Queer Fatalism

Fatalism refers to a belief that events are inevitable or predetermined. By queer fatalism I am not referring to such a belief system but to the assumption that to be queer is to hurtle toward a miserable fate. Queer fatalism is how a queer demise is explained and made inevitable. Queer deaths are often framed as a consequence of queerness; queer fatalism = queer as fatal. And by queer here I mean more than lesbian and gay though queer includes those “sad old queens and long-suffering dykes who haunt the historical record,” as Heather Love describes in her important work on loss and queer history (2007: 32). Queer would refer to those who claim queerness; those who claim the very term that has been hurled as an insult; those who refused to be shamed by the shame they are supposed to have brought upon themselves; the shame they are supposed to have brought upon others.

Queer: not to be ashamed of you when others are ashamed of you.

Queer: how you can build a life from what you refuse not to be.

One thinks of how when queers die, those who are publicly known, about as well as out, we might think here of George Michael, how quickly their deaths are framed through queer fatalism. The pictures of their deaths, maybe of their last days, or the words used to describe their lives, words that are picked up from charges brought against them because of how they lived their lives, how they had sex, how they didn’t have sex, these pictures and words are the materials of queer fatalism; these words and images stick to queer bodies.

And queer fatalism as a frame is also about how or where happiness is found; how a more positive slant is created by placing queerness outside the picture; in the effort to find what is good about a life somewhere else, in acts of generosity, for instance, when really as queers we know, the immense generosity of those like George Michael is a queer generosity. A queer generosity: to affirm a sexuality that is labelled as perverse, to reject the rejection of queerness. With that generosity came other generosities, others ways of attending to struggle, to those who struggle.

And ghosts clamour: we remember how other deaths, Stephen Gately, for instance, were explained with reference to sexuality, to “dangerous life styles,” how quickly and how wrongly, queer is treated as a death sentence.

Others are allowed to die without having their deaths be explained as a consequence of being who they are, or as a consequence of who they refused not to be. Even death can become a privilege. An accident maybe, bad luck even, unfortunate; sad of course, terribly, terribly sad: but not fated, not fated, not hated.

Homophobia is often lurking in the background when a queer life seems to be working, when someone is successful, appears happy, though it is always close to the surface, in that potential for violence, a blow up, or in that tut-tut, that pointed sigh that expresses the wish that they could just tone it down, be less obvious. Because it is already there, homophobia comes up quickly when things stop working, in moments of loss, when a life is lost, in moments of breakage, of trauma. Homophobia comes up as an explanation for what is not working. 

Homophobia: it does have fatal consequences.

The fatality that follows homophobia becomes a cause. Homophobia: when it is assumed you caused that consequence.

What are we talking about?

We are talking about life and death.

We are also talking about happiness and unhappiness.

The sadness of a life can be a social investment; that to live a life in a certain way, a queer way, say, is to become the cause of your own unhappiness.   In my work I have explored the figure of the “unhappy queer” and how this figure circulates. You could say that the queer child is an unhappy object for many parents. In some parental responses to the child coming out, this unhappiness is not so much expressed as being unhappy about the child being queer, but as being unhappy about the child being unhappy.  In the classic book on lesbian and gay liberation, No Turning Back one of the typical parental responses to the child coming out is: “I just want you to be happy, dear, and it’s such an unhappy life” (1983: 17).  Queer fiction is full of such speech acts in which the parents express their fear that the queer child is destined to have an unhappy life.[i] I have learnt so much from the following exchange in the lesbian novel, Annie on My Mind (1982) by Nancy Garden:

“Lisa”, my father said, “I told you I’d support you and I will. And right now I can see we’re all too upset to discuss this very much more, so in a minute or two I’m going to take you and your mother and me out to lunch. But honey, I know its not fashionable to say this, but – well, maybe it’s just that I love your mother so much and you and Chad so  much that I have to say to you I’ve never thought gay people can be very happy – no children for one thing, no real family life. Honey, you are probably going to be a very good architect – but I want you to be happy in other ways, too, as your mother is, to have a husband and children. I know you can do both….” I am happy, I tried to tell him with my eyes. I’m happy with Annie; she and my work are all I’ll ever need; she’s happy too – we both were until this happened. (191)

