There are straight women who entertain and accessorise themselves with eccentric and loud gay men that produce catch-phrases when you put white wine on the table – Yaas Bitch! The fun is having a self-identifying man around whose striking feminine performance they can treat as a spectacle. Straight women recruit gay men into their lifestyles so long as being gay is sensational and satisfying. If they are sad, they must be sad gay, with tubs of frozen yoghurt, superficially and dramatically pining over why they can’t find a man who will love them for who they are on the inside, until she pulls out a bottle of white wine – Yaas Bitch! If they are happy, they must be happy gay, voguing in front of the full-length mirror with peacock feather scarves, listening to Cardi B’s Money and, when a bottle of white wine is produced, they must scream – Yaas Bitch! If the gay men in their lives fail to provide this grand spectacle, they are no longer valuable and are discarded.
In Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne differentiates sexism from misogyny: “Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.” I find myself resonating particularly well with that description, but of the ways queers are policed and managed as queer. There’s a value-laden spectrum of queers; from dominant, precarious, to ambivalent queers; from those who strongly identify as queer to those who are unsure if the term includes them; from those that reinforce the ideology of heteronormativity and binaries to those who are totally at odds with the categorizations of gender and sexuality; dominant queers who are complicit in gatekeeping the institution of gender to insurgent and precarious queers whose very existence is an assault on the nomos of gender itself; queers that are complicit and compatible with capitalism and queers that short-circuit advertising algorithms; Queers that can be absorbed and integrated into the world as we know it to queers that signal the end of this and beginning of that. Queers that do not participate in newly preset configurations of queer social practice are punished with social death and/or relegated into the closet.
Part of the reason it took me a while to not only use the word queer to describe myself to myself but also to tell others that I am queer is that the hegemonic queer discourse I commonly saw and continue to see did not represent my experience of subjectivity, in all the dysphoria I experience. I had probably internalised queer misogyny and thought that if I don’t have an interest in stilleto heels and eyelash extensions then I could not be queer.
The queer discourse has been globally enclosed by a single queer narrative with baroque scenes of sexuality, eccentricity and the spectacle of cabaret feminine performance. It seems, the traditional gender binary has morphed to include queer genders. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Will and Grace, and Gracie and Frankie are amongst the only visions of queer subjectivity available to inform global and local imagination on how queerness is and should be.
There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Love Simon where Simon is outed at his high school and panics over what a gay boy is meant to wear: a deep V? Colour blocking rubber bangles? A platinum white weave dipped in glitter? Gender is an inherently dysphoric institution – even cisgender women don’t exactly relish the opportunity to not be allowed to work in corporate firms without high heels. I think Capitalism is the amber that has taken these otherwise disruptive, revolutionary, gender-bending and insurgent subjectivities and set them into a gender assignment of their own for the purposes of predictable marketing trends. And if queerness becomes a gender, queerness becomes dysphoric.
You have to come out twice. The first time is to tell your friends and family that you aren’t cisgender, or heterosexual or both. The second time is to state that, although you are gay, you aren’t interested in French tip gel nails with leopard prints and lip gloss, never have been. If you only come out as gay and fail to be valuable as a gay best friend, you will be punished and considered straight again through queer misogyny. If you are lesbian but have no interest in Doc Martins, you will have to prove you are gay by kissing girls at parties while YouTube vloggers and Instagram Story celebrities pour champagne over your face and braless t-shirt. No such thing as bisexual, that’s apparently greedy and confused. If you only come out as agender but don’t perform androgyny by dying your hair and getting a septum piercing, you will be punished for passing and considered cisgender all over again.
If you aren’t domesticable or valuable to cisgender heterosexual social practice, you will be disregarded, side-lined, erased and/or disciplined.
