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9 December 2010, 9:00 am 2 Comments

History: Introducing Why Doesn’t [Blank] Have a Bigger Queer Following?

Submission by A.M. Bowen.

A.M. Bowen, after his chat with Sara Marcus in Why Doesn’t the DC Punk Scene Have a Bigger Queer Following Part One and Two was so well received on TNg, has decided to embark on a journey of analyzing other people and things that seemed to have missed an appearance the LGBT radar. Here’s a little taste of what’s to come:

Kanye West would probably say this if he were queer, which is to say I know this sounds egotistical and crazy, but I think it’s true for me: I had to be my own queer revolutionary.

I’m not ignoring history when I write that. I know that I wouldn’t be able to even write that if it weren’t for the litany of revolutionaries that made open queer life possible (and I use queer in the sense that it’s a much more elegant way to say lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning than LGBTIQ. I like “queer” better than that unwieldy acronym).

But like many contributors to The New Gay, I concluded pretty early on in life that mainstream gay culture—as it was presented to me, at least—was bewildering. As a teenager, I liked punk rock and weird historical things, which is to say I didn’t like that which was notably mainstream-gay. The first time I tried to win a boy’s heart, in high school, I went to a bookstore with him, and tried to sell him on the merits of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. He tried to sell me on the merits of the XY magazine photo issue. At the end of the evening, we exchanged a cold handshake, and I tore up the love letter I had written him. This boy was fairly unconventional himself, but he certainly felt more comfortable with mainstream gay life than I did. I think it was clear that we didn’t get each other.

As I explored other aspects of queer life, I still found myself super-confused. Queer theory was fun (and helpful for my own conceptualization of the world), but as someone who tried to explain what I felt to family members in Judith Butler terms, I’ll say that queer theory’s usefulness is limited—unless you’re into carrying around vocabulary lists and flashcards for follow-up with your unschooled loved ones. When I learned that there is a question in the transgender community as to whether one is “trans enough” (in that one is not trans enough unless one fully transitions), I think my jaw dropped. There are good people fighting that concept, thankfully, but I’m still upset that there are constraints upon identity within the trans community.

All cultures are contradictory, and all have their own norms. But since that failed high school not-date, I wondered: what the hell is wrong with so many queer worlds? Feeling not wholly comfortable with a lot of them, I created my own queer world, delving into things I liked, regardless of whether those things had any sort of acceptance from wide swaths of queer people.

As I studied those things I liked more deeply, I found that they had cultural rhymes with queerness. Fugazi, a band I adore, was a stalwart supporter of queer rights. Teddy Pendergrass, the late R&B icon—a heterosexual male icon at that—recorded a song called “You Can’t Hide From Yourself,” a disco tune that sounds like the best coming out anthem that I’ve never heard mentioned as a coming-out anthem (though the Internet tells me Pendergrass had a gay following). And when Pendergrass got in the car accident that paralyzed him, he was traveling with a transwoman.

Thinking about these things that I liked, things with not-inconsiderable connections to the queer world, I asked, “Why don’t these things have a bigger queer following?” And thus: over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting pieces to The New Gay called, “Why Doesn’t [Blank] Have a Bigger Queer Following?”

In these pieces, I’ll explore not only these cultural icons that I adore (and deserve a deeper examination by wider swaths of queer people), but also ideas and institutions that have some connection to the queer world, but don’t have quite the following (or respect) of queer people that I’d expect. I recognize that I’m not the first person on this site to do this kind of “queer canon-extension”/“expanding what it means to be queer” work—TNG is dedicated to such work.

What I hope to bring to the aforementioned work is (obviously) my perspective: even if something (a person, institution) has a spotty past with respect to its support for queer people, I’m willing to examine, again, places of cultural rhyme between queerness and whatever the immediate subject is. Ultimately, I’m interested in how the queer world—a complicated thing with different constituencies, lest I sound too reductionist—makes and alienates allies: given any relationship between queerness and x subject, what factors, from relationship to relationship, create or hurt chances for an alliance? What general principles, if any, can be drawn from a study of how things garner (or don’t garner, but maybe should have) a queer following?

Back to that not-date in high school. I pushed W.H. Auden on that boy, and he didn’t seem interested. But an Auden line deeply informs the way I think: “We must love one another or die.” It seems overserious to reference that line, given that some of my forthcoming subjects are Teddy Pendergrass and the DC punk scene; but I also wish to explore feminism, Catholicism, police, and other institutions that have somewhere between a friendly and highly dysfunctional relationship with queerness. I wish to examine what does and doesn’t function in those relationships. Compelled by my own interests, “Why Doesn’t [Blank] Have a Bigger Queer Following?” is a study of serious and less-so things, exploring how queer people relate to institutions that have some sort of tension with queer lives. I hope to provide understanding as to why some love doesn’t occur—because, as Auden understood, we need that, or we die.

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  • Jason W said:

    Thank you for writing a fascinating article.

