‘Homonormativity’ and Its Discontents

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WE ARE LEAVING the city behind in the dream. We are lying upon the edge of a pool on a cliff overlooking the ocean. In Mexico, the city is behind us and Colby is reading poetry as I float on a raft. Whitman’s words were never truer: “We two boys together clinging/ One the other never leaving.” On the screen, the scene is fleeting, offering a CockyBoys™ seven-day trial membership for $14.95.

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I am waiting at Dooby’s, a hip Baltimore café, for my friend Colby, whom I know quite well digitally, but have yet to meet IRL (in real life). Such is contemporary humanity. Colby Keller is undoubtedly one of the world’s biggest

Colby Keller
Colby Keller gay porn stars, his digital footprint like his bodily footprint, huge, distinct, and, to many, instantly recognizable. Colby is also one of the smartest—not to mention kindest—men I know; he holds an MFA in sculpture from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), one of the nation’s top art schools, and he reads Marxist theory and contemporary poetry voraciously. Here I lay bare a bias: it was initially difficult to reconcile the Colby I knew from his porn, those images of a chiseled Adonis sweating onto the back of a hipster as they fuck, with the Colby that sat across from me, talking of Whitman and what his poetic might mean in the age of neoliberalism.

I met Colby IRL at a time in history, the second decade of the 21st century. Homosexual lobbyists had fought for and were winning a number of new rights, most visibly the ability for homos to serve openly in the military and to marry in a growing number of states (and eventually nationwide). At the same time, I was being drawn into the set of ideas known as queer theory. As luck would have it, the past decade has given rise to an often visceral divide between the academic discipline of queer theory and the mainstream homosexual lobby, represented most prominently by the behemoth Human Rights Campaign. The mainstream homosexual lobby paints academics who criticize them as elitists who are out of touch; queer-minded academics often paint the gay lobby as shortsighted and concerned only with furthering capitalism and its most protected class, white men. To me, Colby Keller has come to be an image, a metaphor, for how these two groups might bridge their aspirations: Colby is a man, after all, visibly concerned with his own sexual desires, but he is also connected to a larger queer politic that recognizes the social needs of others.

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If a thesis here is necessary: Queerness is not threatened most by heteronormativity, but by homonormativity, not by people outside of the LGBT community, but by the most powerful class, white gay men, inside of it. If a theorem here might be helpful to understand the implication of this: queer ≠ gay.

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The current definition of “queer” originates with the debate over whether sexuality is “essential” to the person or something that’s “socially constructed.” Think Lady Gaga’s insistence that you’re “born this way” versus Michel Foucault’s dictum that “the homosexual was now a species” when the word itself was coined. The contemporary homosexual lobby—derided in some corners as “Gay, Inc.”—builds its case on essentialism: If we are born this way, then the state cannot discriminate against us. Within state-sanctioned institutions (marriage, the military, taxes), Gay, Inc. finds freedom.

In contrast, “queerness” as a concept is not limited to our individual sexual identities but malleable when describing our politics and ways of thinking about and improving the world. White gay men, who like white men generally tend to think they deserve to be on top, find this frustrating, because here queerness might not place their desires first. To many scholars, a gay man could be homosexual without being queer. Believe me, this is not popular to say to drunk dudes grabbing your ass at Pride or to self-righteous, shortsighted guys on Facebook.

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Then again, here I too am being self-righteous. Imagine the expert in the law of Luke 10 presently as a young queer theorist. Imagine me asking Jesus, “And who is queer?” Imagine Jesus slapping me across the face: “Bitch, please!”

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Queer theory as queer politic offers to assemble us into a public, intelligent working group of reformers for issues of race alongside sex and gender. Richard Thompson Ford explains his personal excitement to this end:

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Queer theory offered a way to take race politics back from the professionals. It had—at least it seemed to me—a closer and fresher connection with the everyday life of a counterculture, with its contradictions, its sweaty struggles, its passions, its screw-ups, its street styles and fashion faux pas. Queer theory, with its open-handed conflicts and negotiations between gay men, lesbians, trannies, butch and lipstick lesbians, tops, bottoms, clean-shaven Chelsea boys and bearded burly “bears.”

