Happy Gay Pride, friends! Happy BIG 50 to the Stonewall Riots! I mean, Uprising. No, I mean, Rebellion! Yes, rebellion! The New York Times recently provided a series of pieces on the many conflicting narratives about Stonewall. Who threw the first brick–or stone–or rock–or coins? Surely, it wasn’t Roland Emmerich’s cornfed midwestern white boy laughably screaming GAY POWERRRR while others stood in dramatic admiration. Some argue that it was a drag queen, or a prostitute, or a transgender person of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera (though that claim was rejected by both). As for the narrative of day after day of streets on fire and a mob of queers fighting against police, some argue that the tone was less combative and more jubilant, or Camp, even, as hordes of queers danced and sang tunes in front of the police. And really, there’s nothing more rebellious than pointing your finger in the air and dancing, especially against convention.
So, why should should all of this matter, 50 years later, when so much progress has been made out of the myth of Stonewall? Who cares who threw the first brick, or stone; or which member of the LGBTQ community actually sparked the post-Stonewall LGBTQ political movement? The here-and-now of Queer identity (as a blanket term for all members of the LGBTQ community) cares, and the future of Queer politics is heavily invested in who controls this Stonewall narrative. The current narrative regarding Stonewall, Queer politics, and its future is heavily invested in redefining what it means to be Queer. Thanks to a mixture of neoliberal assimilation politics, and Race / Class / Gender intersectional reframing of identity, power, and privilege, Queerness is no longer Gay or Lesbian. To be Gay is no longer enough. To be Gay (or Lesbian, white, and cisgender) is also no longer edgy but bland, or complacent. Gay no longer represents the broad scope of the Queer community but, paradoxically, limits any imaginative possibility for Queerness to evolve into something greater.
Of course, this current argument about what is Queer and what is not creates new problems. For while it serves to empower the hitherto marginalized members of the LBGTQ community, it also does its own work towards fracturing it altogether. Now, everyone is claiming to have thrown that first brick! Everyone is claiming to own the direction of the movement. By drawing lines around what is currently Queer, it enrages those formerly Queer and now just white cisgender Gay male members of the community who still see themselves not as bland but as yet Queer, as edgy, and even yet as outlaws. This argument about what is Queer, now predicated on Race and (cis)Gender creates new centers and margins within the LGBTQ community, presumably within the guise of liberation through Social Justice. However, it simultaneously, though perhaps unintentionally, perpetuates the “us vs. them” mindset that has been the general driving force behind Queer politics. This current Queer moment is in danger of collapsing into itself. I will argue that inherent within Queer identity and politics has been a drive to go against the grain of what is socially acceptable–a drive of which is predicated on an “us vs. them” mentality. While operating from the best of intentions, Social Justice movements and Intersectionality identity politics has unintentionally encouraged the Conservative turn for those no-longer-Queer-enough Gays who have located new forms of edginess and power in becoming trolls. Yes, trolls, by dangerously camping it up in their worship of Trump, Conservationism, White Supremacy, and Twinks for Trump. All in the name of reclaiming their right to be Queer!
Make America Gay Again
For so long, Gay Pride meant fighting against convention. It meant sticking your finger in the air against those annoying Bible Thumpers. It meant float after float with the most anti-conventional behavior: drag queens and kings putting on shows, go-go dancers pole dancing, almost totally naked people thrusting their sex at you, and gender bending to the point that you don’t know which is which, or who is who. Being gay–being Queer, dammit–meant something! It meant acting up. Acting bad! Provoking disgust meant that we had an edge! Being oppressed, or at the margins of society, provided our homo-ness, our Queerness, with the edge of possessing moral authority, with the endgame always to accept, no, CELEBRATE, those who fall outside societal norms. Consider these images of the first Pride marches in New York City:
Note the word “liberation.” After the Stonewall Riot/Rebellion/Uprising, LGBTQ politics shifted from the peaceful “we are your neighbors” rhetoric of the Mattachine Society to the confrontational marching “Gay Power!” slogan of the Gay Liberation Front; to be followed by the even more confrontational slogans, in response to the AIDS crisis, of Queer Nation and ACT UP, such as “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it,” “Out of the Closets and into the Streets,” “Silence=Death,” and “Two, Four, Six, Eight! How Do You Know Your Kids Are Straight?”
