by Finn and Joey
We are two non-heterosexual queers, and we feel compelled to reply to Otto Destruct’s essay Who is the Heterosexual Queer in issue #117 of Slingshot, in which a straight man argues for the existence of a universal queerness based not on sexual attraction, but on…well, we’re not entirely sure. We think Otto is a well-meaning guy who is genuinely, existentially, trying to not be an asshole and to redeem his historically laden masculinity. That matters a lot, and, as he says, there’s “a lot of work to be done toward liberation.” But he has chosen the wrong toolset for the project, marshalling a misunderstood reduction of queer theory and gay history to do the work. To describe “the heart of queer theory” as the banal liberal claim that “all identities are legitimate” is not only to insert an anachronistic layer of identity speak, but to remove queer theory from politics altogether. No one needed queer theory to tell them that it was okay to be straight; in fact, queer theory might unsettle that notion. We do need queer theory to tell us how heterosexism colludes with the State and how we can fight this.
While we’d argue that queer theory challenges the idea of a consistent sexual self, Otto crafts a narrative of sexual self-realization in which queer theory imbues us with the “right and responsibility to be honest with ourselves” about our “true” sexual identities. Otto asserts that, thanks to queer theory, “we are all queer now”, inviting us to question what happens when the presumedly universal queer discovers their heterosexuality. Such a contrived experience does not reflect that of the vast majority of straight people. The assumption that “we are all queer now” is post-heterosexist – it assumes that queerness has become the dominant culture and that one’s heterosexuality is realized only after a good bit of introspection. Such a narrative ignores the way heterosexuality is taken for granted and enforced in much of the world, the US included. One does not need to engage in soul-searching to come out as straight, as straightness is simply assumed. (Nor does one necessarily need to engage in soul-searching to realize they’re queer; the step-one- soul-searching-step-two-coming-out narrative is a stereotype that smacks of an outsider’s perspective.) To assert that the existence of queer theory somehow makes us all queer is no less absurd than to claim that the existence of critical race theory makes us all people of color.
Otto’s complaint that “some parts of our scene use words like ‘cis’ as derogatory terms” is in some cases valid, but we think he’s missing the point. He seems to assume that we choose to participate in systemic oppression, or at least that it’s unfair for someone to be associated with oppression just because of the reality of their body. However, inherent in systemic oppression is that it is not a “fair” system, and that we do not choose our roles in it. It’s a common idea that the politics of oppression is about feeling guilt and self-hatred for our roles in a system that we didn’t create. These feelings, though understandable, distract from taking responsibility and actually confronting the systems responsible for creating oppression. A sense of guilt or personal invalidation is not a prerequisite for acknowledging one’s privilege.
Otto blames this supposed anti-het-ism on the “orthodoxy of glitter”, the pressure to be a certain type of queer that serves as a prelude to an imagined anti-heterosexual genocide. We acknowledge that within queer circles there are norms of presentation (though we think the dominant mode at the moment is masc-of-center, not glamarchist), but find the notion of some conspiracy to exterminate heterosexuals laughable. More to the point, the “orthodoxy of glitter” is anything but “a way for people to avoid thinking about their heterosexuality and whatever privilege that might entail.” In a society that takes heterosexuality for granted, het folk are already off the thinking-about-privilege hook.
Either because of or despite (we can’t tell) the guilt Otto thinks he’s supposed to feel about being het, Otto does seem to be holding himself accountable: he describes “plac[ing] others’ emotional experiences in the fore,” “valorizing communication,” and “admitting he’s wrong” as proof of a queered — redeemed — heterosexuality. And while we do think the world needs more empathy, communication, and humility, these traits do not make him feminine or queer. Again, Otto seems to have identified the wrong set of tools for his project; what he’s doing is less about gender or sexuality than it is about not being an asshole. (We’re looking forward to a gender abolitionist project that severs accountability from gender altogether.) “Is it such a contradiction,” he asks polemically, “that I should display these [ostensibly feminine traits] too?” Of course not, nor, despite what Otto thinks, is it a contradiction for a masculine guy to wear a leather jacket.
Otto’s problem is a conflation of sexuality and gender, because the leather jacket was and is a trope of masculinity. The men who wore it from Folsom Street to Christopher Street back in the 70s weren’t marking themselves as feminine; they were appropriating the style of oppressive, straight masculine culture (cops included) to betray their [masculine] gayness. Otto’s essay turns this on its head without even acknowledging it: gays on Castro ironically appropriated the costume of straight men to underline their queerness, while Otto, inversely, rides on this appropriation, wearing the contemporary style of queerness to announce his heterosexuality. But the move doesn’t work, and Otto ends up, as one Slingshot commentator who was active in ACT UP wrote, “misrepresenting himself.”
Furthermore, when Otto notes that he doesn’t need to be gay to use this supposed “backdoor to masculinity”, he’s free-riding on something that those gays in the Village and elsewhere fought and died to create. As a trapping of “traditional masculinity”, Otto takes his leather jacket as his privilege, devoid of the personal experience of injury and exclusion that often comes with being queer.
In other words, the leather jacket is not Otto’s “backdoor to masculinity”; it’s his masculinity superhighway. Gay leather daddies of the 70s weren’t novel because their clothes were masculine, betraying an internal femininity, though surely some were self-identified pansies — they provoked a “crisis of representation,” to quote AIDS writer Leo Bersani, because their coats were markers of heterosexuality. The author’s self-presentation, on the other hand, of a straight guy dressed as a… straight guy, is not a “lie that tells the truth” (as he would have it), but a truism that tells itself.