Queer I: Seeing queerly
The thrust of queer activism has always been to ask what safety, comfort and delight looks like – not only for the so-called ‘normal’, but for everyone
Originally released in 2003, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was a television series described as “sav[ing] aesthetically challenged straight men”.
The American show featured five queer-identified men busting into the abode of a hapless straight man and renovating his interiors (both house and self). In 2018, the series was rebooted and rebranded simply as Queer Eye – signalling that the help of a queer eye was no longer exclusively for the ‘straight guy’.
The new Queer Eye provides makeovers to a wide range of people, including those who self-identify as queer. Queer Eye promises transformation via its queer experts, who have a keener (queerer?) eye than their unfortunate subjects.
As many critics of the series have noted, the use of ‘queer’ in Queer Eye is a far stretch from the radical and subversive historical meaning of the word in both theoretical and activist terms.
While providing upbeat, feel-good makeovers and moments of self-actualisation, the show fundamentally adheres to the neoliberal tenet that transformation of the individual is key to overcoming adversity.
Despite its individualist consumer narrative, however, a significant provocation can still be drawn from this mainstream text.
The title of the show hasn’t only functioned to bring the language of ‘queer’ to an audience beyond lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities (LGBT+), but also raised the concept of having a ‘queer eye’.
Looking backwards through queer history we can ask, what could it mean to adopt a ‘queer eye’ and be transformed by queerness? What could it mean to see queerly?
This history reveals a much more slippery, expansive and less identarian conceptualisation of queer.
Although ‘queer’ was originally used as a pejorative term referring to illness or abnormality, it was recuperated in the late 1980s as an umbrella identificatory term within LGBT+ activism.
Most prominently, a group emerged out of a network of HIV/AIDS activists (known as ACT UP) that called themselves Queer Nation.
Rather than focusing on inaction around HIV/AIDS, as earlier groups had, this new group wanted to go straight to the cause – homophobia. Queer Nation handed out their manifesto at the 1990 Pride Parade in New York, which in part worked to define this new use of ‘queer’.
It stated: Being queer means leading a different sort of life. It’s not about the mainstream, profit-margins, patriotism, patriarchy or being assimilated.
It’s not about executive directors, privilege and elitism. It’s about being on the margins, defining ourselves; it’s about gender-f--- and secrets, what’s beneath the belt and deep inside the heart; it’s about the night. Being queer is ‘grass roots’ because we know that everyone of us, every body, every c---, every heart and a-- and d--- is a world of pleasure waiting to be explored. Everyone of us is a world of infinite possibility.
As ‘The Queer Nation manifesto’ suggests, queerness was re-appropriated to celebrate difference and anti-assimilation, and to champion identities occupying the margins.
Most crucially, this new use of queerness was ‘about the night’, with gender, sex and pleasure at the forefront.
In this sense, queerness collapses the personal and the political, precisely because who you sleep with is political. As the manifesto pointed out; “You as an alive and functioning queer are a revolutionary”.
As Queer Nation noted at the time, use of the term queer was fraught given the pain of its original meaning, and today this is still the case for some.
However, this discomfort was also central to the word’s reclamation. ‘Queer’ had force because “you could hear the hurt in it”.
One of the aims of Queer Nation was to reveal this hurt rather than hide it away under the guise of respectability politics.
Their manifesto explained that: “Using “queer” is a way of re-minding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world”.
According to these activists, part of the issue was also those members of the LGBT+ community who wished to fly under the radar by sticking to more palatable identifications, or by staying in the closet altogether.
Queer Nation demanded transformation through visibility; through making queer-ness obvious; and by bringing those on the periphery of society centre stage. The group also strongly disavowed straightness, seeing ‘straights’ as the enemy.
For Queer Nation, queerness was a method as much as a mode – the group actively championed queerness above straightness. Seeing queerly in this sense, then, was about an inversion of normality, taking control of the social gaze that dictates the ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal’ in the first place.
Instead of seeing the queer of Queer Eye as something fixed, therefore, we can queerly read the show and run away with the idea of queering one’s eye. Perhaps we can also appropriate further queer provocations – we could re-read the title homophonically as ‘Queer I’.
What would it mean to see oneself through a queer lens?
A Southern Baptist leader in the United States remarked on the earlier version of Queer Eye: ‘I believe that the net effect is to forward an agenda making homosexuality appear first normal, and then desirable’.
While there is no centrally organised ‘queer agenda’, the task of queer activism hasn’t for the most part been to make homosexuality seem ‘normal’, but rather to make the normal seem strange (read: queer).
Certainly, queer activism can also make queerness desirable. Why not?
There is no difference between longing for queerness and a young girl growing up dreaming of her heterosexual white wedding day. If anything, the latter is a more peculiar desire, but it is one that circulates in the Western cultural imaginary without question or moral panics about the intersection of sexuality and childhood.
The risk of queering anything is that one eventually sees the queer possibilities in one’s own life, identity and possible future fluidity.
This has always been at the heart of the fear of queer expressed by right-wing pundits – that queerness, like a virus, might spread. This is the ‘fear of a queer planet’: a revolution of individuals and communities.
This article is an edited extract titled “Queer I:Seeing queerly” first published in the NGV Triennial 2020 publication by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. The University of Melbourne is the proud Research Partner to the NGV Triennial.
Banner: Adam Nathaniel Furman and Sibling Architecture, Boudoir Babylon, 2020 (collage)