‘I feel that every good thing that has happened in my life has come from being queer.’
Sometimes a line just won’t let go. Sometimes a line just sticks.
It was the conclusion to an interview with Andrea Lawlor about their novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (2017). It seemed carefully chosen, as if to pose a parting challenge: is this true for you? Logically, it couldn’t be. I have two parents and three siblings, who are mundanely, gloriously, and definitionally straight. Some of my best friends are straight. Many of my favourite writers, and most of my favourite artists. But logic has little to do with it. That line stuck to me because I stuck to it.
What had left me so sticky, like cool sweat on a warm thigh? Maybe I was failing as a reader, a listener, a looker. Maybe I was the only one thinking that, for about a decade or so, at least in those places that proclaim themselves the mainstream of literary culture, and in the work of a new generation of writers, queerness seemed only allowed to enter that mainstream so long as it was confessed as being the source of every bad thing in one’s life. Trauma, abuse, rejection, destructive relationships, damaged selves. The full spectrum of extraordinary unhappiness.
A friend once said of top surgery that no matter how much you look forward to it, it’s only when it happens that you realise exactly what had been missing. You never can wholly control the things you cling to. But you can figure out what has made you the surface you are.
‘From my childhood I have no happy memories.’ The first line of Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy (2014), a novel that crested to international acclaim, in the years that saw the rise of the far right in France, through its dissection of the relationship between xenophobia and homophobia among the country’s white working class. It announces from the start the absence of happiness from its world. That world, as well as featuring appalling poverty and violence, is where the narrator becomes aware of his desire, and the social meaning of that desire. The first time he hears it named –You’re the faggot, right? – he is spat on by two other children, and the name and the spit are ‘inscribed onto me permanently like stigmata’.
For Louis, to be baptised by the spit of others is to be sanctified by an incurable wound, a baptism so unlike that imagined by his predecessor Jean Genet. In Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), the gobs of spit that fall upon the body of the narrator, intended to shame him into silence, bloom into a garland of roses. Louis’ suffering leaves him unable, or unwilling, to understand the pain of others. ‘I don’t know how she felt when she said things like that to me,’ he responds, when his mother describes accidentally losing a pregnancy into a toilet bowl. The most he can do, with the benefit of an elite education, is to believe that ‘many modes of discourse intersected in my mother and spoke through her’. Unlike the narrator, she is not an individual with a history, but a category of sociological theory. The violence he suffers destroys his ability to see others as individuals, and yet it provides the material for a memoir disguised as a novel, a book which becomes his claim to individuality, and which enables him to change his name from the faggot Eddy Bellegueule to the writer Édouard Louis.
That to be gay is to be defined by suffering is the premise of the baroque symphony of trauma that is Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life (2015) as much as the solo recital of shame that is Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You (2016). To be gay is to be suffer among Puerto Rican New York in Justin Torres’s We the Animals (2011), among the Vietnamese-Americans of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019), among affluent Nigerians in Uzodinma Iweala’s, Speak No Evil (2018) and in Communist Poland in Tomasz Jedrowski’s Swimming in the Dark (2020).
Yet there can be unintended consequences to defining yourself by your suffering. What makes Louis’s second novel A History of Violence (2016) so compelling is his dawning awareness of the solipsism his suffering imposes upon him. This novel reveals the conflict between the narrator’s demand that his pain is accounted for and his commitment to solidarity, one which extends to trying to refuse to prosecute a Kabyle man who rapes him due to the racism of the French police system. The events leading to the rape are recounted by Édouard himself, and by his sister Clara, who tells Édouard’s account to her husband while Édouard secretly listens.
Clara also digresses to give her version of what happened when Édouard came out to his family, while Édouard, author and narrator, interjects. ‘We told him all that mattered was his happiness, all we cared about was he was happy (she’s lying) . . . we accepted him as he was (not true)’. But then the interruptions cease: ‘Sometimes I think Édouard told us he was different not so we could be closer to him or know him better . . . but actually for the opposite reason. In his heart he didn’t want us to accept him.’ ‘What I think’ she continues, ‘is that once he saw we accepted him, secrets and all, it made him hate us. He hated us because it ruined his plans, he couldn’t go and tell everyone how everything was our fault, and sometimes I think he never forgave us for accepting him how he is. That’s if you ask me.’ Clara draws our attention to the limits imposed by founding one’s identity on suffering. When identity is bought at the cost of solidarity with others, that individuality is forever mortgaged to unhappiness.
