Tavi at 17
Queer(s) Reading began as a panel for the 2020 Seattle MLA—an event that was, for many attendees, one of the last physical gatherings they would take part in for quite some time. We continue that conversation in this forum under the very different conditions generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our collective concern is the vitalizing possibilities of queer(s) reading—that is, of embodied and located modes of experiencing, engaging with, and interpreting the literary, visual, multimedia, and theoretical texts that inform queer lives. Queer(s) reading, as the six authors in this forum describe it, is both a radical relation and a radical refusal, working to expand networks of queer kinship, collectivity, feeling, friendship, love, and desire. Queer reading may be done alone, but it is never solitary.
This forum’s desire is to play with and expand the potential of how we read, see, listen, and watch. We engage and pursue critical conversations beyond the deadlocked opposition between “critique” and “description.” Queer(s) reading is an invocation, and a provocation, that finds value in the inventiveness of the situated, the sensual, and the relations between.
Many thanks to our contributors, to the audience at MLA, and to the editors of ASAP/J for their support.
The first affect is shame at not yet reading certain works I should already know. Not-yet-reading incites the guilt of not doing your homework, intensifying impostor syndrome. The sense of shame is doubled by the inevitably surprised look: “You haven’t seen the new Queer Eye?! You never watched more than a few episodes of Will & Grace?! You never got into Queer As Folk?!” And: “You’re the last person I’d expect to not watch Drag Race!” How do I explain that it’s partlybecause I’m supposed to, that I don’t want to? Is it because these queer texts are in my wheelhouse, that they represent the deepest fibers of belonging, that I feel somewhat ambivalent toward them?
The burden of representation takes on new meaning in the situation of not-having-read, or not-yet-reading. The “yet” in not-yet-reading is the self-promise to fill in the blank, to fulfill my queer destiny by (say) bingeing on the last 5 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race. (Or maybe not. That show is a cottage industry now.) The shameful admission of not-having-read turns into a moment of self-communion: will I fulfill this “yet,” will I finally read it? The second affect is enthusiasm: the moment I decide it’s time. Time to finally read The Price of Salt (after having watched Carol).1 This fulfillment evokes a sense of accomplishment, the flip side of not having read enough, say, Willa Cather (I’ve read enough Cather, but also not enough Cather, if you get my point. I’m a queer modernist. One can never read enough!) A third response is rationalization. Sometimes when some cis het person tells me how much they loved X queer/AIDS/trans novel/film/play/musical (like my dermatologist telling me she loved The Great Believers)2; or when a colleague has read more Conrad than I have (to switch to mainstream modernism), I ask myself: Yeah, but have they read Hemphill / Kramer / Schulman? Have they read the DSM 1 through 5?
This line of thinking assuages my guilt but doesn’t touch the biggest problem in not-having-read: when I haven’t read exactly what I’m supposed to. Defending your academic turf, and all that. So how to explain the ambivalence toward reading texts I “should have” read? The ambivalence toward fulfilling the scholarly bargain I’ve set for myself? Does it have to do with queer media’s mass-market proliferation? Partly, yes. And queer popular culture can be cringe-worthy; see, for instance, Jeffrey, the film, with a swishing Patrick Stewart.3 So not watching the new Queer Eye is avoiding aesthetic disappointment. And, after all, Queer Eye was originally For the Straight Guy. It still is. Shows like Ellen or Will & Grace are notoriously white-facing, homonormative examples of queer liberalism.
So much for resisting Hollywood treatments of queer life; but what about authentic queer writings, those not produced for the mass market? Why haven’t I read some, so many, not enough?
Introducing the GLQ special issue “Queers Read This!” Shanté Smalls and Ramzi Fawaz describe the importance of reading in shaping queer consciousness. “When queers read,” they write, “they do so as a form of survival just as much as a way to gain pleasure, develop knowledge and skill, and make a mark on the world.”4 They emphasize the many uses of queer reading beyond the ideological, or the practical. I would argue survival is a reason to read—but also to not read—queer texts.