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This praxis has both political and personal implications, because one of the greatest facets of queer life outside of homonormative gayness is also our ability to define our own relationships.

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It is true that sometimes all queer bonding asks for is a recognition, like that between Colby and me, or between Frank O’Hara and his intimate, the painter Grace Hartigan. In a poem to Hartigan, O’Hara surmises this queer recognition: “And someone you love enters the room/ and says wouldn’t/ you like the eggs a little/ different today?/ And when they arrive they are/ just plain scrambled eggs.”

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This desire for plain scrambled eggs is not my way of robbing queerness of sex. I love sex. I have had sex with some of my closest friends. Michel Foucault explains: “A way of life can be shared among individuals of different ages, status, and social activity. It can yield intense relations not resembling those that are institutionalized. It seems to me that a way of life can yield a culture and an ethics. To be ‘gay,’ I think, is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual but to try and define and develop a way of life.”

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In Tendencies, Eve Sedgwick contends that “‘queer’ can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality, aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” The mainstream gay lobby, representing the most privileged class of queer society, would like us to think of our lives—both our sexual and interpersonal—monolithically; they would like us to act as upstanding straights do in order to gain the rights that in no way should be tied to one’s ability to couple or to be “normal.”

But surely part of living queerly is giving of oneself to the Other, because, as Judith Butler opines: “Let’s face it. We are undone by each other.” Butler links desire and grieving, implying that if we can be undone by each other, we can also be radically redone, which is how I’ve begun to think of my queer friendships, such as my relationships with my best friend Will and with Colby, who in the spring of 2014 undertook an art project titled “Everything But Lenin.”

Evicted from his Baltimore studio, Colby decided to leave Charm City, where he had lived for the last decade through graduate school and his rise to porn stardom, to travel the USA. “Everything But Lenin” was his attempt to remove the accumulated possessions from his life, in which he gave away everything but a metal plaque of the Communist icon. Colby understood, as I think many of us suspect, that things have the ability to possess us just as much as, perhaps more than, we have the ability to possess them.

Butler speaks of our gender and sexuality as things, positing that “neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or indeed, by virtue of another.” If gayness is a thing we can both know and possess through legislation and through the accumulation of shiny, glittery things, then perhaps queerness is that which we can never know, the thing that, every day, can dispossess us from ourselves. In this way we are undone and redone ad infinitum.

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Outside of academia and far-left activism, “queer” has become generally synonymous with “gay.” Linguistically, this may be dangerous because the contemporary gay lobby puts forward a very narrow definition of what is acceptable gayness, which they call queerness, but is anything but. Which is to say, to be gay in the 21st century is to be a white, wealthy, urban, cisgendered man. By this reasoning, the gay man of today is often not unlike the conservative man: concerned first for his own needs and second for the needs of normal members of society.

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A dual phenomenon exists in how we raise gay boys, as both group victim and individual phenomenon. From the current focus on the bullying of LGBT children and teens, a discourse of “You are not alone! There are others just like you!” has arisen. This is most prominently vocalized through Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign, which, intentionally or not, is focused primarily on the needs of upwardly mobile white youth, gay teens like those on Glee—the type of angsty boy that I was. The campaign’s rationale goes something like this: “Dear gay boy: Don’t worry. Some day you will move to a big city and be surrounded by other fabulous gay men with law degrees and jobs in finance. The world will be yours.”

Conversely, we live in a parenting culture that tells all children they deserve a trophy for being unique, special, one-of-a-kind snowflakes. My sister is a reading specialist for a school district in Southern Missouri, and on a recent trip home I visited her classroom one afternoon. Atop every desk, a ribbon was taped; onto these ribbons my sister had hand-painted various designations: “Best Finder of Verbs,” “Best Listener,” “Best Helper at Afternoon Snack Time.” She changes these biweekly, creating new categories and, she admitted to me, often struggling to think of something that each child is “best at.” Her practice here is more than a little neurotic, but it is also indicative of a culture wanting to believe that every child is above average, which is impossible, with the potential for true excellence, which is simply not true.

