The Case of Bad Queers
Stories about Ellen and Peter Thiel have been doing the rounds this week with respect to their various perceived ill behaviours, be it Thiel’s funding of ulta-rightwing conservatives or the allegations flowing from the set of Ellen’s show. In both cases their sexuality was placed firmly at the centre of their respective narratives, and much like Caitlyn Jenner’s putative support for Trump, their perceived running against queer interests has caused much renting of shirts and wearing of sack cloth.
Now, this is not to defend or attack any of them, except to say that by using their gender or sexuality as the lens through which to view their actions, or inactions in the case of Ellen, you turn complex issues into highly reductive narratives. By all means critique a billionaire white man for funding homophobic Republican candidates, and yes, by all means point out the hypocrisy of his doing so as a gay man, but, I would argue, there is a bigger argument to be made. Namely, if queerness is to be normalised and become part of society’s tapestry, there needs to be room for ‘bad’ queers without the focus always shifting to their gender/sexuality every time their ill behaviour comes to the fore.
The argument for universal marriage between two people irrespective of gender was frames as ‘gay’ marriage because it is easier to see two men or two women going down the aisle than picturing marriage as a universal that extends to cover gender queerness in all its forms. By reducing gay marriage down to white picket fence picture postcard images it became an easier sell. Much is the same for our ideal of queer people in the public eye, and it cuts to the heart of the power dynamics within the queer community, namely white, usually cis, wealthy, conventionally attractive, slim, and educated. There is often a conflation of ‘bad’ behaviour and a pushing of boundaries, and often the two get conflated — queer people of colour who desire more intersectional conversations get labelling ‘bad’ faith actors because they challenge the status quo, and by allowing toxic and ill behaviour from traditional role models and picking apart queer people of colour it entrenches ever more toxic views within the community.
Caitlyn Jenner’s transition broke the internet in ways that Ellen did when she came out in the 90s. For better or worse Jenner for a while became the face of transgender folk across the world, evoking glamour and a sense of otherness that is patently beyond the reach of the vast majority of trans folk owing to her wealth and connections. She had the world at her feet, a powerful platform from which to advocate, and she used it to continue her Republican inclinations much to the chagrin of many trans and queer folk. Couple with her fatal car accident, and whatever voice she wished to proclaim was subsumed back into background noise because people saw through whatever act she chose to present. If she had not transition and pursued the same platform supporting Trump there would have been eyebrows due to her celebrity, but there would have been none of the opprobrium from the queer community.
By focusing on her gender as the crux of her identity, especially lamenting her as a ‘bad’ example of transwomen, it reduces her identity down to a singular part of who she is. By not highlighting her totality of identity it gives anti-trans advocates another stick to beat the queer community with. Granted, those advocates do not need an excuse to finger point, and Jenner was very much mocked within certain circles; but, because the queer community isolated Jenner’s transness as a marker as why she should be ‘good’, it leaves her isolated and easy to pick off. In no way is this a defence of her actions, but by simply dismissing her as a ‘bad’ queer, there is little room for exploring the complexity of her identity and opinions.
It is very seductive to isolate and shun ‘bad’ elements, and all communities do it as a matter of course. Ill behaviour should never be accepted or ignored; however, by solely focusing on a person’s sexuality and gender as the primary feature to lambast them only makes it harder for queer and trans people to be nuanced and express differing opinions. This is the reason why it is important that ‘bad’ queers are dissected in their totality, and not reduced to their singular queerness. We are not uniform in our opinions, much the better for it, and if the light is shone on any member of the queer community it is almost certain they will hold views that run against the grain of current queer orthodoxy. In such an atmosphere LGBTQI+ ideas, philosophies, and identities evolve and move forward, and without it we, as a community, would become stale.
You do not have to agree or defend a queer person’s actions, and it is completely acceptable to call anyone out for their ill behaviour. Renegades who poison the well, toxic individuals, and masters of chaos should always be called out. However, this should be a universal, not just an excommunication from the queer community. There is always the danger of these individuals sucking the oxygen out of the room, taking all the conversational bandwidth, and maxing out whatever capacity the community has to deal with issues. For a long time, Ellen has been a loadstone through which queer folk have gained strength and identity, the more troubling aspects of her identity smoothed over because the community felt the need for a ‘good’ fairy queermother. A deeper examination of her personality and approach over the long term would have eased in the nuance, and while there have been occasional articles questioning her, the current backlash has ben a whipcrack rather than rolling tide. There has been plenty written in the last week, both in defence and attack, about the many problems surrounding her show; yet, if these issues had been publicly aired over a protracted period of time, and the victims listened to earlier, Ellen could have evolved from queermother into someone more rounded and nuanced. This cuts across her brand identity as the queen of nice, but it could have allowed her more space to grow and evolved as a celebrity.
Role models are often thrust into the limelight, icons and beacons of hope amidst seeming seas of indifference and persecution. Any edges they have are invariably rounded out as their personas go through media training, and when those spikes are revealed it feels like a betrayal. We want our icons to shine as beacons, safe havens from the storms beyond the harbour walls. By ignoring the bad, difficult, and complicated, in the end we end up disappointed and disillusioned. Nuance is vital, as it allows for growth and understanding. ‘Bad’ queers, those who cut across the grain and challenge orthodoxy, should be engaged, challenged, and brought to task for toxic behaviour, but, at the same time, just because we do not necessarily agree with them that does not mean their identities are any less valid. There is always a desire for purity and fields of dreams, but life is complex and messy.
Nuance allows for conversation, compromise allows room for difference and growth in new and unexpected directions. Minority identities, especially queer identities that are so full of intersectionalities, face attack from all quarters. It is easy to turtle up, shelter in place, and fight every battle with all our might. If a member of the community is perceived as breaking ranks it is easy to excoriate them and brand them as other. It is hard to face up to what they represent, and not feel that we are victim blaming. No-one is perfect, and no-one can ever live up to all our expectations, and by expecting perfection who leave no room for the human side of our role models.
That humanity is what helps us grow as a community, to embrace new ideas, and bring intersectional identities to the fore. By addressing toxic and ill behaviour as a matter of course, rather than sweeping it under the rug until we are forced to address it, we allow it to be exorcised and give room for growth. It also allows room for questioning of orthodoxy, to point out hypocrisy without damaging the community, and pushing of boundaries to embrace and accept those who otherwise remain out in the cold. ‘Bad’ queers should be judged in their totality, not just their queerness, and judged accordingly.