Is There a Democratic Potential of Cruising?

Jack Parlett seems to think so, given his piece in Boston Review on the topic. I do, too—or at least I tried to make the argument in the far fewer words I had in my 2021 piece for the Guardian. In this post, I want to do a few things:

  1. Summarize Parlett’s argument (and my erstwhile one)
  2. Point out its key limitations and shortcomings, bringing in some counterarguments
  3. Address those counterarguments and see about cruising’s role in a healthy democracy.

It’s gonna be a long one.

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1.
Cruising is shorthand for having sex in public with strangers. It happens most often in parks and restrooms. I should say men’s rooms, because most cruising (and most writing about it) is among men who have sex with men (MSM). Cruising among WSW must exist, but I know little of it. Cruising among heterosexuals is common as couples; they like to call it swinging, especially in clubs and parties organized around it, and the Brits call it dogging (a term I’ve always loved) when couples fuck in parks for an audience.

What does this have to do with a healthy democracy? If you don’t have time to go read Parlett’s piece, here’s a hasty summary. Cruising—among men in cities—has a long history of people extolling it, going back at least to Whitman. This history, Parlett writes, shows how cruising’s ‘not only, or even primarily, about hooking up, but about the communal power of eroticized looking, flashes of affinity that may not lead directly to sexual consummation, but are an important way of situating yourself within a shared community.’

So it’s about being out and being seen—not as an enemy, or even just another burden, but as a desirable object. That’s one key thing with cruising: the eroticization of being among others. Which leads to one key problem: not everyone on the streets gets looked at erotically. Flashes of affinity are not equally distributed.

Parlett does what anyone writing about sex in public (esp. in cities) is obligated to do: cite Samuel Delany’s watershed text Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which covers his years cruising porn theaters in the 70s and 80s, and the kinds of encounters and engagements he had with the men who did the same. The central argument in TSRTSB is that infrastructure affects superstructure (i.e., our settings/environments dictate not just how we behave there but our overall values), and that gentrification hurts democracy by promoting networking over contact.

Here’s how I summed it up in the Guardian:

Business and politics as usual promote networking, which is exclusionary and consolidates power within groups, whereas sex and the places we have it – not just bedrooms and sofas, but porn theaters, public toilets, cruising areas – promote contact, which fosters encounters across classes and groups, the writer Samuel R Delany points out. ‘Given the mode of capitalism under which we live,’ Delaney writes, ‘life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of goodwill.’

And what better will than wanting to help somebody come?

They cut that last sentence. They also cut an illustrative bit about my body wanting lots of sex with Dean Cain, an anti-gay conservative who stumps often enough for the NRA that my brain finds him pretty loathsome. But when he shows up in another Hallmark Christmas movie, my body again wants what my mind thinks it shouldn’t have.

This is the heart of the Cruising = Healthy Democracy argument: if we can openly acknowledge our erotic desires for one another, we can create the kind of communal bonds that can counter the divisiveness that online, politicized interactions promote. Or, in Parlett’s words:

[I]mplicit in even the most cursory cruising encounter is, in my experience, the shared admission of a vulnerability, and of loneliness, perhaps, an unspoken basis of the desire to come together. To cruise is, in its most basic sense, to tap into a community whose only logic is desire itself, even if this improvised grouping is far from homogenous, and rarely even harmonious. Like Delany, I have met people cruising whom I’m unlikely to have met otherwise.

Like Parlett, I have done the same. And I have been struck by it long afterward, how I just spent some very intimate time with a person whose politics I’m certain I’d abhor. As an abstraction—a ‘red state’ voter—I felt repelled from them, but as a man physically near me whose desire reflected my own, we two came together.

It’s beautiful, really. But it may not be the cure-all we writers are making it out to be.

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2.
One question is whether coming together (in both senses, but mostly the sexual one) can form the basis for a shared politics, which is similar enough to my third topic in the list at the start of this post that I’ll address it in Section 3. The other major question is whether cruising really is equally available to all.