Now that being queer meant something for which to fight, those Pride parades became all-the-more extravagant and in your face. Not just in the major gay metropolises of New York City and San Francisco, but all over the country, dykes on bikes, leather daddies, bears, bulldaggers, drag queens, transsexuals, and, yes, strung out glittery twinks dancing to club music marched proudly.
No longer in the closets, these queers became outlaws. Their mantra? I am what I am, dammit! Pride parades evolved into spectacles that were shocking! Outrageous! Ridiculous, even! Those either not initiated into the tribe or not in on the joke clutched their pearls in horror at the flagrant demonstration of queerness on and around each float.
Acting bad never felt so good, especially when religious moral oppression was its target.
Now, Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church loonies (who provided us with endless camp parodies of pop songs like “Let it Go” and “Poker Face”) is an extreme case , but nevertheless, seeing those Bible Thumpers at every corner shout angrily only bolstered that moral fight against oppression. Pelting these moral kooks with dildos, glitter, and raunchy displays of anal debauchery (one indeed wondered if all Fred needed was a crotch in his face), it felt good to be told that you are going to Hell, especially if that road to Hell was paved with disco balls and strobe lights! Really, why on earth would anyone want to assimilate away from disco? The goal was never to become a neighbor. Indeed, queer liberation was never to be found in a courtroom or in a legislative session, but in a circuit party or a lesbian commune. Liberation meant following a different way of life: by establishing a queer time and place; or by making the “fuck the future” antisocial turn; and even by reconceptualizing queerness as that “somewhere over the rainbow” horizon of utopian possibilit(ies).
This idea of queerness as possibility, of danger, and of excitement, paired with the post-Stonewall LGBTQ political drive towards going against the grain in the name of Gay Power Liberation certainly gained a lot of attention. Moreover, the Gay cultural, social, and political agenda, backed by lobbying groups like the Human Rights Coalition (HRC), gained so much power that in the end, we won! No longer shunned but accepted! No longer labeled as deviants but celebrated as active members of the community! We even have an ever-growing number of civil rights to stay out of the closet without fear of reprisal from work, housing, adoption, or marriage. What more could a Mary want! No more hiding, no more fighting against religious oppression, no more need to act bad! Act good!
What is the fallout, indeed, after we got what we wanted? Suddenly, Pride Parades lose their importance. Gay bars lose their luster. Localized queer communities dissolve. Acceptance means that edginess no longer feels so sharp. It also means that the margins disappear, that edginess becomes stale. Indeed, it’s all been done before. How many Pride parades can one sit through without finally becoming bored, especially now that the LGBTQ community has moved from the margins to center stage of culture and politics? Where does that edge that made being queer so wonderful channel its energy? In an interview with Big Think, John Waters describes the paradox of being queer and being accepted by the majority:
As Waters notes, the LGBTQ community’s shift towards acceptance has resulted, in accordance with the paradigm shift towards mainstream whatever (respectability, political power, capital gain, or just coexisting among the straights) in a new set of rules that has taken over guidelines about how we should act. According to Waters, “too much gay-ley correctness” has led to internal policing over appropriate representations of what it means now to be Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and so on–not to mention Queer. Gone is Divine crooning an audience while being serenaded by a lobster. How would such a Razzie-worthy performance gain mainstream acceptance? Forget transgression now that we have television shows that reconfigure drag shows into Super Bowl televised competitions in line with other such popular shows like America’s Got Talent; or, forget transgression now that we have Drag queens hit up libraries with children for storybook hour. This particular queer experience sacrifices all that fighting, all that bottom-feeding (and loving it), and all that proud outlaw mentality. We could add countless other examples from the fight over the representation of the Pride flag itself to recent arguments about Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor Pete Buttigieg. despite his being the first openly gay presidential candidate in United States history–despite that– still not being queer enough to represent contemporary ideas about progress, particularly within queer politics. The continuously evolving acceptance of the LGBTQ community in the mainstream has led to a revaluation of queerness: where do those queer outlaws go to continue to break rules and fuck shit up? As certain members of the LGBTQ community (namely white cisgender gays and lesbians) are now no longer queer enough as those who are now understood to be queer (or queerer than thou), what happens to these two factions when they come into contact?