In that same issue, Martin Joseph Ponce writes about the “mutual constitutions” of race, gender, and sexuality.5 He asks: “What makes ‘queer of color’ literature queer and of color has become a newly vexing question in the wake of the expansive scholarship that has disarticulated ‘queer’ from homosexual and transgender . . . and has demonstrated how gender and sexual non-normativity are constitutive of racialization” (332). I turned to Ponce after reading the title (“Queers Read What Now?”), which speaks to a sense of exhaustion and intersectional malaise that I instinctively responded to. The historical shift from “establishment” queer theory toward queer of color critique is not a finished project. And perhaps few queer-of-color theorists acknowledge the sense of loss that attends this shift. As Judith Butler once claimed about gender, there is a melancholia in identity’s consolidation. She makes this surprisingly isometric claim about the confluence of sexuality and gender identity: homos mourn the object choice they leave behind; heteros do the same. I never believed that isometry, and thought it minimized the asymmetry of marginalization.6 Some of us are more intersectional than others, indeed. And being gay/queer/trans instills a very different type of adjustment than being straight and cis. Ponce’s title seems attuned to a sense of subliminal exasperation: “Queers Read What Now?” might as well have an exclamation point or two to emphasize its sardonic tone. But what could be exhausting about being PIPOC and queer, and being ascendant in the field of queer studies?
What’s exhausting is the price of the ticket toward dismantling white supremacy at the heart of queer theory’s origin: The loss of those teenage lullabies, by Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Teresa de Lauretis, Patricia White, Leo Bersani, Lee Edelman, and George Moskos—and too many others to count.7 In queer-of-color critique’s benevolent takeover of the field of queer studies, “legacy” queer theory, painted white, becomes a fading pastel. And it is the work of critics like me, Jennifer Nash, Amber Musser, and Ponce himself, which seeks to reintegrate the insights of Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman’s antisocial thesis, not to mention the theories of some of the aforementioned critics, to enrich and complicate queer of color critique. For instance, my study of queer modernist misfits, many of whom failed even at being “proper” queers themselves (Wallace Thurman is no queer poster child, unlike his associate, Richard Bruce Nugent; and Jean Rhys is barely legible as queer, unless you read between the lines, my dear).8 There is no reason the antisocial thesis crowd and queer intersectional critics need be so polarized; indeed, my work on misfit modernists shows that in literary history, some of the most antisocial queers were modernists of color or colonial subjects on the move.
Regardless, according to Ponce, the general claim that “populations of color” are construed as “non-heteronormative and sexually deviant,” is today “a guiding tenet in the field” (331). But if the history of racial colonization produced queerness, what do we make of queer BIPOC literature? Ponce asks: “Is queer of color literature… a redundant misnomer insofar as literature by and about people of color must necessarily grapple with issues of gender [or] sexual non-normativity?” (332). According to the “expansive scholarship” Ponce alludes to, the answer is implicitly yes. (Perhaps the most canonical example in this vein, which Ponce invokes in his second paragraph, is Cathy Cohen’s influential “Punks, Bull Daggers, and Welfare Queens,” whose title performatively equalizes those differentiated sociocultural formations as connected, using syntax to make a profound political argument for coalitional queer politics.) Ponce’s thesis departs from Cohen’s: he writes that “Cohen’s essay enables us to question not only the shortcomings of a queer politics organized in binary terms around sexuality but also a queer reading of the past that conceals the imbrications of racial difference and gender-sexual deviance” (316).9 Yet, Ponce admits there is a “conundrum” (332) encapsulated in the doubled-sided definition of queerness as a universalizing label for racialized colonialized oppression; and as minoritizing label for sexual or gender deviance. After all, the urge to merge with the dominant fictions of hetero-nationalism defines many minoritarian liberation movements; and these movements’ erasure of queers within their ranks is also part of the history of queerness as well as of racist oppression.
The above diagram is emblematic of the dissonance entailed in holding both definitions of queer (universalizing, minoritizing) in suspension, in tension, without acknowledging this fact. To his credit, Ponce does. But, to paraphrase Tolstoy, all people of color may be systemically “queered,” given the colonial legacies of racial capitalism and its historical taxonomies of gender and sexuality; but only some people of color feel especially queer in a particularly gendered and sexualized way. Some latch onto improper objects, such as cross-cultural or interracial desire. Others create a myth of their own queer becoming, uniting their intersectional selves. While yet others refuse the rhetoric of queerness as an identity altogether. Are these standpoints elided by the theory of the co-constituted histories of sexuality, gender, and race as that which constitutes queerness itself?