Much of my thinking about this question came from a Substack post by the queer writer Brandon Taylor, where he writes about some recent essays decrying the popularity of gay novels that tend toward the sad and tragic, that tell stories which seem to twin queerness to loneliness. Taylor’s argument—i.e., these essayists are jealous of their targets’ successes—is witless and not worth reading. And coming as it does from such a titan in the literary world (Taylor interviewed George Saunders at an event in Brooklyn on the latter’s recent book tour, e.g.), the post reads like a lot of punching down. (Taylor’s also friends with Garth Greenwell, another literary titan whose work is often a subject of the essays at hand, which provides some context for why he’s writing.)

At one point, Taylor claims that these critics are writing from some unspoken white privilege:

I sometimes wonder what to make of these critiques from both the so-called TenderQueer squishy gays and the…I don’t know what to call them, but you know, the ones who read Marx and tweet memes online and listen to podcasts. Those ones. I wonder what to make of their alternating charges of too much sex, too little sex, too much drugs, not enough, etc. Particularly because the platonic homosexual experience over which they are scrapping in the representational field is ultimately a white, cis, and abled homosexual experience, no? Like, the mean internet homosexual socialists and the tenderqueer Heartstopper Tumblr goblins are ostensibly arguing over how the cis white gay male should be represented in narrative.

This is not the argument these critics are making, and you can tell because Taylor doesn’t take the time to cite any of them making such an argument. And anyway to believe that writing about joyful sex, queer happiness, queer communality, and so on depicts a cis-white ableist experience belies an ignoring (if not an ignorance) of the work and lived experiences of Delany, José Esteban Muñoz, Alex Espinoza, Brontez Purnell, and other queer writers of color.

While Taylor’s argument is a poor one, I cite it at length because his concerns of representation attend in how we talk about (joyful, affirming, empowering) cruising. ‘Cruising is often, though not exclusively, urban and gay,’ Parlett writes, but cruising can’t just be great for urban gay men for cruising to be great. For it to pave the road to a democratic Eden, it has to be equally available and beneficial to everyone. And for those of us writing about its potential, we need to keep in mind that only 27 percent of Americans describe their neighborhood as urban, meaning the majority of the public lives in rural and suburban areas. How does cruising work there, or how can it, given the different relationships rural and suburban folks have to public spaces, public transit, cultural diversity, etc.?

That’s one question—the question of geography—I’d like to see cruising utopians address more directly.

The other question is Taylor’s question of biology, of bodies. While plenty of writers have shown cruising’s not just for white men, to what extent is it available to fat men, or disabled men, or skinny men who don’t go to the gym, or older men? The kinds of bodies you don’t see in underwear ads.

Let’s call that the Capitalist Body, the kind of body engineered to spark arousal (I want that) and fear (What if I can’t have that?), an uneasy mix that itself is made to get you to buy something as a way to quell the unease. Any writing on cruising that focuses on being open to looks and glances will only alienate those non-CB folks whose bodies the cruising public is not looking at, and even actively turning from.

So desire is not meted out equally. But there’s a complication here with the CB. While CBs are popularly desirable, not all desirable bodies are CBs. I’m talking about there being many fish in the sea. I’m talking about whatever floats your boat. If you don’t find yourself with a Capitalist Body, you may have to look harder for that desiring glance from a stranger, but—the theory goes—in time, you’ll find it.

How, though? Short answer = trust. To explore that in more detail, we need to look more closely at the dynamics of a cruising moment, which brings us to part 3.

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3.
The cruising moment has a setting in place and time. Place = the Ramble, Buena Vista Park, what we back in Lincoln called ‘the Fruit Loop’, a stretch of 15th Street south of the Capitol that had a median, where MSM would circle in their cars looking for other interested car-circlers. Every cruising place was made for something other than cruising, but contains certain traits that turn it into a place for cruising. Remoteness. Lack of parents with kids around. A noisy door around the bend of a little hallway that alerts everyone in the restroom that someone is coming in.

