It’s about time that we deflate the self-congratulatory platitudes of white gay media and pop culture. As queers of colour, why would we get excited about ‘visibility’ and ‘inclusion’ into the very institutions that systemically police and denigrate us? As legal scholar Dean Spade exhorts in his book Normal Life, we are in desperate need of much more than superficial rights discourse and integration.
Having written elsewhere about the pitfalls of homonormative success, here I turn my attention to its perceived outliers and failures. Unsurprisingly, the pressure to be assimilated, happy, and proud erases outlaw bodies and their contingencies. There is much to celebrate, but in the race toward ‘progress’, who gets left behind?
In stark contrast to sculpted, moustached Castro Clones – the pristine images of triumphant machismo – disabled, classed, diasporic, queers of colour are branded undesirable killjoys. Lacking the velocity of forward movement, we are brandished with marks of exclusion. In contrast, the efficiency of white gay success is corporatized, marketed, made into a profitable brand.
Those who can’t fit into this constrictive ideal are often coerced into mimicking it. Within transgender culture, although ‘passing’ (as the opposite sex) is often privileged, it also alienates ambivalent, non-binary embodiments. But perhaps most pressing is the question: who can (literally) afford to pass? While working class trans women of colour painstakingly manoeuvre around legal and clinical obstacles to gain access to life-saving healthcare, Caitlyn Jenner ostentatiously inaugurates herself into public consciousness through exorbitant surgeries, fashion spreads, and a reality TV show. She advertises her transition, while others within her community have to blend in for fear of fatal repercussions. It becomes apparent that race and class are intertwined factors that promote access for certain bodies, while depriving others of the same.
Though seemingly disparate, gendered, sexual, and national borders are often jointly policed. Those who are visibly queer are therefore subject to heightened scrutiny in liminal spaces such as airports and detention centers. In a blur of post-9/11 paranoia, claims that “terrorists” cross-dress to distract security or disguise explosives expose genderqueer and trans people of colour to unnecessary interrogation. On a personal level, they also risk being outed by security staff under extreme public scrutiny. As queers of colour, we are constantly forced to ricochet between invisibility and hyper-visibility.
In detention centers, all manner of violences toward queer and transgender people, from misgendering to sexual assault, go unchecked. Ironically, queers who seek asylum in the United States and Europe end up facing the same harassment as they did in their countries, decentering white exceptionalism. Disillusioned, undocumented, and deported, queers on borders face a toxic cocktail of xenophobia, racism, and transphobia.
But what about those of us who want to remain on the borders? Some of us have come to accept failure and rejection as part of our daily existence. Analyzing disability, queer theorist Jasbir Puar observes that recovery is often repackaged into a lucrative business. The pressure to ‘fit in’ and ‘get better’, à la everyone’s favourite assimilationist Dan Savage, acknowledges despair and disability only as stepping-stones toward recuperation. All manner of “solutions”, from the pharmaceutical to the psychological, thus become viable financialized options for bodies to become ‘better’.
Despite shunning the spoils of success, killjoys exhibit many different forms of prowess and vitality. We occupy space and travel through time with thrilling variety. Using technologies of self-representation – from hormones to fashion – queer bodies proactively shape their intricacies. These complex embodiments are rendered even more volatile when they move through space and time. There isn’t a static, deterministic image of a queer, performative body. I have previously theorized this latent queer mystique as techno-bodies through time. In effect, queerness is a vast, unknowable spectrum of contradicting and undiscovered pluralities that cannot be reduced to a singular marketable aesthetic.
In particular, I discuss this proposition in relation to the work of three non-binary, genderqueer artists of colour: Evan Ifekoya and duo Bhenji Ra & Justin Shoulder. All three artists work heavily in time-based media like video and performance, which allow them to flesh out the particularities of their intersectional personae. In Nature/Nurture sketch (2013), a video by London-based Ifekoya, the artist dances uninhibitedly in two separate screens over a Venus X track. However, we are unaware that they are dancing to two very different styles of music in each of the screens: one from their Nigerian ethnicity, and the other, a Smiths song from their adolescence in England.
Growing up a Third culture kid, Ifekoya is influenced by a plethora of divergent music genres, all of which feed into their flailing flamboyance. Their queer intersectional identity cannot be easily pinpointed or homogenized. Although the two screens merge into one about halfway through the video, hinting at some sense of unity and resolution, spectators are still not privy to the artist’s ontologies of dance and music. Pointedly, Ifekoya’s sketch is one that is self-filmed, improvisational, and unknowable.
Queer phantasms also feature in Australian duo Bhenji Ra & Justin Shoulder’s video work, Deep Alamat (2014). The duo shares that ‘alamat’ is a Filipino vernacular that holds multiple meanings and cannot be easily translated. Its productive unknowability echoes that of the artists’ intersectional queer identities. Compared to biometrics or ‘deep face’ technologies that register racial and gender traits, the duo remains strategically unidentifiable by performing their subjective differences.
In Alamat, Ra forfeits the assumed undetectability of their persona, Beige Cantrell, by channeling these deterministic scanning technologies through various dance styles. Despite their micro-expressions, Ra’s performative body fails to replicate technocratic precision, productively abjecting and disidentifying with the surveillance systems that police bodies of difference. While flux is at the core of Ra’s practice, Shoulder neurotically invests in his ‘fantastic creatures’. Alamat features OO, an amorphous creature with lurid, pink aposematic patterns: bodily ornamentation that animals use to deter predators. OO also performs camouflage poses that paradoxically amplify its presence. Counter-intuitively, its attempts at disguise and deflection are grandiose, betraying a desire to be simultaneously seen and hidden. Mirroring queer-of-colour realities, Beige and OO strategically embody conflicting conditions of visibility.
Like Ifekoya, the duo moves through time unpredictably, further complicating their queer embodiments. Interestingly, Alamat is organized around a strict temporal framework, beginning with 30-second close-ups of each character which half over time until the individual frames collide in a jarring merger. The mathematical exactitude undergirding Alamat unravels chaotically as the artists’ sissy performances prove too overwhelming to contain.
Elegized queer theorist Jose Munoz theorized ephemeral gestures as unlikely evidence of queer presence. These leftover traces are transmitted fleetingly through performative bodies. Ifekoya echoes Munoz’s sentiment, viewing their musical movements as “a way of producing knowledge.” Similarly, when Beige and OO finally come face-to-face, they size each other up, only nearly touching before the video abruptly ends. Information is obtained, but only in the most transient and uncertain of moments.
In our era of new-fangled false freedoms, the pressure to achieve a narrow ideal of gay success ostracizes huge demographics. What all three artists demonstrate most urgently through their practices is the array of queer realities and representations that interact and thrive (quite happily) on the fringes. Silenced and exiled, we continue our dance of disdain.
As long as you’re dancing, you can
break the rules.
– Mary Oliver, Three Things to Remember.
Part of the lifework/worklife series.