When future historians come to retell the story of the pandemic, the image of the Queen sitting alone, masked and in mourning, will surely rank among the most poignant.
Whilst Prince Philip’s coffin was being loaded onto the back of his custom Land Rover, I was enjoying the sunshine, reading and pottering around the allotment. I recently picked up a new edition of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others for a project I’m working on and sat reading its opening pages, just as the news outlets began reiterating, over and over again, how tragic it was going to be to see the Queen sitting alone.
In those opening pages, Sontag reads Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, and her observations could not have felt more appropriate.
Woolf, asked by a man how “we” might stop war, challenges the assumed solidarity of this “we”. Men and women do not think about war in the same way, she argues. But when we look at photographs of the pain of others, of victims of war and violence, we all react the same. We all recoil and share that response, which rises up in us and leads us to make that same naive wish: “never again”.
But Sontag isn’t having it. As rousing as Woolf’s essay is, as a tandem work of pacifism and feminism, she doesn’t agree that everyone views photographs in the same way. In fact, that is a dangerous suggestion. The romantic notion that we all recoil synchronously from horror too often causes more harm than good. Because there’s nothing like a horrifying photograph to manufacture consent and enable more war, more atrocities, more injustice. So writes Sontag:
And photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.
War was not waged in Windsor in memory of Prince Philip, even if the military presence may have given that impression. There was no violence or horror on display, but we were treated, once again, to rolling coverage of royal pain. Columnists and commentators all emphasised how the Queen is now relatable, suffering like we all have; how Princes Harry and William were seen together for the first time in ages, newly bonded in their grief. The death of Philip brought the royal family together, and the rest of the nation along with it.
It didn’t. It won’t. The Queen will be in pain, and I do feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for anyone who has lost a loved on in this pandemic, whether from the coronavirus or otherwise. But no amount of royal pain is going to float the royalist illusion of a national consensus.
CW: I want to talk about gender, specifically my gender and my feelings around it. I want to try and put into words a feeling that I’ve long denounced and tried to hide, but that feeling doesn’t really have a name for me. Not yet. I suspect it never will. My life has been defined, from without as much as from within, by a sense of indeterminacy. It’s never comfortably fit any label applied to it from the outside, and I’ve been denied any opportunity to define things on my own terms. I’ve tried to counter both of these things in all sorts of way. From now on, I’d like to affirm it.
I’m not sure what the best way to do that is. For now, I’d just like to tell you a story. Let it be known that this story features explicit references to sex, abuse, sexual abuse, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, mental ill-health, and various other things. Accordingly, this might not be a story that everyone wants to read or enjoys reading, and that’s okay.
When I was a teenager, I faced daily homophobic abuse. Beginning at the end of primary school and continuing until my second year at university, not a day went by without incident. It was at its worst during secondary school. I’d get tripped up and punched in the stomach by passing assailants as I walked between classes. Left to wheeze on the floor, kids laughed at me, like I got what I deserved. I had rocks thrown at me, and was once sent home with a concussion after being clipped hard by a projectile at the base of my skull. Cars driven by older kids used to play chicken with me, swerving at the last moment, as I walked home from school along country roads. One time a big group of kids congregated outside my house and threw snowballs at my window, just to intimidate me as I sat in my room, which I rarely left. As I got older, it only got worse. Some of the boys used to shove their hands down my pants, trying to feel me up and penetrate me in the middle of woodworking class, or jab through my trousers with cold soldering irons, just to see if I “liked” it. Most days someone called me a “faggot”.
I would try and tell my parents I didn’t know why these things kept happening to me, on the days I came home and could not hide my feelings, but even they’d started asking if I was gay. My mum would make statements out of the blue like, “it’d be okay if you were gay, you know”. Once she said this in earshot of my dad, who said he’d kick me out the house if it were true. I confronted him about this years later and he claimed he was joking. It didn’t feel like it at that time, but I could sense the shame in his voice, knowing he had said the worst thing he could have said. I love my dad very much, and forgave him for this long ago, but it is nonetheless part of a pattern of responses and interjections that I sadly became all too used to. My sexuality was a source of speculation for my family and friends as much as it was for people I couldn’t have cared less about.
What was most baffling to me was that I had never actually questioned my sexuality. In fact, I’d had a pretty healthy string of girlfriends — certainly more than most boys my age. I was a confident explorer of my own desires, for a time. When I look back on my childhood and my teenage years, I feel like I was always “seeing” someone. But it didn’t matter. It was like everyone else saw something in me that I didn’t see, like I had a sign stuck on my back that I wasn’t aware of that said “future gay”. It warped my brain. Shame took over, and I began to wonder if everyone knew something I didn’t.
It wasn’t because I was somehow weak and easy to pick on. Though perhaps seen as “effeminate” against the social standards of the time, I was otherwise tall, broad-shouldered, and stocky. On multiple occasions, I was scouted by rugby coaches who didn’t know any better, seeing me as a potential hooker based on nothing more than my square frame. Unfortunately, there was nothing I hated more than rugby. I actually loved to figure skate — something I’ve written about previously. I didn’t tell many people about this, of course. I knew it wouldn’t help me. But it didn’t matter anyway. I was deemed too big for that sport by the girls I used to train with. I was made to feel so unwelcome that I dropped out just before I mastered my toe loop jumps.
If I’d put my mind to it, I could have probably played rugby and enjoyed it. It wasn’t the game I hated but the people I had to play it with. I hated team sports in general, precisely because they brought out the most pathetic displays of masculinity in my peers. It wasn’t long before the irony dawned on me. For someone who supposedly “liked” men, I couldn’t have wanted anything less to do with them. I had no drive to compete with them, which seemed to be all they really cared about. It was probably my utter rejection of their values that made me gay in their eyes. But that hatred pooled with my own adolescent hormones all the same. The rugby scouts planted an idea in my head. I began to wonder if learning to throw my weight around might help my cause.