Apps and websites may have made cruising places proliferate (you can now just look up where the active ones are in your town), but most of the cruising sites were activated before the Internet, and it’s noteworthy how they’ve persisted. You can’t advertise a cruising site. You can’t market it, or promote it. In this way, cruising sites belong to the commons. We cruisers have formed them together.

Cruising time = now. It’s stating the obvious but it’s important to our discussion. When you are in the cruising site, you’re looking for sex right now. You’re not looking to meet someone for coffee beforehand, or set something up for Friday afternoon when you have a half-day at work. Even when you cruise someone on the sidewalk, the idea is usually to go find a place right now.

There’s, thus, an urgency to the time setting. The cops might show up. Parents might enter this part of the park with their kids, or straight people might come walking their dogs, and start a campaign that’ll land you on the sex offender registry. We need to do this now.

That urgency often comes with a side of serendipity. Cruisers are patient. If you’re hanging out in a Home Depot men’s room stall, surreptitiously tapping your foot every time someone enters the stall next to yours, it could be an hour or two before that toe-tap gets returned. How many semis does the lot lizard loop around before finding one that opens its passenger door? It’s time-consuming, and so when your cruising signal gets returned, it feels a little like winning the lottery. We need to do this now because if we don’t, who knows how long it’ll be before another person shows interest?

Where I’m going with all this is that cruising place + cruising time affect desirability in ways very different from the commercial moment. What’s ‘a commercial moment’? Well, contrast public cruising with the bathhouse or hookup apps. These are (real, virtual) spaces that have been created (by the market) specifically for strangers to fuck each other, and so what you find in those spaces is the ongoing practice of consumerist choice. Which wear and wash of jean is right for your ideal image of yourself? In bathhouses and on the apps, the CB has a great time, and non-CBs have something else.

Indeed, bathhouses and apps re-engineer what its denizens value. When everyone is willing, willingness is no longer sexy. Shared feeling isn’t sexy. Whereas in public cruising, ‘hot’ is less about the visual package of the body in front of you and more about its willingness, its receptiveness to what you’re putting out there. In this way, the pleasure in cruising is often less sexual than … performative? If sex is about engaging with another body (or two or more), playing at being both subject and object during the encounter, then cruising is about engaging with the practice of cruising.

In other words, it’s not so much about I get to be with this person as it is I get to be doing this public-sex thing.

But if that’s the case, how on earth can that be the basis for a shared political understanding?

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4.
I didn’t expect to have a part 4, and I feel my argument is running away from me a little. So let me recap:

  • When cruising is framed as charged glances between (city) people, it’s hard to call it democratic.
  • When cruising is situated in non-urban spaces—i.e., truckstops, parks/trails, Kohl’s mensrooms—the practice becomes if not disinterested in CBs, then at least much more accommodating to other kinds of bodies and people.
  • Cruising’s settings retool desire in a way that makes the practice often impersonal, which is a difficult practice to form as the basis for political solidarity.

Public cruising values eagerness, readiness, willingness. It values the shared desire and luck of finding each other over the way each other looks. In this way, good (maybe we can even call it democratic) cruising practice calls on us to broadcast our availability. Cruising does the opposite of what this T-shirt does:

Cruising is a style or mode of moving through the world and engaging with it. It’s distinct from flirting, or being flirtatious, which carry more active notions of seduction and impressing oneself on others. Cruising puts one in a constant passive mode of open receptivity (it’s so queer/feminist!). In this formulation, you can cruise for anything, not just sex. You can cruise for conversation. You can cruise for help moving that armoire upstairs. Hitchhikers cruise for a ride.

Those forms of cruising involve looking to see what strangers can do for you. Cruising for sex is no different, except you’re also doing something for a stranger. Here’s Delany again, this time from his memoir The Motion of Light on Water, on what struck him the first time we beheld an orgy at the baths:

Whether male, female, working or middle class, the first direct sense of political power comes from the apprehension of massed bodies. That I’d felt it and was frightened by it means that others had felt it too. The myth said we, as isolated perverts, were only beings of desire…. But what this experience said was that there was a population … not of hundreds, not of thousands, but rather of millions of gay men, and that history had, actively and already, created for us whole galleries of institutions, good and bad, to accommodate our sex.