In contrast Didier, an older friend of Édouard, modelled on the sociologist Didier Eribon, believes that ‘the things we remember most clearly’, which make us who we are, ‘are always those that bring us shame’. And it is with a reminder of this interlacing of unhappiness, writing and individuality that the book ends, by quoting from Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990): ‘It turned out that it is impossible to write about happiness, or at least I can’t, which in this case amounts to the same thing after all; happiness is perhaps too simple to let itself be written about . . . a life lived in happiness is therefore a life lived in muteness’. Writing a story of unhappiness, at least for Louis, is the way to create oneself in writing. But what does it mean for queer life that its stories of happiness will remain forever silent?
It’s not just gay men, it’s not just novels. In Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), a graphic memoir so influential its author’s name gave us the Bechdel test – does a work feature two women in a scene without a man where they don’t talk about a man? – unhappiness about queer sexuality gives the imagery its very colour and form. Bechdel’s father, whose repressed affairs with young men were hidden from his children until after a suspected suicide, transmutes his shame and self-loathing into renovating the family home with ‘meticulous period interiors’, work mirrored by Bechdel’s own intricate drawings of him and the Gothic wooden house, panels she painted in muted monochrome. That palette, light grey on dark, is used to highlight, in a panel depicting the full and various dictionary entry, Fun Home’s definitions of queerness: ‘At variance with what is usual or normal in character, appearance, or action… strange… suspicious … qualmish; faint… to thwart, ruin; to put (one) in a bad position… Counterfeit.’ Queerness isolates each member of the family; another panel shows the house in cross-section, with each family member ensconced in a circle, absorbed in their separate pursuits: writing, drawing, creating. Queerness produces isolation, isolation produces creativity, creativity produces Bechdel’s ability to draw, and that produces Fun Home. And In the Dream House (2019) by Carmen Maria Machado, Difficult Women (2017) by Roxane Gay, The Lonely City (2016) by Olivia Laing…
Lists aren’t evidence, lists aren’t arguments, listing is barely even thinking. But sometimes lists can help us see what our faith in thinking can’t.
Scars on show at the pool.
Maybe it was ever thus, Fun Home suggests. Maybe queer writing was always born from isolation. For Bechdel, realising that she was a lesbian was at first ‘a revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind’. She trawls through the library, and one panel shows her hand grasping The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall, another a stack of books including E.M. Forster’s Maurice, first completed in 1914. Stories in which to be openly lesbian, unlike the grammatical disguises of Gertrude Stein, is to be condemned to loneliness; stories in which to be happily gay, unlike the evasions of Marcel Proust, is to be unpublishable until 1971.
Bechdel’s copy of Maurice is stacked in a pile with the books complied by those who rebelled against this litany of shame: Out of the Closets and into the Streets and Our Bodies, Ourselves: anthologies of the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, anthologies under the banner of rebellion: PRIDE. For many, Pride parades are about coming together to show the world you are proud, to show that being gay can means exactly what it seems – that you are happy! But pride only adds a glittering surface to the currents of shame that have flowed through queer writing, art and cinema since the 1960s, ‘as if pride were not the first manifestation of shame’, as Louis reminds us in The End of Eddy.
Academic queer theory sometimes appears to take pride in the shame it studies. This is in part a reaction to the more simplistically affirmative kinds of gay, lesbian and trans histories that were produced after the 1970s, books like Bechdel’s Out of the Closets and into the Streets, books which showed we were always here, we haven’t always suffered, we too can be happy. But the odd effect of universities defining themselves as the space which resists more optimistic attitudes to being queer is that the more negative approaches become aligned with those who are more ‘educated’, who have had their positivity dispelled by taking ‘Introduction to Queer Theory’. To be educated into queerness is also to be educated into shame, or a more sophisticated understanding of shame.
