is a problem with a medical solution.
Granted, many transgender people see no need to undergo SRS or hormone therapy. And many who do take advantage of newly accessible procedures have no interest in appeasing gender norms. “Transgender” has become a more capacious term than that. In fact, although the cis/trans dyad has gained currency, it’s clear that many who cite or use the terms don’t believe in such stark division: their notion of gender is still inclined to what in decades past was “queer.” The group Gay Shame San Francisco, which undertakes direct-action campaigns to disrupt what the group sees as the commercialization of queer identities, often uses the compound “trans/queer,” and welcomes solidarity from anyone who shares their anti-assimilationist agenda.
But just as the focus of gay lobbying groups on state-sanctioned nuptials determined the horizon of queer politics in recent years, so the legal and medical pragmatist flanks of trans activism appear to dominate, for now at least, the way America thinks and talks about transgender phenomena.
Incorporate: to take in, to become part of a body, to make indistinguishable, embody.
Butler based her theory of gender trouble on Hegel’s belief that humans require recognition—that is, that they want others to perceive them as bearing the worth they accord to themselves. She suggests that this desire for recognition motivates our gender performances. “When Hegel made the claim that desire is always a desire for recognition,” she writes, “he was, in a way, extrapolating upon this Spinozistic point, telling us, effectively, that to persist in one’s own being is only possible on the condition that we are engaged in receiving and offering recognition.”
Maybe liberation from rigid gender roles first requires the strategic gain of socially recognized movement between gendered categories, even at the expense of reinforcing a limited binary. Or maybe not. The difference is between recognition and incorporation, between persistence in one’s being and in becoming that which persists.
23. The word queer used to bother me. In college I recoiled from its ubiquity. It was hard enough then to say gay. I was used to others doing the work of my self-description. Years of circumlocution, avoiding these uncomfortable terms: the closet persisted in language as my discreet demurral.
24. A lesbian I recently met at a birthday party in San Francisco: “Where have all the butches gone?”
They’re all transitioning, she feared aloud. She’d spent the past two years living in rural Pennsylvania, near where I’d grown up, and was dismayed to find San Francisco far straighter than she’d expected. I told her something else she already knew: that much of the queer community had decamped to Oakland.
25. It has become banal to say that San Francisco is no longer a storied Valhalla of acceptance, as in days of yore. Its freewheeling, queer old times are as fossilized as the payphones of New York City.
The city’s artists and bohemians, musicians and writers, teachers and nurses—they’re being priced out to make way for the “creative class” of knowledge workers. Natives and longtime residents fear they’ll be drowned in what Mission District performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña has called “an unbearable ocean of sameness.” Likewise, the Manhattan of Horse Crazy, of Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz (and Djuna Barnes and Billie Holiday), is now synonymous with finance and condos.
26. I live on the northern edge of the Mission. With each passing month, more tents line the margins of the six blocks between my apartment and the nearest supermarket. When I jog to the gym in the morning, I weave between the cops and sanitation workers who force the homeless to tear down camp and move along.
Later, on my way to work, I pass a long, well-dressed queue for one of the private Silicon Valley buses that boards in front of a derelict gas station at the end of my block—a corner just a few dozen yards from a bus shelter that at night houses an impromptu community of poverty and need. The shuttle passengers stand earphoned and phone-gazing to avoid the commotion that always roils the spot: there are marginally housed people everywhere, and others in varying states of insobriety, even at 8 a.m.
27. Neighborhoods claimed as safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community served a purpose: they were outposts that welcomed those, like me, who came from places where we could not express our gender or act on our sexual desires without being subjected to harassment or violence. But these communities were caught up in patterns of gentrification and dislocation that have reignited a class war via the proxy of real-estate brokers, developers and city hall. Once “reclaimed” by gays, these enclaves are today regarded by liberals as tolerant and safe places to live and raise children. Of course the gays displaced people, too.
Nor are these spaces welcoming to everyone, even now. I recalled the lesbian newcomer’s complaint weeks later when a trans friend told me they felt uncomfortable living in the Castro due to the transphobia of gay men who felt “deceived” by my friend’s gender expression. Moreover, my friend explained, even in the trans community they faced prejudice for not going far enough toward the “other gender.” But “male,” they protested, was only shorthand for a way of being in the world that didn’t correspond to either established gender. My inner fairy nodded sagely.
28. Another queer friend, a gallery curator from rural America who had been priced out of San Francisco and was then living in a newly chic neighborhood in Oakland, told me it angered her to be called a gentrifier and accused of displacing poorer and less educated people of color. “Where else,” she asked, “am I supposed to go?”
The wave of tech-driven displacement overpowering the Mission has been compared by some activists to the intrusion of an “invasive species.” But those activists, like my curator friend, are hardly natives. Neither am I. I have only ever been able to afford to live with roommates in working-class neighborhoods. But I am college-educated and white, which means that I am a gentrifier, too. And like anyone else with hometown dysphoria, a transplant.
29. Susan Stryker describes gender transitioning as “the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place.” From a queer perspective, the liberating potential of trans politics is not to redraw those boundaries; it is to eliminate them.
30. The status of medicine, psychology and society in the Eighties and Nineties meant that I remained an outcast fairy, a real queer. And a gender-nonconforming childhood and adolescence at the end of last century could be miserable, I assure you. But though I’d never wish it on future generations, I am glad I was forced to contend with my queer failure: it taught me lessons in self-reliance and, in its own harsh way, love for my misfit self.
31. I sometimes wonder what our country and culture would be like had an entire generation of radical queers, many of them artists, not been killed by the AIDS epidemic centered in New York and San Francisco. In these assimilationist times, it’s tempting to believe queer liberation politics died with them.
But perhaps queer politics are as performative as Butler’s notion of gender: not a set of fixed objectives but a series of destabilizing acts. In that case, romanticizing ghettoized subcultures is as misguided as rage against voluntary assimilation. Queer disruption can find objectives more worthy than assailing marriage and reaffirm, with and against developments in trans politics, the need to question social norms and exclusions. To think, once more, of utopia.
32. Trans lobbying organizations took up this destabilizing impulse and have in turn destabilized queer politics with a new demand for incorporation. But might we now disturb gender again, reclaiming it not as an expanded set of categories, or even as a bipolar spectrum, but as creation, as disruption, as style that rejects sterile beauty myths and clinical pathologies? Can we prance and swagger down the gauntlet of glossy stares and airbrushed abs in the grocery checkout line and say “I don’t”?
33. The narrative of same-sex marriage asks us to believe that utopian demands led to liberal reform. On the contrary, queer utopianism clamors not for inclusion but recognition, and also negation: the rejection of the way things are. Queer utopianism keeps asking: Better how? And for whom?