Somehow, President Donald Trump has become a queer icon. No need for double-takes: he won over a powerful subset of the LGBTQ community too eager to use homonormativity as a means to stay relevant…no, to remain contrarian. Suddenly, numbers of self-identified members of the LGBTQ community came out of the woodwork as Conservative; and more so, as far-right Trump supporters eagerly calling him “Daddy.”
As he is wont to do, Daddy Trump embraced (no, swallowed) a Pride flag and declared himself the only champion qualified to advocate for the LGBTQ community; and, somehow, Trump not only won over a significant subset of it, but he simultaneously actually verified the (radical?) fear among academic Queer Theorists that White cisgender Gay Men would turn Conservative once they gained homonormative rights to marry, serve in the military, and blend in with their heteronormative neighbors. And though it appears true that homonormativity breeds Conservatism, there is way too much Camp going on here in the case of these #Twinks4Trump to take that academic argument at face value.
Of course, this Queer Conservative wave has Come Out entirely from the Pride flag capitalist, “we’re your neighbors” (homo/hetero) normative-seeking HRC generation. Of course, said figures are White, cisgender, Gay, and Male who, after having won HRC gains in Marriage, Military Service, Hate Crime, and Mainstream Cultural Acceptance no longer have everything at stake. And yet, they position themselves as having everything at stake. Lucien Wintrich, Milo Yiannopoulos, Bill White, Brian Eure, and (laughably) Chadwick Moore have emerged as extremely FOX News conservative pundits, apparently taking the stance that the LGBTQ community and politics have gone so far left, via Social Justice and Race and Gender Intersectionality, as to ostracize them, thereby compelling them to embrace the extreme opposite by positing race, and specifically White Nationalist, politics as its driving force.
These figures supposedly posit that the LGBTQ community has reached all of its (HRC-driven) goals, and that assimilation is the natural next step. Having the right to marry and to defend themselves from being denied basic rights like housing and employment have provided this group with the assertion that progress has been made. Many Gay and Lesbian couples can walk down the street, hand-in-hand, most anywhere now, in safety. The real trouble, it seems, comes from those who try to push for more radicalized forms of politics like legalizing polyamory, or prison reform, or racial inequality. Or education. Or housing. Or gender equality. Or Transgender friendly health insurance. All that snowflake stuff that make up Social Justice issues. Instead of celebrating their gains, these normalized / homonormative Gays are suddenly on the defensive as they are now labeled by this opposition no longer Queer enough; or, worse, as an enemy against Queer politics. What is a queen to do?
By embracing Trump and the extreme conservative right, this group has found a way to sustain power, through rejection, through Camp coolness, through CONTRARIANISM–despite its own best interests–against the wave of an ever growing understanding of oppression in the form of issues regarding Social Justice and Intersectionality within how we define queerness–even though the extreme Conservative right had hitherto defined itself in opposition to all things queer. Conservative White cisgender Gay Males have found a way to conquer queerness by embracing everything it hitherto stood against, and for what? For shock value? To reorient queerness? For a good laugh?
Blame it on Wilde
Contrarian politics has been a staple in LGBTQ mainstream media long since before Will and Grace and Absolut Vodka has made it safe for us to come out. Wit! Humor! These are fighting words! The higher moral ground! Authoritarianism! Endless investigations into the Closet made us sympathetic, not immoral, not dysfunctional, and certainly not diseased. We’ve washed ourselves clean with every Pride Parade and with every media moment. And with each vote! A vote for Pride! A vote…for Vodka! A vote for a 5-night balcony-view cabin on the latest Atlantis Gay Cruise! A vote for Trump! For Trump!! Another closet door shattered! Progress. PROGRESS! (socio-economic) Red hats. Tax cuts. Waves!