The queer theorist Heather Love tells the story of an academic conference on gay shame held in the United States in 2003, in which the organisers invited political activists from the Gay Shame movement, which had been set up in the 1990s in New York and San Francisco to fight gentrification and the commodification of queer culture. To the activists, the academics were fetishizing gay shame as an object of study rather than mobilising for change. To the academics, the activists were instrumental in a different way – they were only interested in shame as an impulse for action, unwilling, or unable, to spend time investigating the complex effects of mobilizing shame in a political struggle. No matter who was right, this was a battle over who gets to own shame, who gets to claim to be the most unhappy, as if that were the greatest prize a queer could obtain.
Asking why queerness has been so persistently associated with unhappiness can devolve into asking: well that depends on how you define queerness in the first place. These literary canons and academics conferences are signposts to the swamp that is finding a universally agreed definition of queerness. Definitions matter, not because they can be true, but because of what they enable you to do. Point, demarcate, draw boundaries in order to take up space. Definitions also shouldn’t matter, for the same reasons. What is important is what they end up doing, irrespective of what we believe they mean.
This means not asking why queerness seems defined by unhappiness, but looking at what queerness is doing in writing, and at what kinds of writing are doing queerness. Not what is queerness, but how it is being written?
One night I went out to a garage in South London to a night run by and for women, womxn, and those who reject such categories as tools of oppression. I was made to wait longer than my friends at the door, my fate decided by three butches in leather jackers and bikers’ boots, with magnetic, confident smiles. Inside the music was hard, fast and dark, and I soon lost my friends, who had other things on their minds. I found myself the only visible man among a group of strangers, and gradually, without noticing it at first, we all began to move in loose unison: legs whipping out and bodies jacking back, over and over again. No one paid any attention to me, I played no part in the currents of desire that were swirling all around me, but my body, and its difference, for how long I can’t remember, were invited to belong.
One night I went with a friend to a warehouse in Manchester to dance all Sunday. On the train there we cried; on the train back we saw Wolfgang Tillmans. Sometime in the afternoon my friend took me into a room where the only person who wasn’t a bearded gay man was a girl leaning against the wall, wearing a necklace which said TECHNOFEMINISM, who barely danced but just smiled. Soon a woman’s voice was singing a chorus over and over again, and everyone joined in, and it was played on loop for so long that I learned the words and joined in, singing with hundreds of the hardest-looking men preening and weeping as if centre on the stages of a hundred little operas. I didn’t know the song, I didn’t need to know the song to become just another diva in the crowd performing for an audience of one.
One night I went out clubbing with my boyfriend, and queued for an hour so he could be at the front of the dancefloor with his people, young black kids there to see a black transwoman sell out a club. Those tickets were also sold, it turned out, to a group of tiny Italian lesbians as well as to bankers in shirts and jackets. No one needed to say a thing, no one could say anything over the mixing of gospel choirs and deep bass, as the latter began to crush the former up against the DJ booth. That boyfriend and I spread ourselves into a shield, to give those the space they needed to dance alone, and the pleasure of dancing alone yet together.
I knew that I was what the word gay named as early as I can remember, but I’d never heard the word queer as anything other than an insult until I arrived at university. That might be a reason why endless arguments about what it means to be queer have felt to me to be unavoidable yet somehow dispensable. I know I live the life it is trying to name, but I know that life can be lived without that name. And I’ve never felt that life more intensely than in those moments in warehouses and clubs when people with different desires, desires which need to exclude others to be fulfilled, nevertheless come together to make something collective. Nothing so grand as a culture, nothing so bound to time as a generation, nothing so fixed as an identity. But some kind of collaborative loosening of the constraints of individuality produced by the collective difference of our desires.
The American scholar Saidiya Hartmann, who has devoted her life to studying the legacy of slavery in black American life, was once asked in an interview: ‘How do you define joy – what does joy mean to you?’ She replied:
‘I tend to describe joy as this experience of transformation or release from the constraint or costume of the individual or the subject into this other form. So, for me I think it’s about floating, it’s about being nothing and being everything at the same time; this sense of the self-disappearing in the context of the vastness of the earth, the ocean, the sky, the land. That kind of joy is always about self-dissolution, escape.’