    I came out in 1994 at the ripe ol’ age of 18. I came out while I was in seminary studying to be a priest. It was an interesting place to come out. And it shaped my conception of being gay/queer.

    In the seminary, I was constantly asked for sex in the wee hours of the morning only to be called a faggot as a I walked down to morning prayer. I caught priests in public bathrooms cruising for sex unaware that I recognized them out of their robes and uniforms. I was constantly berated for my personal views.

    I left the seminary after one semester. I still stayed at my Catholic university, but now as a “regular” student. I was the only out queer person on a campus of about 10,000 people. It forced me to look beyond the university to find support, so I started gong out to Macalester College and the University of Minnesota and queer cafes to try and find a community and a culture I could belong to.

    Immediately, I was ostracized: I was still Catholic at a Catholic university. I got a lot of “Wow. You are so brave. It must be difficult for you there.” Followed immediately by, “I won’t come visit you there. Why don’t we meet somewhere else?” These comments dismissed the reality I was living. As long as I conformed to their notions of queer and queer spaces, I would get support. Ask for support in the spaces I reside in, and it didn’t exist.

    My experiences of the “community at large” was one where I was still outside. I was still seen as an other. So I had to start looking for other places for community. I knew it wouldn’t be in “queer spaces” that I would find it.

    I found that community in a small group of social change activists of color at my university. It was an eye opening experience that pushed my own conceptions of being to new levels. I had to look at my patterns of behavior to unearth deep seeded racism and sexism in order to become a part of this group. And I did it. In return, this amazing group of people looked at their patterns of behavior to unearth their deep seeded homophobia in order to connect with me. This network of support helped me stay in college for another year and a half. Ultimately, I had to leave/was forced to leave (same thing really now that I have had some distance). And our small group of friends and colleagues are all across the USA doing important social justice work some 16 years later.

    After I left college, I did AmeriCorps. I had a choice of placements, and I ended up working for Minneapolis Unified School District running youth leadership, after school, and family support programs at the age of 20. I was one of the youngest people doing this work as well as the only out person at a public elementary school.

    Once again, I had to find support somewhere. I thought that support would come in the form of queer housemates. And it did for a second, but as with all things in life, shit happens and one roommate and myself ended up hating each other. (I did have great support from one lesbian roommate, and I just want to make note of that.) I also thought it would come from the gay boys I met out in the clubs I snuck into. They were great for a casual friendship, but not for anything deep or meaningful. I had to find support somewhere other than queer bars and cafes.

    Support came from other AmeriCorps members. It came from older adults who saw my struggles and wanted to support my path. It came from my college friends. And it came from queers I met at queer events (not bars or cafes).

    The connection from this last grouping, queers from queer events, however, had little to do with queerness, as directly related to sexual and gender identity. Yes, there was a common identity that linked us, but it went way beyond just identity politics. This was a group that was dedicated to righting societal injustices on multiple levels: policy, art, race, class, religion, indigenous genocide, immigration, HIV/AIDS, health, pop culture, music, design, performance, and sexual and gender identity and the fluidity between all of these passions, interests, talents, and identities.

    After my stint in AmeriCorps, I was recruited to Antioch College in Ohio. I decided to take a leap of faith because I wanted to experience what it would be like to be in a truly supportive environment even if it was a small one. Additionally, I was excited by the possibility of being with like minded individuals beyond sexual and gender orientations.

    By the time I ended up at Antioch, my perspective on life had totally changed. I was more comfortable in diverse spaces than homogeneous spaces. I had already gone through the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism retreat and the United States Student Association’s Grassroots Organizing Weekend, so I had a radical perspective on anti-racist and organizing work. I believed (and still believe) in supporting from behind rather than always being in front. I was also a returning student rather than a student just starting out college. And as a result of these factors, I quickly learned Antioch was not going to be a space for me.

    Once again, the supportive queer environment that I had hoped for was not there. Yes, I was no longer the only out gay man on campus. However, the loneliness of being “the only one” was replaced with anger at being forced to compete with the other four or five gay men on who was the “most gay”. You had to prove how oppressed you were in order to find your place. I didn’t play along.

    The friends I made at Antioch all ended up being students of color. These were the friends with whom I’d share meals and study. These were the friends that stayed up late bitching about everyone else on campus. These were also the friends that share the most similar economic background: blue collar or poor.

    I had little to no queer friends besides one lesbian who had a car. We’d end up going out to Dayton or Columbus or Cincinnati to go dancing and find sex. It became almost a nightly event to leave campus in order to find a queer community. And the only community we found and got connected to was a community that loved dancing and drinking. It is a marvelous aspect of our community. It is also not all of it.

    Again, I set off in search of the “gay community”: I moved to San Francisco. I was certain it was here thanks to conversations with an ex-boyfriend who had moved to San Francisco and sang its praises. Again, I was wrong. It was not the land I thought it would be, and I was a cute, 21 year-old gay boy who didn’t mind go go dancing or being paid for sex.

