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A Str8 Subject in Mayor Milk's Court: Queer Str8ness and World Making in an LGBTQ Anthology Project, Cultural StudiesCritical Methodologies 0/0 (2018): 1-8

"A Str8 Subject in Mayor Milk's Court: Queer Str8ness and World Making in an LGBTQ Anthology Project," Cultural StudiesCritical Methodologies 0/0 (2018): 1-8
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  https://doi.org/10.1177/1532708618784319   Cultural Studies ↔  Critical Methodologies 1  –8© 2018 SAGE PublicationsReprints and permissions: sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.navDOI: 10.1177/1532708618784319 journals.sagepub.com/home/csc Original Article  Who’s the “Straight” One? I knew this moment would come. I was being unmasked. Unmasked, despite hiding well, I thought—surreptitiously slinking away from social engagements, deftly avoiding talk of my partner, changing subjects like lanes at rush hour—for nearly a decade. Unmasked on California Public Radio, a media venue that claims a listenership of hundreds of thousands, at that!From 2005 to 2013, I helped envision and engaged in the nation’s first major research project related to the Harvey Milk archive in San Francisco. Harvey, as you may recall from Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic  Milk   or hopefully (even more) your own knowledge of LGBTQ history and the queering of America’s narrative, was the first  popularly , openly gay elected official in the United States. He was, and will always be, the unofficial and inimitable Mayor of Castro Street. His political parlor was San Francisco’s City Hall, where he served briefly as a Board Supervisor before his untimely death by homophobic assassination in 1978. This project was a labor of love undertaken with a passion for justice, one started in grad school in 2003 and wrapped in a top-floor bar on Market Street in June 2013, celebrating  both the publication of a resultant book with my coauthor, Charles E. Morris III (Chuck), and what would have been Harvey Milk’s 83rd birthday—a kairotic and coincidental moment, a perfect way to cap a successful 4-day book tour.Leading to the book tour, I had kept a low profile for years while working the levers and pulleys that come with archival research. These gymnastics included gaining insider trust, negotiating copyright with both public repositories and  private individuals holding documents and ephemera, smoothing-over the arguments between “players” claiming the “true story” and the possessive right to public memory, and, of course, establishing and maintaining one’s ethos as  both a scholar and, in the case of an LGBTQ archive, one’s dedication to queer politics and lifeways. My complication is that I identify as a cis-straight male—a White one, at that—and spent the majority of my time on the project, when working with insiders, hiding in a “straight closet.” Tony Adams (2011) has written extensively about the  politics of the closet   and its existential crises, its constitutional destruc-tion, and of course its liberatory potential. In a flip of this culture-personal mechanism, I found myself masking, retreating, running, shoulder-peaking, crouching, ducking, evading, and wondering. Always wondering. Would the  players know? Would folks like Danny Nicoletta and Frank 784319 CSC XXX10.1177/1532708618784319Cultural Studies<span class="symbol"cstyle="symbol">↔</span> Critical Methodologies Black  research-article 2018 1 The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Concord, USA Corresponding Author:  Jason Edward Black, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd., Charlotte, NC 28223-0001, USA. Email:  jblac143@uncc.edu A Str8 Subject in Mayor Milk’s Court: Queer Str8ness and World Making in an LGBTQ Anthology Project  Jason Edward Black  1 Abstract This critical autoethnography interrogates the nuances of queer str8 subjectivity and scholarly standpoints by tracing the narrative experiences of the author during a longitudinal queer archival project on late social activist Harvey Milk. Episodes of the author’s journey into the queer archive are interlaced with theoretical discussions of queer str8 theory and considerations of identity reflexivity. Questioning the roles of queer str8s in queer activist scholarship and probing the limitations of cis-straight-identified privilege in a queer archive, in particular, this narrative punctuates the need for cis-straight scholars to engage in an honest and carefully contoured reflection about their roles, ethos, personal place, and social space in queer world making. Keywords queer theory, gender and sexuality, LGBT issues and theory, autoethnography, ethnographies, methodologies, narrative, politics