Can Straights Be Queer?

I have seen tremblings of “discourse” on Twitter recently, making fun of straights who identify as queer. So far, this seems to come from one man’s well-meaning but inarticulate Twitter thread wherein he seemed to “come out” as straight, cursing him with the accolade of being Twitter’s main character for a day. But as easy as it was to make fun, given how he phrased things, I did feel a certain sympathy for his position.

I’ve written about my own feelings on this at length before, declaring that I want to explore a similar feeling of “queerness” in my own life whilst nonetheless being aware that I may not be the best fit for the label. But the paradox here is surely that queerness is defined by one’s being askew, relative to a more “straight”-line sense of self. My experience is that, whilst I have always felt at home in queer spaces and have frequented them since I was a teenager, I have only ever dated women. To hide away in another’s safe space was, at one time, a necessity. Though not identifying as homosexual, my teenage years were nonetheless defined by experiences of homophobic abuse and hatred, simply because of how I was perceived. Now that I’m not perceived a certain way any longer, it has often pained me when I’ve felt newly unwelcome in places I’ve spent time in for 15 years and where I’ve always felt safe.

I can’t say if this is how this other person felt, but suffice it to say, I can appreciate the sentiment of “feeling” queer, for not cleanly adhering to certain gender roles, whilst nonetheless dating “straight”.

Perhaps this makes more sense for people who identify as men. What’s difficult is that I think many men, who may not be gay but are nonetheless perceived as such, find themselves in a strange and peculiar (dare I say queer) space between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Though this is a hot topic now, I’m struck by the fact it hasn’t always been that way.

The other day, I was reading this brilliant 1995 book by Lawrence Schehr called Alcibiades at the Door, which touches on this in the introduction. He’s more broadly considering the role of gay discourses in French literature, but precisely how they have found a place in an otherwise broadly heteronormative culture. Gay life has often been present in these works long before it made an appearance in other countries’ literatures, he argues (speaking in terms of modernity at least). But he also argues that this isn’t the sign of some innate progressivism, but rather the acknowledgement of a certain sexual transference that takes place between members of the same sex, regardless of how they identify.

Men tell other men stories, women tell other women stories; the gender of the vanquished is secondary. If the apostrophes of love are alternately hetero- or homosexual, the discourse about sexuality is structured as homosexual sign, a sign of a shared lust or a remembered chagrin. Now, obviously there are cases in which, for example, a male narrator tells a story to a female listener, or vice versa. Still, even in cases like that there is a homosexual dimension. If the woman listens to a man telling a tale, she is asked to identify with the other woman, so that she too will get turned on, so to speak. […]

Thus there is always a homosexual component to hererosexual discourses about sex. Already at the beginning of these discoures, at the beginning of philosophy’s tales of love, Plato reminds us that the structure of the discourses of sexuality will be among men (or among women), as the deipnosophists extend their banquet into a symposium on love… [T]he discourses between sexes are reduced to closets within closets, tales of lust never spoken. Again we wonder if the figure of the closet, the metaphor of gay liberation of the last twenty years, should not itself be turned on its head: Is it not heterosexuality that is really locked in a closet of its own devising and that forces a similar closet on homosexuality out of spite?

[…] This is readily apparent in the concepts of social constructivism that gender studies have offered: If sexual and gender identity are only products of the crisscrossings of instruments, structures, and discourses of power, how could homosexuality not be in a “closet”? Then again, how could any sexuality not be in a closet? Even a white male heterosexuality thinks it is free because each individual instance identifies with the doxological discourses of social construction, is it not at that moment that sexuality is in its deepest, most tightly locked closet?

If we alarmist conversations around straights identifying as queer, is this not the background to take into account? Nothing is more stringent and oppressive than heterosexuality. Contrarian though this may seem, Schehr argues this is precisely why a closet of shame has been reinforced around homosexual discourses, as if this has been done purely out of spite. Gay liberation, then, spreads outwards. To identify as queer but date straight seems to suggest, to my ears, that someone has had it with the stringent sexual exchanges of heteronormative culture, which are so rigid and stagnant in their representations.

But perhaps this is just appropriation. Straights fed up of patriarchy should find modes of representation of their own, perhaps. But what is interesting about Schehr’s book is that he argues queer cultures have always had a close relationship to popular cultures or even avant-garde cultures. Modernism in particular was the coming to the fore of a “homosexual poiesis”. (Shout out Diana Souhami’s recent book, No Modernism Without Lesbians.)

“Homosexual poiesis participates in a model of production”, Schehr writes, “but not one, quite literally, of reproduction: that one needs straight lines and heliotrophic movement, and cannot admit any version of the spilled seed of Onan.”

