I’ve been trying to think about strength lately, and in looking for ways to access the concept that don’t have anything to do with, like, how much you can bench, I was led to Geoffrey Scarre’s On Courage, a kind of moral-philosophical primer on the idea.
Scarre at one point tells the story of the Archbishop Cranmer, burned at the stake by Queen Mary for heresy against the church and state. His final last-words speech was a repudiation of the penance he had earlier written and signed his name to, as a way to plead for his life. He ultimately realized that this penance betrayed his true beliefs, and in this speech recanted it all. They took him to the pyre, and right as the flames grew, Cranmer held out his right hand so that it would burn first, to punish that synecdochic part of himself that wrote the true heresy.
I read this and imagined the scene, the crowd around the burning stake, and I saw a person, probably a gay man, or maybe a woman (I see them for whatever reason as a Mark McKinney character in a wig), and turning, in the moment the hand begins to burn, to a friend or companion saying, “Oh my god can you believe that?” with a very arch and campy tone. Almost like what was happening was a joke or some silliness, something outrageous they could disbelievingly laugh at together, like when you hear a person call another person fat to their face.
Ooohhh my goooooood…. Kristin Wiig does the voice in her character who spoils surprise parties. And indeed, I think of this scene as a comedy sketch, perhaps the only place where such a thing can happen. But it’s worth pointing out this this reaction—from the POV of someone outside the scene, watching at home, say—would most likely be funny and cause laughter.
But no laughter, it’s key, from the crowd. Indeed, its opposite.
Anyway, as soon as I imagined this person, I wanted to know what their virtue was, or where their moral value lay. Not asking “Good god man where are your values?” in reproach, but instead presuming from the start that all people have virtues, and thus trying analytically to locate and identify the queer’s (as I’m going to call this figure).
Cranmer is a paragon of courage, even after his initial cowardice of signing the false-belief statement the queen wanted to hear. And not only does he contain courage as a virtue, he performs a public courageous act by burning his own hand first.
The queer does not, it seems, have courage, but nor, I want to argue, do they display courage’s opposite: cowardice. This queer is akin to the figure Roxane Gay, in Bad Feminist, does such a poor job of understanding—i.e, the kid in class who makes a joke after the Challenger explodes—but they’re not quite the same person. They feel similar feelings within a charged moment, but I think they discharge those feelings in separate directions.
It might help us in our searching for the queer’s virtue to look at another form of disbelief in this scene, one coming from those in the crowd who feel themselves to be virtuous, or who at least regard the seriousness of this public burning with the appropriate solemnity. As soon as the queer turns and speaks—even as soon as they put the ironized disbelieving look on their face—the solemn crowd feels its own disbelief: We cannot believe you are acting this way in this moment. From the perspective of the crowd, the queer has transgressed or broken some collective ethos or tacitly agreed-upon decorum. The crowdspeople’s virtue here is probably prudence, the wisdom to know how to act.
It’s worth also noting that brave Cranmer has done the same thing as the queer in this moment. He’s transgressed, crossed a line of decorum and normative behavior. Indeed, Cranmer’s transgression is the source of the queer’s joking disbelief. Can you believe he is being so boldly brave and virtuous? Can you believe he’s acting like some kind of superhero? Perhaps everyone in the crowd is asking these questions, but the queer seems to be asking it outside of any feelings of awe or reverence. That irreverence is a good part of what makes the queer judged and reviled by the others in the crowd.
All the same, the self-punishing burning man is on some level acting uncivilly, antisocially. He’s exhibiting values the community claims, at least, to try to live up to, but righteous wanting is not the same as actively doing and publicly showing. Cranmer steps outside the comfortable norm when he wills his hand to burn first. He becomes extra-ordinary. Whatever discomfort the crowd might feel in that moment comes from how the impossibly brave act shines a light on them in their non-bravery, in their not needing—at this moment, at least—to be brave. Which is the say the brave are rude, and that rudeness comes from how they unwittingly expose our shortcomings.
(Okay, immediately I doubt a lot of the above. It feels a lot like thoughts I’ve had recently that the beautiful, as a class, are unpleasant to behold, and selfish in their actions, because of how they expose the ugliness of the rest of us, and after thinking about beauty that way I came away feeling it was 100 percent emblematic of my low self-esteem, and of shame in general, the narcissistic way shame sees everything as some affront on and exposure of the lesser self. Whether or not I genuinely felt I was beautiful, I know that without shame and with a decent amount of self-esteem I could enjoy being in the presence of beauty without it feeling like abuse. Likewise here, I might be projecting my own self-esteem issues and doubt about my own courage—the doubts that have led me to read up on the subject—onto the crowd of people, imagining that their reverence of this unbelievably brave act must be also making them feel like cowards, whereas one thing Scarre has covered so far in the book is how courage is only courage when it’s applied at appropriate times, and thus the courageous person, the person who exhibits and lives this virtue, can understandably not be doing anything courageous by watching an act of courage, and still come away feeling like they are, also, when they need to be, courageous.)
So: if everyone in the scene is feeling some level of disbelief, I would assume that most in the crowd are in awe of Cranmer’s unbelievable act. What they’re witnessing is rare, very rare, and it strikes awe and reverence. The queer, on the other hand, acts irreverently. And what’s more important in our project to locate their virtue is to figure out the emotion in place before they act, before they express their disbelief out loud to their neighbor.
An identity-politics / activist way to see it is that the queer, before they act, is unconsciously refusing to respond with awe to yet another instance of heteronormative masculine performance or virtue. Manly courage. The queer innately acknowledges that the virtues are patriarchal, they value daring action in men and quiet compliance in women, and thus any awe felt toward Cranmer’s brave macho act would be yet another instance of being told to live under the rules of a society that always already under- or de-values queers.
