The Ethic of Queer Toughness

I’ve just read Jack Halberstam’s manifesto on queer toughness – “You’re Triggering Me! The Neo Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger, and Trauma” – and I’m watching it gather appreciative re-postings across a queer internet that is exhausted by recent language wars (the “tranny” debates) as well as by the academic circles equally exhausted by the expectations for and encouraged use of trigger warnings.

And while there is a lot of good stuff here – I’ll get to that – I was put off by how dismissive it felt to me. Bits like this:

“What does it mean when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged? These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for ‘safe space.'”

What does it mean? It means that things have changed, but the sad reality is that despite GSAs and supportive parents and the right to marry, LGBTQ+ youth still have awfully high rates of suicide, depression, and substance abuse. They are still hurting, and to my mind, the need for safe space is exactly that – a growing desire to feel safe. Because as much as it is true that the kind of repression, violence, bashings, and outright invisibility of an older generation is no longer typical (although it is not, by any means, non existent), there is still a lot of pain out there, and continuing to look on important debates about identity, trauma, and community identity as whining or complaining or with accusations of being “thin skinned” or “over reactive” are – at best – belittling and disrespectful.

There, I’ve said it. As the old adage about privilege goes: when you step on someone’s foot and they complain, you don’t then tell them that they should be wearing better shoes or that they must have weak feet. No, you just apologize. It does not mean, however, that you should stop dancing, or walking, or stomping, or whatever it was you were doing when you stepped on that person’s foot. You just apologize if, in the process of doing your thing, you unintentionally hurt someone. It is this inability, in my opinion, that causes a great deal of the trouble. Bad apologies are not, per se, apologies. They are explanations. In a sense, then, what I’m saying is that people should not get so upset about all the yelling. Yelling and anger are outcomes of hurt and out of the frustration of not being heard, and, I would argue, about feeling a great deal of things that are confusing and unsettling and scary. The debates and hostilities, even over language policing, are growing pains, maybe of the integration of trans* into the larger LGBTQ+, but also of a younger generation growing up while an older generation starts to feel a little dated, and are both necessary and important.

That said: the reason this piece is spreading like wildfire (while being simultaneously parodied) is because it is much needed push back from queer and academic quarters for increased demands around sensitivity around trauma; much needed because, as Halberstam points out,

“as LGBT communities make ‘safety’ into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.”

But my thoughts on how we move from this very personal sense of hurt which this upcoming generation is being excoriated for expressing – and how or even why it could and should be transformed into political action and solidarity – will have to wait for another day.

Helen Boyd

is the author of My Husband Betty and She's Not the Man I Married.

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