on queerness

Yesterday, as I walked to my office, I listened to a podcast episode on the history of the word queer. It wasn’t some heady academy-burdened series of definitions – more for popular audiences than not. The host asked a number of people from the LGBTQIA+ community to explain what the word meant to them. 

“It’s an umbrella term,” said matter-of-factly. Or, “It wasn’t until we gained marriage equality that I started to embrace the word,” (I grimace). Or, perhaps more pointedly, “I’m haunted by that word.”

To be haunted by queerness resonates for me. The sort of “I am haunted by this haunting,” kind of haunting ad infinitum.

Last week I facilitated a conversation on Sara Ahmed’s essay, “Happy Objects.” We settled into a discussion on happiness for the queer child, read as unhappy by the adults around them. Ahmed looks to a coming out scene in the novel Annie on My Mind – one of the four queer books stocked by my public library around the time of my own coming out. It was written in 1982, but I read it almost two decades later while spending my free time kissing girls backstage at my community theatre. Three and a half decades later, it shows up in my seminar room. Haunted, I guess. 

Someone in seminar asks me, “What does queer mean for you? Does it lie in negation?”

I am not sure if it is meant as a jab – an attempt to discredit queer theory in all its frustrating nebulous definitions. Sometimes it seems that all things which cannot be settled become queer, read as queer, queer queried. Struggling with queerness is a biweekly conversation with my adviser: What does it mean to do queer work if queer is in constant opposition? What does it look like to build a queer foundation when queer survival has relied on a mutable mobility? What will our monuments look like? 

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote Queer and Now in 1993, a decade after Annie on my Mind and a decade before I will discover it. She opens the essay by declaring her motive for queer work. “I think everyone who does gay and lesbian studies is haunted by the suicides of adolescents. To us, the hard statistics come easily: that queer teenagers are two to three times likelier to attempt suicide… I look at my adult friends and colleagues doing lesbian and gay work, and I feel that the survival of each one is a miracle.”

I relay this to my seminar-question-asker. “It comes down to suicidality,” I say. “And the importance of care work, care activism.”

“So it isn’t negation,” he says back to me. 

I keep playing this one-to-ten-second interaction over and over again in my head. What I should have said was, “Yes. Yes of course it is negation, this all lies in an indelible negation of queer youth. I just want queer youths to be happy.”

I didn’t, though. I just nodded my head in the hopes of moving on. I just want us to be happy moving on.

Ahmed writes that the speech act, “I just want you to be happy,” is damning for queer youth in their coming out. “What does it mean to want ‘just’ happiness? What does it mean for a parent to say this to a child?” The father in Annie on My Mind wishes happiness for his queer daughter in the same breath as fearing for her happiness. “The father makes an act of identification with an imagined future of necessary and inevitable unhappiness,” Ahmed writes. “Such an identification through grief about what the child will lose reminds us that the queer life is already constructed as unhappy, as a life without those ‘things’ that would make you happy (husband, children). The desire for the child’s happiness is far from indifferent. The speech act ‘I just want you to be happy’ can be directive at the very point of its imagined indifference.”

My first interaction with the word queer came from academia. I wrote an essay for a literature class on Peter Pan and its queering of heteronormativity. Wendy Darling, virgin mother, darning socks for all of her boys. A sexless desire to play house, Peter’s homosocial utopia, the erotically charged feuds between Tiger Lilly, Tinkerbell, and Wendy gone unnoticed, yadda yadda yadda. It meant a lot to me at the time – almost a decade ago, and almost a decade after reading Annie on my Mind, and almost two decades after Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote Queer and Now.

My life is punctuated by meaningfully queer work. I am haunted by it. I am trying to build a foundation from this haunting, I am trying to build some sort of monument to its negation. Most of all, I am trying to care for the queers around me. After all, the survival of each one a miracle.