This speech act functions powerfully. The parent makes an act of identification with an imagined future of necessary and inevitable unhappiness. Such identification through grief about what the child will lose, reminds us that the queer life is already constructed as an unhappy life, as a life without the “things” that make you happy, or as a life that is depressed as it lacks certain things: “a husband, children.” To love is here to want the child not to give up on such things; you want the child to have happiness by not giving up on these things.

For the daughter, it is only the eyes that can speak; and they try to tell an alternative story about happiness and unhappiness. In her response, she claims happiness, for sure. She is happy “with Annie,” which is to say, she is happy with this relationship and this life that it will commit her to. The power of the unspoken response is lodged in the use of the word “until”: we were happy “until” this happened, where the “until” marks the moment that the father speaks his disapproval. The unhappy queer is here the queer who is judged to be unhappy: the judgment of unhappiness creates unhappiness, in the very performance of the failure to recognize the social viability of queer relationships, in its failure to recognize queer love.  The father’s speech act creates the unhappiness that is assumed to be the inevitable consequence of the daughter’s decision.

When “this” happens, unhappiness does follow.

The social struggle within families often involves a struggle over the causes of unhappiness. The father is unhappy as he thinks the daughter will be unhappy if she is queer. The daughter is unhappy as the father is unhappy with her being queer. The father witnesses the daughter’s unhappiness as a sign of the truth of his position: that she will be unhappy because she is queer. Even the happy queer becomes unhappy at this point.  And clearly the family can only be maintained as a happy object, as being what is anticipated to cause happiness, by making the unhappiness of the queer child its point.

There are of course good reasons for telling stories about queer happiness, in response and as a response to the very presumption that a queer life is necessarily and inevitably an unhappy life. But think of how in encountering the social weight of queer fatalism, we encounter new pressures. Think of the work required to counter the perception of your life as being unhappy: the very pressure to be happy in order to show that you are not unhappy can create unhappiness. And you know that if there is a break up it can fulfill an expectation that queer relationships are less lasting, less secure; fragile. This is really what I mean by queer fatalism; queer not only as shattering but as self-shattering. And then if things do shatter (as things do tend to do) you have fulfilled an expectation that “this” is where being queer led you to. It is as if by leaving the safety of the brightly lit path, you caused your own demise.

Some are assumed to be inherently broken, as if their fate is to break, as if a break is what we were heading for right from the beginning.

And then: any happiness you found along the way is assumed to have been found despite of yourself. When you lose it, there is a nod, a confirmation.

See, it wouldn’t last; they won’t last.

It is hard to made things last when it is assumed that if things do not last that is because of who you are.

I think with the film Lost and Delirious. This is a moody, sad and awkward film that hurtles its way towards a seemingly inevitable tragic ending, which it seems no one or nothing can change; the linking of queer fates with “fatality” seems partly the point.  It is a film about two girls, Tori and Paulie who fall in love, but Tori cannot bear following that love because it would involve giving up on the possibility of being the cause of her family’s happiness; it would mean not living the life her mother wished for her. And the girl Tori loves, Paulie, cannot bear losing her love.  It is fatal, sometimes, what you cannot bear.

Some critics suggested that this film was dated. One critic describes the film as “time-warped.”  The implication of such a description is that queers can now come out, be accepted and be happy. Those of us committed to a queer life know that forms of recognition are either precariously conditional, you have to be the right kind of queer by depositing your hope for happiness in the right places (even with perverse desire you can have straight aspirations), or it is simply not given. Not only is recognition not given, but it is often not given in places that are not noticeable to those who do not need to be recognized, which helps sustain the illusion that it is given, which means if you say that it has not been given, you are read as paranoid.

We must stay unhappy with this world.

It’s a killjoy manifesto.

