[T]he family identity produced on American television is much more likely to include your dog than your homosexual brother or sister.—Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”
Contemporary gay men must be delivered from unseemly, uncivilized sexual practices carried out in the great cities of Europe and America just as savage, if somewhat childlike, Africans had to be rescued from similar behaviors enacted in the fantastical African “bush.”—Robert Reid-Pharr, “Clean.”
[I]f the “dirty faggot” did not exist he would have to be invented. Moreover, as so many of us struggle to sanitize this vile creature, we would do well to remember that if we check beneath his well-buffed nails we will almost inevitably find the traces of someone else’s excrement.—Robert Reid-Pharr, “Clean.”
Washing dishes relaxes me. It reminds me of quiet Sunday mornings in my mother’s house, the singing in the nearby church, reverent and poised (good Presbyterian music), sliding through the kitchen windows, muted and colored by green fences. The feel of clean plates and mugs and glasses against my bare skin—I dislike gloves—offers a glimpse of the pleasures a savior might feel at washing away sins.
And, so, sometimes, I let the dishes pile up until Sunday, revel in the pleasures that await. Death-bed confessions might be a kind of holy crack.
Perhaps golden showers are most appropriate to Sundays.
Like many other queers, I distrust the promise of respectability. I come to respectability “honestly,” if differently: as a (now-excommunicated) Presbyterian; as an appropriately-circumcised Gikuyu; as the grandson of a teacher; as a son of post-independent Kenya’s new bourgeoisie; as a former chapel prefect; as a life-long “good son”; and now as a faculty member (academic queer radicals are a nice fantasy). I understand the protocols of respectability. I understand the rewards of respectability. I understand the promise of respectability.
I understand, also, or think I do, the lure of the “filthy faggot.” There is something about the mud-food-scat-used diesel oil-animal shit-bukkake-train-bareback-felching-sling owning-bathhouse going-orgy having-anonymous sex having faggot that is immensely appealing. While I’ve spent time with Foucault, a tiny part of me believes in the freedom of sex expression. (I will now debate whether or not to revise that sentence—sex puns suck.)
Yet. Yet. Yet.
I read academic accounts of the “filthy faggot” as melancholy. No matter how many sex acts one may describe participating in, no matter what desires one names, no matter how many fuck-shit-suck-swallow-faggot-shit-suck-swallow one writes, the “filthy faggot” remains a fantasy-object, perhaps a might-have-been. I am not sure he survives peer review.
And so what is it queer academics do when we write about the “filthy faggot”? What fantasies of ourselves do we hold on to? What notions of sex-identity-freedom do we crave?
The building that houses the English Department at UMD has hand sanitizers along the walls. They are a powerful metaphor of what institutions can do and do do. Clean. It is, perhaps, because institutions are so good at cleaning that certain imaginative possibilities remain so difficult to grasp. Yet, there is also a pleasure to cleaning and to being clean. The promise of respectability.
I have been trying to think through what makes me so ambivalent about Robert Reid-Pharr’s essay “Clean.” The original title of this post was “The Romance of Filth.” I wanted to think about invocations of “filth” or “dirt” and their world-making capacity within queer thought and life—transformative brown fucks, if you will. But then something feels off about that. I wanted to think about the pleasures of “cleaning” and “being cleaned,” be it by golden showers or holy water. I wanted to arrest something that felt like it should be right—respectability as an unattainable lure, the promise of filth, the dangers of respectability—but also felt familiar and off. Not quite. Not yet.
I wanted to think more deliberately and precisely about the promise of respectability, the achievement of respectability, this within inter- and intra-racial histories where my Gikuyu grandfather was as likely to be termed savage by a white European as by a black one. It matters how we come to respectability—or its promise. I have grown weary of the transformative promise of brown fucks. This is, of course, a terrible misreading of Reid-Pharr’s essay, but misreadings have their place. He writes, “we should be careful to not give up so easily on our dirty prehistory, the lived reality of (sexual) “promiscuity” and experimentation, for the presumably clean uncertainties promised by the weak light of the world-shattering dawn.”
But time does not move through space in a straight line and the “prehistory” of the “gay” and “black” Reid-Pharr writes about throbs as an incessant, prolonged present from Nairobi. It is not clear that the modernities invoked in Reid-Pharr’s essay cross the Atlantic when I do: what I can say in the States needs to be said differently here, or not at all. I am wary of the promise of kinky promiscuities. And in this place of flying toilets, many people have shit under their fingernails.
I find myself resisting the lure of Reid-Pharr’s argument, perhaps unfairly. Perhaps it was never meant to cross oceans, but travel happens, and one must read from one’s clime—the brisk Nairobi air, the itch of mosquito bites. Bersani notes, “While it is indisputably true that sexuality is always being politicized, the ways in which having sex politicizes are highly problematical.” I understand, of course, that filth need not have anything to do with having sex—the image Baldwin uses of white subjects trying to see if black rubs off is evidence of this. Even as the entangled histories of race and sexuality make proximate, if not intimate, sex and dirt.
There are pleasures to filth and to respectability—many of us (queers? Queer academics? Been-tos? Afro-diasporic subjects?) negotiate these pleasures with various degrees of care and carelessness. (After the conference, check out the local bathhouse.) I want to be careful not to romanticize either filth (as pre-history, as spatial dislocation, as temporal thwart, as global racial history, as strategy of poverty, as kink) or respectability (as access, as prison, as aspiration, as attrition). Or, perhaps, to be more deliberate in noting the romance of both.