There are more of us than we individually thought. The theory goes that this recognition is the beginning of shared politics. And more so: This thing I find essential in me, I also share with that stranger.

Now: heterosexuals move through the world assuming both of those statements are true. Heterosexuals know they outnumber everyone else. And they presume, barring overt signs to the contrary, that any member of ‘the opposite sex’ is likewise interested in hetero sex.

The only way I can see cruising being of use, then, to heteros is in countering the proud identitarian ways we try to form our desire around our politics: i.e., I’d never fuck a man who voted for D. Trump and so on. This of course is a lie. There are plenty of such voters out there that, without knowing their voting history, you’d want to have sex with.

It was the writer Conner Habib who first calibrated my thinking on this dichotomy, in a tweet years ago I can’t find. To paraphrase: Forming your sexual desires based on your partisan politics is a dead end; instead, form your politics from your desire and you’ll live a happier and more authentic life.

There are some problems with this formulation it’ll take another post to get into. (In brief: What happens when you’re aroused by authoritarian/domination imagery? What if your kink is race play? Desire and politics don’t sit on such a one-way street.) But it does intersect with the argument for the democratic potential for cruising.

Your sexual desire impels you toward people your mind might prefer to keep you away from. The sex-positive way to see this is to listen to and honor what the body wants. You don’t always have to obey the body, but I want to give my body equal if not more attention than I give my mind. The mind is a factor of so many influences and variables—shame is a big one. Is the body free from such influences?

Likely that’s another another post. But if we want a democracy from the bottom-up, We the people, then engaging with one another on terms—sexual or otherwise—we’ve come to on our own seems like the right first step on making that happen.

Certain Kinds of (Bad) Teaching

This post is in response to this paragraph from Darryl Pinckney’s remembrance in the New Yorker of studying with and learning from Elizabeth Hardwick:[1]

She told our class that there were really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge. She told us that if we couldn’t take rejection, if we couldn’t be told no, then we couldn’t be writers. ‘I’d rather shoot myself than read that again,’ she often said. The fact that writing could not be taught was clear from the way she shrugged and lifted her eyes after this or that student effort. ‘I don’t know why it is we can read Dostoyevsky and then go back and write like idiots.’ But a passion for reading could be shared. She said that the only way to learn to write was to read. Week after week, she read something new to us: Pasternak, Rilke, Baudelaire, Gogol.

What a nightmare of a teacher.

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There’s a grift at work in Hardwickian teaching (unfair to name it after her, as she wasn’t the first creative writing teacher to inspire and teach from idolatry, and won’t be the last). It’s a lot like the lies of the GOP. Hating the way good governance gets in the way of profit-growth and white supremacy, the GOP needs to convince folks not only that government itself is bad, but (here’s the grift) that the best way to fix the problem is to elect people with open disdain for good governance.

Hire termites to build your deck. Hire the Beastie Boys to chaperone the school dance. Hire a teacher who doesn’t believe writing can be taught to teach writing. What feels like Outside The Box thinking will soon lead to your ruin.

In Pinckney’s case, his bad teacher happened to (a) have direct ties to the New York Review of Books, and (b) take him under her proverbial wing, inviting him to her apartment every week to talk about writing and books. So the actual damage Hardwick was doing to him and his classmates is glossed over in this piece that focuses instead on their intimate friendship.

Would that Pinckney found some classmates to interview. How many would-be writers never came to be because of Hardwick’s characteristic shrugging?

Teaching like this drives me up a fucking wall. I want to get to the bottom of why, and to start we’ll need to look more closely at what ‘teaching like this’ is, and what’s so bad about it.

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People who don’t love comedy like to claim that there are certain things you can’t make jokes about—rape, the Holocaust, child abuse, etc.—and then expert comics come along and write very good jokes about those things. (And inexpert comics come along and write very bad jokes that seem to prove the claim.)

