On Queer Invisibility

Anyone who has ever walked down the street and heard the taunts “sissy” and “faggot” knows that invisibility is a fiction. Anyone who has ever walked down the street and yelled “queer” and “homo” makes visible what is presumed to be invisible. Anyone who has entered a bar and been addressed as the wrong gender knows that bodies are not stable. Yet, we are constantly asked to believe in our invisibility as a way to distinguish queer from race.

You know the line: queer people can hide and black people can’t.

The history of passing, a history shared by people of color and queers, tells us a different story.

More, the history of visibility makes such claims untenable.

How do we understand the ambivalent privilege of visibility—what Fanon might have called the “fact” of blackness—and the insistence on queer invisibility? What do we make of the idea that queer embodiment is a choice? That bodies can be taught to speak in other accents? How do we understand the violence of this claim? The ambivalent privilege it attempts to secure?

Now you see me. Now you see me. Now you see me.

What is gained by not seeing the visibility of queer people? And here I am not really interested in DL territory, but the ways in which queers perform and live queerness in their bodies—as styles of walking, talking, dressing, moving, dancing, feeling. Some of these are learned, of course. Others, not really.

Bodies testify before minds comprehend. But they also lie.
What does it mean to render the visibility of queerness invisible? How does the will not to see foreclose possible alliances? What positions of privilege does it maintain? What acts of negation?

I choose not to see and thus you are invisible. Or my shadow is cast over you. One can only imagine the violence of hailing. Or remember.

Sight is, of course, never simply given. It is never unmediated. And, if one follows Sara Ahmed, it never arrives without a story attached to it about what can be seen and how it should be seen.

Sight is a function of desire—I hope that you will be this and not that. I hoe you will be that and not this. Desire is blind to evidence. Parenting is a kind of blindness. As is love. As is hate.

I have been in school long enough to know that evidence is never simply given—especially not the self-evidence of the body. There is a process—let’s call it history—through which the given-ness of embodiment becomes given.

We can choose to see and to ignore given-ness. We can claim that given-ness is never simply given, and we do. But we fail to extend it.

Here. Fanon. The Negro is Not. Nor is the White Man.

To extend that from race to sexuality.

The Negro is Not. Nor is the heterosexual.

But this, this might be going too far, especially for those who claim the privilege of an always-visible embodiment: black people can’t hide. And the qualification Edward Blyden and Marcus Garvey would have added: “real” black people.

With Fanon: There are no Facts of Blackness. Nor of Heterosexuality. (One can see why many radicals distrust Black Skin, White Masks—what it asks one to give up is too much. How can it be otherwise?)
It is no coincidence I am writing about invisibility.

An ongoing project, co-written with WM, asks about what it means to create images that can be seen and how to create protocols through which those images can be seen. It asks about what African see and how they see it. It asks what happens when photographers abandon themselves to poets—when sight is, to use WM’s words, “elongated.”

It takes a certain short-sightedness—in the British and U.S. sense of the word—to insist on queer invisibility. A certain abrogation of duty. A will to blindness.

I return to the most compelling description of heteronormativity I know: Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner describe it as a “sense of rightness.” One can route this through Sara Ahmed’s description of “orientation” to ask what it means to “straighten” and how so much of what we do is “straighten” people. What might it mean to think of “straightening” as a “habit?”

The “labor” of making straight. The “work” of making invisible.
There are, of course, ways that blackness has needed to be made visible. And so there is a broader question of what it means to “labor” to “make” visible.

What is at stake in insisting on queer invisibility? How do we understand this insistence as a form of labor? And how do we understand the stakes of this labor?

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