I have this chronic fear of dancing in public and a lot of it has to do with gender. What does a genderqueer person dance like? How do genderqueer people signal sexuality and attraction on the dancefloor without vogueing or summoning moulin rouge? How will my body and its movements be mined for sexuality in a club? How is sexuality complicit in maintaining and constructing sex as a male-female binary to justify its own claims of “natural” desire, of preference and identity? How is the LGBTQ+ community complicit in being vanguard to sex as a binary to arrive at its nomenclature, its titles and identities, forcing ambivalent and precarious queers to appear at odds with settled science? What value does sex have without gender? What does sexuality even mean without sex as informed by gender? All of these queerstions have paralyzed me at the club.
Fela Gucci, a queer performance artist and leading queer icon had this to say, in a Facebook post, on the topic of dominating and directing the hegemonic queer discourse in South Africa:
“The amount of pressure people put on queer and trans artists to represent every voice within the community is unhealthy. Operating from a genuine place where you are speaking from your own experience and those around you seems to be not enough. People put you on pedestals you never asked them to and “failing” to meet those standards somehow discredits you lol. We are not saviors but simply challenging the cistem in our own reach”.
Fela Gucci is a personal icon of mine and this perspective is not unique but it is dangerous. This defence is often coupled with the “It’s exhausting fighting all the time/ I never said I was an activist.” fashionable retort. Must be nice having your authentic self celebrated while other authentic selves are vanquished, especially within the queer community. Importantly, with much visibility comes much responsibility – as we’ve said about Kevin Hart, of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and of other hypervisible celebrated persons. You’re not a queer saviour, queers saved you. Queers followed and shared and paid to help your dreams come true and will always enjoy and support your work. It took millennia to get to a point where Fela Gucci and FAKA have the freedom to express their authentic selves, and they did not do it alone, and, they now have the responsibility to keep the door open and to not allow the door to collapse, now that they’ve tasted a bit of freedom. Fighting all the time is unsustainable, so love queers back and be concerned about the queers who are made invisible by the queer monoculture you represent and make visible their experiences in the popular imagination.
FAKA, and Somizi Mhlongo before them, Lebo Mathosa before him, Brenda Fassie before her, participate in the “The dangers of a single [queer] story”, and project an exclusive and monolithic queer imaginary to which all other queers are judged and measured. With the little privilege they have, dominant queers often misgender, belittle, gaslight and torture ambivalent and precarious queers. This monoculture violently rejects all other queers as imposters for not looking or acting queer enough.
Quite redemptively, Fela Gucci would later go on to say “I don’t mind he/him pronouns but I’m not saying y’all should be out here misgendering other non binary folk” – Does he know how amazing that message, and just that message, was to a quiet queer kid like me, watching from a distance, feeling supported and seen as part of the queer community even though I don’t vogue? Can you imagine how amazing more of this could be for the depression and suicide rates in the queer community? – Yaas bitch!
Dominant queer social discourse, commercial brands, like Axe and Gillette, and dominant queer public figures have a tendency of creating public personas that use queer activism to advance their careers, form allegiances with extreme capitalism (which has historically eliminated queers) and then fail to promote queer activism once they are absorbed into popular social discourse. They extract visibility from radical black feminist theory, publish a single kind of queerness to dominate the discourse, erase the precarious and ambivalent queer spectrum and vanguard the status quo. This forces us all to be suspicious of the progress we’ve made. This makes it difficult for other queers to live their authentic selves. This eliminates asexual people, intersexed people, agender people, cis-passing queers, genderfluid queers. In particular, this reimagines queer femininity as cabaret and cabaret alone, making even dominant queers little more than spectacle whilst discrediting and making invisible queer masculinity, less eccentric queer femininity and ambivalent queers.
I hope to see more collaborations between queer artists, especially those beyond the queer monoculture. I hope to see queers sharing the diversity of their experiences and subjectivity, and opening platforms, spaces and scenes to each other. I hope to see an ethic that recognizes that no single one of us is a saviour, but that we need each other for our continued survival and health. I hope to see Umdeni. Because as soon as you fail to provide a sensational spectacle for cisgender and heterosexual discourse, as soon as straight women get bored of how gay you are and find a new trend, you too will join the vanquished.