Blame it on Wilde
Drawing upon the radical vision of Walter Pater, who posited that life should be lived only for art’s sake, Wilde and his dandies used Pater as a way to advocate for queerness as a pose to hint at–though never to fully embrace, with all its nasty consequences, what we now understand as gay, or homosexual, or queer. Hey, boys!! You can have it all!! To quote Big Daddy himself: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame [of aesthetics], to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” Who needs a job? Health insurance? 4-0-1-K!! Thanks to Pater, art and queerness became a way of being that legitimized and sustained itself, and Wilde was all-too-quick to come aboard decked in hairstyles, outfits, and poses. And, really, who could ask for anything more?
It was definitely a bold stance then, though not taking that final step towards a full declaration. To be a Dandy was to strike a pose; to be queer! To go against the grain. Dandies were certainly queer but not necessarily gay, though typically the twain met. And why not? How else could gay men meet up? As the quintessential Dandy, Wilde could not maintain his pose, though he tried to tease his audience for as long as he cold. Certainly, everyone bought into what Wilde was selling. Like Davie Bowie later did with Ziggy Stardust, one could tantalize the public’s thirst for queerness without having to actually be a fag. Wilde could pose as a sodomite without being guilty as such–until his trial, of course.
After Wilde, the figure of the Dandy became ever more enticing, as homosexuality became a point-of-no-return, a disease, a criminal act–though figures in popular culture would straddle the line between the two. Bowie straddled the line between aesthete and fag; so did Liberace; and Wilde. Of course, everyone whispered about them, their intentions, and who they truly were. But, through art, these boys gained power and maintained it through teasing (homo)sexuality as a form of art that went against the grain, while simultaneously resisting any as such:
With Wilde, people could pass him off as a Dandy. With Bowie, a Rock n’ Roll Alien. With Liberace, a Piano Showman (with a flair for the dramatic). Each of these figures teased us with a way of transcending the staleness of popular culture though a blurring of showmanship, art, excitement, and sexuality. This is queerness as a form of power, again, to go against the grain. And, let’s be honest, it is exciting! So much more exciting, in fact, than the efforts to assimilate those wild contrarian dandies into respectable corporate-sponsored suburban neighbors and patriots that Gay politics adopted on their way towards achieving landmark rights such as anti-discrimination laws, gay marriage, adoption rights, and hate crime legislation. We’re just like you? Where’s the fun in that!
Blame it on Wilde.
Contrarianism has become a staple in White CIS Gay and Lesbian (and Transgender) cultural politics. Contrarianism is a powerful tool to enact change: it locates norms and subverts them through a disavowal, through an embrace of the opposite. Contrarianism embraces the bottom, the abject, the disgust, and the opposite so to dismantle that which is considered top, holy, pleasing, and valued. The endgame? In the Nietzschean sense, all in effort to force us to reevaluate our values or morals. In terms of religious oppression on the LGBTQ community, Contrarianism is quite effective. How many priests, while preaching Leviticus, have been caught with their pants down? How many far-right politicians, while passing anti-LGBTQ legislation, have been busted in bathrooms or in bedrooms with boy toys, or male prostitutes? Oh, come on! If only these priests and politicians embraced their Contrarian urges and went down to the Shame Basement!
At its most powerful, Contrarianism blasts a spotlight on the moral contradictions within those who purport to espouse morality, while, at the same time, sanctifying the very thing against which these supposedly morally superior figures rail. Therefore, Contrarianism and Queerness have a lot of threads that overlap: while one does not necessarily need to be queer to be contrarian, one ought to be contrarian to be queer. It is within the very definition of queerness–going against the grain, seeking the margins, acting bad, being strange–that situate it against whatever the center may be. For gays, acting out against the center is easy: don’t subscribe to heteronormativity! Be flamboyant. Be Wilde! Go dancing. Make your own kind of music! Embrace Queerness! The end game? Make those in the center become entranced–no, jealous!–of your lifestyle. And for Christ’s sake, make those heteros stop thumping their Bibles and calm down! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Being Queer became a weapon to simultaneously subvert cultural norms while liberating those at its margins. It worked! People in the cultural center have come to embrace the LGBTQ community, and the concept of Queerness is less a radical idea and more of a facet of an ever-evolving community.