People who don’t know—or, more importantly, care—about teaching like to claim there are certain things you can’t teach. It’s another kind of lie that reminds me of GOP grift. To believe that Some Things Can’t Be Taught is like believing that Some Billionaires Are Self-Made. It seems deeply unreasonable to suspect that people come up with their ideas, knowledge, ability (or, in this analogy, money) out of thin air. What’s known, what’s practiced, has to be learned, and if you believe in learning you can’t not believe in teaching.

Teaching is the art and science of getting somebody to learn something.

If you don’t think writing can be taught, you don’t believe in teaching. Or, you believe that writing is in some special category outside of all other forms of knowledge and ability.

Either way, you shouldn’t be allowed in a classroom.

*

Later in the piece, Pinckney paraphrases mathematician Alfred North Whitehead: ‘You cannot learn unless you fall in love with the source of learning.’

I want to think closely about this line, because it points to acts of seduction, and there’s something so seductive about Hardwickian teaching—for the student, as we see in Pinckney’s piece, but also for the teacher.

I would love, LOVE to teach this way. It’s what I imagine the job of food competition show judge being like: waltz in, get fed food you neither prepared nor paid for, talk about what you like and dislike, and get paid. Claim your authority and let it make you charming by how scrupulously you hand out favor. (Paul Hollywood, I’m looking in your handshake’s direction.) My job would be so goddamn easy.

If there’s a hard part of this job it seems to be the Falling In Love part: being the right sort of selfish teacher that makes students swoon. Likely this is easy, too, in that the institutional setting has engineered much of the romance for you. Students arrive vulnerable and needing, open to new ideas. Maybe your class has been tough to get into, a line of applicants you get to pick from like chocolates in a box. Thus your students feel chosen, special. Each of them secretly hoping they’re your favorite.

I mean what could go wrong?

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One more example, and then I’m going to try to play some devil’s advocate. In grad school, a teacher I swooned for was the writer Robert Olen Butler, who came a couple of years to the Nebraska Summer Writers’ Conference. I didn’t know his work, I only knew his accolades. (The Pulitzer Prize!) I didn’t get to take a workshop with him, because they filled up with paying members quickly, and I was a lowly volunteer. But I did take time to attend a panel at another conference that I recall being Butler and four of his former students, all talking about what they learned from him in grad school, and how it fed into their fiction.[2]

At any rate, the key word with Butlerian teaching is ‘yearning’. Butler has decided that ‘fiction is the art form of human yearning’, and the student panelists talked about how, in class, he’d ask them to read from their story and stop them the moment he couldn’t hear any yearning on the page. That’s when they knew they had some revision work to do, and they knew exactly what to revise for.

Call it Theory Of Everything teaching. Marilynn Robinson at Iowa reportedly used to allow only realism in her workshops, because it was the only fiction she found worthwhile. In TOE teaching, the teacher—the authority in the room—demands that art stay continuous with what they have read and known and believed in. The teacher approves only what’s familiar to them. In such a rubric, what chance does any art have to move forward?

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What art has ever moved forward in a classroom? It does seem foolish to assume that students’ growth and breakthroughs happen from what’s learned in the classroom instead of against it, outside that space, in students’ own time and minds. Which brings to mind another story I’ve collected about bad teaching, this one from David Foster Wallace’s ‘E Unibus Plurum’ (which I imagine Butler et al had never read, or had and found ways to dismiss its arguments that TV has changed literary fiction in ways the latter better soon catch up with):

In one of the graduate workshops I suffered through, an earnest gray eminence kept trying to convince our class that a literary story or novel always eschews ‘any feature which serves to date it,’ because ‘serious fiction must be timeless.’ When we finally protested that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about in electrically lit rooms, drove cars, spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English, inhabited a North America already separated from Africa by continental drift, he impatiently amended his proscription to those explicit references that would date a story in the frivolous ‘Now.’ When pressed for just what stuff evoked this f.N., he said of course he meant the ‘trendy mass-popular-media’ reference. And here, at just this point, transgenerational discourse broke down. We looked at him blankly. We scratched our little heads. We didn’t get it. This guy and his students just didn’t imagine the ‘serious’ world the same way. His automobiled timeless and our FCC’d own were different.

