There’s Queer and Then There’s Queer

There’s Queer . . .

My seminary friends are in complete agreement that class group projects are anathema.  A group presentation was required in this course and there was a collective groan.  To my great surprise, however, I found that two extreme introverts working together can be pleasant and productive.  Ben and I had independently chosen “Immigrant Memory” as our first choice but, instead, we were both assigned to “Urban Queer Space.”  We had both just completed Prof. Johnson’s transformational “Transforming Christian Theology” class so we had a fund of shared knowledge.  The work was joyful—fast decision making, short discussions (a.k.a. “meetings”), worked well separately, worked well together, and each bringing different strengths to the project.  I think that my new criterion for group work for the rest of my time at PSR is that the group all must be extreme introverts or they all must be Ben.

We wondered:  what is “Queer Urban Space”?  The site visits to the Alice Austen House and the Gay Liberation Monument were obvious spaces, that is, spaces that were occupied by those identified as queer.  But, like different-gender loving folks, same-gender loving folks (“queers”) were/are everywhere and in every time.  Therefore, we encountered queer space in many other sites.  Like so many sites rich in cultural memory, queer sites were sometimes tinged, but more often drenched, in sorrow.  Sarah Schulman is sorrowed by the forgetfulness of new generations who have no concept of, or interest in, the “Plague” (earlier period in the AIDS epidemic) and no sense of the terror of mass deaths.  Ben and I discussed this peculiar lack of awareness of such a profound time.  In addition to Schulman’s analysis, we thought a possible factor might be the isolation that queer people were subjected to; imposed by themselves, by their families, by a society so fearful of apparent differences.  Isolated deaths do not leave behind individual stories that are told and retold so that new generations can remember.   This lack of story telling and remembering underscores the worth, importance, and function of these urban spaces, these museums, monuments, and memorials as memory-keepers.

And Then There’s Queer . . .

Equally instructive to Ben and me were the assigned readings for our unit:  “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies” from In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives by Judith Halberstam and chapters from The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sarah Schulman.  Having taken Prof. Johnson’s class, Ben and I understood that, aside from sexual orientation, “queer theology” points to a space in, and a point-of-view from, the margins, the same space occupied by Jesus, and that this queer space has been with us for a long time—from the Christmas story to Easter to the Transfiguration to Pentecost.  Both authors write a theology that is relevant also to Christians.

I have, to a much smaller degree than Schulman, experienced that “activists win policy changes, and bureaucracies implement them.” (12)  I also experience anger and disbelief when I see “truth of complexity, empowerment, the agency of the oppressed, replaced by an acceptance of banality, a concept of self based falsely in passivity, an inability to realize one’s self as a powerful instigator and agent of profound social change.” (14)  Schulman names “this thing that homogenizes complexity, difference, dynamic diologic action for change and replaces it with sameness” as gentrification, which includes the literal/physical (razing diverse urban communities and replacing them with money making homogenized groups) and the spiritual (“a gentrification of the mind, an internal replacement that alienated people from the concrete process of social and artistic change,” i.e., “a diminished consciousness about how political and artistic change get made.”) (14)  My particular frustration is with those of us who occupy privileged places in a bureaucracy, with the ability to make changes, but refuse or are unable to see themselves as agents “of profound social change.”  So many of us who should know better have come to “the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.” (51)

I have come to see queer space as a factor that could counter gentrification.  If gentrification is about homogeneity, queer-ification is about differences, diversity, and dialogue.  If gentrification is about forgetting, queer-ification is about radical memory, memory not just of facts and events but also of searing pain and energizing rage, and this memory can be our collective memory by its retelling to every generation.  If gentrification results in “a process that hides the apparatus of domination from the dominant themselves” (27), then queer space like the public memory spaces found in New York City are crucial reminders and disruptors to all of us.  For me, practicing Christianity means all of the same things (insert “Christianity” in this paragraph in place of “queer. . .”).

The gospel or good news is that God disrupts, Jesus models this disruption, and the Holy Spirit moves us to unexpected queer spaces.  I have experienced that loving, holy disruption and I have come to understand that, as a 61 year old straight Chinese woman, I can (and must) occupy and help to create holy queer space.  The Schulman writing gives theological under-girding to the importance of cultural memory.  Urban spaces in New York City overflow with cultural memory and serve as lessons of the dangers of gentrification and the vital promise (the necessity, really) of queer-ification.

One response to “There’s Queer and Then There’s Queer

  1. Frances,
    As I was reading your post I appreciated your emphasis that gentrification stifles diversity and aims to erase the past. You mentioned Judith Halberstam’s book In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Life and as I read your post, especially the section where you talk about Sarah Schulman’s frustration with narratives of AIDS victims, I was reminded of Halberstam’s statement “Queer time perhaps emerges most spectacularly, at the end of the twentieth century, from within those gay communities who horizons have been severely diminished by the AIDS epidemic.”
    It seems there is an effort to relegate queer time to the AIDS epidemic because it is a scar upon current gentrification efforts. There is no sense that the queer community narratives thrive alongside hegemonic narratives because we have hidden the history and put queer history into a isolated time frame. Gentrification aims to make things appear pretty on the surface, but simultaneously covers up rich history. For example, this is not happening now, therefore we will not talk about it. Does this make sense?
    Even though we were at The African Burial Ground, I saw a quote that could be applied to many of the sites we visited and your reflection made me go back to it. It is Maya Angelou’s response to the African Burial Ground,
    “you may bury me in the bottom of Manhattan
    , I will rise.
    My people will get me.
    I will rise out of the huts of history’s shame.”

    I am wondering though since you all had us design our own AIDS memorial for group work, if you got the sense that the sites of Queer Memory that we visited still tried to keep things pretty and tidy (The Alice Austen House and the Gay Liberation Monument) and if these places create further division, especially considering the oppression many queer identifying individuals faced in NYC, Sarah Schulman’s articulation of gentrification, and Halberstam’s observation, “obviously not all gay, lesbian, and transgender people live their lives in radically different ways from their heterosexual counterparts, but part of what has made queerness compelling as a form of self-description in the past decade or so has to do with the way it has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space.”
    Thank you for raising such wonderful questions 🙂

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