Is this what it means to be happy? In those clubs, the working of desires and embodiments that I will never experience produced those moments where I felt suspended in that strange place between individuality and the collective, neither one nor the other, neither different nor the same, certain these were not my experiences alone, certain I was not writing the story that is ‘me’.
Big Dyke Energy
Is there any way of writing about happiness, queer or otherwise, that isn’t just obnoxious? Or boring? Is there any way of speaking about happiness that isn’t just a way of saying: ‘I’ve survived, why couldn’t you?’ Is there any way of talking about happiness that doesn’t also ask: ‘Shouldn’t you be trying harder?’
Maybe it isn’t possible to write about happiness at all. ‘Le bonheur écrit à l’encre blanche sur des pages blanches,’ wrote Henri de Montherlandt. ‘Happiness writes in white ink on a white page’. Happiness leaves no trace on a state of blankness, and it is happiness because it leaves no trace. In moments of happiness, we are not recording, we are not transcribing. We have not split our self between past and future, the split that takes place with every act of writing. These pencil marks, these dark pixels: messages to the future versions of our selves who will no longer be what they are now. Who will no longer be happy.
Or is it just that happiness writes in a colour we don’t know how to read? Secret lovers also write in white, and spies, and undercover agents, entrusting what is most important to lemon juice and invisible ink. The safest way to send a message on your phone is to ensure it deletes itself once it is read. Anarchist programmers have devoted a labour of love to make your encrypted message disappear into a luminous white screen.
For Freud, happiness appeared to be the purpose of life implicit in all human actions: human beings ‘strive for happiness, they want to become happy and remain so’. Yet for Freud ‘what we call happiness, in the strictest sense of the word, arises from the fairly sudden satisfaction of pent-up needs’, merely a physiological state of pleasure. It was therefore a product of the pleasure principle, and this ‘is quite incapable of being realized; all the institutions of the universe are opposed to it; one is inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” has no part in the plan of “creation”’. The act of sexual love, he continued, ‘had afforded man the most potent experiences of satisfaction and had actually supplied him with the model for all happiness’ with the consequence that he would ‘go on seeking his happiness in the sphere of sexual relations and place genital eroticism at the centre of his life.’ But for Freud this was a mistake. The belief that the state produced by sex is happiness is an illusion which the pleasure principle sets up to mask the true insatiability of desire. In fact, that we believe sex can make us happy is the very source of our unhappiness. This is the lesson the psychoanalyst teaches. They enlighten us to the unavoidable sadness our sexuality will cause us and help us to cope (for an hourly fee). One might be inclined to say that for Freud, happiness has no part in the plan of sexuality.
The process by which one learns this lesson, either in therapy or elsewhere, furnishes a person with their unique response to this universal structure of sadness: that desire is caused by a lack which can never be satisfied. This may be the human condition, but how we come to learn this lesson gives us the story of our individual lives. This is one reason why psychoanalysis, or therapy in general, can be seen as an extended exercise in writing a kind of autobiography. While sexual ‘happiness’ may be an illusion, to discover how you cope with this condition is to discover who you are. Freud hardly invented the belief that suffering individualises. It is a belief as central to Christianity, with its demands for secret confessions, as it is to Buddhism and its conviction that to escape suffering requires escaping the self. Yet Freud’s theory of sexuality, and all that’s descended from it, has left us with the belief that while sex is something that can never make us truly or fully happy, the story of how we live with our unhappiness is the story of our individual lives. It is the story that makes us an individual.
Given the following, produce the equation which solves for (x): Why is queer happiness so difficult to write about?
One: Tolstoy. ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’; or, all happy stories are the same.
Two: Freud. The story of how we suffer sexuality is the story of who we are; or, unhappiness makes us individuals.
Divide by the common factor: happiness is the absence of a sense of individuality.
A solution: happiness cannot be written about in a first-person autobiographical form?
Both the premise and the solution to this equation may be nothing but mere speculation, and speculation might not be the most immediately useful mode of thinking about queer happiness. (Although, when Freud invented the pleasure principle, he admitted that: ‘What follows is speculation, often farfetched speculation’ – and look how far that got him).