As I mentioned, these are cultural perspectives that I focus on in my recent book, Misfit Modernism, in which writers not immediately available for queer identification, and resistant to self-representation as queer, latched onto a discourse of misfit-ness, of nonconformity, within both majority and minority cultural formations—queer culture among them.Writers from the early to mid-20th C. disidentified with queerness, especially as it was then framed, as crime, sin, or sickness. But they also disidentified with their own racial or ethnic cultural coordinates, partly because of their queerness. Of course, their queerness is defined as much by their biracial, transnational, or other hybrid cultural legacies, as by their dissident sexuality or atypical gender expression.
The queerer-than-queer status of modernist misfits explains my resistance to minimizing the sex/gender specificity of plain ol’ homosexuality and gender nonconformity in critiques of oppressive history. This minimizing imperative is a mode of intersectional analysis, but it doesn’t always apply. Such analysis can miss issues of epistemology and respectability, such as cultural values that stratify minoritarian populations, or the semantic slipperiness of queer as a label. Another aspect of my resistance to the automatic conflation of queerness and racialization is the anti-canonical disavowal of white queer cultural legacies, including disavowing the relevance of queer theories about shame and antisociality (though not melancholia), not to mention the disavowal of a long line of interracial queer literary dialogue. Cue Sappho, Wilde, Stein, and Whitman; and cue their interlocutors, Baldwin, Thurman, Nugent, Larsen, and other Harlem Renaissance and post-Renaissance Black writers and thinkers, all engaged with the aesthetic legacy of queer modernism and its afterlife in the twentieth-century LGBT literature.
Not (yet) reading, as I noted earlier, signifies my resistance to mass-market queer narratives designed for a straight audience. But then there’s my resistance to the proliferation of intersectional queer narratives, many of which didn’t exist when I was growing up. These add up to many forms of resistance to change, resistance to reading. One aspect of that resistance is the convoluted relation between overlapping aspects of queerness, which we are only now beginning to tease out in ways that affirm our intersectional selves. My childhood was spent reading indiscriminately, whatever I could find, whether it was Baldwin or Genet or, indeed, Edmund White. (An aspect of my argument is the centrality of queer modernism to any formulations of LGBT identity.)10
To affirm that young queer consciousness, it’s important to resist assimilated narratives of queers as shiny happy people. But I also think it’s important to admit principled resistance to intersectional narratives that didn’t exist (or that weren’t taught) when I was molding my queer self through the agency of reading. To resist the bright new day of visibility seems a shameful act, turning my back on the future (and my culture). But part of being queer—part of reclaiming that still-toxic label—is to lean into its oppositional force. Queerness is a resource for cultural misfits who resist or suspect the promise of belonging, because such belonging, on personal terms, can mean losing something that we value. That could mean losing one’s attachment to an isolated queer childhood. Or losing negative affects and experiences being erased or rehabilitated in the name of representation. (This is Heather Love’s argument in Feeling Backward.)11 I argue that beingantisocial can be a way to live with the feeling of being intersectional. It follows from that, that the thesis of antisociality and the paradigm of intersectionality are not necessarily polarized—even if they are polarized, implicitly, by white queer theory, and explicitly, by queer of color critique. (The Cliffs Notes version: white queer theory [Lee Edelman’s or Bersani’s] omission of race has been called out by now-ascendant, if not dominant, queer of color critics [for instance, José Esteban Muñoz called antisocial theory the last gasp of white supremacy].)12
If not (yet) reading can signal resistance to mass-market queerness, it can also come from a queer overinvestment in what one has already read, along with antisocial resistance to new queer texts. Feeling backward as a position of the queer critic and reader: I don’t (always) want to look forward. I don’t always have the resources to absorb new queer formations; especially formations synonymous with me, which are meant to represent me (though I can still count in one hand the number of “out” gay Dominican American writers). But they so often fail to do so. I know there’s been about a thousand films about queer or trans life since the New Queer Cinema. Most of these, I’ll never see. To quote a white queer critic: fuck the future. The problem is twofold: the self-fashioning of queer me through earlier (flawed, mostly white) queer modernist texts means resistance to “cancelling” those texts. And second, the rise in BIPOC queer representation alongside the explosion in mainstream queer media create a perfect storm. (Après moi, le deluge, indeed.) You takes your money, and you makes your choice. So fuck (some of) the present, and some of the past, too. I don’t want to be made over, to join the collective march of progress; toward stable collective identity; toward a reformed public notion of myself. My self isn’t only public; and my queer desires aren’t only satisfied by consumption, or finding my reflection in contemporary queer representation.
