Death of the Queer Community: An Essay on Labels

Marcy Taylor

Independent Studies

Professor Hackford-Peer

The Death of the Queer Community

 

Hope as Propaganda

It all began as a crusade, a quest, to find what hope meant and why people invested in it so freely.  When I was diagnosed with cancer, hope was flung around like it held the answers to my very critical problem, yet behind hope was fear; fear of death, fear of saying or doing the wrong thing and fear of the unknown.  I could not seem to buy into the hope campaign and I had to figure out why.  Everyone around me seemed to take hope and the ideas surrounding it at face value, using the term hope so often that I am convinced most people did not question its relevance.

Cancer provided me a space, an opportunity, to re-evaluate many things in my life and labels, like hope, screamed out to me to be examined and reconsidered.

I began researching the definitions of hope, where hope initially appears historically and the commodification of hope in our recent past.  Hope now appears as snappy slogans to win elections and gain funds in a war against disease.  Yet anytime I mentioned I didn’t believe in hope it was met with immediate gasps of dismay or verbal assaults on the mere mention of eradicating hope from our vernacular.  It seemed hope was tied up in many peoples outlook on future events as if it were a solid bet in the outcome of people’s lives.  How did hope become so important?

In October, of this year, a dear friend of mine succumbed to liver failure brought on my Stage IV pancreatic cancer.  Prior to his death we had numerous heartfelt conversations but one lengthy discussion has stuck with me.

Rich was a fervent advocate for hope.  He explained that without hope he wouldn’t have lived past his “death date,” which was only to live 6 months past his initial diagnosis.  Rich lived 18 months to the day after his diagnosis.  Being a father of a teenage boy and an 11-year-old daughter, this was valuable time he did not take for granted.  Each extra day was spent with his wife and children and for Rich; hope was the ingredient to get those extra days.

When I explained my position on hope, Rich wasn’t disgusted, offended or shocked, he was interested.  He wanted to explore my thoughts and create a dialogue around our ideas of hope.  After hours of questions and answers it became clear Rich believed that hope needed a reclamation period, a rescue from a commodity driven society.  He felt hope was now being used with a flippant attitude and that true hope was what the terminally ill, or any other dire life-threatening situation a person may find them in, needed.  Not a pink ribbon that speaks of money but a true sense of seeing another day, a goal to live to watch your children grow old.

 

Propaganda invades every facet of our lives, yet usually goes unnoticed.  According to Professor Thomas Huckin, propaganda “is false or misleading information or ideas addressed to a mass audience by parties who thereby gain advantage.  Propaganda is created and disseminated systematically (though not always consciously) and does not invite critical analysis or response.”[1]  According to this definition, hope has become another propagandistic campaign that does not lend to critical examination of its internal inconsistencies and, for too long, has been disseminated systematically to a mass audience who refuses to examine its troubling nature of inactive compliance to established religion, social constructs and hegemonic principles.

Hope as Commodity From

A campaign wanted to inspire “hope” for marginalized youth was created in March of 2010.  “The It Gets Better Project’s mission is to communicate to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth around the world that it gets better, and to create and inspire the changes needed to make it better for them.  “It Gets Better Project™” has become a worldwide movement, inspiring more than 50,000 user-created videos viewed more than 50 million times. To date, the project has received submissions from celebrities, organizations, activists, politicians and media personalities, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Adam Lambert, Anne Hathaway, Colin Farrell, Matthew Morrison of “Glee”, Joe Jonas, Joel Madden, Ke$ha, Sarah Silverman, Tim Gunn, Ellen DeGeneres, Suze Orman, the staffs of The Gap, Google, Facebook, Pixar, the Broadway community, and many more. For us, every video changes a life. It doesn’t matter who makes it.”[2]

“It Gets Better Project” is now a trademarked non-profit organization, infiltrating the hope industry, catering to the queer community.  It has become a corporation in peddling the idea that hope can heal and create a community within a commodity form.  To back its message a list of “famous” people have created a video to show solidarity for the queer community and, for the true follower, you can purchase merchandise from the It Gets Better store, to show your esprit de corps.

