Queer Grief: Queer in Public
by Anne Moore
So I’m working on a book manuscript these days, and I’m back in the world of queer theory for the first time in a long time. I’ve been blown away by Sara Ahmed’s work on queer affect, and especially (so far, anyway) by her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion. In it, she focuses on two feelings as being centrally transformative for queers: grief and pleasure. For Pride, I want to spend my next few entries thinking through these ideas as they’ve arisen in my own life.
In a way that’s unsurprising, given the recent focus on negativity within queer theory, she spends more time and energy thinking through grief than pleasure. She points out the invisibility of queer grief, and the difficulty that comes with publicly acknowledging queer loss—the temptation to change “I suffer” to “my suffering is just like yours.” She argues that “the failure to recognize queer loss as loss is also a failure to recognize queer relationships as significant bonds, or that queer lives are lives worth living, or that queers are more than failed heterosexuals, heterosexuals who have failed ‘to be.’” (156)
I think what she means here is that queer grief is for relationships or bodies that fall outside of the narratable framework of everyday life. And what it feels like to realize that you are the only one who recognizes your grief as such. I’m thinking of three moments from my own life that crystallize what she’s getting at, from the three central registers of queer life: the public sphere, romantic love, and beloved community. I’m going to do three entries on queer grief, and then close out the series with one on queer pleasure.
Queer in Public
On the day of the massacre in Orlando, Ariel and I had to go to a birthday party for one of the kids at Izzy’s bougie daycare. In general, we’d liked it there—there were a few other hipster families we’d connected with, and we even spied one of the dads marching with the bisexuals in the Pride parade. But she was the only kid with same-sex parents at the school, and it was an expensive place, so the majority of the families (including ours) were quite wealthy.
I got the news of the shooting early and spend most of the day shell-shocked. We watched a movie in the morning so we could keep our parenting as low-effort as possible, and all I could do was keep checking my Facebook feed, hoping for new information, taking comfort from my friends’ changing their profile pictures and sharing memories of clubbing in their youth. My heart hurt, thinking of all those beautiful young people moving together, and the loose embodied freedom of movement that comes in a club which had transformed so quickly into such a nightmare. And the fact that it was almost all black and brown people who had been killed made the whole thing even more awful—more in line with the endless parade of violence that has now taken over public discourse in this country.
I had received a few texts from concerned straight friends—I suspected they were reaching out because they’d been instructed to do so by some clickbaity article “5 things to do if you are feeling overwhelmed about the Orlando massacre—1: check in with your LBGT friends. They’re likely feeling lonely and frightened, and it will help them to know they are not alone.” But whatever—maybe I’m some functional token in their pursuit of relief, but I was grateful for the care and attention.
So my whole life felt focused in on this moment: me, my phone, my computer screen, and an unimaginable scene hundreds of miles away. As we drove up to the house in Winchester where the party was and I saw the houses get bigger and bigger as we snaked past the local golf course, I could feel my stomach tighten. Usually when I look at my life, it’s with a kind of baffled gratitude: how did I get here, to this beautiful house with this sweet family? But that day, my bafflement at how I ended up here, trudging up a steep driveway bearing Legos for twin boys, felt less grateful. The world was ending and everyone was just wandering around in their boaters and madras plaids, blinking into the sun and making small talk like it was any other day.
My impulse was to disrupt the party—to do something that couldn’t be looked away from. Take my clothes off and jump into the pool; start weeping and curl up in the cool darkness under the swing set. But all I remember was chatting blandly about kindergarten plans for the following year and praying in the bathroom for the ability to keep it together. At one point, the kids ganged up on one of the boys there and I did intervene, yelling for them to “shut it down” as they chanted his name in unison. So that’s something.
I should have said more, I think—if the event had happened now, post-Trump, I think I would have done. I’m more allergic to this kind of assimilation these days, and insist on airing my grief more often and more publicly. It’s this moment of decision that characterizes queer grief, I think: the knowledge that airing it will necessarily be disruptive, that you’re calling attention to something people would rather look away from. I suppose all grief is like this—that’s why it’s such a lonely emotion—but when your loss is unrecognized as such by the dominant framework, then finding the space to express it is often alienating and disruptive. So there are two ways to think about queer grief, then: the silence that we have to break through, and our responsibility to acknowledge and hold space for our own grief and others’.
In this way, I want think about ways to incorporate mourning into Pride this year. Pride is about joy, of course, but it’s also about loss—a response to a society that keeps telling us we don’t matter, a glorious “fuck you” to every bully who told us we were too butch, too nelly, too fat, too weird, too much. It’s an explosive celebration of that excess, but one that always comes with that knife’s edge of overcompensation. So this year, I’m pledging to celebrate my connection to all corners of this community—I’m not interested in a narrative of Pride that focuses on triumphant transcendence. I’m grateful for my beautiful bougie life, but what I need to do is remember (and teach my kids) that there’s loss at the center of it, and that it’s up to us to even things up.
After all, my refusal/inability to express my grief at the party was also a missed opportunity. It’s possible that I would have been met with the bland suburban “meh” I feared if I’d told the truth about how sad I was that day, but it’s just as likely that people would have responded with kindness. Not having taken the risk, I’ll never know. But I’ve made a different decision in the months since the election, and what I’ve found is that I don’t have to make my queerness as invisible as I think I do. There’s space for my weirdness, and I can use that space to open up more space for others. Not by folding them into the “us” of bougie Arlington, but by acknowledging how my communities are multiple, by making space for different voices of mourning, by refusing to sanitize my grief or to demand that others do the same.