Before I started teaching, I feared ever being such a clueless teacher. But after I started teaching, I eventually became okay with being such a teacher. If something I say or insist on in the classroom annoys or even reviles a student, leading them to write something against my teachings (there’s Hardwick’s revenge motive for you), haven’t I still taught them something? I don’t ever want to write like Dave Madden is, in its way, a useful thing to learn about yourself.

There’s a different kind of arrogance behind the teaching I favor—i.e., meeting each student where they are, assessing their knowledge and goals, and giving them applicable tools to achieve those goals. It’s an arrogance about how I’m not only able to be the best teacher they have, but the sole teacher they have. Put another way, I’m playing out a fantasy where my course is some kind of culmination of my students’ learning, rather than one class amid a long education, one that begins before and continues after they enroll in our program. I’m likely deluding myself about the influence I can have on one student in 15 weeks.

Another point worth making: I’m teaching from my insecurities as a writer. I have publications, sure, and I’ve won a tiny amount of awards here and there, but I don’t have the kind of career others notice and discuss, like Butler and Hardwick did. What I Think Writing Should Be And Do has not been publicly sanctioned in the same way.

Without the literary success that could enable me to become a Hardwickian inspirer, with hard-and-fast opinions delivered openly (I am tenured after all), I hold onto teaching know-how. My dilettanteish reading into how learning happens in the brain. (And my publications on the same.) If I feel I can’t be an inspiration to students, then I’ll try to be the smartest guy in the room.

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Which brings me back to Pinckney’s luck and privilege. He was enrolled at Columbia after all. No discussion in the piece about the costs of that education, or who paid for it, or what kind of student loans he graduated with. Hardwickian teaching is a dream for students whose lives are fully committed to learning and scholarliness.

When your students are spending tens of thousands of dollars for a writing education, and working hard to fit that learning in amid their full-time jobs, their family obligations, etc., Hardwickian teaching isn’t just bad, it feels like a kind of abuse. Imagine admitting someone to your class, then telling them their writing isn’t very good.

Then again, I might also imagine a student more resilient to bad teaching. From Pinckney’s piece:

[Hardwick] didn’t think I needed to burden myself with trying to be a gay novelist.

‘Sex is comic and love is tragic,’ she told me. ‘Queers know this.’

She said that I didn’t yet have the experience for what I was writing about, and that the writing itself was immature, because I was imitating her, which, she could assure me, was a dead end.

‘Better stay away from gay lit, honey.’

As much as he learned from Hardwick, kudos to Pinckney for knowing when not to learn from her, too.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In classic New Yorker fashion, turns out this isn’t a magazine piece or essay he’s written, but rather a publicist/agent–landed excerpt from a forthcoming book.
  2. These are the kinds of panels conference organizers used to approve. God, I hope they’re not still doing it, just with more inclusive faculty.

What Makes A Story Heterosexual

The night before the election, N & I watched another episode of that Lord of the Rings series. I was in a rotten mood, having been earlier at happy hour drinks with a friend, where the bar gave my card to another customer who’d left long before I did. The episode was about humans and elves gearing up for another big battle with orcs. Solemn faces. Oaths of solidarity. Heaps of longbows getting handed out. I hate this, I kept repeating in my head. Then: why do I hate this?

A bad habit of mine when I ask that question is to assume something heterosexual’s afoot, to ascribe badness or myopic thinking or rehashed triteness to the heterosexual. To be clear going forward: queerness has all kinds of this stuff too. One useful example might be Bros, which we’ll return to, delicately, as I haven’t even seen it.

Talk about myopic thinking.

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As I’ve written before, what makes a story heterosexual might be its being a story. ‘Story chauvinism’ is what I call the belief that storytelling isn’t just another aesthetic pleasure, another way of thinking about the world, but rather something essential to humanity. Its cri de coeur is Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,’ but you can find the myth repeated everywhere.[*]

In that post linked above, I had trouble making the argument story = heteronormativity. This post might be another attempt. To what end? Why am I trying to make this argument? I’m by profession someone who writes stories at times, and I’m feeling a hunger for stories that feel truer to me than those I, a queer person, am often told.