    The community of queers I found was one of drug and alcohol fueled fuck-upery. It was a divine retreat, oasis, and refuge from the struggle of living in an expensive city. It was also not a “community” in the sense of truly supporting one another, finding connections between stories, or fellowship. It was all about dancing, drugs, partying, and alcohol.

    These things are definitely needed, and I believe are more important than we sometimes realize. It is how I initially connected to the queer community, and without it I am not sure exactly where I would be today. I am not even sure I would be alive. The release that comes from these things is intangible. It allows all of the worries to go away or at least be put on hold momentarily. It is also not something that can be sustained indefinitely. So, again, I had to find a community of support.

    That support came from a very unlikely place, especially for a new transplant to San Francisco: from native San Franciscans of color.

    A few years after moving to San Francisco, I got a job working at a Beacon Center, which is a community center located in a public middle school, as the Education Director. This role put me in direct contact with a whole slew of people who grew up in this city. And I found that we had a lot in common. We shared values of diversity and pluralism of social justice and social change of the spirituality of identity and politics. We found that even in the moments when we all seemed so completely different from each other (me in my Marilyn Manson drag and my dear friend Maria with her two young daughters and my colleague Will who had done time and was doing gang prevention) there were threads that connected us, and even if we couldn’t see them we knew we had to support each other if we wanted a better future for the youth and families we were serving.

    It is from this base of friends and colleagues that I found my network of support: an eclectic crew of folks that to anyone outside would wonder how we all were connected. And it required a whole bunch of work on all ends to build this network. It required me going outside of my comfort zone. I had to take on other issues than just queer issues if I wanted to keep and sustain these friendships. I had to listen to parents and youth and hear their stories of struggle. And I couldn’t just listen to them. I had to find ways my story intersected theirs so that I could become a better advocate and use my access and power in a manner that honored their stories and supported their development (and not the development policy makers, administrators, and funders said they needed).

    It is also from this base that I found more queers and a queer community I am proud to call myself a part of. But this isn’t the queer community promoted through mainstream media or culture. This is not the queer community of the bars. This is not the queer community I thought it would be. It is not a simple reductivist view of gender and sexual identity. It is a complex web that understand that while sexual and gender identity shapes some of our personal world view/perspective there is a whole hell of a lot more that also shapes that view and creates connections between people and communities.

    I know that this ability to create support beyond gender and sexual identity is because of the hard work and activism of those queers that came before me. I also can’t help but look at our history and see nuance in what happened before me. Yes, there are queers that made headway for queer rights. There are also queers in the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, the international human rights movement, and more. There are also straights in the queer rights movement. I sometimes feel that by not looking this broadly we lose sight that queer doesn’t ever mean one thing. Nor is queer something that solely bridges people.

    As an example, I applied for a queer youth agency in San Francisco after at 5 years of working with youth in a variety of settings. I made it in for an interview. During the interview, I was asked if I had ever worked with queer youth. I mentioned that I had worked in public schools for five years, and that as a result of this work I had worked with all youth including queer youth. I was told that was inadequate experience because it wasn’t with a targeted queer youth population. I was told I didn’t understand the experiences of queer young people. I thanked them for the interview and left knowing I wouldn’t get the job. And this had nothing to do with my skill in working with young people. It had to do with a perception of who queer kids are being reinforced by a queer organization in a queer city. And I knew most of the young people I worked with who were queer wouldn’t go to that queer organization because queer wasn’t their “top” priority. Getting a job was. And when that organization started increasing their job training programs more of the youth I worked with started going to that organization.

    What I have learned throughout all of this is that we are a lot more complex than we, humans, are portrayed in media, news, culture, and art. And that our portrayals tell us nothing about how we connect on an interpersonal level. There are competing self interests that come and go depending on immediacy. Sometimes those things are factors that are easily seen/heard — gender, race, first language spoken, and perceived sexuality. Sometimes those things are factors that are unseen/unheard — employment status, mental health, personal values and identity. And sometimes these factors collide with what we believe or have lived. If we embrace that collision we find new identities, new ways of being, and new connections. If we resist that collision, we become disconnected and isolated. We are all searching for the communities where we feel most at “home”, whatever that really means.

    I appreciate this article and your search for “Why doesn’t [blank] have a bigger queer following?”. I am excited to read what you find. And I think it may have something to do with nuance. For we are at a unique point in history where the nuance of identity matters drastically. Then again, nuance has always mattered. It’s just that theories and history books and news cycles tend to gloss over those nuances and paint with broad brush strokes. And what gets painted is never the same as it was or what gets interpreted.

    I look forward to what you paint.

    And thanks for reading this very lengthy comment. I can never just write something simple.

  • A.M. Bowen said:

    This is to Jason W, the previous commenter:

    Jason, thank you so much for your reflections, which are more eloquent and elegant than anything I could ever write. You tell things honestly, and I’m so happy that you’ve found a sense of peace (after so much searching and hard work). What you’ve written here will certainly shade everything that I put out, and I hope to hear more from you as time goes on. Thank you, and be well.