Queer in the age of quarantine

Chary of joining a movement that required a public self-definition that I, under the spell of New Criticism and New Criticism’s agonist Harold Bloom, I’d spent years adjuring, I identify as queer louder than I do as a Democrat, and 2002-era Lord Soto would have smeared rotten eggs on both those selves. If quarantine has refreshed a belief in first principles, it’s a sense in which my queerness depended on media: the online revolution of the late nineties, culminating in the social media era’s intrinsic performativity. Scared of too much discovery, I lived my queerness through reading and writing, themselves queer activities because explaining them requires humility for the sake of an audience conditioned to regard both as species of idleness (the late Toni Morrison has confessed how many years it took for her to confidently declare, “I’m a writer” instead of “I work in textbooks”).

I’ve been thinking about the consequences of the last fifteen weeks of quarantine on queer lives, especially on the young ones yet inhibited by the remains of family-imposed self-loathing. Students who lived on campus despite being locals because they wanted to escape hellish domestic scenarios return to places of danger. Through the concentrated, stultifying Zoom lens the performance of public selves inherent in homo/bisexuality depends on an audience a nanosecond behind the beat. Many of us will emerge from our homes eager to perform this freedom but realize to what degree the manner of the coquette and the avidity of a bar queen look like another era’s flotsam. My great-great aunt, a liberal intelligent Cuban woman who read Garcia Marquez and filled out crossword puzzles into her late nineties, washed paper plates because as a girl she had known periods of want as intense although not as prolonged as the Great Depression. I hesitate to mention HIV comparisons. Insofar as COVID-19 doesn’t weaken our immune systems and subject us to a life of anti-retroviral therapy, it’s not as deadly; but we’re still learning about the long term damage to endocrine health, and as researches test control groups other virulent effects may emerge years later.

Giving me confidence, however, is in the multifoliate nature of queer life that drives conservatives mad with jealousy. Friends repulsed by the thought of performing a life or for whom asexuality makes sense as a mode and an orientation have in a couple cases sighed with relief; a bit of schadenfreude characterized one friend’s response, for now that everyone in their world was at home with Hulu they felt less pressure to hit bars they hate and see people whom they bore as grim duties.

You are not queer if you don’t sense an attraction to your gender; you are queer if social discomfort, shyness, or a disinterest in physical release keeps those attractions cosseted or exposes them to the whims of fervid sexual imaginations. You are queer if you have no attraction to anyone at all.

In any case, the global demonstrations have shown how community depends not on how we fulfill ourselves by, kindly and inexorably, absorbing others so much as on an attraction free of sexual and financial interest to help others fulfill themselves. “We are George Floyd” doesn’t sound right; the gesture nullifies, with the best of intentions, the life lived deserving of proper eulogy. By reminding us of the malevolent systems that crush Americans because the systems’ foundations weren’t set up for the task of reconciling the people protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, George Floyd has underlined how the pronouns “we” and “us” includes “I” and “me.”

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Criterion Channel adds the filmography of one of the few female queer black writer-directors, and in the last several days Cheryl Dunye’s cheerful combination of documentary and fiction coincides with my appetite for art that seeks to implicate a normally passive audience. Nineties festival attendees may remember The Watermelon Woman best. Dunye’s 1996 film follows a video store employee and aspiring director named Cheryl whose interest in the black manny characters of thirties and forties American cinema leads her to explore the careers of actress Fae Richards and her lover Martha Page, the white director of the film in which Richards stars called Plantation Memories. Like a Chantal Akerman movie, only far less concerned about niceties, The Watermelon Woman charms because the approach and the performers are fresh even when the dialogue is stilted. Camille Paglia makes a cameo as a talking head; we can’t, as usual, tell if she’s taking the mickey out of herself.

Take care of each other.

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