What these equations provide is one theory for why so much recent queer writing seems to be so preoccupied with its unhappiness. The reason lies less in their queer content, but in their autobiographical form. Or rather, a form which we might want to call ‘autobiography-adjacent’, rather than ‘autofiction’ – a term which tries to do too much in naming a genre rather than a tendency, and which names nothing distinctive about contemporary writing. There is nothing in terms of literary form that the Chris Kraus’s of the world are doing that wasn’t done as early as the 1960s by those nadirs of male heterosexuality John Updike, Philip Roth, and Norman ‘fugging’ Mailer.
Call them what you want, works of fiction which model themselves on autobiography, confession, or memoir have hardly been the exclusive product of queer writers. Yet queer writing, like that produced by any group made into a minority, has its own reasons for tending towards the autobiographically adjacent. Faggot, dyke, poof, pervert. I’ll tell you what your gender is, I’ll tell you who you can marry, I’ll decide whether you are under threat of persecution. Oppression may be structural, but it works by taking away your individuality. Reclaiming that individuality by showing, in writing, that you have a story of your own becomes a means of resistance.
Oppression ties another knot in the braiding of autobiography and unhappiness. It oppresses by denying your individuality and denying the existence of the pain this denial causes. You fight back by asserting your individuality and everything you have suffered in one and the same act of writing. Yet the rules according to which you have to fight back are rigged, and everyone knows this. People who transition know they have to tell a story of traumatic dysphoria to get the care they should be owed by right alone. Gays and lesbians know they have to tell a story of how not being able to get married is an unbearable injustice, not because they dream of the state blessing their monogamy, but because they just want the option, same as anyone else. Stories that individualise by detailing unhappiness, have the power of a certain kind of resistance, but it’s a resistance built into the structure of domination itself. That’s why after a while all the stories of queer suffering strangely start to sound the same, as if beneath a thousand melodic variations you realise they have all been written in the same key. These stories are not nearly as individualizing as they claim to be, because they all purchase their individuality by the scale of their suffering.
Autobiography isn’t wedded to unhappiness, but it has been having affairs with misery ever since Augustine’s Confessions. This book was as consequential for autobiography as a form as it was for Christianity as a religion in the way it blamed so much of the shame of Augustine’s experience on ‘the lust of the flesh . . . ruinous to those whom it enslaves’. His Confessions gain their sense of drama because like all good stories they are the story of a struggle: ‘Even if human beings delight in the law of God in their inmost selves, what will they do about the other law in their members which is at war with the law of their minds’? Augustine was a theological influence on the Reformation, but his Confessions were also a literary model for those Protestants who, liberated from the institutional control of the Catholic Churn, submitted themselves instead to injunctions of their conscience to confess every lustful and concupiscent thought, in diaries, pamphlets, and in front of congregations, with no small hint of hypocritical erotic thrill. Jean-Jacques Rousseau initiated modern autobiography in many ways, not least by sparing us no detail of his struggle with ‘that vice which shame and timidity find so convenient’: masturbation. One of the strangest reversals in literary history is that confessional and autobiographical writing have come to be seen as effeminate, soft, unintellectual – written by those who are just too much. It wasn’t the feminine who told us, in detail, about the movements of their uncontrollable members; it wasn’t the femmes who needed us to know about their habit, when they desired someone, of jacking off into their empty beds.
Of course, there can be memoirs and autobiographies of happiness, queer or otherwise. The title of Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal (2011), her memoir of a childhood spent growing up in the working-class North, was the response of her evangelical Christian adoptive mother to Winterson coming out as a lesbian. Yet even her attempt to claim queer happiness involves a disavowal. ‘Pursuing happiness,’ she writes, ‘is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, dependent upon circumstances, and a bit bovine’. Who could be so stupid as to want to be happy? She rather seeks the happ in the Old English root of happiness, ‘the fate, the draw that is yours.’ The fate of queer writing that touches on autobiography has been to be forced, by reasons of the form and the world in which it is written, into the confession of unhappiness. Its fate has been like those childhood experiments designed to show phototropism in plants, where seeds are planted in a cardboard box with a hole cut in one side. Just as seedlings tend towards the only source of light they sense, their bodies growing warped yet beautiful in their own way, so too queer autobiography bends towards the source of the only visibility on offer.
