The pleasure-pain of solidarity

“Queer pleasures are not just about the coming together of bodies in sexual intimacy. Queer bodies ‘gather’ in spaces, through the pleasure of opening up to others. These queer gatherings involve forms of activism; ways of claiming back the street, as well as the spaces of clubs, bars, parks, and homes. 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.” –Sara Ahmed

Coming out immediately changed how I thought about kin—the first thing I said to the first adult I told was “What if I never have kids?” She assured me that I could still have a family, but the one I formed is very different from the one I’d been raised to envision, not least in that I’m a mom who was never pregnant. Not least in that the boundaries of that family are loose enough to include people I’m not related to in any state-sanctioned way (AA friends, beloved neighbors, former students and mentors, and on and on).

More than anything, the queer affiliations of my life have broadened how I think about kinship: whom I’m accountable to, and for what.

Maybe this is why I experience moments of great transition as an opening up—in ways that feel both good and bad, both pleasurable and painful (and have blurred the difference between the two in ways that might be queer, now that I come to think of it). The most intense of these moments have all hinged on questions of identity: when I left home and went to college and came into my own as queer; when I came to terms with my alcoholism and entered into a recovery community; and now, as I’ve come to understand my whole life as a bulwark pitched against a fascist wave.

***

When I came out in college, it was really clearly a choice I made in contradistinction to my family of origin—after all, it was only through coming out and coming into political consciousness (really profoundly the same processes for me) that I even understood “family of choice” to be a thing. With these new friends, I saw a possibility for long-term connection and love based on mutuality, not inheritance, where my weirdness was nourished and valued. It felt like a new world, one that we were creating every day, with every choice. My greatest hope was to one day buy a big house in Brooklyn where we could all live for free and make art and revolution all day. Totally possible, right? In my defense, anything seemed possible at that moment.

 

But there was one way that I wasn’t breaking with my family of origin, and that was in my relationship with alcohol. I identified as bi, and this was sort of true, but the way I conducted my relationships with men was anything but queer. Instead, it was like I had two selves: a feminist academic superstar who was unafraid to speak truth to power and to stage a sit-in at the President’s office, and then this insecure drunk girl who just wanted a boy to tell her she was pretty. I was drinking so much, and I found myself making the same kinds of choices that had decimated my family for generations: unwitting cruelty, infidelity, unchecked narcissism. One friend described me as “emotional dynamite,” and another said that when she thought about me sleeping in her house she “felt like she had a rash.”

The solidarity I’d pursued in college couldn’t survive my interpersonal shenanigans, and I found myself afloat, cut off from the relationships in which I’d invested so much meaning. It was at this emotional nadir that I was introduced to a new form of solidarity. After a particularly devastating weekend of bad behavior, I was at a queer organizing conference, attending a workshop called “Dyke Talk: an intergenerational dialogue among lesbian feminists.” (Did I mention that I lived in Vermont? Because I really did). My feeling that I didn’t deserve to be included in this conversation was only exacerbated by my hangover, which was so brutal I was hallucinating shimmering auras around the featured speakers.

The organizer, a tiny woman in a ratty t-shirt with the improbable name of Crow, talked about AA and described “the program” as a miracle of diversity. “All these people come together from such incredibly different walks of life,” she gushed, “but we share a primary spiritual purpose: to get sober.” How could we, as activists, take a lesson from AA and focus on our shared purpose?

I was, for lack of a better word, hooked. Up until that point, I’d always seen AA as too square for me. Not only was Dionysian excess central to my political perspective, but how would I talk to people at a party if I wasn’t drunk? But here was this aging dyke, whose hairy-legged legitimacy wasn’t to be questioned, making an argument for the radical politics of AA. I buttonholed her after the meeting and my misery came tumbling out of me: I’d alienated my friends, I couldn’t stop drinking, I was pretty sure no one would ever talk to me again. She was kind and understanding, and helped me believe there was a place for me in the world that didn’t depend on my drinking. That AA wasn’t just for rich suburbanites—or, more precisely, that I didn’t have to turn back into a rich suburbanite if I wanted to break free from the endless, boring cycle of addiction that my life had become.

