Introductory Notes: Performing Queer Lives

By Royster, Francesca T. | Biography, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Introductory Notes: Performing Queer Lives

Royster, Francesca T., Biography


Right now, with President Obama's repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," efforts to counter the Defense of Marriage Act, more states adopting gay marriage and civil union policies, the opening of same sex adoption laws, and normalization of LGBTQ families, we seem to be in a new space of visibility and assimiliation of queer lives, including citizenship and state participation--though, as Jasbir Puar notes, in a time of war, this citizenship serves some queer folk more than others. Reflecting these civic changes, queer lives are becoming increasingly more visible on television. Successful programs like Brothers and Sisters and Glee feature LGBTQ (both queer and questioning) characters as sassy neighbors, classmates, even siblings. The L Word, Queer as Folk, and Noah's Arc also give a (Active) insider's view of queer worlds, and all three also generate a strong cult following in LGBTQ communities.

An example of the increasing ease with which some aspects of queer lives circulate in popular culture came in a breathtakingly casual moment in one of Oprah's final season episodes. Oprah and her best friend Gail King go on a camping trip together in Yosemite. Oprah snarkily jokes that the lesbian rumors that have always hounded them are surely never going to die now that they've been caught on national TV trundling off to bed in the same luxury pop-up tent in the wilderness, a black-girl fantasy version of Brokeback Mountain. This episode flirts with lesbian frisson, at the same time rebutting stereotypes that black folks don't camp--out of fear of those wide open spaces, strenuous hair upkeep, and/or less liberal rural race politics, perhaps. Throughout the weekend, Oprah and Gail quickly fall into a distinctly butch-femme banter about the sharing of labor on the trip: who will rig up breakfast on the campfire (Oprah) and who will watch and be served (Gail); who will get the bathroom door unstuck (Oprah) and who will wait on the sidelines (Gail); who will take to flyfishing (Oprah) and who will complain about the unflattering cut of pants (Gail). What struck me as queer in this episode was not just the offhand joking about Oprah and Gail's rumored lesbianhood, but the other ways that the two uncloseted themselves as downright eccentric, or at least not fitting the manicured image of (straight) black female bourgie-hood: Oprah in nerdy owl pajamas and pop-bottle lens glasses climbing out of bed, or the two of them in bent straw hats and pick-up, trading verses of "The Gambler." Nevertheless, they are embraced by their fellow campers, and presumably by the television audience. For at least a few moments, Oprah and Gail allow themselves to be gender-queer and even racially queer. At the same time, Oprah is of course one of the wealthiest women in the world, and this lends her an almost limitless power to be an exception to the rule. But here and elsewhere, at least in the limited framing of citizenship in Televisionland, it would seem that America is ready to accept and consume queer lives.

Contrary to these trends is a less assimilatable set of narratives about LGBTQ lives and works that counter the sense of an easy fit into US life. LGBTQ life writing is often edgy and countercultural--in many ways deepening and complicating what it means to be lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer in the United States. Many of these works by LGBTQ authors, including Audre Lorde, Leslie Feinberg, Dorothy Allison, Kate Bornstein, and Terry Galloway also blur boundaries of form, moving fluidly between autobiography and fiction, political treatise and personal manifesto, memoir and theory. Often the work of prominent queer theorists, like E. Patrick Johnson, Jose Munoz, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, has a strong autobiographical turn. For LGBTQ writers, both life writing and queer theory have traditionally been places for individual and collective exploration, ways of understanding the self through the larger fabric of culture and history and relationality. …

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