Some of these queer desires are satisfied by reading as production, as self-representation, self-invention. Come take a look:
This bit of self-fashioned collaboration dates from an archive that helped me develop my brown queer self many years ago. And it is partly in honor of that boy reading silently in his room, communing with the ghosts of queers past, that I resist the claims of new lovers to forget or ignore my first queer loves, not to mention the collective compulsion to cancel those ghosts. It’s a quixotic and unsustainable disposition: the not-yet-read entails reading sometime —or reading something similar. But this resistant disposition, this antisocial attachment to some baseline sense of intersectional queer failure, is a real thing.
What haven’t you been reading?
This is one of seven essays from Queer(s) Reading. Read the other posts here.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Professor George Moskos.
- Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1953; Dover, 2015); Carol, dir. Todd Haynes (2015).
- Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers (Viking, 2018).
- Jeffrey, dir. Christopher Ashley (1995).
- Ramzi Fawaz and Shanté Paradigm Smalls, “Introduction: Queers Read This! LGBTQ Literature Now,” GLQ 24, nos. 2–3 (June 2018): 171.
- Martin Joseph Ponce, “Queers Read What Now?” GLQ 24, nos. 2–3 (June 2018): 330. Further citations embedded parenthetically in the text.
- In her essay on gender melancholia, Butler proposes a theory of “heterosexual melancholy,” which, ironically, entails that for a gay man performing in drag, “a feminine gender is formed (taken on, assumed) through the incorporative fantasy by which the feminine is excluded as a possible object of love, an exclusion never grieved, but ‘preserved’ through the heightening of feminine identification itself.” In Judith Butler, “Melancholy Gender—Refused Identification,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 5, no. 2 (1995): 177. In a footnote, Butler qualifies this claim and its false equivalence regarding gender identification and erotic desire as disavowals of desire recapitulated as performances of the gender being disavowed as sexual-object choice.
- Once upon a time, George Moskos entertained my 17-year-old hubris when I barged into his office hours, my first semester of college, and proudly proclaimed my intention to major in French to read Jean Genet in the original. He raised an eyebrow. It was my first semester of French. To his credit, he didn’t rule it out. But there was a twinkle in his eye: “We’ll see, young man, we’ll see.”
- Cf. my chapter on Thurman, in Misfit Modernism: Queer Forms of Double Exile in the Twentieth-Century Novel (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020), in which I develop Granville Ganter’s claim that “Thurman was neither a picture of heterosexual virility nor was he exclusively gay. Combined with his lukewarm interest in promoting his black identity, Thurman has not found a comfortable place amid the progressive identity politics of post-1960s literary scholarship.” Ganter adds, “In contrast to Richard Bruce Nugent, Thurman remains a wall-flower, neither self-consciously black enough, nor gay enough to serve as a Renaissance poster boy.” Granville Ganter, “Decadence, Sexuality, and the Bohemian Vision of Wallace Thurman,” in New Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Australia Tarver and Paula Barnes (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006), 194.
- Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ 3, no. 4 (1997): 437–65.
- I make a similar point about the centrality of modernism to defining and redefining queerness in “Queer Formalism as ‘Modernist Form,’ ” a chapter in the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Queer Theory & Modernism, ed. Melanie Micir.
- Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard University Press, 2007).
- For a trenchant takedown of the unbearable whiteness of queer theory, see the now-canonical essay by Michael Hames-García, “Queer Theory Revisited,” in Gay Latino Studies: A Reader, ed. Michael Hames-García and Ernesto Javier Martínez (Duke, 2011), 19–45.