I starting taking Judo classes, and I hated them too, but I got more confidence about fighting off the abuse. Soon enough, if someone came at me, I started giving back as good as I got. I punched a kid in the face who, unprovoked, tried to pour a drink over me on the bus. I hit him so hard that I nearly broke my hand. I hit someone else on the bus with my boot bag who made fun of my voice, studs clapping the top of his head. He didn’t see it coming and the outburst was effective. Admittedly, these were not techniques taught to me by my sensei. Regardless, fighting didn’t solve anything. The bully I punched back had multiple older and much bigger brothers who could come to his defense. I learnt the hard way that, just because they started it, it didn’t meant I could finish it. I quit Judo, succumbing to the knowledge that there was always someone else to kick me back down.
Over time, I became further alienated from people. I just wanted to be left alone. I struggled to make new friends or really connect with anyone, always feeling slightly on the outside of whatever was going on. I was depressed and looking for an outlet. Ironically, all the abuse had been counterproductive. It did more to make me experiment sexually than any desire I felt on my own accord. I didn’t know how I felt anymore. I’d been told who I was for so long, I just accepted it, passively. I’d been shoved in the closet so many times, I just decided to make myself at home there. I let myself be led by older and more openly curious boys. I didn’t like any of it, and found the feeling of adolescent stubble on my face distinctly nauseating, but I felt so alienated from myself that I couldn’t say for certain what I wanted anymore. I grew anxious about any expression of sexuality whatsoever. In the end, I even found heterosexual expressions of intimacy difficult. I repressed everything. No matter who I was with, I felt paranoid. I was constantly second-guessing my own feelings, as well as others’ feelings about me.
After a while, it became a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them”.
When I was 16 or 17, I fell in love with my best friend. On the day I intended to ask her out, she told me she was gay and had started seeing someone. I was heartbroken but we stayed very close. This led to a whole new adventure for me. The secret friendship group she’d slowly been gathering around her became my secret friendship group too.
I was quickly introduced to Hull’s “gay scene”, my first memory of which was a night at Fuel, the main LGBT club in town. I went with my best friend and her new girlfriend, with a few others in tow. I didn’t know anyone yet and, at one point, I ended up on my own, hovering by the entrance to the bathrooms. The girls had gone in together, and later admitted they ended up having sex in there for a while. I stood waiting for them, not knowing what to do with myself, feeling a new kind of alienation. It was truly the worst time I ever had third-wheeling. But it wasn’t long before a group of queens gathered around me, towering in their platform boots and killer heels, all wearing the most magnificent drag. Larger than life, but immediately warm and friendly, they asked if I was okay, what my name was, what I was doing there. They asked if I was gay, straight, or bi. I reluctantly said I was straight, half-expecting them to leave when I made my confession, like I was an imposter who wasn’t worth their time. They didn’t care. They welcomed me into their fold for the night. I felt at home immediately. I’ve never felt more at home anywhere in my life.
I think we all felt like this, as young teens getting to know the Hull scene. We felt like bohemians on the edge of the world. With the Humber Bridge looming over town, we affirmed our city as the “San Francisco of the North”. Sod Manchester. Sod Canal Street. Theirs was a west coast arrogance to our east coast autonomy. Here was an “unfenced existence: facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.” In typical Hull fashion, we saw ourselves as a movement unto ourselves. This, in turn, gave us a sense of confidence and defiance that positively affected everyone who was part of our group. We felt otherworldly, like we saw a bigger picture, if only because our limited numbers meant we were far more likely to befriend kids from other schools, or hang out with folk much older than we were. Whilst everyone else stayed in their school-day bubbles, we embraced the fact that there was a world waiting for us beyond the school gates that was far more accepting of who we happened to be. Eventually, this attitude permeated the atmosphere within school as well. As people became more out and proud, our diverse friendship group cross-pollinated with the groups we kept up at school. People gradually became more tolerant, and it was a really beautiful time in my life.
But the boys were still the same confused bunch. They continued to bully. What’s funny, actually, is that the nature of the bullying changed. Those same young men started acting more jealous than disparaging, fundamentally misunderstanding what it meant to have a close-knit group of girlfriends who were all gay. They were cynical but also oddly intimidated, as if they assumed I somehow had a front row seat to all of the sex these mysterious women were having, and they wanted nothing more than to be in my shoes. It was a classic teenage boy-fantasy that could not have been further from the truth. We all found it hilarious, and even played up to it, sharing photographs of everyone kissing each other on social media. In truth, I was content in friendships where desire was off the table. These gay women were in on the joke, and I felt safe there. There was trust, precisely because there was no teenage “will they, won’t they”. No judgement. No pressure.
This suited me more than the boys’ obsession with chasing tail. Behind the racy pictures taken in gay bars on a Saturday afternoon, the thought of sex still stressed me out. For a time, I even struggled to hold a girl’s hand with any sincerity. I felt pathetic, and I blamed those boys for it. They had triggered an abject repression in me, at the exact moment I finally felt free to do anything.
Admittedly, as I got older, things could occasionally get complicated. I came out of my shell but in an increasingly confusing environment. I had a couple of relationships with gay women that were experimental for the both of us, and they always ended in complicated tears. But I think whenever any intimacy did arise, it was because there was a shared sense of gender identity that resonated between us, rather than any sexual desire. I felt at home among these women who were far more comfortable identifying as femme or butch or something in between. But it was only the lesbians in my friendship group who understood that their own sense of femininity was a spectrum. I never gained any sense of this from the men I knew. Gay or straight, none of them were quite so understanding of different gender identities. (In fact, my experiences with gay men were as negative as those with straight men. The majority I met at that time, who still saw me as an unknown or indeterminate sexual quandary, were quite predatory. It was just one more reason to stay away from men altogether.)
