The Queer Take: Contemplating 'allyship', 'safe spaces' and my refusal of new-found properties in LGBTQ+ discourse
As I write this column just after Pride Month and I realise I haven’t always been this grumpy gay that doesn't want to join the parties and parades. So what changed?
The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
Looking back on this year, we might remember it for the current Covid crisis. But that would be a mistake. There were other moves made in the time of this pandemic to expose the subtle yet striking ways that the system has failed each one of us. Of course, it has failed a lot more of us than imagined or empirically calculated.
In the midst of this, I returned to bell hooks – the African-American woman writer who has been mining lessons from her history and lived experiences to cultivate weapons that help us take on the "imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy". It might take travelling through bell hooks’ 30 books and other writings to see the precise, prophetic and patient way in which she reveals these nouns to be adjectives and the kinds of violence meted out to marginalised bodies, making crystal clear the intentions of those wielding the power.
I’ve been attempting to tame, tie together these thoughts that have been gushing forth while deep-diving into hooks’ books as well as listening to her in conversation with everyone from the radical thinker Cornel West, feminist icon Gloria Steinem to trans actress-activist Laverne Cox. In witnessing the ways that stories from (still?) silenced, shamed bodies are valued, I was gifted with the sparks to further ignite and illuminate ideas of my own. I’m writing this column just after Pride Month and realising I haven’t always been this grumpy gay that doesn't want to join the parties and parades. So what changed?
Having spent this same month reading and listening to hooks and her words, I have used them as the lens to locate the source of my own resistance and refusal of these new-found properties that have come to be associated with Pride in the LGBTQ+ discourse. Through this act of writing down my thoughts, I hope to stop them from simply swimming around in my head, settle them in my skin – or at the very least mark the time when the flimsy found safety.
I’ve always had irrational doubts about any form of hyphenation in people’s titles or descriptions of themselves. As a freelance writer, on encountering these marks, I would automatically roll my eyes. At second glance, I’d be impressed by the individual’s ability to traverse multiple domains – not just the business side of it but the social skills required to do so. I’d play this game: What came first, the writer or the theatre director? What do they love more, coding or design? Whenever I have made this game more public, no one has been interested in playing. In fact, everyone seemed familiar with the mechanics of having a finger in those many professional pies. For the first time, perhaps, mansplaining didn’t turn me rabid when a straight male friend, annoyed at this game, shouted: "It is the same way you can be Black, queer, Indian and many other things at the same time." I didn’t know whether to be proud or terrified of him. I have stopped rolling my eyes at these kind of word sequences since.
Oppressive systems aren’t gendered (thanks, bell!). So, here’s some gratuitous mansplaining. It’s called intersectionality: the ability to embody diverse identities and see that the enemy is common to each one of them. To know that we aren’t small, silent or shameful, it is the system that has made us so. One can’t be gay and be anti-abortion. This isn’t because you can’t make that choice for your own life, it is because the same system oppresses all of our bodies and defines these dimensions and desires too. One can’t be gay and show preferences – where one body, one caste, creed or community is privileged over another – because we have to interrogate the source of these attractions. Herein also lies the real trouble: in acting upon these preferences, we mirror the violences enacted by the larger society on even the best hidden among us.
Please stop using the word “ally”. Please. Stop. It wounds me. I can’t sleep at night. I haven't been able to escape into the resistance or revelry rising out of my Instagram feed without tripping over this word over the past month (and the past several years). I don’t mean don’t do the hard work of understanding the ways you can help dismantle the systems of violence that my brothers, sisters, friends, lovers and I have to face every day. Please don’t stop doing that; it is important, necessary, thankless work. But seeing each other as whole humans allows wholeness for one’s self too, right? Or if you’ll only learn with a sting, I’ll use the words of Nikki Giovanni for the first cut: cause I ain’t shit you must be lower than that to care. Right?
Fine, don’t goad me. I’ll give you another reason why the word “ally” doesn’t sit right with me. This one might make you feel special too (or a balm for your cut?). hooks reminds us that it is a complete disservice to the path of re-education you’ve embarked on. She insists that you’ve chosen to be active, aware and aren’t an ally alone. So maybe don’t undersell yourselves? Also, “ally” implies it isn’t your war, a choice our community doesn’t actually have.
I’m also tired of this persisting need for “safe spaces”. In a world away from the ways you have mangled it, that word does harbour an attractive hue for us. But I think the minute it is co-opted by a capitalistic saviour complex, it does lose its sense of succour. I wrestle words to express my take on this but hooks has them down pat so I’ll borrow them. She says: I’m actually critical of the notion of safety – in my work. What I want is for people to feel comfortable in the circumstance of risk. Because I think that if we wait for safety – then fear will hold us back. So, I’m interested in what does it mean for us to cultivate together? A community that allows for risk, the risk of knowing someone outside of your own boundaries, the risk that is love, there is no love that doesn’t involve risk.
At its riotous, bloody, magnificent birth, the Pride March had attempted to acknowledge – even if it hadn’t begun to address – these possible worlds that (in the present climate) I’ve had to tentatively thread together. It has been fifty years since trans activists Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Riviera pioneered the Stonewall uprising with several other activists – and our outrage at the world remains at the level of being upset with a “queer anthem” being sung by a straight man financed by a corporation to show support to the LGBTQ+ community. How did it even come to this? Yes, we have definitely come a long way...but maybe in the wrong direction?
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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