Later returning to the “closet” metaphor, Schehr expands on how this homosexual poiesis is never wholly detached from its reproductive equivalent but rather “interwoven” with it. Recognising that this may be a product of patriarchy more generally, he argues heretically that, throughout our cultural histories, “homosexual discourse is always there and, more often than not, at center stage. Sometimes we choose to read the homosexual aspect publicly, sometimes privately. And when it is read privately by some, others do not read it at all.” (I’m reminded here of Leslie Fiedler’s infamous argument that so much classic American literature — even the American dream itself — is innately homoerotic, although these components seem to pass us by, filtered out by a collective heterosexual unconscious.) But this porosity, rather than diminishing gay culture as an outcrop, is integral. Indeed, the contemporary resonances drawn between queer culture and pop music are not new but persistent — queer and pop have long developed side by side, each intruding on the other. To this end, Schehr writes:

The image of the closet has at its attendant metaphors figures of closure, darkness, and impenetrable secrets. To open the closet door is to let in the light of truth. With the figure of visibility and invisibility, the heliotropic movement is neither central nor eclipsed, but part of a double trope that plays in light and in shadows, that moves both towards light and toward the dark. Homosexual poeisis is not marginal as much as it is eccentric: not repressed, not pushed off to the sides, it is there at the heart of things, sometimes seen, sometimes not seen, sometimes recognised, sometimes not. And its entry into the game recasts the disposition of the playing pieces or the figures: Alcibiades at the door [in Plato’s Symposium] is not retained as a marginal figure but forces the people in the room to recognise his eccentric presence. He is not merely the decorative figure of an arabesque at the margins but a decentering and revivifying figure who inverts center and edge as he bends the lines of sight.

It is not by chance that one of the older slang words used to describe a homosexual man was the word “bent,” and that one of the words from the same era has recently been revived as an empowering term: “queer.” Those two words, and especially the latter one, are more accurately the otherness of “straight” than is the word “gay”. […] A queer or bent line is one that is not orthogonal, not straight: it does not go directly for it. A queer line may, however, tell the right story even in being off the mark, off-center, or offhand in its observations. And, for purposes of equanimity, a straight line can be defined relative to a queer one just as easily as the reverse.

What does any of this have to do with Twitter’s recent main character: the man who came out as straight? I think, contrary to the reactionaries who insist that men can sort themselves out by doubling down on tired tropes of cishet masculinity, that what we are seeing is more men are recognising they do not fit into these stringent ideals of a reproductive culture, and indeed, that they do not want to continue replicating a society that makes very little space for how they feel. These men are instead finding themselves at home in the in-between, which society has arguably always made available to all genders whilst unconvincingly denying that fact. The idea that straights can be queer seems like a contradiction, but perhaps (and this certainly matches my own feelings) what is being expressed in that declaration is a desire that is other to the restrictions of a heteronormative society. If queerness can be the telling of “the right story even in being off the mark, off-center,” then there are surely many people who do not experience same-sex attraction but nonetheless find themselves out of sync with the symbolic exchanges they are otherwise pressured to conform to.

I was recently having a conversation with someone else who felt this way but in reverse. Having predominantly dated women, they have found themselves, very much to their own surprise, currently dating a man. As they feel the walls of heteronormativity closing in, they mentioned how they were struggling to keep a space open for their queerness in such a new configuration. They have experienced no hostility about this, but nonetheless feel uneasy about it. But that in itself is surely the mark of some kind of queerness: the very difficulty and uneasy that comes from walking a straight line.

Of course, as someone who feels like they very much exist on the peripheries, feeling like the token straight of many a queer friendship group, maybe I’m just wrong and reading too much into this stuff to calm my own insecurities and anxieties. But I do think there’s something here. To feel like you don’t fit in or can’t walk the line is surely a defining constant, and we do ourselves a disservice when we essentialise one way or the other, fueled by nothing more than resentment. That’s surely all this desire to don the mark of queerness is: an affirmation to the contrary.

To take a brief peek at the other side, this is also something we see constantly in trans discourses, for instance, where TERFs will shoot themselves in the foot by overdefining “woman” to such an extent that they exclude women who have been through or otherwise experienced certain bodily changes or medical conditions. Are women that have been through the menopause still women to TERFs? Are women who have had hysterectomies? They will say yes, of course, but their rhetoric always suggests otherwise.

It may be not be the case that these women suddenly find themselves at local drag shows, wholly affirming this slight othering, but at the same time, that these same women may find themselves run over roughshod by the loudest of essentialist voices is nonetheless an indictment of just how ridiculously “straight” straight culture can be (and may still become). As the pearl-clutching around such categories intensifies, more and more people may come to sense that straightness makes room for only a few. Most may strive for it anyway, but for those who start to think otherwise, that’s surely only a good thing for the world at large? Rather than deny straights their queerness, maybe its better for all if they’re allowed a little bit of it, as a treat.

Addendum: An interesting series of comments from Alexander Boyd below the Twitter share of this post. He explained how “my everyday experience of heterosexuality is less of oppression than of (privileged) freedom from scrutiny and insecurity”, which makes “thinking in terms of gender and sexuality … unintuitive.”

I thought this was a really interesting point, getting to the crux of what I otherwise meant to say above: what has long bemused and complicated my relationship to myself since I was a child was recognising a personal heterosexuality that has nonetheless felt deeply scrutinised from within its own structures. Not in the usual sense of “manning up”, but rather the assumption being made that it’s just not in my capacity to be manly / not be a bit camp (which is probably fair enough). But I also don’t know how to articulate that experience other than through queer discourses. What to do when others dislike a certain appropriation of language that is nonetheless better equipped to articulate the resulting (if only relative) indeterminacy that comes from this kind of scrutiny?

Perhaps the point is nothing more than this, offered up by @Syderas: “Straightness as a culture is safe for absolutely no one — not even straight people”.

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