I lost that friendship group when I went to university. It was oddly traumatic. I suddenly felt detached from these roots that I’d put down. I still seemed to gravitate towards lesbians — it is a running joke at this point that I always end up befriending gay women — but I never again felt immersed in a scene. In fact, my first girlfriend at university was a twin, whose sister came with her to study on the same course. Her sister was also gay, and had met her girlfriend at university as well. We all embarked on our first sexual relationships together and hung out all the time. In truth, the relationship was terrible and was never going to last. When it ended, I remember feeling like I missed my friendship with her sister more than our relationship. She was the last connection I felt I had to a transitory home. After that, I never felt like a member of a scene again. I felt more like a tourist.
I felt myself falling out of that sense of belonging in other ways too. Though the assumption that I was gay haunted me throughout my time at university, it started to dissipate as my body changed and I reached the end of puberty. Specifically, by the time I was 22, I was capable of growing facial hair. On the day it felt full enough to be an official “beard”, rather than a collection of prickly smudges, I noticed something happen. The abuse stopped. I rarely heard the word “faggot” anymore. I rarely heard second-hand whispers about my personal life.
It was around this time that I started a relationship that has continued to this day. There’s certainly nothing like a decade-long relationship with a woman to socially cement a newly perceived heterosexuality. But relationships had never stopped the rumours before. It was always a case of “yeah, he’s just not accepted himself yet”. But what’s more, the abuse even stopped from strangers and passersby. The assumptions and the constant prying from people I didn’t know ceased so abruptly that it left me dazed. To be honest, I liked it. I leaned into it. I put on weight and I started wearing more black. I embraced my inner goth for the first time to try and look more “masculine” and scary. Whereas the emo and scene kids I knew growing up were among those most comfortable with “non-binary gender identities” (though we didn’t possess that sort of language yet), goth felt harder and less flexible. It was to have one foot in with the scene kids but one foot in something else. The reason for this was simple: I didn’t want to invite discussion; for the first time in my life, I wanted to intimidate.
This makes me laugh, in hindsight. I was suddenly deemed to have reached a certain recognisable standard of masculinity and all I’d done, in my eyes, was let myself go. The state of men…
For a few years, this was all fine by me. It was nice to have a break from it all. It was nice to “pass”. But I didn’t feel like myself. My weight began to yoyo, and I began a struggle with bulimia, feeling torn about a body image that was increasingly “masculine” and all the more alien to me as a result. I grew my hair out but, even at my skinniest, I just looked like Jon Snow. A visible northern masculinity, which encased an increasingly invisible femininity, became an albatross around my neck. Outwardly, I displayed a certain pride in it as my mental health nonetheless deteriorated.
Things came full circle when I moved to London, aged 26. I was suddenly treated with another kind of suspicion. I started to naturally make friends with queer people from all sorts of backgrounds, but I found they were cynical about me in a way I wasn’t used to. My friends were, for the most part, younger than I was. They were experimenting in a way I wanted to but had a way of thinking and speaking about their own experiences that I’d never really acquired, and my attempts to do so were perhaps seen as appropriative rather than attempts to update my capacity for self-expression. With many having lived in London for some time already, they had been initiated into its queer spaces and they were understandably protective over them. I expected to be there for just one year, and so didn’t make too much of an effort to put down roots. (When I left London, four years later, I regretted this deeply.)
Although I never really spoke about my sexual preferences or my internal feelings in public, now that I at least looked the part — whatever that means — I felt even more distant from a certain sense of community that I’d once taken for granted. The assumption that I was questioning or undecided went away, and with that went a part of myself I didn’t realise I was quite so attached to. I understood why, of course, and so I didn’t push back against it. Still, I felt shunned. Despite spending the entirety of my formative teenage years feeling at home in queer spaces, I began to feel like another kind of outsider. The mask I’d put on, the outfit I’d chosen, the depression I’d embraced, all in a subconscious attempt to shield myself from further abuse, made me look like the sort of person I’d once have run a mile from. It came as no surprise that queer friends now looked on me with suspicion. Whereas I’d once been a mystery to straight friends, I had become a mystery to queer friends also. Caught in the middle, my body dysmorphia intensified.
I felt I had been turned into a social weathervane, all too eager to please, facing whichever way the assuming winds blew me. When I wasn’t straight enough, I found a home in queer spaces, but once I was no longer deemed queer enough, I accepted my fate as another kind of outcast. It has made me incredibly unhappy, all because I never considered the possibility to staking a claim — that is, until I felt like I had lost any claim to stake. I realised that my identity had been a concern for other people for so long that I’d relinquished all ownership of it. When the ball was suddenly in my court, I just looked at it, puzzled. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. I arrived in London feeling like a blank slate, but rather than chalk up a sense of who I wanted to be, I fell into a mould constructed for me by others. I became whatever people thought I was, until I had no sense of myself anymore.
Over the years since, I’ve begun to understand that, if I want to affirm those experiences in my life, I need to start talking about them. My silence and my sense of detachment constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I don’t shape those experiences into statements about myself and my experiences, claiming that subculture as my own, as the place where I once felt most at home and where I once felt like I belonged, then of course I will have no place within them. But given the assumptions made about me in the present, I started to feel like this would be too little too late. I have been an ally, a defender of queer subjectivities — vocally so on this blog over the years — but nothing more. I have stayed abreast of conversations around queer culture and politics, watching as the conversation changes around me, denying myself the opportunity to participate, seeing myself as a victim, lost to another time before the language of the present made affirmation and self-acceptance so wonderfully possible. As such, I have persistently denied myself a voice in the now.
