In the last few years, I’ve repeatedly come across a patch that says “Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you.”
On the surface, this little saying makes me grin. It comes with an image of a woman clad in a 50s-style dress, toting a gun. Arrr. Rebellious queers unite! I almost bought it myself a couple of years ago, but I settled on “Out of the Closet and Into the Libraries” and “I Fuck to Cum, Not to Conceive” instead. Books and sex, yeehaw!
Of course, though, I had to start thinking about that first line a bit more. And when that happens, I start to come up with other layers of meaning in things, which may or may not have been the intention of the creator of this lovely piece of queer underground political statement paraphernalia.
“Not gay as in happy.” Okay, fair enough. Gay and happy are synonyms, technically speaking. But anyone who’s used the term “gay” to mean “happy” in the last, oh, fifty years or more has been either quaintly and deliberately retro in their vocabulary choice, completely and utterly clueless about social movements for sexual minorities, or intending some sort of double-entendre.
“Queer as in fuck you.” Also fair enough. Queer is a form of massive identity-based politico-academi-sexual fuck-you to the conformist vanilla heterosexual monogamous morass of mainstream Western culture. Bang on, baby; this is an accurate use of the term, even if there are lots of mild-mannered queers out there who aren’t likely to dress like housewives and wield pistols to make their point.
That being said, when you juxtapose the idea of gayness as being about happiness and queerness being about in-your-face rage, we start to tread on territory that doesn’t sit quite so well with me. Perhaps I’m wildly misinterpreting, but it makes me wonder if this little gem is somehow reinforcing a rather erroneous perception of the illustrious history of past generations of same-sex-loving, sodomy-practicing, gender-tweaking activists.
“Gay as in happy.” Gays hardly have a history of being happy. Not in that they were or are necessarily miserable – though the early sexologists and later psychiatrists would certainly have seen it that way, much like present-day religious right and ex-gay movement leaders. But “gay as in happy” conveys this image of passive, smiling gays available for heterosexual entertainment and beautification purposes, which is certainly part of the picture (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, anyone?), but not all of it by any means – though perhaps the straight world may historically have preferred it or portrayed it that way.
Angry gays have gotten us a lot of places. Take Stonewall as an excellent starting point. When a few dozen freaks simply had enough of being abused by the New York City police in 1969, they fought back. Not so much with shotguns, but with bricks and broken beer bottles and high-heeled shoes, yes indeed. These are the riots that ignited generations of gay activism, without which we might not have any of the progress we’ve managed to make today. Fast-forward a couple of decades to the founding of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) in 1987, which staged massive direct-action street-theatre protests and demonstrations to channel the overwhelming frustration and anger of thousands of unjustly suffering gay people and other people with AIDS, and to force the governments of both the US and Canada to pay attention to the rising AIDS epidemic. Again, they set the stage (literally and figuratively) for massive history-making change in the way HIV/AIDS was treated by the media, the government, employers, drug companies and the medical profession, without which we would certainly never have come as far as we have.
Even just those two examples are certainly a lot more “gay as in fuck you” than “gay as in happy,” and the list of similar examples is long and distinguished.
I’m not saying that the producer of this little patch was intending to be dismissive of gay anger and its incredibly productive history. Perhaps the intention was simply to play with the words to create a powerful, punchy message about queer identity… and it works.
At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a piece of the message that supports the idea that gay people are necessarily conservative fuddy-duddies, and queers are by opposition necessarily righteous radical activists; that old is weak and passé, young is strong and cutting-edge. I feel strongly that it’s important to hold onto our admiration and respect for the people who came before us, even if some of those same people don’t really “get it” today when they look at the ideas, practices and vocabularies of the queer generation. I don’t appreciate it when younger people, particularly activists, dismiss the value and contribution of older ones; they got us here and gave us foundations to build on. Perhaps we’ve gone in new directions, and perhaps there are generational gaps and political misunderstandings now. But while I don’t believe in the whole “old dog can’t learn new tricks” thing – if political work is to remain relevant it must evolve, and that means that older generations of activists do bear a responsibility to work at understanding the younger ones that walk in their footsteps – I do believe we owe our elders respect, not dismissal.
Perhaps it’s simply that the juxtaposition of any two concepts, with the clear emphasis on the value of one, inevitably calls into question the value of the other, whether that’s the intended message or not. So while I’m all about the fuck-you value of queer politics, I can’t quite find it in myself to get behind a cute saying whose underlying message includes a potential sneer in the direction of the very people whose existence paved the way for mine.