Homogeny and Hegemony in Modern ‘Queer’ Culture

In 2018, on my now-defunct Tumblr, I reposted a YouTuber’s Instagram photo. The picture showed her, female and feminine, standing with her male boyfriend. “Ur fav queer couple cruisin the mall”, she had written as a caption.

“this is a straight couple. it’s straight. you’re in a heterosexual relationship. there is nothing remotely “queer” about this in the slightest whatsoever. jesus h christ”, I wrote underneath, in my customary tone of lower-case outrage.

Today, my post has a grand total of 53, 676 notes – likes, comments and reblogs. It had clearly struck a chord with one group and offended another. A chain of similarly maladjusted heterosexual couples posted selfies and stood up for themselves and the proclaimed ‘queerness’ of their relationships, like teenage heroes in dystopian novels. I received many anonymous messages and one actual curse, which a follower kindly reversed for me. The gay people in my own orbit seemed to find the original post just as funny as I had.

The whole ordeal made me wonder: what is it about the word ‘queer’ that inspires such violent emotional sway in online circles? Why do certain people cling to it with their whole selves, and why do others find it so irksome? As a lesbian who has been actively wincing at the term for the past few years, I’m sure I can answer the latter. I will also make a stab at the former.

My university’s student union is perhaps not alone in writing and enforcing its own arbitrary lexicon, something which supposedly allows the underprivileged to feel safe but actually serves to annoy almost everyone but the most sheltered, academia-drunk union higher-ups. For unexplained reasons, the word ‘woman’ must be written as ‘womxn’, pronounced ‘woman-x’ – a convention of demonised second-wave feminism that barely sees use in even the most intricate online social justice circles. When I arrived in September, I aimed to meet other gay people and ended up in my own Room 101, a university-authorised Whatsapp group for ‘Queer Womxn’. The name of the main LGBT society involved the word ‘queer’ too – apparently it had been renamed the year before without much member input.

Determined to use my first-year enthusiasm for unconventional purposes, I made a submission to the university’s ‘anonymous confessions’ Facebook page, complaining about the insensitivity of the word’s use (it is still used as a slur outside ‘progressive’ areas, and our students come from all over the world) and arguing it to be alienating to those who did not intentionally identify with academic queer theory. I watched in excitement as a true variety of students argued for and against the term: within a month, the group’s name was changed. I was heartened to see others dissent and wondered why the union chose ‘queer’ in the first place to summarise this complex grouping of people, some of whom never identified with it at all.

‘Queer’ does not carry neutral implications: it implies a stray from convention at some level, whether biological, social, cultural or a combination of the three. The use of the word to describe all non-heterosexual people on basis of sexuality alone is homophobic, an implication that these groupings are inherently out-of-place or abnormal – when, in fact, same-sex relationships have occurred in several non-human species as well as constantly throughout recorded history. Annamarie Jagose, a scholar in queer studies, claims the word ‘focuses on mismatches between sex, gender and desire’ – the idea that there can be a mismatch on any level deserves to be left in the past. It is remarkable that thinkpiece-writers today can churn out pieces preaching of widespread fluidity in sexuality and personal gender expression and still brand this supposedly huge cross-section of society with the flaming-hot poker of ‘queer’.

I have read ‘queer’ analyses of classic film and classic literature, which zone in on minute details of centuries of human cultural output, speaking in an elemental sense of individual characters and plots, of ‘queer-coding’ and apparent homoerotic oddities. These academics clearly have no sense of perspective or imagination – the inner circles of arts and culture have been awash with homosexual desire since the beginning of time, and homoeroticism runs rampant as the norm and not the ‘other’ in several artistic traditions. It is absurd to point out ‘queerness’ as an entertaining but unusual isolate in the Western canon when those elements are actually an underlying constant, influencing even heterosexual figures by coincidence.

Sappho’s poetry inspired Catullus and later, the Romantic poets. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, sprinkled with homo- and transsexuality and perhaps the first thinkpiece on sexual fluidity, is still the earliest surviving source for several Greco-Roman myths, acting both deliberately and by proxy as a basis for a significant amount of poetry and art. Da Vinci and Michelangelo, obvious figures in Western art history, were both reportedly gay; this is clear in the latter’s depiction of muscled men. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are homoerotic. Oscar Wilde is an obvious example of a homosexual cultural figure. Film school mainstay F.W Murnau was gay. Several members and orbiters of the Bloomsbury Group were gay or bisexual, and a prolific group of actresses in early Hollywood – Marlene Dietrich, Alla Nazimova, Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead and more – had dalliances with each other. This era lives on through the glossy and intimidating graphic work of Tamara de Lempicka, a bisexual woman painting other women. I could go on for eternity – and these are not bullet points on a list, but parts of a huge, shining cultural web. Homoeroticism cannot be picked out and analysed in a special field of ‘queer studies’ when it is embedded in the DNA of virtually every art form – to do so would be to reduce these great contributions to outsider dust. ‘Queer’ only serves to isolate, marginalise and minimise what it describes.

