Exploring Queer Experience: Shame, Pride, and Liberation

“Why do you have to make your whole life about being gay? Like, WE GET IT. Not everything in life is about who you want to date. Maybe people would accept it if you didn’t make it your new personality.” 

That’s the Instagram message I received from a cis gay man after I had confronted him for being  a Trump supporter. Even though I knew it was a bunch of bullshit, I found myself repeatedly mulling over that comment. It hurt. Why did it hit so close to home? Then it came to me. It’s homophobia. This gay man had projected his internalized homophobia onto me. And it hurt because I used to be exactly like him, and in some ways still was.

I am ashamed to be gay. I am saying this not because I’m proud of it but because it’s the truth. And I would even venture to say that this statement is true for all queer people living in cishetpatriarchy. Shame is force-fed to us from the moment we are born. We see homophobic representation in the media. We hear the word gay being used as a slur. We attempt to fit our gender presentation into the binary limits. Queerness is presented as an object of ridicule, an anomaly for heterosexuals to make the butt of the joke. Although I do believe that queer people can overcome this and take hold of their power, I will be the first to admit that I’m still at the beginning of that journey. 

I remember my mom turning off the TV if there was a gay couple in a movie and looking uncomfortable when we drove past pride parades. I remember my dad speaking in hushed tones about the one gay person my family knew, about how “sad” his life was. I think about these memories much more often than I would like to. Every day, we have to decide how much queerness we want to present to the world. Will my queerness hurt me at work or in my community? How much can we risk?  Our demon is a constant desire to be cishet.

The mainstream narrative in the LGBT community is that to overcome shame, we try to perform pride. We pretend that we are not ashamed to be gay by slapping on a rainbow tutu and posting #pride once a year on our instagram. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against a good rainbow accessory. In fact, I own about ten rainbow clothing items myself. But this cannot be where pride ends. If we are going to overcome the oppression of cishet society, our pride has to be radical. And the fact that we as queer people are ashamed to like men, to like women, to express our gender, etc, should be the greatest impetus for this goal of transformative pride. To fully accept myself as a queer person, I first have to acknowledge that I am operating under the straight male gaze. Because this is where the shame stems from. I have to stop viewing myself as broken, different from the norm, and an object to be used for men’s pleasure. After that, I can finally get to liberating myself from it. Since receiving that message from a homophobic gay man, I have realized the importance of liberating myself from internalized homophobia and tried to begin applying it to my life. 

We can break out of the shackles of cishet society through radical queer joy. This includes more representation of thriving queer people in the media, rather than queer people who are portrayed as always doomed to an unhappy life, or even death. We must celebrate and amplify our queerness. The master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house. A recent example of this that swept through mainstream heterosexual culture was rapper Lil Nas X’s song and associated music video MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name). Although Lil Nas X has included queer lyrics in his songs in the past, his new artistic efforts to express queer joy as a black gay man were so loud that heterosexual society was inevitably riled. Sure enough, Twitter was on fire with homophobic backlash against this new song. The most memorable moment of the music video features Lil Nas X pole-dancing, sliding down a long pole into hell. He then gives Satan a lap dance before killing him and taking his crown. This sequence is a great example of how shame can be overcome. Lil Nas X acknowledges his shame by showing himself inside a depiction of hell, but then shows his power over it by using his queerness to thrive inside of that hell. 

Now that I can acknowledge my own internalized homophobia, I have an opportunity to choose radical queer joy every day. How can I live my life in an authentically queer way, without being negatively influenced by cishet society? How can I fully realize all the queer joy that is within me, all the pride? How can I acknowledge the shame I feel for being queer without limiting myself to that? These are questions that I’m always trying to answer. 

What is true pride in being queer? It is definitely not rainbow capitalism. We have to normalize queer gender expression as well as the range of queer sexualities. Recently, I read the book Valencia by Michelle Tea, a queer woman who describes her experiences as a lesbian in the 90’s San Francisco lesbian scene. I saw myself in those chapters; talking about our honest experiences is one of the only paths to liberation. And queer people can only do this by defining themselves. I have to stop allowing the straight male gaze to rule my way of living. I have to be only myself instead of a straight man’s version of me. This means avoiding shaping my life into a heterosexually-acceptable version. The concept of queer time was pioneered by queer theorist Jack Halberstam in his 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place. Halberstam argues that queer people’s relationship to time and traditional life paths differs from straight society’s expectations. For example, queer people may date later, avoid marriage, or “fail” to subscribe to monogamy. They may have to take a different career path due to being queer. Halberstam is saying that instead of fighting against this, queer people should accept that their lives are antithetical to heteronormativity. Pride, and liberation, can arise from this acceptance.

But what is queer liberation? It is the opposite of assimilation. It is preserving queer culture, identity, and time. Being liberated does not mean that we have to completely separate ourselves from straight culture, or avoid taking on parts of it that appeal to us. We have to express our authentic queerness without giving into the pressure of assimilation. We have to push for media that goes beyond surface level representations of queerness and illuminates our culture. We have to acknowledge the reality that queer life is difficult while also leaving room for the intense joy that comes along with it. We have to understand the shame we feel for being queer and fight to be liberated from it. One of the most important things I strive to do throughout my life is embody queer liberation, to never let my queerness be crushed into a pill that is easy for cishet society to swallow. Will you join me?

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