Our History Is Written in Both Cum and Blood: Modern Rejection of the Queer Grotesque

Photograph: Phillip, Legs on Toes by Robert Mapplethorpe.

"[It is] the teaching of safe sodomy."

-Phyllis Schlafly on Everett Coop's AIDS education program for children

"All America and all the world will hear what the people have said, and with God's continued help, we will prevail in our fight to repeal similar laws throughout the nation which attempt to legitimize a life style that is both perverse and dangerous."

-Anita Bryant on the repeal of Dade County ordinance 77-4, which outlawed discrimination in housing, employment, and public services on the basis of sexuality

It has become fashionable to disown things, to disown people, to write off social and artistic movements, artists of all kinds, and  whole periods of history along with the people who lived through and helped to form them. Nowhere is this practice more in vogue than among the youngest members of the gay community. "Cancel culture" as practiced in online fandom and other artistic communities demands a constant culling of both artists and art deemed morally objectionable as well as the public repudiation of both by members who wish to keep their loosely defined "good standing." 

Central to this ethos is the idea that evidence of sexuality in public spaces -- and even in controlled and moderated ones -- is inherently harmful and in violation of consent. The wellbeing of children is routinely invoked as a reason to keep sexuality private and to separate art with sexual content from art without, or even to bar it outright. The notion that gay and transgender people pose an inherent danger to children is hardly a new one. Since the sexual turmoil of the 1960s and '70s conservative political groups like Save Our Children, Inc, have made it a calculated centerpiece of the anti-gay agenda. Its centering stemmed from polling results which showed straight women didn't fear their gay co-workers and friends, and as an attempt to instill in those women fear that their children might be in danger where they themselves were safe, it worked.

WON'T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN?

To dissect the modern adoption of this belief we need look no further than the nearest Victoria's Secret billboard. It's not the images of women in lingerie that occasion alarm so much as it is the idea that this form of public sexuality is at worst grudgingly and silently accepted, at best considered wholly distinct from "deviant" or "damaging" sexuality. Why whip up a hate mob over artist Kevin Wada's commissioned picture of Thor and Loki from the Marvel films depicted in a quasi-incestuous (while raised together, the characters are not biologically related) laughing and nude with their arms around each other when it could never in a million years achieve the kind of public visibility, and thus alleged psychic harmfulness, sexualized advertising regularly achieves? 

It's hard to imagine that the answer doesn't stem at least in part from the idea that "abnormal" sexuality is more tenuously acceptable than straight sexuality, its status open to censorship in a way straight culture is not. Moralistic social movements do of course sometimes take aim at straight sexuality, but artists in mainstream straight culture are in far less economic and physical danger than sex workers, physically unacceptable (fat, disabled, etc) people, and members of the gay and transgender communities. Sex workers and pornographers in particular, and even those artists whose work is deemed adjacent to either field, are at particular risk for being labeled unsafe or accused of "grooming" youth and children merely by creating and selling their work.

1977 Save Our Children flyer

The idea that children ought have no awareness of sexuality as anything beyond a procreative act carried out behind closed doors is self-evidently a cornerstone of modern straight culture. While the political Right is more vocal in its condemnation of sex education, no one is eager to discuss sex or sexuality in a context which places it on a continuum with other central experiences of social life. In fact society coercively assigns sexual meaning to acts and images (breastfeeding, the photography of Sally Mann) which have none in and of themselves. It's hard not to see the shadow of the archetypal straight father in this behavior, a powerful guardian not just able but compelled by morality to "protect" his daughters until their transfer to another man's authority through marriage. The question of how children are to explore and grasp their own sexuality is left unaddressed, relegated to the netherworld of topics unfit for the dinner table.

But what happens when you hide all sexuality but the packaged, airbrushed meat market of straight advertising and popular culture from children? Imagine never teaching a child about preparing a meal, or about art, or conversation, or love. By withholding knowledge of sexuality and treating it as poisonous and dangerous, society creates unstructured, unprotected space in which the very predation and sexual dysfunction they fear can more readily occur. Motivation seems almost immaterial given the squarecore ferocity of the movement for compulsory wholesomeness, but a mix of shame, self-loathing, mob security, and traumatized reactivity seems likely. The gay community is more often than others an unprotected one, and abuse both from within and without run rampant with greater frequency than in mainstream culture. It's only natural to be desperate for what little safety we can hold, or imagine ourselves to hold.

ON FUCKING, FAMILY, AND DIRTINESS

Vic Lockman, “The ERA Trojan Horse Is Full of Abominations …” from The Equal Rights Amendment: A Trojan Horse.

The supreme court's 2015 decision in recognition of the right of gay citizens to marry was a watershed moment. The undesirable were not just legally accepted but brought suddenly under the auspices of respectable society and given access to many of the social benefits found therein, an apparent deathblow to gay panic groups both unofficial and state-sanctioned. Yet in the decision's wake gay inclination toward assimilation into mainstream culture caused many to adopt the very viewpoints used against them and their forebears. Popular sentiment for the repression of displays of gay sexuality effectively colonized wide swaths of the gay community itself, the carrot of two-kids-two-cars-and-a-white-picket-fence succeeding where the stick of rampant homelessness, rape, and murder had failed.

It's a stereotype to say that all gay and transgender people have terrible relationships to their birth families, but it's just as dishonest to claim that rejection by family for one's sexuality or identity isn't a traumatic experience even without the poverty, isolation, and struggle to which it typically leads. The idea of safety is a powerful lure to people who have been through such an experience, or who've lived surrounded by those who have and immersed in their pain. That in trying to preserve access to that safety they turn in kind on those less desirable than themselves only reveals the cruel joke of modern society's propensity to divide infinitely its untouchables, forcing us into fractal competition with each other for the table scraps we're permitted.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

A movement for queer safety and security is bankrupt unless it advocates for all of us. Sex work too is, while fraught with danger and exploitative dynamics in large part due to its illegal status, an essential component of women's liberation. Increasingly strict legislation concerning online advertising and streaming of pornography has rendered some of the last safe havens for sex workers untenable and outright erased others. Lives rest on the arbitrary decisions of tech moguls as to whether or not a certain kind of art is permitted on their privately owned platforms.

All this is the fruit of sexual repression, of the belief that non-normative sexuality belongs behind closed doors or even lock and key. Any sex worker could have told you the same. Many did. Tumblr's porn ban, Facebook's rules about soliciting or offering sex, it all contributes to a world where sexual knowledge and experience exist in a kind of lawless hinterland. And for what? So kids don't see pictures of the brothers from Supernatural kissing? Children walk in on their parents during sex, endure the constant bombardment of pop culture's sexual elements, and get their hands on sexual art regardless. The decision culture has isn't whether or not they learn about sex, but how safe and loved they are while doing so. 

The whole thing is a disgrace from start to finish, a rejection of the beauty that is liberated queer sexuality, of the belief that our bodies and the love we hold for one another have inherent beauty, of the degradation and suffering of those who died during the AIDS crisis. Our history is written in our cum as much as in our blood, in our love and the sweat and smell of our bodies at work and in the arms of those who cherish us. It's a rejection of the beauty of our deviancy from systems of sexual oppression and the strength and belonging we made for ourselves outside a system which both despises us and longs to shape us into its own image. 

I don't know what else to say.

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