In my mother’s house, maybe buried and moldering in her hoarded garage, there’s a 3-ring binder. In that binder, there’s a story about leaving forever.
At the height of my poor, Deep South queer unhappiness, it was my ultimate fantasy. I wrote it for two years, from the tail end of fourteen to the middle of sixteen. I finished it. I never showed anyone.
I think about it a lot, more now as the world I left behind flails against the tide of inclusion with all it has. I think about it because this story I finished writing almost half a lifetime ago feels prescient. I identify so strongly with the kids I see online reacting to these measures designed to destroy them in the same way that I did: By planning to leave as soon as possible with as little as necessary. I identify so strongly that I feel this visceral, base of the brain hatred toward the older, distanced, supported ally types telling them to stay.
Stay and fight, they say. Make it better for everyone else. How hard can it possibly be?
Surely you’re not fighting already. Surely it’s not hard enough just staying alive.
When I was sixteen, the guy who’d been my best friend for the past year threw me out of his truck on a back road at 11pm. I’d made the mistake of not saying that I was gay or queer but of defending the basic idea that people like that deserve to exist. I cut through the woods to another road because, in that moment, I knew there was a non-zero possibility this guy who’d once talked about making me the godfather of his future kids was waiting up the road with his lights off. I still had to go in to work and see him for six hours the next day. I had to go back all summer.
But no. Stay. Stay, and be strong. Surely things are only so bad because you’re not fighting hard enough, because you don’t want it enough.
I’m seldom moved to make “Responding to a single idiot,” blog posts because those urges are usually fleeting and highly contextual, not anything worth committing to record. They’re flashes in my brain pan, shit I’ll never have to deal with again. This one wasn’t. This wasn’t the first time I’d felt the need to speak on this, and it won’t be the last. This was a swelling carcass bursting. So here we go.
There’s a certain breed of social justice argument that stems exclusively from privileged ignorance to how the world functions. It’s a fantasy, a harmful one, that the people spouting it believe to be totally factual. It goes, simply, “Why not just do it?”
Why not just materialize progress with the force of your indomitable will? Failing that, why not just accept the consequences of the amazing progress you’ll have made as a martyr to the grand cause? I butted up against this argument most recently in a string of tweets someone linked me, and the string begins thusly:
“Stop calling queer subtext “representation.” Stop giving credit to people who don’t have the guts to make something openly queer.”
Setting aside for a moment the fact that I’ve never seen people actually do that thing, I’d like to ask just how much this person thinks ‘guts’ contributes to this equation. She goes on to shame creators of a children’s cartoon for, I can only assume since I don’t keep up with the show, not being explicit enough about a lesbian relationship between two characters. She says she knows plenty of queer people work on this show, she insists she knows it’s totally-scrotally hard to get stuff past ‘editors.’
I daresay this person is only distantly cognizant of these things. She boasts that she’s pumping All The Gay out into the world at the expense of struggling to make her rent, all the while bypassing the blatant fact that her artistic vocation (a largely self-sufficient smut cartoonist, which is an awesome gig) is vastly removed from the experience of trying to work within the mainstream. Or to even approach the mainstream.
Take 4-6 years off from everything to go to school to learn to animate/write screenplays/anything artistic, slam yourself against the wall of job applications and portfolio reviews for months or years. Be gay the whole time. Move to take the job you finally get, be one of maybe a dozen people working on a single show, have dozens more masters over your collective heads, have the whole of a culture that hates you over those masters. Then start pushing, push as hard as you can, don’t be the cowards you blast in your post who would rather have a career and eat food than take a Grand Stand of Martyrdom. Push until you win, and then come back to me and tell me how easy and worthwhile and fruitful it was. Come to me with loaded arms of fruit and full pitchers of clear water and tell me about the promised land you found through this pilgrimage that you alone were brave enough to undertake.
Or come to me with crumbs and drops, all you could manage to hold.
You can sound the rallying cry that it’s easy, that it’s simple, but it’s not. To say that it’s simple is to turn your ideal scenario, your exceptionalist fantasy, into a bludgeon against other creators and other queer people who struggle in lanes adjacent to your own. It’s dangerous because it’s an appealing fantasy. It feels good to adopt it. It’s seductive the way pretending we don’t have a race problem is seductive, the way ignoring rape culture is seductive. It overlooks the structural obstacles to our cause and shames those who can’t totally surpass them.
Do you really read no cruelty, no callousness, in demanding that people sacrifice dreams and livelihoods in their entirety in exchange for having taken a stand in an attempt to make All The Progress happen Right Now?
That’s what it would be, in all likelihood: An attempt, one about which you may never hear. You can point to things doing Better, but how much of that is survivorship bias? That one text can succeed at blatant representation doesn’t mean every text can, and the very ability for one to succeed is built on hundreds upon hundreds of failures and compromises.
Shit is hard. Pretending it’s only hard because people aren’t trying enough only shames those who try and can’t meet your fantasy.