More recently, I’ve started wondering: Do things have to stay this way?
I must admit that a major catalyst for finishing this post/statement/story, which has been percolating in my drafts for some years in various forms, has been reading Adam Zmith’s forthcoming book Deep Sniff for Repeater Books. A magnificent history of queer futurities, constructed around those shapeshifting substances, the alkyl nitrites, Zmith’s recurring use of the term QUILTBAG, which I’d never heard before, brought up all kinds of emotions and memories for me.
Having consumed all sort of queer culture over the years, I’d always found echoes of my own experiences in these many representations of queer life but I had never read something that I felt carved out a place for me. Zmith’s book changed that, with the simple fact that he included those who are “questioning” in his queer taxonomy. “Questioning” was once a cage I felt forced into, then later forced out of. Though a source of trauma, it still felt like a home, and my relationship to that questioning self has never been resolved, nor has it had the opportunity to resolve itself. To be indirectly given permission to reaffirm my identity as “questioning”, of my gender if not my sexuality, has made Zmith’s book the most affirmative thing I’ve read in years. I saw a lot of myself in it, if not as a gay man, then at least as a once proud member of the QUILTBAG.
That being said, things are hardly any less complex than they once were when I was a teenager. Whilst vocabularies have changed and confidence has grown, who can claim ownership of certain words remains a hugely contentious topic. Alex V Green’s recent essay for The Outline on the word “queer”, for instance, is both a comforting read and an encapsulation of all the anxieties I have about publishing this essay.
Green begins with a summary of the 90s discourse around the word “normal” — “who that category contains, who it excludes, and the kind of coercive mechanisms that make such a category possible.” I remember feeling the legacy of these discussions in the 2000s; it is far easier to position yourself outside of something like “normality” than it is to position yourself inside of something else. The choice had already been made for me that I was not “normal”, but now the discussion has been inverted. I reckon I’m still as “not-normal” as I’ve ever been, but does that make me “queer”?
Truth be told, I feel no more comfortable with labels now than I did when I was a teenager. I’ve abstained from making any claims one way or another because I have never felt ready to say, definitively, what I am. But maybe I don’t have to decide before carving out a space for myself. Maybe this long-held feeling of in-betweenness is valid in itself. I did once experiment with this in private. Around 2014, I began identifying as “queer” or “genderqueer” — at least to my girlfriend. I had read John Stoltenberg’s book Refusing to be a Man, which she had acquired from a charity shop or maybe from a friend, and on completing it I like it had given form, for the first time, to some sort of deep truth newly legible to me. I remember that, after reading it, I tried to explain how revelatory it had been for me. I told her I had always felt “genderqueer”, or that I was at least “politically genderqueer”, whatever that means. I think this was my way of saying, please, don’t worry, I love you, please stop worrying about whether what everyone used to say is going to come true one day, I love you and I’m not going to leave you, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a space for queerness in my life and in my politics.
I first spoke to my partner about this when she was invited to write an essay for a blog many years ago, about when she first came to self-identify as a feminist, at a time when it was an oddly taboo word in popular discourses. (Seriously, it blows my mind how much has changed, in terms of our popular political language, in the first few decades of this strange century.) We talked about it and wrote up our stories together — with hers being the only one to be submitted, of course. So that she could more comfortably share an intimate journey with the world at large, we first exchanged intimate experiences with each other at home. It felt like a bonding moment, sharing our own perspectives on something that was important to us both, albeit for different reasons, bouncing off each other’s experiences so that we could better clarify our own.
I wrote about how my sense of feminism wasn’t taught to me by women in any generic sense. I didn’t feel like the sort of cliched man whose life had been shaped by strong women; the only female role model I had was my mother and we didn’t get on at all. My feminism was, instead, always queer and trans, informed by my peers, whose politics and personalities aligned far better with who I felt I was. Not as a “woman” in a patriarchal world, but as something else in another kind of space. This is to say that the feminism I grew up on wasn’t about making it in a man’s world, as was the proto-girlboss vibe of the 1990s and 2000s. It was about being cast out from under the masculine order of things, and finding power in that outsideness. It wasn’t striving against patriarchy so much as it was recognising and affirming that you were already part of another world that was constituted by a different set of relations and where a different set of rules applied. In hindsight, I don’t think I was anywhere near this articulate in talking to my partner. I’m not even sure I’m being that articulate now. But she understood the point, which was that I felt a queer feminism had fundamentally given form to my identity. It clarified something in how I felt about myself. That’s why I felt comfortable calling myself a feminist.
The problem, perhaps, is that I never said that out loud to anyone else. I’ve tried to have this conversation before, but it feels like one of the hardest things for me to do. In private, I still squirm when invited to talk about the politics of sex and gender and about my own personal experiences. Nevertheless, I have often made passionate defenses of queer experience on this blog, against rampant TERF dogma or the mutant liberalism of certain posthuman philosophies, whilst at the same time trying to avoid sending out any signals that I might have a personal investment in the debate. But I want that to change. I want to be able to talk more openly about the kind of person I am, the kind of experiences I’ve had, and how they’ve shaped who I am today.
An important question remains: how?
This post, in itself, is a terrifying thing to write. It feels like an intrusion on a vocabulary that others have a far more convincing claim to, as well as an invitation for derision from certain corners of the blogosphere that I have gradually been trying to extricate myself from. But Green’s essay once again explores how “queer” is an innately political term in the present, and less something for a card-carrying contingent to police in others, as if replicating the kind of boundary policing that once defined our exclusion from a heteronormative society. They write, for instance, how the apparent tension between spaces that are “gay” and spaces that are “queer:
In November, a (now-deleted) tweet demanding “More queer bars, less gay bars” invaded my timeline. The framing felt strange: gay and queer are, functionally, synonyms. But I knew what the tweet meant in drawing that seemingly arbitrary distinction … It immediately reminded me of an i-D article from August, which proudly proclaimed “the gay bar is dead,” pinning its cause of death on the rise of “the queer space.”