And how we grieve; each time we lose a warrior, how we grieve. Queer grief: when we grieve for the loss of our queers, our lovers, our warriors; we hold each other up because of what we did not give up. José Esteban Muñoz wrote so eloquently of this queer project, so truthfully, “we take our dead with us in the various battles we must wage in the names” (1999, 74). How we mourn your absence; how we keep you with us. Muñoz cites Douglas Crimp’s (1989) important work on mourning and militancy. That and is a promise. It could even become as: mourning as militancy. We don’t have to give up our grief in order to do battle. In fact we battle because we have not given up on who we have lost.

We organise because we agonize.

We grieve our loses as queer loses. Judith Butler (2004) has offered us a powerful vocabulary for thinking about how politics work through the creation between grievable and ungrievable lives. Queer losses are not mourned as public losses; so much queer activism has been about mourning the unmourned.

Is our task to become grievable? I do not think that is our task. To become grievable, to move from being ungrievable to grievable, queers might have to become less queer; signs of queerness might need to be removed before a loss can be publicly shared. When queerness has to disappear, out of politeness at this moment of grief, say in the midst of a family loss, we experience more queer grief. There is so much to say here about how we can counter the demand to clean ourselves up, to become more respectable, which is often presented as being about kindness, concern and care, but also how hard it can be to counter that demand at times when we are bereft. It is hard to be left stranded, not to be let in, when all you want to do is weep. We compromise, we make do; we try our best. We might even let signs of queerness go too, or try to, so we can stay.

Think of this too: how as queers we might be grieved for as if in living our lives the way we do, we are the ones who have lost something, happiness, meaning; a purpose, a point, a future. The injustice comes here not from not having a loss grieved, but from being grieved because it is assumed you are lost.

Queer grief: when we refuse to grieve for being queer.

Our grief is not the end of the story: it is part of a story. We are not unhappy because we are queer, we are unhappy with the world that assumes that being queer is unhappy.

Unhappiness can follow the assumption that unhappiness follows.

And we tell other stories, happier ones, even. It is true that some versions of queer happiness are rather bleak versions of what we might call happy homonormativity: where queers find happiness by an increasing proximity to norms that been the site of exclusion: by marrying, being reproductive, becoming good citizens; moving up, moving out.

Happy whiteness, happy straightness, a shiny bright family; see how they gather.

We do not gather; this happiness can be fatal.

Queer happiness as world making: we do not try to be faithful to what is fatal.  Queer happiness can be about what is opened up when we deviate from a straight path. We can build worlds by not giving up what we want; we show the costs of what a world wants us to give up. I think with a film like Stud Life directed by the ever inspiring Campbell X, of how queer happiness can be a kind of militancy, deviation as opening up room to be; a film that doesn’t whiten us, or straighten us out, but shows the mess, the muddle, the huddle of queer existence. Black queer and queer of color activism are predicated on shattering the myth not only of queer unhappiness, that we miss what we refuse, but the myth that queer happiness comes from increasing proximity to whiteness as well as to straight culture.

Shattering; it is what we do.

When we are assumed as shattered, we can shatter.

This blog is written out of love and affection for all our beautiful fragile queers.

This blog is dedicated to George Michael.

Thank you.


Butler, Judith (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence,  London: Verso.

Crimp, Douglas (1989). “Mourning and Militancy,” October, 51.

Garden, Nancy (1982). Annie on My Mind.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Goodman, Gerre, George Lakey, Judy Lashof and Erika Thorne (1983). No Turning Back: Lesbian and Gay Liberation for the “80s. Philadelphia:  New Society Publishers.

Love, Heather (2007). Feeling Backward: The Politics of Loss in Queer History. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.

Muñoz, José Esteban  (1999). Disidentifications; Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics.  University of Minnesota Press.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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6 Responses to Queer Fatalism

  1. Brandy Jensen says:

    amazing ideas, amazing writing. Love this work.

  2. morningfrost says:

    This is fantastic and something that, we all know but aren’t really aware of (if that makes sense) unless it’s pointed out.

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