And I found real solidarity in the rooms of AA. Again and again, I heard stories that could have been my own, I heard people voice feelings and fears I’d never been able to articulate but instantly recognized. As much as when I came out, I’d again found “my people.” This is one pleasure of solidarity: the sense of recognition by another, even someone you’d never met. It’s the joy I have at getting the sly grin of a fellow dyke walking down the street, the feeling of relief I have at walking into an AA meeting. I’m not alone, not anymore—around these facets of my identity which make me most vulnerable, someone has my back, someone knows me.

But there’s loss here too. Coming out meant breaking with the future I’d envisioned for myself, and I was certain it meant breaking with my family. My parents eventually came around, but it was too late for my grandmother: alcohol ate up her short-term memory, and she arrived at my wedding completely oblivious to the fact that I was marrying a woman. She wept through the whole ceremony, and at the reception got so wasted she had to be taken home after thirty minutes. In order to access the solidarity in the halls of AA, I had to let go of my vision of a punk rock future, not to mention relationships with many of my closest friends thanks to my terrible behavior. With every turning toward solidarity, we have to turn away from something or someone—or acknowledge how that person or group has long since turned away from us.

There’s another kind of solidarity, too—the one that turns away from power. As a white person coming to racial consciousness, I’ve thought a lot over the last months about what claims of solidarity I can make in this new political reality. In the days after the election, my racial identification shifted on a gut level almost immediately. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d always had the kind of immediate bias response Louis CK talks about: if I was walking down the street alone and saw a group of young black guys, I’d immediately going into an internal dialogue about how I didn’t need to be scared: “Everything’s fine! Everything’s fine! Everything’s fine!”

But after November 9, all my fear vanished overnight. How could I have been so stupid? If anything, I’m the one who poses a danger to them, with all my whitegirl anxiety. If the double whammy of electoral and judiciary power has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is more dangerous to people of color than white fear. So my own sense of solidarity did a quick 180, but I have no reason to assume that I’d be welcomed into nonwhite spaces—I certainly hadn’t earned it. What I need to do in order to try for this kind of solidarity is to decenter my own experience, to cede power and space to others, to listen to new voices. The grief here isn’t for the community I’ve lost, but for the one I’ve denied myself all these years through my unwillingness to look beyond my own unexamined impulses.

The best model I have for this is Crow’s insight from all those years ago: the real meaning of solidarity is to have a shared primary purpose. I’ve written elsewhere about how the community offered by AA has become more complicated for me since the election. But the basic philosophy of AA—the Program—still shapes most of my thinking, and is the main way I make meaning out of my life. More to the point, I’m stuck going to meetings, what with my fatal mental illness and everything, so I’d best find a way to get as much as I can out of it.

I’ve been thinking of Crow a ton lately. It’s been a year and a half since she died, and it would have been her birthday a few weeks ago. And, of course, I’ve been sorely missing her advice on how to find comfort and solidarity in the looming shadow of fascism. More than anyone I knew, Crow was able to find solidarity in unexpected places: with AA bikers, with discontented housewives, with angsty teenagers like my former self. Trust feels so hard to come by right now, and I desperately wish she was here to help me figure out who and how to trust again. But I come back to that first piece of advice that she gave me: I have the gift of a primary purpose. In AA, that purpose is twofold: to stay sober and to help another alcoholic. This divide is a good way to think about the affective reality of queer politics as well: staying sober day by day is difficult, and not always positive. It’s turning away from the escape of an instant fix, toward the truth of a broken world, looking in particular for the ways that I broke it. And helping another alcoholic is where the solidarity and the community comes from.

So what’s my primary purpose vis-à-vis intersectional liberation? I think it’s this: to tell the truth and to share what I have. Whether that’s money or emotional resources or artistic energy or just love—tell the truth and share.