Queer spaces, Green explains, are “spaces of intentionality and community, where people felt the freedom to come together, away from the stigmatizing and normative gaze of straight, cisgender, white, and male society.” It is a definition of queer that resonates profoundly with my own, that I have clung onto in private for so many years, not knowing whether it was an appropriate way in which to use it. As Green continues, in queer spaces “people experimented with aesthetics, music, experiences, and connections that made them feel at home. On the street, they were outsiders; once through the doors, they were part of a community.”
I have missed this terribly under lockdown. Recently reading Paul B. Preciado’s book An Apartment on Uranus has only made this harder. The isolation of quarantine has no doubt enforced the queer space as an imagined idyll in my imagination. But what about a queer home? If I have a queer inner life, it is hardly replicated in the objects outside of myself, never mind in my own dress sense or mannerisms. An apartment on Uranus sounds like a blissful place to be by comparison. I wonder, increasingly, what it might be like to construct one; to have some sense of agency over my own four walls. But a sense of agency over my “self” is a more pressing starting point, and that is, in some ways, what this blog is for.
As a first step, this post feels enormous, but there is so much more that I would like to do. What does that “more” look like? I’m not sure yet. Despite how it may sound, I don’t think of this post as a “coming out”. I feel like who I am is obvious to those who know me, even if that’s limited to “Matt’s a bit camp”. To others, this might seem out of the blue. It feels a little out of the blue for me too. Why have I let this conversation lie still for so many years? Why have I never said anything out loud before now? I think because I knew how it would look, in our cynical age, for a big burly beardy man in a long-term heterosexual relationship to stake a claim on queerness without also being into leather or makeup or otherwise signalling outwardly how I feel internally. But the more long-term truth is that I’ve long been denied any opportunity for self-acceptance and self-expression. It has to start somewhere, and that is surely in knowing how to talk about yourself.
Knowing my audience, I anticipate some of my more casual and annoying readers will decry this post as an indulgent slip into identity politics. It is with them in mind that I will be abstaining from making any public changes to my pronouns anytime soon. I am not yet prepared to weather the social media cynicism that often brings from certain quarters. But there is a lesson for those people here too. For all the slips into “I”, this is not intended to solely be a discussion of the politics of identity as a form of individual affirmation. Self-acceptance is the desired by-product, yes, the personal significance of this post is overwritten, in my mind, by a far more forceful expression of solidarity, which I used to have and have since been denied, precisely because of who I appear to be. As such, it is the negative, individualising side of identity politics that I has been forced upon me for too long — an enforced individualism, wherein one must represent one thing only, held apart from both an internal multiplicity and indeterminacy, and an external solidarity. The impact of this on my personal life has been as sexual as it has been political. No longer. I am who I am, but who I am is one of you.
Even as I write this, old habits die hard. I’m left feeling deferential. I am one of you… if you’ll have me, is how I am left wanting to end that sentence. I’m queer now, if it pleases thee. Call me genderqueer now, if you like? Such is the tension within any self-declaration of solidarity. But why is self-declaration important? Because I don’t think most people realise how suffocating their assumptions can be. It takes a great deal of courage to correct them. That is a courage I have always lacked. I have never taken the opportunity to define myself because it has always been denied me, and I have always smothered the desire to speak up for myself for fear of failing to meet other people’s expectations of who or what I should be. But from now on I’d like to feel able to talk about myself in terms that feel appropriate to me rather than anyone else. I’m fed up of pandering to those who would attack my own attempts at self-acceptance.
It’s taken me a long time to realise this, and just as long to write it all down, but I have been inspired by so many lovely trans and non-binary people I’ve met over the years, who have shown a strength of will and self-knowledge that I have always been slightly jealous of, and who have perhaps sensed a certain affinity already. I know some have claimed me, tongue in cheek, as an “honorary tran” and I’ve had some difficult and confused conversations with some of you about this before already. Thank you for your patience. I feel like you, more than anyone else, will understand. For those that don’t, I don’t know how else to express it. I don’t know how to insist upon my inner experience. I’ve had a hard enough time in my life making the case for this with depression, which remains an enigma to those closest to me, who don’t understand the inner workings of a mind that habitually recoils from life, family and friendships, preferring instead to quietly self-destruct. But this doesn’t feel like an illness or being broken. It feels like breaking a set of restrictions that have negatively impacted my life for as long as I can remember. It is an expression of what makes me happy rather than an expression of my capacity for misery. Understanding the latter has taken precedence for a long time. I’d like to make space for the other side of the coin.
So I think it is about time that I make a claim; that I affirm my experiences and where I’ve come from and what I’ve learned about the world and about myself in the process. I want to affirm my upbringing as an early enigma, used as a punching bag even by those kids who would later come out as gay or trans themselves. I want to show some love and appreciate to that kid who was already disenfranchised and afraid when it became acceptable for others to express themselves in other ways. I want to accept that effeminate child and the awkward teenager he became and the strange lopsided man he turned into. I want to call him queer now, and step back into his shoes. I’ve spent too long out of them.