and culture, critical ethnography  2 Cultural Studies ↔  Critical Methodologies 00(0) Robinson, Milk’s contemporaries (photographer and speech-writer, respectively) who acted as my and Chuck’s veritable shepherds through Harvey’s archival terrain, find out and drop their support? How would they confront me? And, sce-narios. Always crafting excuses and stories, explanations and defenses, for the time when they would find out. Or, largely, when the world of The Castro—that delicious queer mecca that Harvey helped nurture and whose socialscapes I relished during our archival trips to San Francisco in 2007, 2009, and 2013—would catch wind of me. Would I be con-sidered a charlatan? An outsider? Would The Castro, the city of so many queer immigrants over decades, be able to look  past my secrets and my ambiguities, and still hold me dear, an oddly queer sojourner in my own right?Low profile, indeed, until the host of the California  Report  , a California Public Radio show, asked that seeming and surprising question: “Who’s the straight one?”I was unprepared for this bold—perhaps gauche—ques-tion, flung my way by the radio host assigned to interview Chuck and me in-studio about  An Archive of Hope , the book that was the acme of our Harvey Milk project (Black & Morris, 2013). In the lobby where she dropped, what I thought was, an incendiary discursive bomb, I wondered, how did she know? How could   she know? Who else knows? Where can I hide? Do I have to go on the air? I couldn’t run, there was nowhere to go, no bunker of retreat. So on the air, we went despite the sweaty saddle bags having suddenly appeared through my Penguin heritage shirt. (Good thing I  brought a blazer.) As the host then began the show, she introduced us as the “gay one” and the “straight one.” If folks didn’t know before, the host had thrown open the cur-tains, and the light that had always gently peaked through the slats of my “straight closet” suddenly became a blinding sheet of radiated fire. There was no hiding.But, really, who the hell was I to hide anyway? Safety and privilege were always there for me, privately, famil-ially, publicly, academically. I could hide and slip whenever I wished. My fallback was the normative. I had always  joked about the “straight closet” with my romantic partner, with my students, with Chuck, and with a few colleagues. In repose, I wonder how very insulting it was (and might still  be) to even dwell in this metaphor as a cis-str8 person? 1  So many questions about sexuality and gender performance, about romantic desire and attraction. Questions about queer  politics. So many questions about me and my ethos—not  just my character, but my ability to share the “dwelling  places” of queer communitas . The Que(e)ries Over the years, my experiences with the Harvey Milk proj-ect have led me to wonder constantly about my place in the landscape of queer world making as a cis-str8 scholar and activist. From that sort of existential jam, I have begun to formulate some tighter public scholarly questions such as “how to navigate ‘queer passing’ as a ‘queer str8’ in a lived, ephemeral, feet-on-the-ground context like an archival  project and also in the more expansive backcloth of queer scholarship and politics?” And, of course, we always speak of the limitations (and liminality) of our subject positions and the lengths to which our standpoints can responsibly take us. To follow suit here, I question “how to come to terms with my own queer str8ness; at the end of day, and following cultural travails, what do I want my work to look like and who do I want to be in the queer programme?” These questions guide my journey in this narrative. Queer Theory as a Frame Before exploring any questions about “queerness,” part of its contours ought to be traced. Gender theorists, beckoned  by Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, among others, situate the space of “queer” as one of transgression, of destabiliza-tion, of fluidity in the face of so-called normative gender  performances, of so-called typical expectations of framing oneself in a modernist category of sexuality, and of hetero-normative standards and templates of desire, sex, and domesticity. Scholars such as Joshua Gamso (2003) argue that queerness aims to “challenge and confuse our under-standing and uses of sexual and gender categories . . . so that they might be rendered unusable, mess[ed] up and take[n] apart” (p. 387). And, in the communication ethnog-raphy field, Adams and Holman Jones (2011) put it suc-cinctly that “queer theorists share this sentiment by working against fixivity and firmness, certainty and closure, stability and rigid categorization of identities and experiences” (p. 110). Clearly, the very