Cruising Utopia

Cruising Utopia
José Esteban Muñoz
Difficulty: Very Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Queer theory is a field of study in the humanities that attempts to understand exactly what queerness is and what it does in society. Though it was originally centered around alternative sexualities and gender identities, the idea of queerness has expanded to include a wider variety of non-normative and deviant practices and identities. Cruising Utopia was scholar José Esteban Muñoz’s interpretation of queerness, in which he develops his theory of “queer futurity.” In queer futurity, queer is not a thing we are, instead, it’s a thing we are “always becoming;” queerness represents potential for a different, better future. Put more simply, everything sucks right now, and the people and practices that are called queer point the way to a better future by criticizing the present. Muñoz condemns the popular focus on marriage equality and gays in the military, arguing that they are short-sighted goals that will assimilate us into problematic, heterosexual institutions. In other words, marriage and the military are inherently flawed, so why should we bother fighting to participate in them?

What will be most interesting though to non-academic readers are Muñoz’s analyses of queer avant-garde art, pieces and productions the average person (like me) will probably never come in contact with otherwise. A lot of these works of art were ephemeral, either short lived performances or pieces designed to disappear or dissolve after serving their purpose, so I think Muñoz’s illustrations of them are valuable. My personal favorite is his chapter on Fred Herko, a gay dancer in the ‘60s who comitted suicide during a private performance by leaping out an open window on the fifth story. It’s a moving moment to picture, and Muñoz does a great job teasing out the optimistic and utopian aspects of what seems to be a great tragedy. Fair warning though, Cruising Utopia is a work of academic theory, so these stories are told in the complex, jargon-heavy style common to theory books. Reading them becomes easier with practice, but for those just looking for something fun or entertaining this book is probably not the best option.

While I do enjoy the book, I take issue with Muñoz’s argument against gay marriage and military service. I understand and appreciate the sentiment behind it, but as flawed as those institutions may be, they still represent real, tangible life improvements for many LGBTQ people. Marriage equality, for example, has coincided with a real decrease in homophobic violence, and the military, problematic as it certainly is, is an important opportunity to escape poverty that was previously denied to young queer people (and still is, for transgender folk). So I can’t agree with those in die-hard opposition to those causes. It’s easy to oppose them when you don’t depend upon them. I feel similarly about the nostalgia for the ‘70s. Undoubtedly there were many good and important things happening at the time, but they were only happening in big cities. For those living elsewhere, things were not so great.

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Medium/Very Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Now seems like a good time to talk about this book since the 20th anniversary edition was just released. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is a classic of gay non-fiction, but probably requires a bit of an explanation. The book consists of two long-form essays titled “Times Square Blue” and “…3, 2, 1, Contact: Times Square Red”. The first is a relatively straightforward narrative of Delany’s extensive sexual encounters in the pornographic movie theaters of Times Square prior to then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s initiative to “clean up” the area, and the second is a much more academic explanation of Delany’s theories on interpersonal relationships in cities, and how Giuliani’s policies have negatively affected them. There’s a pretty big spike in difficulty from the first essay to the second, but the first one does help illustrate what exactly it is we’re losing, making the second essay easier to follow.

If you think you’ve ever had a weird hookup, Delany has had one ten times stranger. Anyone familiar with his non-fiction knows that Delany has been an enthusiastic participant in public sex and hookup culture since the ‘50s, and that he was lucky enough to avoid contracting HIV/AIDS. We are fortunate that he lived to tell us about how things used to be, since there are so few others who can do so. And tell us he does, gleefully and in extensive detail. The range of people, preferences, and practices that Delany engages with is humbling, and throws into stark relief the inadequacies of our popular understanding of sexuality. No amount of labels could account for the kaleidoscope of people out there.