Ever the worrier, images of eye rolls and scoffs intrude as I continue to write what feels like a truth. But the other truth is this: it is a lot harder for men to stake a claim on a kind of queer gender without breaking other aesthetic conventions. That is true even within gay communities themselves, where a kind of homomasculinity reinforces patriarchy in microcosm. But I think, for me personally, I have to start somewhere. I have previously made no claim to queerness because I didn’t think anyone else would think I was queer enough to qualify. But the conversation was limited. The terrain was one-dimensional. Debates around my queerness, always instigated by others, had always been with regards to my sexuality. That remains a complicated and private topic for me, no doubt because it is an aspect of my personality I’ve long been denied any ownership of. But the real issue has always been gender. I knew in myself that the disconnect was between my gender and my sexuality, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the opportunity to explore that in a way that I was comfortable with. So I locked it all away. I recoiled from the idea of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I no longer felt comfortable expressing myself outwardly. I wore nothing but black in an attempt to at least make my voided sense of self look chic. Thank god I started writing. These days it’s all I have. I think now’s about time I wrote this down and said it publicly, to finally try and perforate the divide between who I am within and who I am socially and sexually — two worlds that have long been kept firmly apart, with deeply damaging results.
The strange thing is that, in writing all of this down, I thought I’d feel different. It is telling that I don’t. Saying this out loud means the world though. It feels defiant. It feels like claiming ownership over a part of my life that has always belonged to other people. In fact, lots of my life feels like it belongs to other people. Such is life as an adoptee — feeling like a patchwork person with two names. Knowing I am Matt Colquhoun to many but, to another group of people, I am Lewis D—-, is enough to mess with your head as it is, and maybe that’s part of this strange feeling too. But surely, in the realm of heteronormative family dynamics, adoption constitutes a queer relation in its own way. Regardless, it nonetheless remains true that all the conflicts in my life until my twenties were oddly gendered. I think I’d like to acknowledge myself as oddly gendered now too, thanks.
I don’t know what that looks like yet. I don’t know if it looks like anything. This isn’t a post to declare a change of name or of pronouns or anything else (although I may start signalling “he/they” when the opportunity arises). This is a post written to tell a story that I’ve often been made to feel ashamed of, by straight friends and queer friends alike, all because I don’t look the part. The problem is that I’ve never looked the part, no matter what that part is. The name of this blog, of course, was just another joke about not looking the part. As a teenager, I used to use the pseudonym “pseudochild” online — an expression of this same sentiment, I think, cloaked under a collection of other mid-pubescent changes. (The unintended resonance this pseudonym has with “xenogothic” is something I have thought about often.) But these names are as much a claim of identity as they are an attempt to circumvent it altogether. Because even if I don’t look the part, I feel the part and always have. Embracing a feeling over an outward appearance was a founding gesture of a newly authentic life online, and affirming being a bad goth has been life-affirming more broadly too. I think it’s about time I finally embrace being a bad queer as well.
Thanks to Rickard Eklund for inviting me to speak to students on the Materialities course at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm yesterday. It was a really interesting afternoon. Rickard had spent the morning using the I Ching to generate a title for their forthcoming exhibition, and I spoke a bit about my research and different ideas of how the new in produced in philosophy and culture more broadly, from the recombinant new to the new created ex nihilo.
It was something of a dry run of my talk at the University of Birmingham next week, organised by the lovely folks in the CTRL Network. As a reminder, I’ll be giving a brief history of the new. If you want to listen in and participate in the chat afterwards, you can register your interest here.
(Sidenote: Rickard made an accelerationist t-shirt last year with a quote from me on, if you wanna show everyone how you just gotta go fast.)
Drive is a kind of compulsion or force. It’s a force that is shaped, that takes its form and pulsion, from loss. Drive is loss as a force or the force loss exerts on the field of desire. […] That the drive is thwarted or sublimated means that it reaches its goal by other means, through other objects. Blocked in one direction, it splits into multiple vectors, into a network.
I got a ping on Twitter earlier today — someone sharing Dan Barrow’s review of Egress for Tribune last year. It’s an excellent review, although I still disagree with its dismissal of my references based on them not being to Mark’s own tastes, but I think what still irks me more is the suggestion that the “Egress remains, despite its best efforts, trapped in the same ‘left melancholia’ as its Labourist and social democratic counterparts.”
At the risk of making it appear like this review lives rent-free in my head — and, to some extent, it still does on occasion — there’s a opportunity to further clarify something here (for myself, if no-one else).
Some readers seem to miss the fact that Egress is a product of grief (despite making that point repeatedly and explicitly). It’s no secret. The book is an experiment in self-writing, or auto-theory, and a gesture towards an outside to a specific and individualised starting point. It’s certainly melancholic — and openly mournful — but the point is that individual mourning can refract outwards into collective overcoming. “Blocked in one direction, it splits into multiple vectors, into a network.” That’s why the book starts with “I” and ends with “us”.
It isn’t collective politics as a sort of feel-good Hollywood spectacle. It’s not the happiest of reads. But I still think the proof is in the pudding, which is ostensibly beyond the bounds of the book itself. Egress was written as an attempt to get out of personal melancholy and move into collective action, which Mark’s writings insist we do. But that doesn’t mean the former was thwarted in favour of the latter in any absolute sense. It’s a conscious process, and one which I’m still confident Egress sufficiently documents.
The Tribune review understands this point and succintly reiterates it, but gesturing to these politics without acknowledging the space we’re starting from, or dismissing it as left melancholy despite its otherwise blatant thrusts beyond that, is a missed opportunity. Knowing the direction of travel counts for nothing if you can’t honestly access the blocked place you’re starting out from. That was what I set out to do.
[The opening quote is, once again, taken from Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory. We’re reading it in the XG reading group at the moment and it is really excellent.]