Queer writers know the boxes they live in; queer writers of colour know it twice over. An early poem in Danez Smith’s first collection [insert] boy (2014) offers the disclaimer ‘I am sorry I have no happy poems’, to make us ask: why is that? In their later collection, Homie (2020), ‘confession old & new’ wryly reflects on what it means to write about their HIV diagnosis: ‘that which hasn’t killed you yet can pay the rent / if you play it right’. In Against Memoir (2018), Michelle Tea admits that for her, writing memoir is ‘a compulsion on par with alcoholism’. It is an addiction to returning to experiences of trauma in order to master them, and it is an addiction to ‘the story line,’ a narrative about the self which perpetuates the very idea of the self even when ‘as Buddhism insists, there is no “self”’. Autobiographical writing is a way to cope with suffering by creating, in writing, a self that has survived. But that self is created only insofar as it has suffered. Tea doesn’t want to get clean from confessional writing and the self it gives her, but she does wonder: ‘What would it mean to get sober from memoir’?
Perception is Projection.
It is striking what happens to friendship in these stories of queer unhappiness; that is, if friends ever appear at all. Friends are understandably absent from Louis’s childhood, yet even though they sustain him through his rape, they fleetingly appear only as sources of sexual comfort, or conduits of the social capital accorded by his new life in Paris. Bechdel’s Fun Home could provide another test bearing her name: is there a scene where two queer friends appear without, and without discussing, their family trauma or their fucked-up lovers? The title of Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends might suggest its heart is a friendship between two queer women, Frances and Bobbi, but the conversations Bobbi offers only serve to build Frances a self that can go back to her male lover at the end of the novel. The great exception is Yanigahara’s A Little Life, where the friendship between four men is a constant across of hundreds of pages of pain. Yet these friendships are unable to prevent one character, Jude, from succumbing to suicide caused by a childhood of sexual abuse. Friendship is nothing, as artistic material or a source of care, when faced with the dark power of sexual trauma.
This is strange in the broader history of queer life, since that life has long involved the cultivation of friendships as a collective source of happiness that either replaces a homophobic family, or in more benign versions, compliments the reproductive family by offering something it can’t. That friendships can be a ‘chosen family’ is a gift from queer life to the world that has seeped into mainstream culture through shows like Pose. But calling these friendships a ‘chosen family’ or ‘alterative kinship structure’ betrays a sad failure of nerve. As if the greatest honour that could be bestowed upon friendships is that they could be like the family they are not; as if the deepest source of care will only ever come from a ‘Mother’. The queer theorist Sam McBean instead likens these bonds of friendships to a ‘network’. You care and are cared for, sustain and are sustained, not within the imaginative horizons of Mommy, Daddy, and Me, but within a web that includes you yet extends beyond you. Sustaining these bonds takes work, and this work returns to you in time, but not always as the balancing of debit and credit that takes place between two people. You might not get what you need from the person to which you give, but it will come back from another who is given and getting from others in turn.
The image of friendship as a network might also suggest the kind of happiness that friendship can provide, in contrast to the satisfaction and lack of desire. The pleasure we get from sex has often been described as a loss of the sense of individuality, what Freud called an ‘oceanic feeling’. Our boundaries dissolve, we lose ourselves in another, we return to the undifferentiated belonging we experienced in the womb. A network, however – whether we picture that as computers linking up to create the internet, or as the fish, corals and luminous algae that make up an underwater reef – is by definition made up of more than two. Its members neither dissolve into the ocean, nor remain isolated individuals in their shells. They are suspended between being a part and a whole, between being an individual and collective. As in Hartman’s description of joy, we are released from ‘the costume of the individual or the subject’, not into the formless anonymity of the sea, but ‘into this other form.’ The web, the network, the reef; its where I’ve always found my shelter.
