Is My Love of Queer Culture Problematic?
As a straight, cis-gendered woman, I’ve never questioned my adoration for queer culture. I’ve always been fascinated with its cultural production for its ability to transcend and defy notions of concrete norms. In fact, if I trace most of my favourite art and literature to its source, the majority of it has queer influences or gay creators; Keith Haring’s art, Peter Hujar’s photography, James Baldwin’s writing, Alexander McQueen’s designs; to provide a small and ashamedly all-male list.
The pinnacle is my love for Drag Race. Of course, I’m not in the minority here. The death-drops, the plastic boobs, the fucking lip-syncing. Be still my beating heart.
As Livvy Waite explained to me, “You are a woman who has the non-centred gendered experience of being a man, so it’s understandable that you would be drawn to an art that explores that.” When one adds my racialised experience, it becomes doubly clear why I would be drawn to an art that explores subversion, radical expression, and deconstructing the societal prototype.
But nowadays, I’ve often found myself wondering if my ‘fascination’ is a kind of exoticisation, a romanticisation. More harmfully, an appropriation.
“I do sometimes wonder if it’s just a fascination or a true acceptance – it’s really hard to judge someone’s intentions as to whether they’re seeing us as circus animals or as real people”, Akeil Onwukwe-Adamson, the founder of Queer Bruk, tells me. From what Akeil tells me, it seems the difference between the two gazes is how seriously you concern yourself with the issues and struggles they voice.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community tell me that it’s complicated; using queer culture to express yourself isn’t problematic in itself and can be a strong statement of your allyship. But questioning your relationship with gay culture as a straight person and your heteronormative gaze on the queer community is a step in the right direction. “I feel like queer culture is actually being made more palatable to appeal to straights rather than straight people coming round to queer culture”, says Livvy. This deeply troubles me; why is the gay community being asked to cater to a heteronormative gaze? And will this affect the kinds of art they produce? Will this hinder their self-expression?
It’s something I’ve made myself more aware of when I watch things like Drag Race because, as Livvy says, “To make any headway on Drag Race nowadays you need to sink like a hundred thousand grand into costumes due to the fact there’s more pressure for it to look more polished, a result of it becoming mainstream.” This means extracting the life source of drag from the working-class queer communities who catapulted it into the role of cultural zenith, demonstrated beautifully and tragically in the documentary Paris Is Burning.
Interestingly, Anna Shams feels that we should be wary of asserting the same heteronormative rigidity onto queer expression. “With Drag Race, I think that’s a case where it genuinely is hurting the communities that originally pioneered drag”, she tells me. “I just think in other terms, LGBTQ+ activism has so long been about breaking down binaries so I am also uncomfortable when it becomes drastically polarised. Like other cultural appropriation, it’s about whether the sources of that culture are being respected and acknowledged.” Anna isn’t alone in her uncomfortablity with keeping queer culture within the parameters it was born into.
George Tomsett tells me, “I don’t think queer spaces should have gatekeepers. Queer culture is only radical because of how it rejects rigidity. Maintaining that queerness remains open to everyone is really important. The only expectation that queer folk should have of straight people is that they refrain from reacting in a way that reasserts heteronormativity in queer spaces.”
Evidently, appreciation and love for queer culture are welcomed by the community, but it feels pretty futile and demoralising if you’ve spent years in the fight to express yourself freely and the next day straight people flaunting it about like it’s always been a freedom of theirs. Like when big groups of straight people “will go to pride and party and then just not consider queer issues for the rest of the year” as Livvy reminds me, something LGBTQ+ artists are now resisting. Straight communities have condemned, hated, and silenced the LGBTQ+ community throughout history but seem to jump on aspects of gay culture they find appealing and interesting, even sometimes claiming cultural production from the gay community as their own. Such as straight women’s obliviousness to owing most of their makeup techniques to drag queens. Or the straight-washing of history, art and culture in order to downplay or completely erase LGBTQ+ individuals’ significance on our contemporary lives. Even Tchaikovsky has been subject to queer censorship!
When Harry Styles made history as the first cis-gendered male to cover Vogue, he was praised for breaking down the gendered barriers which clothing can impose whilst wearing a non-binary designer, Harris Reed. It was a beautiful reclamation and redefinition of masculinity which most people saw as surely paving the way for all men becoming more comfortable experimenting with their clothing and embracing fluidity. But the LGBTQ+ community rightly voiced their concerns. Love for Harry was still flooding in plentifully but there was frustration aimed at Vogue and other fashion-industry giants for not embracing trans and non-binary people, especially those of colour, in the same way.
"There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never thought too much about what it means—it just becomes this extended part of creating something.": Read our full December cover story starring @Harry_Styles here: https://t.co/yILujUQQae pic.twitter.com/qwpGKBSQey— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) November 13, 2020
“Make no mistake: trans femmes of colour started this and continue to face the backlash from it. Our aesthetics make it to the mainstream, but not our bodies,” said Alok Maid-Venon. “We are still dismissed as ‘too much’ and ‘too queer’ because we aren’t palatable enough to whiteness and heteronormativity.” The stark similarities between queer culture appropriation and racialised cultural appropriation are not lost on me. When I asked Ally Shilson how she felt about the Harry Styles controversy, she expressed, “How cool to make queer presentation so visible? Because, in my dream world, there are no assumptions so there’s no peacocking and everyone can have fun. But I guess we don’t actually live in that world yet. Much like a history-less world, cultural appropriation would be called cultural appreciation. But we don’t live in a historyless world.”
Sure, if queerness is trying to make its way into the mainstream and more widely accepted as a norm, then it has to partly find its place in some definition of current sexuality norms. But the important thing to remember is this means bringing queer individuals alongside their work, not just reaping their cultural produce for our own entertainment and artistic expression whilst leaving the actual individuals behind.
I know that I can retain my obsession with Drag Race because of my love for the art, beauty and drama of it all, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to claim or act like I am part of the LGBTQ+ community at all. Those spaces are reserved for those that need them. I was interested to know what Akeil wants straight and cis-gendered people to be more aware of when consuming gay culture, for example, the straight people that might attend his queer club nights; “To make sure you’re not coming in and taking up space”, he says. “To make sure you’re not making our lives only about your entertainment. Support us as much as you enjoy us.”