 

This campaign does not aim to change the climate of bullying, but is asking the queer community to hang in there until changes are made.  It is inactive.  It is placating hetero-normative principles and is asking a subculture of the population to use the tools that have created its own imprisonment.

Though many would argue, the fact queer suicide is now a national topic shows an improvement in social acceptance, I would argue usurping the Queer community into the dominant social structures is a marker of the cancer invading our Queer minds and bodies.

 

Many times it is not the queer youth that needs the counseling, or services or messages of “it gets better”, it is the community that is demonizing the youth that needs the societal shift in thinking.  The picture above states: “Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a life Worth Living.”  Should the work to be accepted be placed on the victim?  Should coming out be a prerequisite for creating a life worth living?  Why are we asking these youth to change and create anything?  We should be placing the blame on the aggressors and bullies.  Videos by angry queer youth, shaming their community, could be one way of combatting passive compliance of flippant phrases like “it gets better.”  Society at large has the problem, not the queer youth of our nation.

When politicians, courts and mass media create a spectacle of peoples emotional, domestic and physical lives through the lens of “daytime drama” it creates the dollar driven dreams of the capitalist industry.  People scurry to watch the live coverage of the Prop 8 case, and the gaze of the viewer sees the rainbow flags flying before the courthouse steps.  The labels “gay” and “lesbian” are used too often to count.  All the while, viewers are making assumptions on those terms and the retail stores stock their shelves with pink triangles and bumper stickers proclaiming “Repeal the H8.”

 

 

 

 

 

From Subculture Resistance to Hetero-Normative Incorporation

Style, for marginalized groups, provides a means to visually upset dominant ideologies.   These styles allowed for subculture to challenge dominate culture “at a symbolic level the ‘inevitability’, the ‘naturalness’ of a class and gender stereotypes.”[3]  Within these style codes, labels and definitions are given new meaning by the marginalized groups, creating a “style” within verbal queues and identification through labeling one another with words.  Detournement literally means, “detour”, however in the 1950’s an organization called “Letterist International” (a group of radical artists and theorists) used it as a technique to take capitalist icons or symbols and repurpose it to redefine or call attention to the internal logic (or lack thereof) of the cultural industry.

The queer community erected codes to include: argot, clothing, locations for leisure time, music, etc.  An example for the queer community would be the pink triangle.  Once used in concentration camps in Nazi Germany to signify homosexual males, in the 1970’s the symbol was reclaimed by the queer community as a symbol of pride for gay rights.  This type of resistance was shocking to the collective community, however for the queer community, it was a signal to dominate ideology that the queer community was reframing the labels placed upon them by reclamation and redefinition. There was solidarity in strife.

Due to the capitalistic structure of society, it is impossible to continue with a “brand” of opposition.  The cultural industry, with the help of mass media, begins to redefine the style of subculture groups and makes it a style fit for public consumption.  Today the pink triangle can be purchased on shirts, mugs, key-chains, flags, pillows, earrings … any object that can be redeemed for money you’ll find the pink triangle adorning it.  This illustrates how subcultures themselves get usurped into mainstream/hegemonic ideologies.

Much like propaganda, pop culture works by manipulating the viewer into a Utopian principle based off the premise of collective logic.  According to Fredrick Jameson, the mass-produced media “must otherwise rest on a peculiarly unconvincing notion of the psychology of the viewer, as some inert and passive material on which the manipulatory operation works.”[4]  In other words, the goal of production of media is to change the collective logic by granting the “manipulated viewer … specific gratifications in return for his or her consent to passivity.”[5]

Incorporation and Death

Once the queer community is given a space on the stage of popular culture, all the nuances of that subculture are reified and paraded on television commercials and witty sitcoms.  “Consumer products and brands are increasingly being used to signal identity, lifestyle choices and group memberships.”[6]  For the lesbian and bisexual community The L-Word is the beginning of the end of a the lesbian community, who had defined itself, wasn’t wanted by the general population, and without a doubt, disregarded by mass media.