Blogs and search engines are different approaches to the same problem, different occupations of the same place. They point, though, in different directions. Faced with the challenge of providing a trusted guide through a chaotic, indeterminable, changing field, search engines say “trust the algorithm”. In contrast, blogs say, “trust doesn’t scale.” So while the former offers a reliability based in equations and crawl capacities, the latter says, know the knower. It focuses on the person providing the link, offering the searcher the opportunity to know this person and so determine whether she can be trusted. Social network sites refract the problem of truth yet again: if the issue with blogs is the credibility of the guide or writer, the issue for social network sites is trust in the audience, in the others who might be following me.
In her 2010 book Blog Theory, quoted above, Jodi Dean gives us a snapshot of online trust at the start of the last decade. Reading it today, at the start of a new decade, illuminates just how much has changed.
“Knowing the knower” is the foundation for blogging’s value. Dean explains how early blogs were little more than curators of links on a radically disorganised and decentralised internet. Knowing the blogger, respecting their opinion, shaped your experience of navigating the World Wide Web, that may have otherwise been utterly and hopelessly formless.
In many respects, the purpose of blogging today remains the same. In others, however, it has been inverted. All too aware of its own value, the blogger has further gone underground. Knowing the knower is now, in some cases, impossible — and that is often the attraction of a blog’s output. Though there is an abundance of content, scarcity of self is exacerbated. This is no doubt because the idea of an “authentic online self” has been undermined absolutely by capitalist capture. The more authentic you are online, the more attractive you are to capitalism, because your trust can be commodified and transformed into marketing gold. Just look at Instagram — anyone who has been on that platform long enough will have likely seen a fun account, run by an extroverted someone just sharing their day, perhaps pursuing some niche interest or occupation. (Case in point, my girlfriend and I follows a couple shepherdesses.) Suddenly breaking into a new zone of visibility, their authenticity is easily hijacked by corporations who then pay the authentic blogger to advertise and/or recommend their product.
This transformation is often bittersweet. Those who let capitalism in are likely those who could use the financial boost, selling a self they may have shaped over the years in the service industry, in an environment where the self is often all you have to give, and where putting on a smile is the best way to gain tips. Though their authenticity is immediately undermined, such is the paradox of needing to pay your rent and having little else to give. In the social media age, personality can become a useful commodity.
In the theory blogosphere, hiding behind aliases and avatars was once seen a way to challenge this norm. “Getting out of your face again” was a rejection of the new face of capitalism and a way to seed knowledge on the peripheries of its libidinal circuits. This tradition continues to this day. The knower is, more often than not, hidden. But the reasons behind the donning of a cybermask are long outdated. Now, there is a problem: the unknown knower is just as susceptible to capitalist capture as their more visible rivals have long been.
The unknown knower sells their inauthenticity just as the authentic poster sells its opposite, albeit in a more clandestine fashion. The anon’s profile supersedes the authentic self, easily accruing more followers and more influence than their more visible counterpart, all because they are seen to be in possession of forbidden knowledge. Rather than putting their own face out there because they have something to gain, the anon hides their identity and corrals a sense that they may have something to lose. To hide is made brave, cowardice is inverted. A crowd gathers to listen to the untainted prophet.
The encouraged assumption that the unknown knower has more to lose is, in my experience, very accurate. But this is not because they are bearers of inconvenient truths. It is, more often than not, the establishment, the reactionaries, the conservatives who hide their faces online. They get off on its clandestine networks of tradposting. They go underground, only to disguise any chinks in their overground armour. All the while, those with something to say should go overground with more ferocity. Recognising that the right’s burrowing underground is down to their vulnerability overground suggests now is the time to rise up. Mark Fisher’s argument from 2014 is argubaly more resonant now than it once was:
Perhaps now is the moment when New Times can finally happen – if we can emerge, blinking, from our barricaded (but now extensively connected) cellars, and step out into the desert of a destituted public world, into a mass culture reduced to bland hedonic homogeneity by corporate depredation. Yes, this is hostile country, occupied territory. But how well defended is it? What possibilities are there for us here, now? What could happen, that is to say, if we go overground?
Update: Irony of ironies, the day after posting this I was tagged in a Twitter thread by someone’s burner Twitter account about former NRx blogger, Bryce Laliberte, doxxing his friend to a journalist.
I’ve had Bryce blocked since he had an almighty tantrum in my mentions over a post I wrote about Freudian antecedents to the so-called “Dark Enlightenment”. So I’m not sure why this person thought I’d care, but the hypocrisy of it is demonstrative in the context of this post.
Alt-right anons telling on alt-right face-posters who doxx their secretly alt-right friends sums up the whole circle jerk that is the alt-right mask economy better than I ever could. Most people don’t care, because it is clear that all they’re capable of is generating inconsequential outrage over an establishment that is guilty about protecting its own self-interests.
And someone’s shocked that alt-right solidarity is paper thin?
Photographs taken in Marsden, during a walk by the Butterley and Blakeley reservoirs, in February 2020.
Buckingham Palace announced this morning that Prince Philip has passed away at the age of 99. In the interest of partisanship, most of the press has skirted around saying anything too critical, neglecting to mention his most horrific gaffes.
I’m all for not speaking ill of dead before they’re even in the ground, but as the press reflects on Philip’s influence over the royal family in the twentieth century, it is telling how his own ideological tendencies are revealed nonetheless. He has been held up as a moderniser, encouraging the royal family, as an institution, to adapt to a changing world. For better or for worse, I couldn’t help but see this attitude reflected in his work as a conservationist.
This legacy, in itself, was built on a founding gaffe. The Guardian, for instance, in its long-winded and otherwise glowing obituary, notes how Philip was credited with killing a tiger on a hunting trip to India in 1951, the same year he became President of the newly founded World Wildlife Fund. As if the Prince immediately turned on an ideological dime, various commentators have celebrated him today as an early public defender of the natural world. And yet, it seems that these two pursuits — of royal modernisation and natural conservation — are fundamentally connected, and in a far less “progressive” sense than the press hopes to suggest in its memorial coverage.