terrain of a queer frame elicits com-mitments to openness of performance on one hand, whereas concomitantly dismantling heteronormativity as a deleteri-ous center of cultural lifeways, public subjectivities, and  personal identities on the other.Concerning the latter, queer world making invests con-stitutional energy and verve in the demystification of het-eronormativity as a template against which all subjectivities are to be gauged. If homophobia and transphobia are the overt, most likely material, ways in which LGBTQ-identified individuals are hated, harmed, endure social deaths, and suffer corporeal death, heteronormativity is the hegemonic undercurrent—sometimes invisible, always insidious—that sanctions gender and sexualities related  phobias. It is de jure legal, de facto legal, institutional, socially coded, pop-cultural, and vernacular. Interestingly, heteronormativity is ironically clandestine and covert, as much as its effects are palpably felt by both LGBTQ indi-viduals and some allied, reflexive str8s. For this reason, queer theory, contends Annette Schlicter (2004), “has denaturalized heteronormativity, dismantled it as the hege-monic subject position in a normative system that produces  Black 3 a privileged straight identity versus an abject homosexual identity and practice” (p. 454). (Schlicter leaves out bisex-ual and trans folks here, but the sentiment to lay-bare het-eronormativity for all queer people is interpreted  pluralistically here to include cis-normativity as well.)However, heteronormativity, for all its assumed intransi-gence and embeddedness, is unstable and incoherent. There exist within its boundaries fissures, what Foucaulatians might call “gaps” that allow for “spaces of dissension” (Phillips, 2002, p. 328). Hypocrisies of heteronormativity including its double standards of protectionism and even sometimes its reliance on Christianity as a logic of rigid control and discrimination rather than wholesale acceptance and indefatigable love always makes the hegemonic super-structure brittle. This is not to say that challenging hetero-normativity is as easy as finding its cracks and spelunking its cleavages until light finds its way into its abyss. But the end game is, indeed, working without compromise and obfuscation to “deconstruct identity categories in ways that disrupt gender and sexual binaries and the cultural intelligi- bility they imbue” whether or not difficult or, maybe, in spite of the difficulty (Allen, 2010, p. 156). It is important to note that “queer” is not just an activist or academic posi-tion. Rather, it is a lifeway. This is why queer theorists often speak of world making.  We All Know You Are So Very Queer! My cultural studies graduate seminar used to spend our March and April sessions in the backroom of a bar just a spell away from campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Maybe, it was the Stella talking during one of those sessions that com- pelled one of my graduate advisees to ask, “Why do you study everyone and everything that you are not?” I guess  before he asked this—a gauntlet-like challenge thrown down before the entire seminar—I had never considered myself in this light. But, indeed, I do study critical rhetoric in the area of social change within the contexts of Native resistance, and LGBTQ activism. And, as noted above, I am a cis-str8, White-identified man. I’ve got some educational  privilege on my side and a shit-ton of class mobility in my corner. I am able. I am a born-citizen of the United States. I am not religious and do not claim an American hegemonic identity in that regard, but I am not typically mistaken for anything but someone linked to Judeo-Christianity (the Hanukah menorah and Christmas trees in the window each December probably don’t help), so there is religious privi-lege there if even misidentified by others. I do study critical Whiteness, and my former deep south university (surpris-ingly) let me teach a Critical Whiteness Theory course once. I, too, focus a great deal of my work on unveiling heteronormative complications, attempting to disentangle their dangers for all. But other than dismantling the privi-leged spaces of Whiteness and heteronormativity, my direct focus on White and cis-straight people is less robust than my other work. That looks strange on the page. But, hon-estly, other than my own personal and professional pecca-dilloes and reflexivity related to White-identified ethos and cis-straight subjectivities, I don’t dwell in those spaces from academic angles.Sotto voce, I admit to simultaneously loving and hating graduate students’ smart questions such as the above. A  blessing and a curse. But, in the end, I am fortunate that my advisee asked that