That’s the smartypants version. The rotten-mood version from the other night? ‘This Lord of the Rings show isn’t half as good as any episode of Golden Girls,’ I told myself. I still believe this with all of my heart. How is it true? And what does it mean?

*

Let’s get some definitions down. One thing I might mean by ‘heterosexual story’ is ‘important story’, as when I wrote, in the Commemorative Angela Lansbury issue of Shenny, ‘Gays aren’t the center of our culture’s Important Stories, and may never be.’

So what’s an ‘important story’? Here’s just as good a definition as any, coming as it does in the middle of one:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back. Only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

This little speech has choked me up more than once at the end of The Two Towers, and half of that emotion is coming from Sean Astin’s big, thick, kissable face as he speaks it.

But we can extract a few key elements of ‘great stories’:

  • They present something about the fixity of good and evil, shadow and light.
  • Perseverance (i.e., ‘lots of chances of turning back’) takes the form of a fight/battle against evil.
  • They point to or are set in times of yore, and see ‘us’ as a continuation of the people therein.

This last one is the thing I feel most frustrated by. (Though the others present problems I’ll get to in a bit.) When you grow up queer in a straight family, you learn early on that stories/histories/the past can’t tell you who you are, because the story of every consanguineous family is the story of heterosexual generation. When you’re in the closet, or in denial about yourself, this truth hits you very painfully—I don’t fit in the story everyone’s telling—but later you begin to see how the story is wrong, or at least incomplete.

A queer person’s queerness begins at the moment of intractable separation from the birth family, which is a separation from history. What makes a story queer is how it thus begins with the actuality of loss or isolation.

Loss isn’t a threat, as it often is in Important Stories. The loss (of self, family, tradition, safety, values, etc.) that’s feared by the coming of evil can’t be fought against. For the queer person, it’s always already happened.

The important story then becomes: how to move on?

*

Which brings us back to The Golden Girls, as great an epic as any on how to move on after tremendous loss: of husbands, of careers, of self-sufficiency, of one’s purportedly ‘fuckable years’. And what’s evil look like in the Golden Girls Universe? Who are the villains? It’s been a while since I’ve rewatched the series, but we can find an easy analogue in the Designing Women universe, where evil takes the form of people (straight men) who don’t even listen to, much less respect, the underrepresented:

If ‘evil’ in every story is shorthand for the forces that seek to destroy the lives and values of the protagonist(s), then ‘evil’ in a queer story involves a return to the pre-splintered family. Evil means retying the thread to the past. What characters embody that, or enforce it? What do they look like? How are they not-us or not-like-us?

Probably the biggest lie heterosexual stories tell is that evil will always stand out as different, making itself so clearly known that all the people who are not-different will band together to fight it.

*

Lone heroes have little place in queer stories, because it turns out that How To Move On From Great Loss involves coalition-building, chosen families. I’m inspired a lot here by Kevin Brazil’s thinking in Whatever Happened to Queer Happiness?, which posits a kind of Bechdel Test for queer stories: ‘Is there a scene where two queer friends appear without, and without discussing, their family trauma or their fucked-up lovers?’

Likely Bros passes this test, given the run time. And likely the elements of greatness in a romcom (so heterosexual genre) differ enough from those of the fantasy epic to warrant a separate post. But I count myself among the millions who didn’t go see Bros during its failed opening weekend. Representation matters, but from the $30 million advertising budget, it was clear that Bros had a very old story to tell. Letting gays avatar themselves inside hetero archetypes does not a queer movie make.

If, again, that’s what Bros does. Like I said, I haven’t seen it.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Leave it to Will Self, one of my favorite thinkers, to write the only essay I’ve found on how humans may no longer need stories.

Compassionate Hedonism 2: The Virtue of Commitment

A few years back, I was walking past the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange downtown, a neo-classical building that had, by that time, become a luxury gym, and I noticed this large image hanging between columns:

I imagined what it would be like to be seen or ‘read’ by this ad, feeling like I had nothing to commit to other than $200 a month to have a body shaped aesthetically. Fuck off, Equinox I said to myself. I’ve committed to lots.

