“It’s only through learning how to feel the full rainbow of feelings that we’ll be able to experience queer joy…”
When JKP asked me to write a piece on queer joy for Pride season my immediate response was ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’ After these past two years, how can a focus on joy – or pride for that matter – be anything but a deluded kind of ‘back to normal’ dream: a dangerous denial of what we’ve been through, what we’re still going through? On reflection though I began to wonder about receiving the phrase ‘queer joy’ as an invitation. What might it mean to queer joy?
If we take queer as a noun – an umbrella term for our LGBTQIA+ community – then it’s hard to find much joy. At a cultural level, the pandemic disproportionately impacted queer people’s mental health and queerphobic hate crime soared. The recent government U-turns on banning conversion therapy, and subsequent decision to do so only for sexual orientation, reflects the ongoing moral panic against trans folks, and how intersex and a-spectrum people are rarely included under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella in more than name, given that erasing practices for these groups are some of the most extreme and commonplace.
The impact of living through this time has been even greater for those – many of us – whose queerness intersects with other marginalisations: disabled folks who’ve seen COVID policies and practices centre abled people and treat them as disposable; those who the current economic crisis is pushing into ever-deeper levels of poverty; and people of colour – also disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, rises in hate crime, and endless cultural gaslighting of their experiences past and present.
At a community level, this has all taken a massive toll. In the last year alone, my close communities have seen six deaths, all related to mental health struggles rather than COVID itself.
While we might want to tell joyful stories of queer communities drawn closer during a time of crisis, the truth – for many of us – is the opposite. Understandably, given our experiences of both cultural trauma, and frequently the developmental trauma of not being fully accepted by our close people growing up, many of us have fallen back on our unconscious survival strategies: attacking outwards – blaming and ostracising those who seem to be hurting, abandoning or endangering us; attacking inwards against ourselves, or crossing our own – or others’ – boundaries in attempts to get our needs met; withdrawing into smaller and smaller zones of safety; and/or avoiding pain by distracting ourselves, distancing from those who’re struggling, and rushing ‘back to normal.’
I read the request to write this piece as an invitation to focus on the light for a moment, because haven’t we all had enough darkness?
These reactions have bumped up against each other painfully, often resulting in irreparable rifts and ruptures, which only exacerbate our levels of isolation and distress. It’s been hard indeed to face other’s limited capacities to hold us through this crisis, perhaps harder still to face our own tendencies to default back to habits which hurt ourselves and others.
So where is the potential for queer joy in all of this?
Queer activists generally use the word queer as a verb: a doing word. The doing is a radical questioning of normative understandings of gender and sexuality, but also way more than that. Queering challenges all the interwoven axes of oppression that position one group as more valid and valuable than another, and all the culturally accepted ways in which we relate to others and ourselves.
Under this definition, we could find queer joy in a refusal to go ‘back to normal,’ recognising that normal has never worked for marginalised people like us. We could find it in insisting on being radically honest about what’s going on in the world and in our communities right now: understanding the links between our own individual trauma patterns and the traumatised and traumatising forms of relating we’re embedded in, including social and climate injustice.
We could find queer joy – and solidarity – in this kind of clear-seeing (or queer-seeing) of what we’re all up against, and in our determination to find better ways, knowing that our experiences actually make us some of the best-placed people and communities to do so.
Another meaning of the verb queer is troubling the binary understandings that so much normativity is founded upon. In addition to the heteronormative binaries of straight/gay and man/woman, we could extend this to include all those binaries that render one group of people centred and another marginalised, one intelligible and another invisible, one valuable and another disposable.
From this perspective we might also question the valuing of certain emotional states over others. I read the request to write this piece as an invitation to focus on the light for a moment, because haven’t we all had enough darkness? But what if we can only have light by also embracing the darkness? Pride by acknowledging our (cultural, community, individual) shame? Joy by making room for all the feelings that are not-joy too?
There’ve been many attempts to identify the fundamental emotions. For our purposes, I’m going to say there are seven (mostly because it fits the nice queer metaphor that I’m planning to shoehorn into this section). These are joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise, and some kind of category for loving/peaceful/powerful feelings (opinions vary on this one).
Emotion wheels illustrate these seven feelings, and all the other feelings under each category, in rainbow colours (see where I’m going with this?) As with rainbows (the actual kind and our LGBTQIA+ kind), emotion experts from ancient Buddhists to present-day psychologists emphasise that we need all of the emotions/colours. Instead of our common cultural binary that renders some emotions ‘good’ and others ‘bad’, and tries to maximise the one and avoid the other, such approaches invite us to become intimate with all seven, and all shades within and between them, embracing them as we would dear friends. Indeed, many would argue that it’s only to the degree that we’re able to flow through all of these feelings that we can fully experience any of them. In trying to eradicate sadness, for example, we would also lose joy, as in the movie Inside Out.
So bring on your queer rage, your queer terror and grief and shame. All are welcome here. It’s only through learning how to feel the full rainbow of feelings that we’ll be able to experience queer joy, and to see how we hurt ourselves – and others – when we repress these feelings, or react from them in order to get out of them as quickly as possible. Only with the full rainbow of feelings can we really understand what we – and others – are up against, and find some understanding and kindness for that.
To me that’s the message of the wonderful recent queer film Everything Everywhere All At Once, which is all about how we might stop passing trauma on from generation to generation as we’re currently doing. The tortured – and torturing – character, Jobu Tupaki, who has (queerly) seen it all, says that she was just looking for someone who could see what I see, feel what I feel. While admitting their human smallness and stupidity, the other characters find their way to give her that, if only for fleeting moments. I’ll leave it here with another quote from that movie:
“The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind. Please, be kind. Especially when we don’t know what’s going on.“
Hell Yeah Self-Care, How to Understand Your Gender, Life Isn’t Binary and many more must-read books by Meg-John Barker are available at JKP.com, or wherever you buy books. Get 25% off using discount code JKPPRIDE25 at checkout, offer only on JKP.com, valid until the end of June.
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