Memoir might be an addiction for the way in which it helps us cope with suffering. Such, at least, is the most charitable interpretation. But to slide from this to the claim that people are unhappy because they are addicted to their suffering is to be lubricated by the cruellest kind of self-help optimism. Unhappy? The problem is you. Getting sober from memoir is not getting sober from sadness, depression or pain. It is about stepping away from a certain kind of writing: first-person, retrospective, luxuriating in the display of its wounds. This writing might create a self that has survived, but it might not create a self that has known happiness. Happiness, or queer happiness at least, may be a matter of the form of the stories we tell about ourselves. And changing the form of these stories might enable us to step away from a certain idea of who we are: individual, unique, the source of the only story that matters.
The only person you should listen to about getting sober is someone who has been an addict. The only people you should trust to tell you about happiness are those who have known its opposites.
Lou Sullivan was born in 1951 and kept a diary from the age of eleven until his death, aged thirty-nine, in 1991. He was born into a world which designated him a girl who would grow up to be a woman. Over the course of his life Lou became one of the first publicly known people to transition to being a man according to the medicalised model of gender transition, one where people have to admit to suffering the ‘illness’ of gender dysphoria in order to receive treatment and be ‘cured’, and, back then, a model in which men who wanted that treatment had to confess an attraction to women and only women. Through a life of activism, Sullivan and others changed this model to one where some (but not enough) people can get the medical care they need to live in their bodies and realise their desire by right, just like any other kind of medical care. For these reasons Sullivan has long been a sort of father figure to transmen in general and gay transmen in particular; someone whose story belongs, importantly but not exclusively, to a specific group of people.
Sullivan also kept a diary from the age of thirteen, to his death in 1991, aged thirty-nine. Alongside a teenage obsession with the Beatles and leather boots, an early desire appears in these diaries: ‘I want to be a beautiful man making love to a beautiful man’. The diaries track the changes in Sullivan’s sense of self and the body in which he sensed them. But although Sullivan is an exquisite writer about sex, these diaries offer more than a detailed account of a changing anatomy. They present us with a view of what it means to be trans, gay, and both at the same time. Sullivan knows that gender is not only an identity but also the expression of the desire of another; he feels most like a boy when his lover, J., ‘thinks I am really a boy’. Sullivan knows the nature of this and all desire: ‘I’m only carried off as long as whoever it is feeds the fantasy – if they act blatantly contrary to the image, it’s shattered, and so is my passion, infatuation.’ Sullivan experienced his desires being destroyed. Doctors rejected his first request for hormones because he presented himself not as a straight man but as a ‘fruity little faggot’. He never completed his surgical transition because surgeons refused to carry out his final procedures after he contracted HIV.
He also believed ‘I am going to live my life alone’ and that ‘if I am the only one I have, I have a right to make myself happy’. Even at the end of his life, believing he would ‘forever be lacking’ due to his incomplete surgery, Sullivan believed it had ‘been worth all these years just to be in this bar, here, now, with AIDS and to be a man among men’. He still believed what he wrote as a teenager: ‘I wanna look like what I am but don’t know what someone like me looks like.’ He wanted people to see a gay man, a transman, but he wanted them to also see him as something else: ‘I mean, when people look at me I want them to think – there’s one of those people that reasons, that is a philosopher, that has their own interpretation of happiness. That’s what I am’.
The diaries tell us so much about what Sullivan wanted, but at least from within their pages we can never know what he wanted for these diaries. They were clearly kept by someone who needed to write themselves into existence, and especially in later years, they were evidently kept by someone who believed a record of his life would be a help to others – just like Sullivan found succour in writing the biography of someone who transitioned before him, Jack Bee Garland. It is hard to know whether these diaries were meant to be material for an autobiography of his own, or whether they were the only record he wanted to keep. Yet for everything that these diaries capture and record, they nevertheless leave the reader with a lingering sense that their first-person form doesn’t fully express the interpretation of happiness that Sullivan wants his life to be. Indeed, it is only because the diaries capture so much, that they fully pursue the project of writing one’s self in the first person, that Sullivan can realise that his happiness can never be personal, individual, produced by himself alone.
