An Exquisite Corpse: Reflecting on Pride, Art, & Activism
Updated: Jul 24, 2019
I grew up in an old world, a maze of antiquated politics and schools of thought. I clung to these things because I knew of little else, and built a broken self from the debris around me. I didn’t know queer culture, I didn’t know queer theory, music, politics. I didn’t know how to use the word if it wasn’t in direct reference to a person. What the hell is “queer” art? “Queer” activism? I heard people talk about “queering” culture, and thought of a suspect, clandestine marathon to turn as many straights as possible. I was never truly witness to what it was to be a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, and so I didn’t know what it was to fight for it. I didn’t believe anyone was standing up for me, especially at a time when I wasn’t standing up for myself.
An absence of genuine gay bodies in the world I was exposed to had taught me to understand queerness only in the context of toxic stereotypes and shrill affectations, a caricature of "the f*g," penned by dominant cultures– of a fey, fluorescent, one-dimensional homunculus, defined only by the extent of their hedonism and vocal perseverance. To believe, by virtue of your sexuality, that there is but one role which you must fill, and that this is the only way to exist as a queer man, was not kind to my self image. And since I did not know who I was, but I knew what I wasn’t, I leaned into a corrosive persona, because I refused to humanize a part of me that I wished desperately would just go away, as if it could. Because of this, even after I (finally) came out to myself, for years I had a lot of trouble locating myself within queer activism because I had a lot of trouble locating myself within queerness.
Years later, I began to find that elusive self, a rewritten entry of GSM authored by people who understood a struggle against the heteronormative standard. I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s retrospective when I was 16, and in his work, real bodies, filling and reshaping the hollow marionette of that fey, fluorescent homunculus; ironic, I know, but just seeing the physical bodies of gay men being incarnated in that way represented an honest sort of pride and indignation– blown to scale, framed, honored, shocking, and beautiful.
Not long after, I was witness to my first pride parade; flags and raised fists were smeared across walls, streets, and windows by ruthlessly unashamed hands. There was love, joy, and celebration– a humanity that was lacking in the image of the LGBTQIA+ community that I had accepted, not bound by their sexuality but liberated by it. It was a grounding of queerness from this nebulous, caricaturesque nexus of rainbows and sex to a very real identity. Maybe still sexy and rainbow, but tangible now, a kind of queerness that could have been me. I saw the LGBTQIA+ community in action, and found comfort in the fact that millions of people cared just as much as I did, even when I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it.
I think it is at that moment, in being witness to genuine representation and action, that a person conceives the true ability to cause change. It’s a concept that I was aware of, but only in the capacity that I could wrap my head around the expanse of space. And to get at that truth is as simple and as complex as speaking and being honest with where you are and how you got there, and watching others do the same. That is the part that I felt was missing in reconciling my sexual identity; I didn’t understand how to use the word “queer” outside of a human context, because there is no use of the word “queer” outside of the human context. To call art, politics, theory, music, culture, activism “queer” is not to use the word as some abstract modifier, it is an admission of the contribution we play in creating the world around us, and our ability to participate in its genesis.
And what of it? We are still confronted with this problem of making ourselves known. To exist is one thing, to belong is another. How can we take part in reshaping political topography to make room for us?
Politics are constructed by people, and people speak through culture, so that a community's ability to change culture can be in itself a form of self-governance. The zeitgeist of a state is found in its art, channeled through it so that both become synonymous. It’s how people say, “Here! This is us! This is who we are, what we want, and what we have done/are going to do.”
In this way, and in a very meaningful way, art and rebellion are inevitable and the same.
And so to queer politics is to queer art, to be honest with all the ways in which we are privileged and oppressed. To queer politics is to queer activism, to elevate voices, and extricate from all this mess an agency to change the systems we must navigate.