Nothing will stop me from believing that ‘queer’ has been co-opted for corporate means and spread in the neoliberal media to a rapt crowd. With this sanitised term in hand, large organisations can sidestep the discomfort created by social acceptance of homosexuality. There is no explicit Latin-root acknowledgement of how these relationships are formed, no sexual implications included, and no unappealing earthy stereotypes carried over from the word ‘lesbian’. Marketing to a ‘queer community’, something vaguely sentimental but ultimately harmless is a great way to give your corporation an accepting edge while forcing your way into the inner lives of an increasing base of consumers.

The word is at once political and empty. It means everything and nothing, an automated ‘lorem ipsum’ filling in for a marginalised person’s emotive journey, or a university admissions essay read in a state of slumber. Its flimsy net is cast over the widest possible array of people: while the classic LGBT grouping is automatically included, virtually anyone can perform mental gymnastics to apply the word to their own lives, using it as a non-threatening shield in the war of identity politics. These pretenses started to slip in February, when actress Jameela Jamil, whose role judging an HBO-produced voguing competition show was questioned over social media, defended herself with the vague statement that she identified ‘as queer’.

This is 2020, and intricate identity politics govern an internet where it is entertaining to watch others fall. With no way to criticise or be privy to real-world actions, we instead analyse language, public opinion of offence and inoffence constantly in flux, and look at the signifiers used to judge personal circumstances, politics and taste. Young people online, attempting to defy anonymity, look endlessly for new groups to join (this is seen on the wikia I accidentally run, which thousands visit to determine their internet ‘aesthetic’ of best fit). Jamil and countless others defend themselves against cancellation with the vague shield of queerness, something apparently unacceptable to elaborate on, whose inner mechanisms can remain unexplained.

The use by individuals and organisations appears dismissive, a lazy attempt to ignore diversity in taste and opinion and push many into a homogenous, vaguely quirky, vaguely leftist thrall. Pluralism is squashed: while gay people can demonstrably hold any political views, choose to live inside or outside of heterosexual social structures and have their own specific tastes, the word implies some purposeful, corporate-punk rejection of society, at a level different from the basic biology of ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘bisexual’ – an infantile Hot-Topicisation of leagues of grown adults. I have come across several essays by bisexuals who do not feel ‘queer’ enough: although the meaningless nature of the term makes their premise ridiculous, I suggest that to solve this problem we should drop the phony unity of ‘queerness’ altogether, allowing individuals to embrace the nature of their specific attraction and bond where it is really appropriate with those of similar and adjacent sexualities.

The internet personality I controversially found ‘cruising the mall’ is an ideal model of what it means to be queer today. I believe that decades from now, YouTubers will be studied in depth as reflections of our culture and countercultures – they say much more about the modern psyche than any other source. Seen with a succession of near-identical emasculated boyfriends but only boasting off-screen of her one same-sex relationship, devoting her life to the saccharine outer of Japanese street fashion with no basis in the culture or language, proudly using baby talk and obsessing over children’s anime, this case study is the voice of her generation. Homosexuality has been through a lot in the past ten years or so: sentimentalised, used to signal virtue, used to ward off attacks in an identitarian political landscape, clung to, and picked up in cutesy wrappings for fashion.

I want nothing to do with these people: the ‘queer’ desperation filling the replies of my Tumblr post showed me images of an overprivileged and narcissistic crowd I previously thought was a right-wing illusion. I loathe to see my most intimate self packaged and commodified, used as a bargaining chip in the game of identity politics, and abnormalised in academia. It will never be progressive for individuals and even organisations to group many different people together under a word which means ‘abnormal’.

4 thoughts on “Homogeny and Hegemony in Modern ‘Queer’ Culture”

  1. “The word is at once political and empty” – I think that’s a fantastic way to describe it. It reminds me, like you mentioned, of “punk” – originally political and anti-establishment, but now can describe a red tartan skirt mass-sold in a high street shop. People can buy that aesthetic, wear it for a day and then take it off. And your last line captures my feelings on the word, that no matter how positively it’s intended, “queer” means “strange”. It will always other and marginalise.

    I remember Tamara de Lempicka from when I did A-level art, she led a glamorous life but I think had a strained relationship with her daughter. It’s interesting that you describe a “huge, shining cultural web”. Cobwebs can be hard to see until you shine a light on them. I’m familiar with the lives of Oscar Wilde and Marlene Dietrich, but when I look for lesbian media – by lesbians, about lesbianism – it feels more like hunting a for a needle in an extremely foggy haystack.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s