But had I?

*

I’ve been thinking about commitment a lot lately, likely prompted by a post by Zohar Atkins, a rabbi, theologist, and philosopher whose substack, What Is Called Thinking?, asks questions I often find myself surprised to care deeply about, and I appreciate his means of thinking through them. This post is about the difficulties of desire, knowing not only how to get what you want, but what, even, to want:

[M]odern liberty means we have choice but not all choices are equally good or good for us, so if we worship liberty alone, we’ll have nothing to help us know what to choose. We have more choice than ever yet the overwhelm from it can lead to fatigue or even despair, a life of constantly weighing options.

Leo Strauss might say that the ancients were aware of the modern tendency to excess and so curtailed our options intentionally. But the more interesting question to ask is whether we can celebrate choice itself without cheapening the importance of a counter-veiling weight in life, commitment.

You’ll recall I wrote a post some months back about hedonism as a virtue, and looking for a way to chase hedonism compassionately:

Maybe there’s a thing called Compassionate Hedonism that continues to seek as its core ethos the increase of pleasure, but does so in a way that understands the sources of that pleasure and simultaneously minimizes any ancillary pain or harm.

A reckoning of accounts was the idea, every pleasure of the hedonist—whether it’s being fed grapes in your divan, spending all night at a sex club, or even reading for hours and hours—having a cost, and the hedonist being sure to ‘cover’ those costs in some way. Pay the people feeding you grapes a living wage. Vote for policies that value and protect the laborers in the vineyards. Etc.

Atkins’s notion of commitment gives me a more interesting idea for a kind of check on hedonism and gluttony and such: What are you remaining committed to other than yourself and your pleasure?

When I talked before about the hedonist being, traditionally, a gross figure in the stories in which they appear, I think that disgust comes from the image they cast: here’s a person who uses their unimaginable privilege only for their own benefit. The hedonist’s commitments turn always back to themselves.

This idea also helps me understand what bothered me and my friend about the sober conference-goer. To recap:

We ordered cocktails and talked of hedonism, my friend telling a story of someone at a writers conference who announced, amid a group discussion about bars and favorite drinks, that she felt ‘Othered’ as a person in sobriety. My friend wondered about the rise, lately, in sobriety / restraint / asceticism pleasures in the U.S.

Ascetic pleasures are the other side of the same coin as hedonistic pleasures—both commit the self to the self. When it comes to sobriety specifically, that commitment is to be honored, after a history of the sober person abandoning and betraying their selves and their bodies. Perhaps this is one of the allures of 12-step programs: your newfound commitment to yourself is always also a commitment to others, through sponsoring, through sharing at meetings, etc.

*

So: what am I committed to?

My partner, and the parts of my job that involve other people (students, colleagues). My newsletter, which while others have told me doesn’t need to come out every other week I’ve committed to writing and releasing it every other week. This is chiefly a commitment to myself, but people have told me they enjoy Shenny, so it’s also a (small) service.

But I’ll confess here to feeling very non-committal. I don’t volunteer. I don’t have a group or club I meet with regularly. I have 2 sets of friends with whom I still hangout on Zoom, every other week, like clockwork, all these many years after shelter-in-place orders. In wanting to catalogue my commitments, I’m returned to the question What for?

Why is commitment so important? Isn’t hedonism about achieving a freedom from commitments? Atkins sees in this approach a deadening of the mind, not by being spoilt through excess, but by being dried up inside the self, atrophied in the absence of external motivators.

This I agree with, particularly as a teacher. Commitment to others or something outside the self is a virtue because, in opening ourselves up to others, we learn more about them. This world can’t move forward with all of us living with, acting for, or believing solely in ourselves.

Hedonism teaches us to value pleasure as a moral good. Its check need not be a balance of pain or drudgery. Commitment—of course its the ending I’ve been aiming for—can in this regard become a pleasure in itself.