In a brave video, a young lesbian of color responds to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign by saying that it does not get better. Instead, one gets stronger. I have been wrestling with this video, wanting to endorse the sentiment—race and class do make a difference—but also wanting to texture it. And wanting to texture the assumption, in both videos, that couplehood is “the better.”

And this without moving into the confessional. Foucault haunts.

Perhaps one way to engage it is to write around desire and disgust, to tell stories, some of which are not mine.

I am interested in mapping out other things that happen, to move beyond saying that it gets better or that we get stronger, to ask, instead, following Lauren Berlant, about the multiple ways queers inhabit an often unloving world.

Fuzzy anecdotes will have to suffice.

Many of us learn to manage by numbing ourselves. This is not the place to cite numbers about alcohol and drug abuse among queers—and I do mean abuse, not casual or pleasurable use. Instead a persistent craving for something that will shut out the world, numb us, make its constant abrasions stop hurting. Alcohol and drugs can also be metonyms for a host of addictive habits, ranging from anorexia and bulimia to excessive weight lifting, from hyper-asceticism to hyper-aestheticism.

By no means am I claiming that these are peculiar to queers, but as one who has worked through some of these, I understand how they help to manage a world that can be unbearable. I understand the investments of love and desire in ephemera that can be symptoms of other kinds of blocked avenues. Not always, but sometimes.

Most often, I am saddened when I see young queers become harsh and brittle—the casual bitchiness and snappy comebacks that are supposed to be signs of wit, but are so often laced with hurt and bitterness. I have seen many, too many, young queers begin their college lives with hope and optimism, with a sense of richness and possibility, only to see them, within a year or two, jaded, brittle, mean, hardened. Too soon.

Some call this growing up. I think of it as something wrong with the world.

And while I speak from within college walls, it is also clear that growing up brittle is not restricted to that space. I understand our hedgehog lives. How we need them. That without them we might not survive. But I regret them. I mourn them. I mourn that we cannot be more tender with the world, with each other.

I regret that it is easier to talk about therapy and shrinks and drugs than it is to talk about the wounds we bear. I regret the shame that continues to mark our interactions. And I regret how this shame is compounded when we are told to be proud.

How strange: that Pride parades should so often become further sources of shame, especially for those of us who are not yet sure how we feel. I have enjoyed Pride parades for making visible possible lives. But I find it difficult to inhabit the affect they want to elicit.

Many of us become brittle. Sharp-edged. Cutting. Shrill. Not all of us. But many. I no longer celebrate this as a sign of queer affect. I am reluctant to claim Wilde’s particular brand of bitchiness as a mark of queer achievement.

And perhaps it is simply that the more I dwell with Baldwin and Hemphill, the more I learn to inhabit certain fractures.

But I will not be confessional.

Still, others of us become hard.

Once, in Seattle, I had an encounter with a true hard-body, the kind of man I had been told I should desire and would enjoy. Of that encounter, I remember how uncomfortable his body felt against mine, even painful. His body would not yield into mine. It was armored. And I might have gotten bruised. No more hard-body fantasies.

More to the point, some of us become hard. Impossible to be with. Unyielding. Too often, we mistake this hardness for strength and display it as a badge of survival. It can be. But it can also be damaging.  The cynicism of hardness poisons too easily. And those who become hard soon become fossil-hard.

We are often not very good at distinguishing between strength and hardness. Codes of masculinity, and often codes of black masculinity, make such distinctions difficult.

And perhaps I am simply pursuing the naïve question of why queers aren’t nicer to each other. We can be. Often we are not.

Other possibilities abound.

I am not sure it’s possible to be a queer without calluses. But I hope and believe that those calluses need not crowd out tenderness and kindness. These attributes matter, perhaps more than anything.

6 thoughts on “Calluses

  1. I believe it comes from Enid Blyton, over whose books I am still salivating. Perhaps that will be the Christmas book buying–too much Enid Blyton.

    The idea, not the phrase.

  2. Perhaps, the core of this is humanity. Which is such an all-encompassing word. but you bring up “love” between gay men too, so it’s appropriate. Humanity communicated between two homosexuals, in the sheer light and wholeness and purity of being there right across from someone, is rare. I, at least, have hardly experienced it. In college, this one malaysian chinese boy that had a very *english* accent causing me to believe he came up in Australia, felt and communicated that I was invading him, or his mind. I still can’t tell which. I liked him, I think I was describing the Kinsey scale to him, and once i went to his room, with a pastel painted self-portait, claiming that I was an impostor that used my emotions to benefit from others. I was trying to make it easier by incriminating my actions. He slammed a door in my face, and shouted at me: You think you know everything! His ears would flame-up red. Yes, Matthew was his name.

    But the sheer violence I experienced upon touching topics like the pressure from his malaysian chinese parents, and homosexual desire, made me think that it was impossible to speak directly and humanly to another homosexual. (whether or not matthew was homosexual).

    I think I have TRULY longed to be seen by another homosexual as a real human being. To feel a keen sense of humanity from another homosexual. and to truly experience human homosexuality without those two entities being separate.

  3. Yes; I have resisted posting a video not because I do believe that it might help, but that the sentiment is a problematic one. It doesn’t always get “better,” so much as the young woman you cite clarifies: one often does grow stronger, at least strong enough to deal with the persistence of the multiple things we queer people, especially if non-male, non-white, non-Christian, non-rich, etc., face. This string of negatives is problematic, I know, but they go to the heart of how troubled this easy narrative of things resolving as one ages, succeeds economically in life, finds a partner or lover or now, same-sex spouse, parents children, etc., really is. So stronger yes, better–well, it depends.

  4. Yet I do want more people of color to be visible in this campaign, even as I wish it were easier to talk about ambivalence, about complicated life trajectories, about simple and complex pleasures, simple and complex negotiations, simple and complex successes, and failures.

    We have been talking about these things for a long, long time. But it’s too easy, as Melvin Dixon warned, for us to be forgotten by new(er) technologies, young(er) activists.

    I value, fiercely, the spaces of possibility we have created and continue to create, real and imagined, virtual and material, even virtually material. And I would love to see them extended.

  5. Patriarchy with it’s perverted sense of masculinity has made it incredibly difficult for us to distinguish between strength and hardness. I believe that to be strong one must be capable of being tender. I think we should focus on that.

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