The horizon of each diary entry is short: today’s feelings, last night’s fuck. It may be a consequence of this brevity, or the selection edited for publication, or Sullivan’s personality, but his diaries leave an impression that recording fleeting moments produces a model of the self that is hard to capture in other forms of writing. Sullivan captures with luminous clarity the way our sense of self is both ever-changing and produced out of interactions with others. One entry recounts that ‘it’s been happening more and more often that I am walking down the street and am looking appreciatively at a man, I see a sparkle in his eyes, and we smile and nod, acknowledging each other’s appreciation. And when he’s gone, I soar, I feel totally worthwhile, so satisfied with myself . . . that the isolation caused by my incomplete body is not all that important’. When writing in that bar, near the end of his life, what makes him feel like the self he has made has been worth it is that this is a self among others. Other gay men make him the man he wants to be: ‘a man among men’. Recognition is achieved not by some endless struggle with the other, or a titanic Oedipal rivalry, but in the fleeting glance one gay man gives another as they pass on the street. If other gay men in this sense enable Sullivan to be happy with his body, his body enables others to understand what it means to be gay. For Sullivan, what he desires about ‘male / male love’ is ‘The fact that it didn’t just happen – that that the two people involved really wanted to be with each other’. Queer happiness doesn’t lie in the root of the word, the happ of happiness and happenstance. It is wanting what isn’t at first natural, or evident, or the way things initially seem; but the ability to see beyond what just happens is something only someone else can give you.
Queer happiness doesn’t just happen. It is the product of neither chance nor fate, two forms of submission to a nature we imagine we can’t control. Neither is it something anyone can create alone, a state we can achieve by tunnelling into our past. It can only happen if you expose yourself to others; not the exposure that comes from revealing your unique inner depths, but the exposure made possible by making yourself a moving body on a dancefloor or an open eye on the street. It can happen if you spread yourself into a network of connections, rather than spreading yourself open to reveal what is yours and yours alone. It can happen if you make yourself into a surface without ever knowing what will end up sticking to it.
Exposed surfaces are liable to wound; they are not the kind of glossy carapace that covers up what lies underneath. If writing about queer happiness involves anything, it does not require a disavowal of suffering pain. But it might involve a disavowal of certain forms of writing about that pain. If queer writing has recently been dominated by stories of suffering, this is not because there is anything inherently unhappy about being queer, but because these stories have been largely taken the form of individual memoirs, or autobiography-adjacent first-person fictions. Telling these individual stories will always be a means of resisting an oppression which takes away your individuality, which reduces you to a slur, a category, a collective object of shame. And they can be a means of coping with suffering by creating a self that has survived. But there are limits imposed by founding your identity on stories of individual suffering. That individuality is forever bound to unhappiness, and it is purchased at the cost of telling stories about your relations with others: other people, other places, other things. If queer happiness lies in those relations, or rather, in a certain kind of exposure to the possibility of those relations, then its writing will have to find a form to match that exposure. A form of connections and relations, which gives shape to the work of connecting and relating; a form that is the good kind of clingy, lingering on that which sticks us to things; a form in which the self is created by its openness to others.
I was introduced to Sullivan’s diaries by a friend of a friend called Jack, someone who joined a reading group to which I also belonged. Each time our group met we would read a book suggested by someone else, a book about queerness, sexuality or gender; or just a book whose style we liked. At the end of one meeting it was Jack’s turn to suggest a book, and he proposed we read The Diaries of Lou Sullivan, which Jack had long known about, but which had just been published in an edited version. He wanted us to read Sullivan’s diary because it was an important work of writing in itself, and also because Jack and Lou had more in common than both being gay transmen. As a child Jack also kept a diary, in which like Lou, he recalled recording the desire that when he grew up, he wanted to become a gay man. That being a gay man was something you could grow up wanting to be, not a burden you grew up negotiating when to reveal; that it could be something to be desired, not merely accepted; that what you are could be wanted, not just something that just happened: here was a way of seeing myself that I could only get from another, something that came from another being able to realise their desires, a lesson that I should create a world in which that realisation can happen. But this something I could see if only I learned how to look. It was a happiness I never knew could exist, because it is a happiness none of us can ever know alone.
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