A Queer Survival Kit: Part I

This is a 3-part article on queer survival and queer politics.

Part II: Gaydar and Sex.
Part III: Failure and Dance.


 

At a time when the illusion of social progress is dominating the mainstream discourse, I find that it is important to constantly remind ourselves that it is not easy to survive as a queer out here. I want to believe that as a society, we have become more tolerable toward the racial and sexual minority; and that as an individual, I no longer have to struggle for my survival amidst all this social progress. However, as much as I want to be quiet, to be content with all the baby steps this society has taken, I cannot be complacent and ignore what a precarious place the queer subject is situated within our society. To shut up and stop whining about my survival is to abandon the legacy of my queer predecessors who had fought and sacrificed their lives so that I can be here today writing a queer survival kit.

For us queers of color and especially for transgender folks, the question of survival is not only a matter of rhetoric: it is a real physical issue because our personal safety is always compromised. For those readers who do not identify themselves as queers, or for those who are queer but inherit other intersectional privilege such as whiteness and/or social, material capitals, they might find this guide to be exaggerated and overdramatic. Well, frankly, this kit is not meant to be for them in the first place. It is dedicated to those whose survival is not widely supported by the legal, educational, and health care systems or whatever institutions you can name here. Our survival has to be taken into their own hands because no one else cares about our lives other than ourselves. For us, attending to our survival serves as a radical political project – a project to survive against the wish of those who would bless death onto us.

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Sarah Ahmed brilliantly writes: “For those who have to insist they matter to matter, self-care is warfare”[1]. Thus, this survival kit can be alternatively read as potential strategies to wage war against the heteronormative patriarchal society. Each item included here can be used to not only help inspire you to carry on with your day-to-day life, but it can also open up ways to queer the straight society, to conduct a guerilla warfare against the straight-forward way of looking at the world. While I hold these items dearly to my personal queer survival, I hope the suggested items that I provide below will encourage you to reflect on your own radical project of queer survival and to contemplate upon what it means to survive.

Item 1: Art

Art has been a major source of not only inspiration but also of sustenance for me since a young age. I realized that because the Arts as a field occupy such an insignificant place in the Vietnamese society, that my occupation/ obsession with film, music and dance do not come under much scrutiny from my parents – in the end it is only entertainment for them. Nonetheless, little did they realize that it was exactly within this trivial “entertainment” world that my queer identity could unfold, even before I had access to any of the queer terminology.

Growing up in a conservative country, I recognize that the Vietnamese society does not have a place for queer people like me (I sometimes still have to persuade myself that the situation is different in the American society). Or more precisely, they do have a place specifically designed for us – the margin, the space of abjection, of otherness. We are the outcasts in the society. We are the psychologically ill people who are to be tolerated, ignored and forgotten until there is a cure for our sickness. Hence, we are nowhere to be seen other than in our own imagination. If the straight reality has no place for us, then imaginary space of art becomes our haven.

There are no standards or guidelines regarding what types of art should be in my or your kit, as long as you can feed off it to survive in this society. It does not have to be Art with a capital “A”, nor does it have to come from a queer artist for it to be qualified for your queer survival kit. I remember at the age of nine watching Britney Spears’ music video “Toxic” and feeling extremely, but secretly empowered. Somehow, as a masculine-by-default boy I could deeply identify with this heterosexual white megastar’s bad-girl image and her sexual fierceness, which was being projected through the shockingly “obscene” costumes and choreography. Later in my teenage year, my obsession switched to the black female rapper Nicki Minaj, with all of her colorful and crazy wigs, her freakish fashion and her absolutely bizarre character work within her rap. As the self-proclaimed “baddest bitch in the game”, Miss Minaj provided me with the space where I can have access to the kind of aggressive femininity that is neither just masculine nor feminine, but a more nuanced version of identity that is not available in the heterosexual discourse.

In short, the point I am trying to make is: devour all kinds of art that help you comprehend and explore your queer identity, no matter where you find the artwork, or who makes it, as long as you can feed off it. Consuming art becomes a site where our imagination can run wild, where normativity can be momentarily suspended, letting our queerness soar beyond the rigid boundaries of the heterosexual society. As the late queer theorist José Muñoz articulates rather eloquently: “Normativity keeps minoritarian subject from accessing identities”[2]. There is no prescription as to who you are or who you can be if you are not “normal”. Thus, we need to escape the “normal” society, to use this challenge as an opportunity to immerse into the creative world, in order to not only access our identities, but to also create our own.

The current collection of art in my toolkit include: Nicki Minaj (yes, she has not left me since my teenage year); dance artists such as Miguel Gutierrez and Mette Ingvartesen with their borderline pornographic works; photographer Robert Mapplethorpe with his series of homoerotic/ sadomasochist images; and queer theorists’ books such as Disidentifications and Cruising Utopia by José Muñoz, The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam and No Future by Lee Edelman.

These works stay with me as long as I need them, and will also leave my collection whenever they need to.

(to be continued… Part II)


[1] Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017.

[2]José Esteban Muñoz. Disidentifications: Queers of color and the performance of politics. Vol. 2. U of Minnesota Press, 1999.

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