The reason these stories matter to Delany is that they’re examples of the diverse forms of social contact only made possible by spaces like the porn theaters, spaces which were being removed as part of Giuliani’s campaign to “purify” Times Square. Delany argues that the destruction of the theaters are part of a larger trend in city planning which would have everything separated out and sorted into similar spaces. Neighborhoods would only contain houses, for example, not drug stores or restaurants, which would belong in a commercial district. The result is that everyone stays in their homes except to work or shop, which they would commute to without ever interfacing with their neighbors. There’s a class dimension to this too, the poor are grouped with the poor, the rich with the rich, and the two will probably never cross paths because there are fewer and fewer public spaces in which to intermingle. Without these connections we lose the ability to understand and to empathize with people not like us, and, worst of all, we might even forget that they exist. But that’s only a brief summary of his argument, and I would encourage anyone interested to give the full thing a read. It definitely caused me to reflect on who I interact with and how. And even if you’re not, “Times Square Blue” alone is an extremely interesting window into that historical period and a great look at the diverse forms sexuality can take.

The Queer Art of Failure

The Queer Art of Failure
by J Halberstam
Difficulty: Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

I’ve been a little leery about including scholarly texts on this blog because I want it to be as accessible as possible, and many scholarly works aren’t interested in being accessible to the average person. They’ve all got interesting and important ideas in them, but many expect their readers to ‘learn the language,’ so to speak, and not everyone has time for that. Fortunately Jack (formerly known as Judith) Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure is geared as much towards the average reader as it is towards academics, which is fitting given the subject matter. As an example of this, it opens with a quote from Spongebob Squarepants.

Halberstam’s purpose, as evidenced in the title, is to explore what failure means in a modern society so enamored with success:

What kinds of rewards can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life. (3)

To do this, Halberstam offers close readings of films and texts often considered to be ‘low’ culture, ‘un-serious’ works too popular or simple to be considered intellectual such as Finding Nemo, Chicken Run, or Dude, Where’s My Car? But he also explores other forms of failure, as in his chapters on “Shadow Feminisms” or the relationship between homosexuality and facism (I admit this chapter fell a little flat for me). And all of this analysis is written in a fairly straightforward, if verbose, style, complete with jokes and even pictures. It is in my opinion exemplary of the kind of public-facing scholarship academics have the responsibility to produce. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to bust out the dictionary occasionally, but you don’t need to immerse yourself in Lacanian thought the way you might for a text like No Future.

Halberstam’s title alone evoked a certain reaction from me. I felt I already knew, intuitively, what the queer art of failure was. Because aren’t all queer people failures in the eyes of mainstream society? Failures to marry (correctly), failures to reproduce (naturally), failures to conform to binary gender? It seems to me that this is something all queer people struggle with on some level, whether they’re aware of it or not. We lost the game before we ever had the chance to play. Coming to terms with that is a big part of accepting who we are, which is why books like The Velvet Rage have been so impactful as they guide readers to that realization. But once I got there, I found queer failure to be supremely liberating. My identity is no longer built around a desire to achieve an unattainable, heternormative model of success, and I’m much happier for it. I am free, in my failure, to define success for myself, to create a new game or attempt to change the old.

I wanted to offer up my own anecdote on the benefits of failure. I like to play Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy roleplaying game (yes, that one). Part of the game is about defeating monsters, but another part is about collaborative storytelling, and that’s the part I really care about. Very often in these games there is a type of player that always frustrates me. This type of player is concerned almost exclusively with how powerful they can make their character. They want to be the strongest, the best, and to never lose. But I think losing, failing, is the best part of D&D. We know how the story is ‘supposed’ to go: the good guys beat the bad guys and save the world. That’s what we’ll get if we always win, and that’s a painfully boring and predictable story. What’s the point of having this complex role playing system if we never make proper use of it? Victory really only has one outcome, but failure has many. Who knows what will happen if we fail to break a door down or to trick the guard into letting us by? Failure demands more from the players than does victory. It forces us to think on our feet, to be creative and to subvert expectations. It takes a two-dimensional story about good and evil and makes it into a three dimensional one with twists, turns, and fleshed out characters. The game is better with failure, in fact, there’s no game without it. When you win, it’s over, and if there was ever an activity where the journey is more important than the destination, it’s D&D. Halberstam wants us to see failure as more than just an obstacle to success, and I think that’s an attitude worth taking with us into whatever it is we’re doing, whether it’s D&D or life.