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Stop telling the queer kid they’ll be famous

By Donna Marcus

Ever wondered why so many insufferable queer people think they’re a yet to be discovered celebrity?

In the summer of 2009, I had my first gig in drag. I was 13 years old. It was in a school production of Smike, some prequel/sequel/knock-off of Oliver! The Musical. Being at an all boys school, someone had to brave the task of taking on a female role, most threateningly, Mrs. Squeers, the old Victorian school mistress. It was to no one’s surprise that I, the fat fag, was chosen. So, to the backing track of a creaky upright piano, played by an older, creakier Mr.Morley, I proceeded to perform a strip routine as an old Victorian hag in front of all my teachers, all the pupils, and all their parents. Theo’s mum leant over to mine and whispered, “A star is born”. 13 year old me lapped up the ravenous applause, won a school trophy for the performance, and set off into the world with the entitled belief that I one day would be famous.

I wish it had never happened.

As a confidently flamboyant child, I learnt quickly how to survive in the cruel world of school. You’re either the just-like-us-assimilationist-he’s-basically-straight gay, or failing that as I did, you become fodder for entertainment. This is known in the biz as ‘camping it up’. Here your flamboyance, your gayness, your queerness, your transness becomes your armour against violence. You prove your use to the straights by way of entertainment. You take the role of the ‘faggot’, a caricature so camp/fabulous/ridiculous/gay they have no choice but to laugh. You befriend all the girls as their no.1 gay best friend, and you survive on a carefully constructed performance. Your value to your peers relies on your ability to entertain them with your novelty queerness. And as you are socially rewarded for performing, your self-worth becomes fixated on your ability to entertain others. 

Growing older, with the shattering reality of the real world, it slowly dawns that promises of fame are beginning to wane. The spotlight on the school stage is no longer on, but you’re still entertaining your straight peers as you always have done. What are you doing wrong? When, in the majority of cases, fame does not transpire, you are beset with an inescapable sense of failure. Everyone told you it would happen, people said your name was written in the stars, so why? Why have I failed? Did I not work hard enough? Did I not take the right opportunities? Why am I not good enough? You question your ability to entertain, and so your self-worth tarnishes. When you’re repeatedly told you will be famous, this destiny seems totally attainable. So when such a destiny does not follow through, you deem yourself a failure. You have let yourself down by not becoming the person everyone said you would become. None of it makes sense. The only person who could possibly be at fault is yourself.

By instilling fame as an expectation for queer kids, we fail their future selves. It encourages an unhealthy value in celebrity. Implicitly, they’re told fame is their ‘final form’. They will be discovered and they will be happy. And they will waltz into it without a batted eyelash. The bubble eventually bursts. Creative industries call their range and market limited, or they are adopted only as a novelty. Peers become tired of their performative queerness, finding it irritating — Why do you always have to act so gay? It’s so annoying. You are left destitute and alone, accompanied only by their own self-doubt and self-hatred. I’m painfully aware that I sound like a sour pitiful queer who once had aspirations of fame (in fact that’s exactly who I am), but hearing stories from fellow queers, I’m not alone. I have heard so many stories of queer performers who are violently tossed away from possibilities in mainstream cultural industries for the precise quality they were told would make them famous as kids: their performative queerness.

But this goes beyond the demoralised egos of preppy gay theatre kids. By setting fame as an achievable goal, in whatever vague form that promise often takes, the performatively queer kid sets themselves up to an impossibly high standard. Regardless of whatever they decide to do with their futures, anything less than international stardom is failure. Queer kids are already a bunch of over-achievers, tirelessly working to make up for the fact they’re ‘not-man enough’, ‘not a real daughter’, ‘not the person I brought up’. Let’s not then set this bar of over-achievement so high that it becomes unreachable. Otherwise, they will never be afforded  a vital sense of self-satisfaction, a true sense of pride. 

So when I ask you to stop telling queer kids they’ll be famous, what do I mean? I am not telling you to stop supporting your kids. They deserve every piece of belief, praise and support in the world. They deserve to be encouraged to follow their dreams as any kid should. But instead of telling them of their pre-destined fame, why not encourage their sheer enjoyment and self-expression? Why not encourage them to develop their craft, creativity or identity for its own sake? As with any kid, their value should be placed in their own confidence and happiness, not in the entertainment they provide to others. Let’s celebrate performative queerness in children for its own sake: it is already a precious gem. It doesn’t need to lead to fame, it doesn’t need to lead to anything. It just needs to make the kid feel happy.