question. As a queer-identified individ-ual (a cis-gay man), my student specifically urged me to question myself as queer.To be sure, I have always identified as queer, but I don’t say it out loud too often. This trepidation is not for fear of homophobia or what some gender normative bully or red-neck (I am a NASCAR fan, after all) might perceive of me or might do to me. This, in many ways, is my straight privi-lege talking. I am reflexive and responsible enough to know that even if I feared retribution from bigots, my sexual and gender identities and performances place me right back in the center, like a proton who, though gets attracted by some electrons’ charges, still finds a home in the nucleus when-ever it wants it or needs it. It is, regrettably, the electrons on the margins that have their charges stolen and their pulses  pulled to other orbits. Rather, my grandest hesitation has come from a fear of offending my queer friends, who claim LGBTQ identities and subject positions, that is. In the pale of my hegemonic subject positions, can I be queer? Is it an affront to seemingly parade around with so much privilege,  but be able to wear the gorgeous coat of someone scripted, if even self-marked, as queer?I am not alone in my apprehension of the label “queer.” Both straight folks and LGBTQ-identified folks have ques-tioned their roles within the signifier of queer. Keith Berry (2013) recently wrote that “I struggle with the academic call to be ‘queer’” (p. 219). I find parallels with Berry’s senti-ment and story, though he and I do not share the same sex-ual identity. He continues, Granted, my work has aimed ‘queerly’ to underscore the multiplicity inherent to culture and the fragmented nature of subjectivity, hopefully in non-normative and non-essentializing ways. I have worked directly with queer projects, and I see  beautiful intersections between autoethnography and queer theory as well as the syngergistic potential in embodying the tenets of a ‘queer autoethnography.’ Yet, I struggle in some ways with the identity of ‘queer academic,’ a process that feels important today as a gay scholar who works critically. (Berry, 2013, p. 219) Here, Berry hints that taking on the politicization, activ-ism, and expectation of queerness can be a difficult maze through which to amble. Just because one does what is per-ceived to be “queer work,” does not make him or her queer. For scholar-activists defining themselves as straight or str8,  4 Cultural Studies ↔  Critical Methodologies 00(0) the reflexivity, guilt, and uncertainty that may come with the identifier of queer can be debilitating. In the least, the  possibility of being queer confronts a straight or str8 per-son, forcing her or him or them to dig deeply into her or his or their ontology.I will never forget when I was called “queer” for the first time. Not coincidentally, it occurred during the Harvey Milk project. Before the archival trips began in 2007, I was actually enlisted by the Harvey Milk Memorial Committee to help choose excerpts of his discourse for inclusion around the base of his bust that was installed in San Francisco City Hall in 2007. I worked extensively with Dan Nicoletta, Harvey’s photographer between the years of 1974 to his death in 1978. Dan was not just a comrade of Harvey, he was almost like his adopted younger brother. I felt as close to Harvey and his spirit through Dan as I had yet to that  point. And, my work on the Committee held not just profes-sional importance, but personal promise—an emblem of the archival work to come and a blessing from Harvey’s own family to continue with my own social justice projects both unrelated and fixed on Harvey.I was talking on the phone with Dan one afternoon, dis-cussing the statue unveiling party that was being planned in late spring of 2007 and the archival project that was about to kick off later that summer, and he said, “I am so happy that queers like you are keeping Harvey alive. God damn, I can’t wait to see what you find [in the archive].” I mention this anecdote not to shoulder-hoist myself up as some great str8 saint of the queer archival program, but rather to admit how I felt so cared for and accepted in that moment. I felt so queer. And, it was liberating. But, the moment was, of course, quickly replaced by the dreadful possibility that if Dan found out about my sexuality he might anathematize me, excommunicating me from Milk memory projects. And, then, I fretted even more that maybe I could always be queer with Harvey and his family (as long as my secret was safe), but that I might never be able to be queer outside of that project.Such thoughts and possibilities limited the ways I could function during the project. It feels a bit “icky” to