Prior to The L-Word, advertisers ignored lesbians, as they were not a target group worth selling to.  For many lesbians, this was the only delight in being relegated to marginalized status.  There was satisfaction in creating ones own style without a heavy, constant pressure of advertisers infiltrating our bedrooms, our closets and our minds.

Going to the bar tonight?  Flannel shirt it is, with no regrets as to not being “sexy” enough.

Hiking you say?  Well sure, let me grab my fleece jacket and “waffle stompers!”

With the advent of The L-Word, however, the days of being unencumbered by the beauty culture are over.  Now you can purchase clothing, on the Showtime website, to match up with your favorite character and better yet, can purchase the make up to match your clothing.  Lest ye forget, you now have a pattern, a template, of what lesbian and bisexual women look like.

 

For consumers, The L-Word is their fetishized fantasies of “real” lesbians realized.   For the heterosexual male there is pillow fighting-girls-sleeping-over-doing their nails-piercing-ear lesbian-co-eds that they have fantasized/fetishized and can now be viewed on mainstream cable, no more embarrassing porn charges on the credit card bill.  Take the above sentence and place “lesbian”, “straight girl”, “hiker dyker”, “butch”, “femme”, “molly mormon”, whatever label you choose, each can now watch fetishized women’s bodies, adorned in hetero-normative ideologies and call it gay.

The funeral for the queer community has gone unnoticed.  The dead body of a subculture has no memorial, no resting place, because it is silently being passed around from one news agency to the next, from one sitcom to the next, from one political campaign to the next and from one social program to the next, all the while, consumers believe they are helping the queer, giving resuscitation efforts to a dead corpse.

 

Solutions/Resurrection

            In a word:  Resistance.  Resistance is the only solution to the problems illustrated above.

In my research I have found the queer community has become a product, which keeps us alienated from our “true” selves.  Mass Media has now made queer identity a commodity, an object, no longer a living, breathing, human being.

Long gone are the days of resistance through style.  Long gone are the days of solidarity in strife.  Magazine articles, television and commercials now infiltrate young queer minds and have them assimilate to their straight neighbors, friends and family.

Resisting the brand of “queer” is no simple task, as wearing a label (physically and mentally) is now required on the uniform of cultural identity.   Within the queer and straight communities everyone is lead to believe that we must identify our sexuality, political leanings, religion, etc.  Though it has been argued (and in some cases rightly so) that labels give us a seat at the table, in what ways are we restricting our participation in other groups?  In what ways are we hindering ourselves by applying labels?  And last, but certainly not least, who is in charge of the definitions given to those labels?

I have no perfect solutions, but one that I have given most thought to is a campaign of simply giving our names.  If people were forced to not label who/what they are, then people would have to spend time actually getting to know each other.  If, when meeting you for the first time, I was restricted from labeling my sexuality, it would provide a space of getting to know the “real” Marcy, not the quick adhered labeled Marcy.  In dialogue with a new person they would find nuances about me that would otherwise be lost in the label “lesbian.”

Resistance to labels, though difficult, is the solution that fits best in a society that wants things done quickly and efficiently, that has information in 0.12 seconds on a Google search, and doesn’t want/have time to make dinner.  In our mad dash of a life, the best resistance is idleness, a time to slow down and make a person get to know you, instead of you making it easy through the application of labels.


[1] “Propaganda defined”.  Unpublished, 2012.

[2]

[3] Hebdige, Dick,“Subculture the meaning of style.” New York: Routledge Publishing, 1979. Print.

[4] Jameson, Fredrick, The Political Unconscious; Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell University Press. Print. pp. 287.

[5] Jameson, Fredrick, ibid

[6] Ladendorf, Martina: “Commercialization of Lesbian Identities in Showtime’s The L-Word”, Culture Unbound, Volume 2, 2010: 265-282. Retrieved in October 2013. http:/www.cultureunbound.ep.liu.se

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