The Prince’s change of heart about killing those “kings of the jungle” seems to reflect his own sense of the royal family’s dwindling relevance. Watching the BBC’s increasingly awkward rolling coverage over the course of the day, the quotations chosen to illustrate the Prince’s interest in conservation seem to make this clear.
“We depend on being part of the web of life”, he is shown to say at one point. “We depend on every other living thing on this planet, just as much as they depend on us.” This attitude of “we’re all in this together” echoes the changing nature of the British class system, and the royal family’s relationship to its subjects. Over the decades since, this sense of a class equilibrium would gradually come to dominate. Our prior understanding of the “ruling” class has been downplayed in favour of a liberalised sense of difference, through which class positions are defined less by disparities of wealth and power than they are differences in taste and tradition.
Nevertheless, the twentieth century remained a time of great upheaval, and Philip’s fear for the monarchy shines through the ages. In a colour clip, evidently filmed later than the Prince’s appeals to equilibrium, increasing democratic power and its threat to the monarchy permeates his ecological anxieties. Philip says:
If we as humans have got this power of life and death — not just life and death, but the extinction and survival of other species of life — then we ought to exercise it with some sort of moral sense… Why make something extinct if we don’t have to?
More than any other clip, it is this one that contains the most subtext relevant to the royal family’s own survival. Nevertheless, Philip’s seemingly wholesome and compassionate attitude was repeatedly contradicted by his love of hunting and other stereotypical class pursuits, which make attempts to show a mastery and command over nature that no other stratum of class seems compelled to exercise.
The BBC, to its credit, nodded to this tension in its coverage, whilst nonetheless privileging the Prince’s own defences of fox hunting and the hunting of game birds. Defending himself, the Prince explains:
There is an advantage in people wanting to shoot, because if you have a game species you want it to survive, because you want to have some more next year. It’s exactly like a farmer — you want to crop it, you don’t want to exterminate it.
Though it may sound cynical, this seems commensurate with the ruling class’s attitude towards the working class and their own position in contemporary society. Don’t exterminate us, the royal machine cries, we are prime crop for tourism! It is an argument that seems to oddly resonate with the more reactionary quarters of the working class, who mistakenly believe the royal family contributes far more than their own families do, in terms of their economic impact on the national bank account. In the sprawling class (eco)system of the postmodern Britain, the royals position themselves as a particularly regal animal, which has its place alongside more common species.
It is a belief that the Prince would more or less confirm for himself in his later years. In an interview for the BBC, for instance, he rejects being labelled “green” — that is to say, an environmentalist in the compassionate post-hippie sense of the word. When asked why, he responds:
I think there is a difference between being concerned for the conservation of nature and being a bunny-hugger. When I was president of the WWF, I got more letters about … the way animals were treated in zoos than about any concern for the survival of the species. People can’t get their heads around the idea of a species surviving.
It seems the Prince, in turn, could not get his head around the fact that some people see survival in captivity to be a technicality rather than a life worth living. Meghan Markle’s complaints about royal life come to mind. Her experience of royal captivity made her suicidal. It seems that Meghan and Harry, in their arrogance, have revealed themselves to be bunny-huggers of another variety, more concerned about their own reputations and comfort than the survival of the royal species.
But here we see how Prince Philip’s ecological thinking has always been outdated. His primary interest was in preserving the natural world for his own enjoyment of its riches. Though his anxieties reflect the anxieties of the royal family in general, he hoped to maintain an existing ecosystem, static and doing just fine, rather than interrogate our understanding of ecology — the relationships between species, ourselves included, and the consequences of those relationships of the environment at large.
This was, of course, an argument put forward by Felix Guattari in his book, The Three Ecologies. Arguing that a new kind of ecological thought is necessary if we were to understand how the media, technology and class are integral to any genuinely radical environmentalism, he suggests that “this is the only possible way to get social and political practices back on their feet, working for humanity and not simply for a permanent reequilibration of the capitalist semiotic Universe”.
Guattari’s insistence that we think about the environment politically — that is to say, as a concern that is innate to other sociopolitical concerns, such as class and capitalism — casts the royals’ environmentalism is stark relief. In fact, it is telling that many members of the royal family have taken up environmental causes as a way to root around their agreement not to get involved in the country’s political affairs. (Although Prince Charles has often revealed how thin this line is in being repeatedly accused of political “meddling” on environmental issues.) Guattari was, once again, ahead of the curve here. He continues:
Current ecological movements certainly have merit, but in truth I think that the overall ecosophical question is too important to be left to some of its usual archaizers and folklorists, who sometimes deliberately refuse any large-scale political involvement. Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority or with qualified specialists. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations, whose sweeping progress cannot be guaranteed to continue as it has for the past decade.
In light of the present discussion, the royal family loom large as a peculiar set of actors in this debate. In making the environment an apolitical or suprapolitical issue, they have found a way to make a subtly political stand in favour of their own survival, reinforcing their own relationship to the land and the peoples and creatures who live on it. Prince Philip’s death has given the establishment an excuse to put this kind of thinking on display, and we might take note of this in thinking about the future of the royal family themselves, as members of what Guattari calls a “social ecology”.
The death of Prince Philip will remind many people that the Queen herself cannot be much longer for this world. When she passes, Prince Charles will likely become king, and Prince Philip has coached his son magnificently in the game of environmental suprapolitics. Charles’ own passion for Britain’s various ecosystems will surely enable the royals to persist in their place for decades to come. Unless, of course, we find a way to discuss their cynical environmentalism for what it is — a belief in the preservation of one species in particular: their own.