talk about scholarly and ontological suffering given my gender and sexuality privileges. Instead, I’ll say that there were likely opportunities excised in terms of my mobility within and throughout queer circles during the project related to my subjectivities. Regardless of how my admission of feeling ostracized may sound gauche in these pages, my contem- plations about occlusion and proscription were very real to me in those early moments.I also remember in 2009, during our second trip to San Francisco, asking Chuck if and when I should reveal what I would later be able to hail as my “queer str8ness” to Harvey’s people. He suggested that I let my narrative slowly trickle out through stories over dinner and drinks and walks through the city with our Harvey friends (we had more than “archival fun” during those trips; Woodford Reserve Manhattan at Twin Peaks Bar, way-the-hell after hours, is affectionately remembered and wisely recommended). I was satisfied with that solution, though I held back for years—really, until the California Report   incident. I was even more heartened, though, with Chuck’s closing senti-ment, uttered with the help of a warm hug. “Darling,” he said, “Don’t worry. We all know you are so very queer!” Again, acceptance followed me to sleep that night. Sweet relief and promise. Replaced, as always, by the lived expe-rience of hiding yet again—is there ever not   the soberly “morning after” that nastily throws shade at the lush prom-ises of the night before?Somewhere around the time of writing the  Archive of  Hope , I found a book edited by Calvin Thomas (2011), ded-icated to being “straight with a twist.” Even though the  book is dated now, just as it was when I read it in 2012, I was enlivened by his argument that “There may be many more ways than one to be queer” (p. 11). Since that time, I have found my way to be queer—I have begun identifying as “queer str8.” But, life is never built by and through pana-ceas, so I have found many complications linked to this signifier. Queering the Straight or Becoming a “Queer Str8” It has been some number of years now, but our treasured royal, Judith Butler (1993), once wrote that the notion of “queer” is a political ideation that could be shared across gender performances and sexual standpoints. She noted then that queer is a productive “discursive rallying point” for both sexual minorities as well as for “straights for whom the term expresses an affiliation with anti-homophobic poli-tics” (p. 230). As Schlicter (2004) clarifies, Butler “offers [straights] a vantage point from which to develop a critique of heteronormativity and heterosexuality” (p. 547). But, what Butler—and a number of queer theorists—resist in terms of straight participation in queer politics is a height-ened level of authenticity and agency appending to straight folks. Just as White members of the 1960s-era mainstream Civil Rights Movement or the current Black Lives Matter Movement ought   to know there is a difference between  being an ally and speaking/writing/acting  for   Black folks, so too does the ideal str8 ally temper her or his or their engagement as queer.There is room for straight folks in queer politics, of course. The queer signifier is not antistraight. Rather, “queer defines itself against the normal [sic]” and recognizes the challenges that ‘the omnipresence of heteronormativity’ can  bring. In fact, such challenges means everyone’s [lives] are at stake in queer politics” (Allen, 2010, p. 159). The cer-tainty of having to confront heteronormativity, regardless of one’s sexuality, opens up space for straight folks. Recently,  Black 5 straight scholars have begun to survey their gender perfor-mances and sexualities for their own topography in queer cultures. According to Schlicter (2004), these scholars and scholar-activists are called “queer straights” (pp. 544-545). She defines this subject position as “lovers both of ‘the opposite gender’ and of queer discourse. What distinguishes them from the supportive ‘friends and relatives’ of gay peo- ple is their self-representation as potentially transgressive, queer subjects” (Schlicter, 2004, p. 545). For many of us, this is the raison d’etre of our personal-political work in our multivocal communities and within our scholarly and inter-ventionist work in the academy. Queer str8s, again a subjec-tivity with which I identify, re/theorize heterosexuality and make it electric in the service of tearing down heteronorma-tivity. We do more than merely “support our gay friends.” Rather, we seek to decipher, deflate, interrogate, and destroy the gender normative daggers that heteronormativity and its human agents and, worse, its despicable bigots throw at all of us.Again, panaceas