As much as I like this idea, however, I distrust that it captures the emotion or feeling occurring in the queer at the moment they see the hand start to burn. It feels instead like an interpretation after the fact. A “reading” of the queer. But then again, Scarre’s book is full of examples of people who do very courageous acts (jumping into a rushing river to save a life) without self-identifying as brave or courageous. Likewise here, the queer need not have been conscious of their desire to repudiate the patriarchy for us to read their act as such. Maybe they “just did the right thing,” they say, but this need not prevent us from reading them as courageous.
A less generous take (let’s call it Gay’s take), is that the queer does indeed feel awe (if not precisely the same awe as the crowd’s) in the presence of the burning hand, but an awe that feels too awful to stand. An awe that brings pain, which may be the pain of low self-esteem or witnessing evidence of your own shortcomings and lesserness. To assuage that pain, a reflex kicks in and the queer neutralizes their fear with comedy. (I see it almost like a chemical the queer sprays into the air.) It’s harder to fear this awe-ful scene when the queer can focus more on what’s funny about it (and here I’m intentionally blurring the boundaries between funny-haha and funny-strange). If bravery is accepting your fear and acting in the face of it, then we can see that the queer is, in the end, exhibiting cowardice. That’s the emotion in place before they turn and say, “Oh my god can you believe that?”
There are other possibilities. The queer feels some disturbance in the communal goodwill (the community is currently destroying one of its own after all), and what they feel is a desire to bring that community back together, and a performative campy disbelief happens to be what everyone has come to expect of the queer in any moment. The queer stabilizes disequilibrium by being very empathically and expectedly themselves, already outside the group (which is to say they’re acting ethically and even prudently).
Or they’re acting ignorantly. Because while I clearly identify with the queer in this scene (I’ve been this queer many times), and while I want in general as a fellow queer to isolate some indestructible or inarguable form of virtue in their behavior, whenever I put myself in this specific queer’s shoes or try to see them clearly, I keep returning to the fact that they clearly do not feel what the group feels is the proper emotion. Whether this is a disability or a stubborn refusal bears returning to, but for now it’s worth pointing out that what the queer says might not be as transgressive as that the queer speaks. What this moment calls for is silence, and if not silence then nonverbal forms of emoting. Wailing and tears. Cries of anguish. But because bravery lies at the heart of this public shame (and shaming), that bravery overshadows the shame, and such bravery amid death seems to call for silence.
The queer’s speaking into what should be silence: where does it come from and what virtue (if any) does it exhibit?
If it’s a willed refusal to speak, then we can locate some bravery in the queer, perhaps. That is, the queer has surely received over the years the messages and lessons of the group—i.e., “in the face of bravery, let’s all do awed silence”—and thus must feel some drive to conform to the community’s values. And then, in the thick of this communal feeling, the queer decides to overcome that wrong-feeling drive and act against the values of the group. Some reserve of feeling or spirit, or some sense of what might either be right (that is, just and prudent) or feel right (that is personally fulfilling or important to the queer), takes over and leads the queer to act. The crowd, in turn, would read this as selfish, narcissistic, but we can easily see the queer reading it as courage.
Now I’m seeing two emotions, or two locales to explore: the motivation or decision about whether to do something, and then the decision about what to do. If the group’s communal righteous response is to do nothing and say nothing, the queer decides both to do something, and then decides what to do. The first decision exhibits courage: the bravery of going against the grain. (And please believe me that this takes [and is] courage, not just contrarianism; I have a lifetime of moments of wanting to speak into a silence—whether to joke or make an unheard point—but not being able to handle the shaming or disgust I rapidly imagine on the people around me, and therefore staying safe(r) by complying with the expected silence.)
The second decision—okay now what to say?—exhibits something else. Because the queer could say anything: “What a guy!” “This is a tragedy!” “Somebody save him!” If the proper communal response to execution and courage is silence, saying any of these would be transgressions, regardless of how apt to the occasion they may feel. The queer transgresses a second time, or as an additional layer, by speaking aloud the group’s silent disbelief in such a tone that the courage act gets painted as rash, or silly. The queer’s tone diminishes (or at least threatens to) Cranmer’s bravery to a stunt, something not to awe but more to gawk at.
Again, we’re back to seriousness and solemnity, and the queer’s refusal or ignorance about its being called for. And as much as I want to come to some resolution on whether the queer’s speaking is (a) a willed refusal of norms or (b) an ignorance (however possibly posed or performed) of them (what I’ve problematically called a disability above), I’ve just realized that what makes queers queer is how they’re always obscuring these kinds of distinctions. The queerness of the queer’s “Oh my god” is that we can never really know whether this is rebellion or stupidity, and so we can never firmly land on whether the queer is culpable or innocent.
The queer’s strategy for survival: if this society will not take me seriously I will turn that dismissal into a hall of mirrors where you will not find the stabilities you value. Interestingly, a hall of mirrors is always what being in shame feels like—your ugly self reflected to you everywhere you turn; the “true” self never singly identifiable.
So maybe queer courage takes the shame the queer receives from the crowd and, through comic obscurantism, makes a weapon out of it.
But there’s also this drive to blur or obscure, and to remind others of the constant presence of obscurities and uncertainties, right at the moment when most would demand clarity and stability. Not shying away from that urge, no matter how you might be regarded, that’s I think the nature of queer courage.
I want to be clear that I’m not looking at this courage as a kind available only to queers or gender-nonconforming folks—much less the only kind of courage we queers are capable of. (If Stonewall taught us anything it’s that queer folks can also hold their own hands to the fire when virtue calls for it.) I’m referring instead to a different, queer form of courage, one that doesn’t resemble the classic virtue. This queer courage is anybody’s for the taking.