Young gay boys, who become gay men, are constantly told they are both a unique snowflake and part of a victimized group. The result is an army of gay men allowed to be simultaneously powerbroker and victim. Put another way, the result is the typical, entitled gay man one might encounter in Washington, D.C.

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To live in Washington is to learn the technique of avoidance. My office sits at the corner of 22nd and I Streets NW, an intersection at the heart of George Washington University, frequented by nonprofit canvassers. Colleagues and I avoid walking by these people if possible, which it rarely is, or at least avoid engaging with them as we rush by, not listening to whatever cause they’re selling. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) keeps a steady stream of “fundraising associates” at this intersection, mostly young gay men who think working for the HRC buys some credibility, and young women who look like they were dressed by their gay male colleagues.

Recently a cute guy asked if I wanted to become an HRC member as I walked from office to Metro. “No, sorry,” I said, but he jogged to catch up: “Do you not care about gay rights?” I stopped and in no uncertain terms, barked a treatise on why the HRC does not represent my political interests or those of a queer politic writ large. Their politicking for most of the past decade has centered primarily on three issues: 1) the overturning of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” thus allowing gays to serve openly in the U.S. military, i.e., an intrinsically homophobic war machine whose very existence should be open to debate; 2) the expansion of state-sanctioned marriage to gay and lesbian couples on both the state and national level, which invites the government to enter into their relationships with the promise of certain benefits such as health care and tax breaks, which should be available to everyone; and 3) the ranking of companies as “gay friendly” on an annual “Corporate Equality Index.”

This last project drives me bat-shit crazy, as it labels otherwise horrible multinational corporations as stellar places for gays to work. The HRC’s 2015 list includes oil companies that are wreaking havoc on the environment (Chevron, Exxon-Mobil); pharmaceutical companies more concerned with inflated profits than providing essential medicines to the sick and suffering (GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer); defense companies developing weapons that allow the U.S. and its allies to take over countries and their resources (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman); financial conglomerates that caused the 2008 global economic crisis and used subsequent public bailouts to pay bonuses to already overcompensated executives (Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase); and finally, because of its political maneuvering and takeover of the world’s farming and food, the one that many regard as the most evil corporation on the face of the earth: Monsanto. And yet, because these companies train employees in diversity, or give partner benefits, or financially support the gay rights lobby, they are deemed the best places for us to work.

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David Halperin contends that “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.” So if a queer politic refers to capacious care for all those at odds with the normal, the legitimate, and the dominant, a queer friendship may be finding that common bond of illegitimacy within the Other. In Colby, for instance, I see a reflection of my anger at mainstream gay politics and, further, the type of ennui I feel at my own comrades’ refusal to question such institutions.

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I dream of Colby reading Whitman, twisting beard between forefinger and thumb:
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.
I dream of a Queer America, which is why I want Colby Keller to run for president. My friend embodies queerness; he does not rob it of sex, as the political Right would do; nor does he rob it of a capaciously queer, revolutionary politic, as the mainstream gay lobby would do, asking us not to question capitalism, or consumerism, or militarism, but instead to accept these on our path to homonormativity. I can imagine Colby, perhaps clad in cowboy hat and chaps, reading from The Queer Nation Manifesto at a campaign rally:
Being queer means leading a different sort of life. It’s not about the mainstream, profit margins, patriotism, patriarchy, or being assimilated. It’s not about executive directors, privilege and elitism. It’s about being on the margins, defining ourselves; it’s about gender-fuck and secrets, what’s beneath the belt and deep inside the heart; it’s about the night. Being queer is “grass roots” because we know that everyone of us, every body, every cunt, every heart and ass and dick is a world of pleasure waiting to be explored. Everyone of us is a world of infinite possibility.
To repeat: we live in a time when queerness is not threatened most by heteronormativity, but by homonormativity. But every one of us is a world of infinite possibility. Colby Keller for President: Queerness for All!

 

Gilson, a doctoral candidate in literature at George Washington University, is the author of I Will Say This Exactly One Time: Essays (2015) and Crush (2014).

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