A Queer Survival Kit: Part III

This is a 3-part article on queer survival and queer politics.
Part I: Art
Part II: Gaydar and Sex

Item 4: Failure


Failure is perhaps the most counterintuitive tool that appears in my toolkit. Compared to the last three items, failure takes on extremely negative connotations and seems completely irrelevant to the queer survival project, as if we queer people need any more negativity in our lives. Nevertheless, it is time we needed to embrace this negative space in the American society, where positivity seems to dominate the popular discourse – a kind of positivity that the queer has never been good at such as building a proper nuclear family unit.

I certainly owe this item to one of my favorite queer theorists Jack Halberstam, who has theorized failure as the tool for us queers to not only survive, but to also critique the success-driven society. It is a way to experiment with an alternative mode of knowing and being in the world that is not acceptable according to the norms: “Failing is something queers do and have always done well”[1]. If we have always failed anyway, we might as well embrace it and find power in its abjection that would help us keep on surviving.

I remember from a young age, I always tried to convince myself that I do not need to have a child when I grow up to be happy. I always asked my mom why people are always so obsessed with their biological children; I told her I would not love her any less if I would ever find out that I am an adopted child. Because deep down, before all the terminology about being gay/ homosexual/ queer or even simply knowledge about sex was introduced to me, I knew that I would not be able to have my own children, if having children requires the combination of a man and a woman. Subconsciously without being aware the implications of these queer thoughts, I persuaded myself that I needed no marriage, no children in my life out of an effort to justify my imminent failure in the future. I knew that I cannot thrive in a world where the figure of the child is emblematic of success and happiness. Hence, failure has always been my partner-in-crime out of forced circumstances, to justify me being in a world that allows little space for me to exist.

As I grow into my 20s being more comfortable with my queer identity, I start actively embracing this once undesirable partner-in-crime, not simply to validate my survival but to also to go beyond that to create my own world, my own forms of knowledge. I carry around with myself permissions to fail, taking failure as always a blessing in disguise, a sign that I am going on the right path of critiquing this heterosexual reality that we are living in. The failure in the relationship in my biological family only serves as an opportunity to be more appreciative, and more inventive with the other relationships that I am building in my life. It opens up the potential of other types of queer kinship that would remain unexplored if I was to get stuck in emulating the familial structure that was prescribed to me ever since I was born. Moreover, failure follows me through every part that I choose to follow. With every research grant that I was not awarded, every dance residency that I did not get, every performance works I made that people did not like, I accept them as part of my failing process, of my radical queerness that I am not planning to change just to accumulate more success.

Item 5: Dance

Since I am a dance artist, it is inevitable that dance is what I carry in my tool kit all day every day. I devote my life to dance, seeing dance as my ultimate savior who introduces me to queerness, excavates my queer identity from within and at the same time constantly redefines what it means to be queer. I include dance here because of my passion for it, but also because of my fundamental belief in dance’s ability to transcend my personal realm into the field of relationality that allows queerness to manifest itself.

Similar to sex, dance creates a space for to me meet with other queer folks, letting my body and their bodies connect together and groove to the rhythm of music. We can momentarily escape the harsh reality that do not privilege our existence – in that moment, it is only about us and ourselves on the dance floor. When we dance, we are subconsciously creating a utopia where policing norms disappear into the darkness of the club while we can interact with each other and grind together the way we cannot in broad daylight. The dance club becomes a site for queer relationships are established and negotiated.

As a mode of expression, dance appeals to me because of its illegibility. When we dance, we enter a much more ambiguous realm of communication, escaping the authoritarianism of words by letting our bodies do the speaking. In other words, when we dance, no one can exactly understand what we are trying to express or communicate with our bodies. This characteristic of dance suggests a powerful tactic to escape the constant homophobic policing that is prevalent in our society: they cannot catch us if they do not understand what we are doing. As Jack Halberstam writes, “legibility is a condition of manipulation”[2] – if they can read us they will harm us. Dance, then, can become a queer dialect of sort, where rhythmical gestures and movements can stand in as a greeting, as an affirmative sign or as a lustful invitation into one’s own body, depending on the context, on the individuals and the various unspoken rules and codes in different communities.

Theoretical notes aside, dance makes me feel good. And feeling good is absolutely necessary when it is so hard to survive in the society.

[1] Jack Halberstam. The queer art of failure. Duke University Press, 2011.

[2] Ibid.

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