The night that Gay Marriage became approved by the Supreme Court, contrarianism gay politics no longer fit in; while satire and irony provided punch lines, they no longer drove a communal way of being: gays and lesbians sought utopian views of HRC-fueled politics. Yet, at the same time, the need to be Contrarian remained central to the Queer identity. Wilde made contrarianism Contrarianism, and over the course of our rights gained for the LGBTQ community, contrarianism became less a strategy for upending heteronormativity and more a comfort-zoned means for staying against the grain. It’s almost hipster for these gays, suddenly bored and privileged, to go against their better angels in order to remain Aesthetes, or worse, Decadents.
Queerness as Decadence (All Over Again): A Manifesto
Decadence needs to make a comeback. Camp Decadence! Utopian Decadence! Hiding around corners Decadence! To be Queer needs to remain Decadent, despite any and all arguments to the contrary.
In what might be the most instructive surrender ever to Decadence (capital “D”!), Bryan Ferry, clad in a sharkskin pink suit, struts and croons in an ever building crescendo in Roxy Music’s 1979 album title track “Manifesto.” This crescendo is never actually realized, and Ferry, through all his endless crooning to his lovely Decadent, ultimately never solidifies them as something real and tangible, but rather, as something elusive. Something fleeting. Somewhere, des Esseintes pauses for a moment, within his scentorium, to take notice. Consider Ferry’s qualities of the Decadent:
- for a life around the corner that takes you by surprise
- for a life and time by numbers blast n’ fast and low
- for a man who drives the hammer
- for a revolution coming
- to fight…against the grain
These qualities are nothing new: whether from Pater and Wilde to Queer Utopia, Queer Times and Places, and #Twinks4Trump, Queerness has always been about looking ahead, discovering surprises, seeking revolution, and most importantly, going against the grain.
To be Queer is to be Decadent, though the trouble with Queerness has been ways that it has been weaponized a way to promote some at the expense of others. Enough of it. Taste the rainbow! Queerness as Decadence–not Contrarianism–takes flight. Like the mantra of Roxy Music’s “Manifesto,” Queerness too, is elusive. It is something that can be desired, but that also cannot be truly realized. It is something that can be seen, but which ultimately cannot be touched. Queerness is and has always been all about surprises and peering beyond corners and revolutions. While Roxy Music’s song came way before life as we know it, its “manifesto” still holds true, as a disco-punk pied piper, to all of us mighty queers.
Somewhere Over The Rainbow
Oh, rainbows. Aren’t we sick of seeing them at every Gay Pride event? On every tee-shirt, and on coffee cups, bottles of booze, and posters? The gay rainbow became way too much to handle thanks to corporate marketing and LGBTQ politics, so much that it has become bland; and, worse, as a source of infighting about inclusion and representation among members of the LGBTQ community. In his touching tribute to Dorothy Gale, Mark Demaio reclaims the rainbow away from bland Pride flags, wristbands, and corporate logos, and he reminds us just why we fell in love with it in the first place. We are confronted by a triptych of Dorothy–trapped, even–who turns our gaze away from the here and now and towards a the possibility of something greater–even if that involves double-homicide! By allowing ourselves to look to the horizon with Dorothy, we see the rainbow not as something to own, wear, or mount on our patio, but as an idea to chase always. The rainbow is not fixed within any certain set of identit(ies) but begs us to look ahead for more. By following Dorothy over that rainbow, we too, enter Oz; only this time, we never need to go back!
To take flight, then, as a Queer these days, requires the willful dissolving of binaries. It requires refusing totalizing narratives that create paradigms of privilege, oppression, and power struggle. It requires a lot of listening, and a lot of imagination. It also requires a building towards a never-actualized crescendo, going around new corners (that do take you by surprise!). It is Campy and Ridiculous, though also not Contrarian for the sake of being so. Being a #Twink4Trump does not gain you Queer points for going against the grain of Queer politics; neither do those tired Social Justice “Queerer than Thou” arguments. It’s all gone to Trash, and why can’t that be the endgame for Liberation? Queerness should ultimately embrace its own Ridiculousness. Only by “becoming a living mockery of its own ideals” (to quote Charles Ludlam) can Queerness ever regain its own magic, and truly be free.