Queer pleasure: academic and professional drag. Or, How getting screwed enabled me to screw with the system.
Queer identity is inherently tied up with performance–from Judith Butler‘s insights into gender as performance to the heady pleasures of camp and drag to the series of small choices we take so we ping someone’s gaydar (or don’t), the daily experience of early queerness often centers on the drama of gender and sexuality. Can my parents tell I’m gay? Can my friends at school? And, more excitingly, can She? It’s no surprise that queer and “theatrical” were functional synonyms for so long: the daily demands of queer life show us how identity is all a show, and each audience calls into being a different version of ourselves.
Now that I’m an adult (of sorts), this theatricality still informs my daily experience of life. Sometimes, as I explored in my last post, that performance can feel like inauthenticity, which elicits grief and a host of other negative emotions. But at the same time, our ongoing relationship with performance allows us to open up new possibilities for connection, disruption, and intervention in every part of our lives.
I’m most struck by how these opportunities open up in my professional life, especially in terms of my work wardrobe. It’s safe to say that I never mastered the art of professional dress. When I was temping in my 20s, I could never figure out the bland professional costume of the office drone. And when I got negative feedback about my wardrobe, FORGET IT. Take out my nose ring? Fine, I’ll show up in a skirt with a slit all the way up the side and a fur coat. Neckline too low? No problem, how’s this micromini? I was fast and focused, so I never had trouble getting a new position, but my placements were often pretty short. (Not as short as my skirts, but you get the idea)
Now that I have a Real Job, I’m still stymied by professional dress codes. My Beloved Bride has described my personal style as looking like I “have a day pass from the clown college at the nut ward.” A million colors, a zillion patterns, plus a unicorn or two. You know–the standard professional costume.
I suppose I could be worried that people won’t take me seriously, but I think the opposite might be true: in an academic setting at least, I’m convinced that dressing like a weirdo makes people take me more seriously, not less. Like: “I know she’s only staff, but maybe she’s an artist or something–still waters run deep!” And there’s something that’s deeply satisfying to me that my job is so closely associated with prestige (at many universities, my office is actually named the Office of Prestigious Awards), and I dress like–well, like a mentally ill lesbian.
In Queer Feelings, Ahmed argues that “the display of queer pleasure may generate discomfort in spaces that remain premised on the ‘pleasures’ of heterosexuality” (165). And I would argue that the endless variations of camp and drag which make up the performance of weirdness (which is what I’m talking about here, really) don’t just generate discomfort, but open up new possibilities for expression and liberation.
Case in point: my first year of my PhD program was also the first year that my Beloved Bride and I were dating, and I think the technical term for my mood during those first heady months is “fuck-addled.” Not only was I coming off a life-changing experience of catastrophic illness, but I was having frequent amazing sex for the first time in my life. So every day was this gauzy haze, just waiting until I could get home again. I may have started a graduate program in English Lit, but what I was really doing was majoring in Joan.
At the same time, I was taking a graduate seminar from the guy who would go on to serve as my advisor. He was teaching a course based on the book he was currently working on–always a tricky prospect–and the course was a mess. It was called “The Long 1950s” and was an examination of the effects of McCarthyism on 20th century American Literature. The issue was that he was so close to the material that the course ended up reproducing the dynamics that he meant to critique: rather than unpacking McCarthyism, the course became a shadow of it. My professor lorded over us all like McCarthy himself, waiting for us to echo back his ideas successfully; his favorite student filled the position of Roy Cohn, sniping at those of us who hadn’t yet mastered the lingo of my professor’s theory of abasement. The central ideas of the course (the S/M dynamics of political power) were really appealing to me, but the pedagogy was so fucked up. Everyone was jockeying for favor, so worried they’d lose his attention and approval.
A different semester might have found me participating in this depressing horse race, but like I said: fuck-addled. What I noticed instead was that a key figure of my advisor’s analysis of the psychoanalytic structure of mid-century America was missing: the terrifying mother. That, my friends, was a job I could pick up, easy peasy.
So I started making small alterations to my wardrobe: more A-line skirts, lipstick every day, etc. And I was coating every comment, especially the brutal ones, in my sweetest tones. But the moment that won the day was when I did my in-class presentation. I was (natch) presenting on The Manchurian Candidate, focusing on the figure of the s/mother. I decided to give my presentation in full 1950s drag: a twin set, white gloves, pearls, kitten heels, the whole package. Unused to the benefits of a private institution, I still did all my copying at the library, and ended up being about 5 minutes late for class. I walked in just as my professor was saying “Where is she?” and I sauntered over and patted his arm as I assured him “It’s okay, honey, we can just start now.” I kept my gloves on the whole time.
I’m still not sure where I got the chutzpah, but I think there’s a connection between the way I was finally coming into my own (as it were) as a person with a decent queer sex life and my willingness to disrupt expectations in my class in this way. On the heels of my brush with death, my invigorated sex life made me feel impossibly, endlessly alive, like anything was possible. This is part of what I think Ahmed is getting at when she says “the hope of queer politics is that bringing us closer to others, from whom we have been barred, might also bring us to different ways of living outside the circuits of exchange within global capitalism.” Here was this woman, different from anyone I’d ever connected with before: instead of taking care of her, I was being cared for; instead of being the pursuer, I was pursued; instead of holding back, I was jumping in. If this could happen, then anything could. Maybe instead of currying favor, I could beat my professor at his own game. Maybe I could turn the scene of my abasement into something playful and sexy and feminist as fuck. This, to me, is the possibility of new connections.