For myself (and many others I’m sure) there is no better time than lockdown to tiptoe down the backstreets of the brain, and ponder the problems one has banished from busier times, like what I am supposed to be doing on this disintegrating clusterfuck of a planet. A queer existentialism is of a particular flavour, it is my personal flavour of the month and I shall savour every bite as I spiral and indulge in the egoising practice of questioning literally everything: queering existence if you will (please don’t).
Our existence is based largely on rigid parameters predetermined by capitalist and colonial conditions within which we (humans, doing existence) have a limited range of agency. I really don’t want to labour this point though; I think that we all have free will et cetera but to maintain some sort of reasonable lifestyle and for that lifestyle to be accepted you have to do a fair amount of reduction, you have to stifle your quirks, kinks, aspirations. This often entails a nine to five, a less-than-satisfying relationship, (a hobby or a hundred) left by the wayside.
But we already kind of know this, right? That’s why people have mid, quarter, sixth-life crises. The line between acceptance and impetus to change is difficult to walk because in acceptance there lies complacency (depression) and in changing, a hefty amount of self-loathing (also depression)
—yes, I am reading Kierkegaard. And the queer existent, of course, faces this in spades; how much of our ‘true’ selves do we reveal? Where does queerness fall on the identity-performance scale? It is surely somewhere in the middle, but the configuration of the combination still keeps me up at night. I, for example, currently experience life as a windup toy, which totters around, flops when spent, and waits around for something to wind it back up again, whether that’s university, political organising or some short-lived compulsion to action. Contrastingly, my brain is at a rolling boil, considering my place in the universe—considering, considering, considering. And then there’s a meta-judgement: what should I consider in my routine self-assessment; which parts do I include? My self-conception usually emphasises the internal, because I think that is what forms who I really am, even when it diverges from, or even contradicts, expression and action.
But I am a lowly, second-year Philosophy student and not qualified to talk about any of that stuff and it’s not really that interesting anyway. What I think is interesting is how many of us have proxied gender for the totality of our selves in this question of existence. For many people, gender is an existential question—queerness is a conundrum determinate of happiness. Applied to any individual, sexuality and gender can be analysed on a micro scale, pumped full of convoluted truths and meanings until the pumper is exhausted, or the meanings dry up. The idea of self-understanding, born out of a complete conceptualisation of the self is a borderline erotic one; such an ascent toward truth can only be hoped to be attended by pure, genderful ecstasy. This is possibly because queerness, or the defining of it, is more flexible than other identifying markers, such as race or class. Here, authenticity seems an achievable goal, at least in relation to a psycho-spiritual experience of one’s own queerness, if one could only figure out what the fuck one’s own queerness is.
What does it mean to be authentic, or authentically queer? I have no idea, I don’t have much of a grasp on how to answer philosophical questions, only how to ask them. But let’s consider that I have a gender (kind of gross I know but just imagine). What about having a (nonbinary) gender and recognising it makes me any more authentic than people in my life who are apathetic about their gender, or have never thought about their gender before and probably never will? Making gendered moves that aren’t medical has almost no meaning in a world of diversified aesthetics (at least in my 21st century western bubble), and aside from language games there is nothing to designate me a man or a woman or a nothing, at least nothing that I have the power to change. Using gender neutral pronouns is one such language game, as is burying a name, but these are only useful insofar as they allow the subject to be verbally affirmed as apart from linguistic binaries, and compel those around them to alter their perception of the individual in relation to those binaries. They have no value aside from what they force others to see, and from pure aesthetic preference. I am forced to conclude then that gender, unfortunately, even in the most intellectual pockets of the discourse, is fundamentally about aesthetics.
And what else is about aesthetics? Being hot. Yep, being hot is, as much as we feminists want to claim otherwise, about what you look like. Until we stop living under a commercial, market-incentivised beauty model, aesthetics will always be weaponised to erode the credibility and esteem of the marginalised, for the profit of the privileged and the perpetuation of patriarchy. We can see that, as traditional, pulpy gender discourse has become less popular and relevant (we no longer really care about the seven things that a man should NEVER see you wear), it has morphed into something less blatantly transphobic, but just as entrenched in market dynamics of beauty. Recently we, ~the gays~, have pivoted conversations about gender expression slightly from talking about a balance of masculinity and femininity (butch, femme, twink, or whatever) to talking about hotness.
—“Are you a boy or a girl?”
Here it is, the ultimate dunk on conservatives and transphobes! And it gets to what seems to be the essence of nonbinarism in popular culture: a disdain for arbitrary gender demarcation.
But what have we created instead? The consumable enby, the enviable fashion model, singer, your local hot Instagrammer, club-goer or even activist. Why is being a gender ultimately about beauty, no matter which way you look at it? Being dysphoric is fine because you’re experiencing a ‘valid’ psychological pain, but being ugly is a punishable offence. Bodies are (in theory) allowed to be trans, Black, fat, or wrinkled, but they have to be beautiful as well, because that is where their value lies. Ugly bodies don’t exist, they can’t exist, because ugliness as anything but a transient, redeemable state is unmarketable. Hence, this desperate attempt to reconcile fluid gender expression with idealised aesthetics at every turn.
And to be recognised, to be seen, nay, perceived is a prison as well. We are in an inescapable panopticon and it seems like so little of ourselves is hidden. “Don’t perceive me” was such a fucking relatable moment when it became widely-memed online, because it got across what I in fact really want when I feel at a loss. My desire to be seen as nonbinary, as not a woman, nor a man, nor even anything other than a receptacle for colour-clashing problem-patterned outfits is rooted in this exhaustion; my gender is completely tied up with being seen, whether I like it or not. Like the self comes into being when it encounters the other, so too is my nonbinary identity a relative one. Eventually we might get past the gender binary as a pervasive way of seeing, but I will never be able to see my gendered self without reference to others.
We need something beyond this, beyond gender performativity or transness as a trauma of the brain. To be able to sit with gender whether or not you are happy with the way you look or with how you move through the world seems impossible, yet so important. I truly think it is wonderful that queer people and people of colour have revolutionised the concept of beauty by removing it as much as they are able from the constraints of white colonial patriarchy. I have never been happier with myself because, while I still have internalised self-hatred (I have to because I want to be relatable), I enjoy existing a little bit away from straight, cis beauty ideals. The people I admire or want to emulate are starting to look less and less like the beauty ideal as I grow up and deal with that internalised bigotry. But that doesn’t mean that unlearning standards of beauty fixes our existential anguish.
Understanding oneself without reference to the world at large is of course impossible, so we hang onto these frameworks, bending them out of shape to adapt to changing times and ideas. But they have been warped such that they are snapping before our eyes. Neither the pathologising model of queerness, nor the performative ‘authenticity’-aspiring model will work for us under capitalism. But maybe nothing will(?)