A weekly column about being queer in America.
I’m a queer man. By queer I mean a lot of things, mostly that I’ve loved and fucked both men and women and hate the word bisexual. I also mean that I try not to think about my feelings in terms of gay and straight, male and female.
(The word bisexual plays into the idea that these are clear and definite dichotomies).* These terms taught me to delegate romantic and platonic feelings to different sorts of people and that never worked for me. I lost track of what was platonic and what was romantic—be honest, dating is complicated. I even lost track of what traits were female and what were male. Eventually I said fine, let’s lose track.
I’m a cis queer man writing about queerness. I am also white and was born to upper-middle class parents and went to college. As a queer person who is hegemonic in every other way, I am the worst person to be writing a column about queerness. The last thing anybody needs is more cis-mansplaining about gender and the sex lives of strangers.
The queer movement has already been co-opted by people who look like me. We are the faces being used by the media to make queerness digestible for America: the victims of high school bullying, the stars of TV shows like “The New Normal,” lovable reality show contestants and singers like Adam Lambert. This is what America thinks being queer looks like—a bunch of sympathetic white kids just trying to fit in. Because these people already “fit in” in every other way, it is easy to see the injustice of their oppression. They have all the same values and interests and goals and they just want a fair shot at the American dream.
But there are a lot of queer people who aren’t like that! What does it say about the queer movement when our most popular battles have been concentrated on admitting queers into traditional, all-American institutions like marriage and the military? You guys, I don’t want to join the military at all. And my parents have this bizarre, steady, mutually supportive, all-encompassing marriage and I always grew up thinking I wanted that too. I’m not sure anymore. Maybe someday I’ll say, “I hope I die without ever having a different sexual partner!” and then I’ll get married. But, uh, maybe not.
Now, there are a lot of arguments to be made for the importance of these things (honor! tax breaks!)—and even some “liberal” ones. I can hear you, person who reads the New York Times, sitting there thinking,
“Well, of course I would never join the military, and I even think our foreign policy is imperialist, but the military is an important opportunity for people with limited options—it is a gateway to college and a stable future!”
You’re right. But—aha!—I see you also read the New Yorker because, let’s be honest, how can you trust an institution that actually pays money to Thomas Friedman? So you know that marriage is important not just for making the population docile and complacent, but also for immigration and health care, both of which you want to reform:
“If people can’t get married, they can’t access their partner’s health care, which is unfair.”
“And marrying a citizen is one of the more reliable ways of getting through the immigration process. It’s unfair to deny people healthcare and legal status in this country just because of who they love!”
All of these things are true (except we must be following different queers on Twitter). But isn’t it kind of messed up to decide if a person can move to a new country or have healthcare based on whether or not they promise to sleep in the same bed every night? (I am familiar with Dan Savage and his idea of being “monogamish,” yes, but he still takes monogamy and marriage for granted, only deviating slightly and apologetically.) And isn’t it really messed up to live in a country where the institution best able to provide people with a leg up is one whose ideology terrifies you? (You admitted we were imperialist!)
Instead of fighting for queers to be permitted access to these institutions, we could have seen queers as proof that these institutions needed to change. Men who lived in crummy apartments alone and had anonymous sex partners on the shut-down docks of big cities in the 80s deserved healthcare not because we liked their relationship choices but rather because they were being attacked by a plague. People deserve visitation rights in a hospital not because the state has sanctioned their relationship as “really really special” but rather because you should be able to see someone you like when you’re about to die. An 18-year-old should have money invested in her by the state not because we want her to kill brown people with a flying saucer but rather because each person deserves a fair shot at the life she wants.
So instead of fighting for the right to get married and join the military, we could have fought for free, universal healthcare and better public schools, for example. We could have fought for an immigration process that was less invasive, racist, criminalizing, and Kafkaesque. It’s hard not to think that queerness was our last best hope for a revolution and we squandered it on diamond rings.
My queerness is political and angry and loving. I don’t want to be normal and “equal” because I’m pretty skeptical of things I’m asked to be “equal” to. I know this is not the case for all queers. I’m in no position to tell some tortured 13-year-old to grow up and embrace her “uniqueness” rather than trying to fit in. And I cannot even ask all adults to be so political about their queerness. Some people just want to be normal, and isn’t that okay? (We meet again, New York Times reader.) Yes, it is. But remember that every person who is allowed to be “normal” necessarily excludes someone else. That’s because the rules of “normal” get redefined to fit that person rather than being devalued entirely—think about how much effort queers have put into “proving” that letting us get married won’t really change anything. “Marriage equality” only means equality for people who want monogamous, two-party marriages. And for people who want marriage at all.
There are more (and more radical) things to say about the current state of queerness. Indeed, anyone familiar with queer theory and groups like Against Equality may be bored and frustrated by the preceding discussion. But these are the topics that most people are familiar with and thus they make for a good introduction. This column will broach a wide range of issues in coming weeks and hopefully we’ll all talk and get angry and show people that queers aren’t always adorable and hilarious.
*Upon publication, members of the queer community who identify as bisexual pointed out how wrongheaded this statement is. For an education in the history and importance of the word bisexual, check out these articles by activist and author Julia Serano.