do not exist, and so an understanding of the queer str8 signifier requires some qualification and nuance. First, folks assuming this positionality must think about whether they are invested for what Thomas (2000) calls “the right reasons.” He queries, What exactly would [queer str8ness], or should [queer str8ness], if anything, perform? Other than voyeurism, appropriation, theoretical trendiness or the desire to be ‘good,’ responsible heterosexual chic, what might the draw of queer theory for straights be? What can anti-homophobic straights do to help make the world queerer than ever? (p. 12) These are legitimately vital questions to ask given the sometimes-tenuous circumstances of doing identity work, especially, for those who work critically and enthnographi-cally. Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson (2013) agonizes that narrative-telling can sometimes otherize, especially, when a community with which one works is not squarely her or his or their own. This kind of othering—more often essentialist logics than anything else—does not exist only across Western and non-Western contexts. Instead it can occur in “social groups deemed more exotic or ‘deviant’ within the researcher’s own culture” (p. 286). We could also extend the researcher role to the scholar-activist, as well.Second, queer str8s must recognize their privilege. In the same way, I have activated my own reflexivity over  being able to move in/out of Milk circles, other queer str8s might stay vigilantly cognizant that our desires “to disso-ciate from heterosexual identity and not reinscribe hetero-sexuality as ‘normal’ does not guarantee escape from  participation in heteronormative practices” (Allen, 2010,  p. 149). I would argue that queer str8 individuals cannot compare queer-identified folks who embrace LGBTQ identities with those spaces in which such queer str8s find themselves. There are still visibility privileges—being marked as str8, performing camp as a mask to traipse the liminal lines of gender and sexuality, retreating back to one’s centers, and enjoying the sexiness that comes with  being that “straight but not narrow” hero, as the 1990s-era  bumper sticker used to put it. Clyde Smith (2000) attempts to find a way through this privilege while recognizing the  privilege and knowing well that queer str8s cannot over-step their bounds. He writes,I claim the identity of queer heterosexual to further my own desires for a world of multiple possibilities rather than as a means of benefitting from queer chic. Such a world would be one in which we are not restricted by binaries of sex and gender or by the balkanization of identity groups. (p. 66)Revealing the uncertainty of heteronormativity from straight perspectives, working from the inside-out, seems to  be Smith’s advice, as well as that of others. For instance, what straight identity means for Allen (2010) is “recogni-tion of a normative heterosexual and institutional order by which I benefit and I simultaneously seek to change it” (p. 150). Engaging in this kind of reflexivity “deepens critical engagement” as it concomitantly demonstrates the reality that queer str8ness cannot dwell in the same strata of critical queerness as lived through and curated by LGBTQ-identified individuals and groups (Morris, 2010, p. 33). Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are For years, I hid my straightness from the circles of aging activists in The Castro who had marched with Harvey and had become his family throughout the 1970s. I didn’t real-ize it then, but hiding is such a privileged practice. After all, refusing to reveal the heterosexual self “may also act as a reassertion of a heteronormative privilege of privacy” (Allen, 2010, pp. 152-153). I once heard Harvey’s speech-writer, an octogenarian named Frank Robinson (who wrote our book’s foreword), talk about his Chicago upbringing, a closeted childhood and adolescence that led to a closeted mid-life. Frank was a science fiction writer and, until his death a few years ago, was still working. He was known for writing the The Glass Inferno  and a number of sci-fi pulps that were, as I later found out, incredibly foundational to the genre. Revealing his sexuality and gender identity in the 1950s would have destroyed his career—occupational trauma is often overlooked as a residue of the more visible detritus that heteronormativity produces and exhausts. Incidentally, he was also one of the first  Playboy  Advisors. And, so it was that early straight readers of Hugh Hefner’s infamous magazine were being advised by a gay man whose sexual and masculine lifestyle advice, he told Chuck and me, was “all utter bullshit I made up!”
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