I’ve already done the Valentine’s Day love letter and mixtape thing, so this year I give you a Thinking Queerly entry centering around identity crisis. A love story spoiled by politics. A confessional-manifesto. A bad romance, if you will. Oh, and a poem:
The globe is overheating.
The economy is depressed.
We’re on the verge of cold war.
And it’s Valentine’s Day–I guess.
Queer Love in Late Capitalism
“Queer liberation – not rainbow capitalism” read one protestor’s sign at a 2017 rally at Kentucky’s state capital. “The first Pride was a riot” read another. My own sign read: “It’s not about bathrooms, as it was never about water fountains,” in reference to the transphobic bathroom bills that were circulating.
As a trans man who’d been living stealth since moving to Louisville several months prior, standing in broad daylight holding this sign felt surreal. I was so dissociated I didn’t hear a word any of the speakers said. I also really needed to pee.
When the rally ended, protestors mingled for a while and then sashayed to their cars to drive back to Louisville. I kept to myself, pretending to be doing something on my phone as I waited for my ride – another cis-passing trans guy who I’d met at an underground support group – to finish making his rounds.
When the crowd started to thin, I darted into the men’s bathroom to empty my bladder. In the privacy of the stall I untensed my shoulders and felt the frenetic energy begin to recede. A familiar feeling washed over me, one that I often experienced around groups of cis gays men. It was dysphoria tinged with envy and resentment: of their manicured beards and scarless, muscular chests; their flirtatious banter and body language; their monopoly on the men’s room, their claim on queer masculinity; their fluency in Cis Gay Culture ™️ and its phallocentric subtext; and above all, their ability to bend gender norms and still effortlessly pass.
My larger than life fears and ideas about cis gay men, such as that most of them didn’t see trans men as men, stemmed largely from my own insecurities and internalized transphobia, and my own repressed sexuality. I’d later find that all kinds of gay men are open to dating trans men, and suffer from many of the same insecurities that trans men do. As for the transphobes on hookup apps, in the words of non-binary poet Andrew Gibson: “You don’t yet know the boys are building their confidence on stolen land.”
Three years later, I went on my first date with a cis gay guy. He didn’t know I was trans until our first date, when I disclosed to him, and he was totally fine with it. We hit it off immediately. Not only was there a strong mutual attraction, there was an element or novelty owing to the fact that he’d never been with a trans guy, and the last time I’d been with any guy was years before I came out as trans. We had one or two major life experiences in common, we shared a number of mutual friends, and our zodiac signs were compatible. Beyond that, though, we were opposites, in terms of our professions, interests, lifestyles, and less obviously at that time, our politics.
In a matter of weeks, we were in a relationship. Midway into the honeymoon phase, the universe threw a major curve ball with COVID. Shortly thereafter, thousands of Louisvillians, myself included, left quarantine and flooded the streets to protest an even deadlier epidemic, systemic racism and police brutality, promoted by the state-sanctioned murder of Breonna Taylor. From that point forward, life as I knew it would never be the same.
It was a summer of intensive political education, direct action training, and on the ground activism. Night after night my fellow activists and I gathered, for hours at a time, to plan our next actions. It was an intense period of growth for all of us, white folks especially, as activists and as people, pushing one another to new levels of awareness, solidarity, accountability, and commitment.
If you weren’t an active part of those movement spaces and were simply viewing them from the outside, it would be easy to view us as a cult of dangerous extremists, which is how we were portrayed by mainstream liberal media, whose politics closely aligned with my ex’s.
Our relationship imploded literally overnight, when the first night of protests brought our raw, unfiltered opinions to the surface, which is where they should have been all along. But I had become a chameleon over the course of going stealth, as a means of survival.
Though I’d been openly trans for a while now, this tendency was still active on a subconscious level. But that wasn’t the only thing obfuscating our political differences. There was also the fact that, like many Americans, my political views lacked nuance, depth, breadth, and critical analysis, making it difficult to engage in meaningful political debate or discourse.
Like many white queers, I was insufficiently aware of my own white privilege, and completely lacking in what Marx calls “class consciousness,” or awareness of my place in the capitalist class system, understanding of what distinguishes the working class from the owning class, and solidarity with other working class people. I had a number of anti-capitalist beliefs and intuitions, but these hardly constituted a coherent worldview or systematic critique of capitalism.
Similar to most Louisvillians, my ex-boyfriend disagreed with many of the tactics organizers were using to bring about change during the uprising. It wasn’t their cause he had a problem with, he said, but their methods. He could not condone violence, destruction of property, or extortion, for example. In my view, the so-called “violence” being inflicted on the wealthy, or rather, on their belongings, was nothing compared to the centuries of brutality that Black Americans endured. Beyond that, Black people had been “asking nicely” the whole time, to no avail.
I did not yet identify as a Communist, in part because, like most Americans, I did not know what that word meant. I knew it existed on a spectrum with socialism, but I was confused about how and where the systems differed. I was also aware that most people associated communism with fascism: brutal dictatorships, mass murder, and political repression.
That said, I was quickly coming to understand why no amount of “reforms” to our criminal justice system will end systemic racism in the U.S. The whole system needs to be abolished, and another one built in its place. Eventually I’d come to the same realization about the electoral college, the two-party system, the Supreme Court, and finally, the free market and private property: we will never eliminate systemic racism by reforming systems that are fundamentally racist. Abolition is the only way.
We were each appalled by the other’s response to the protests, and the more we argued the more appalled we became. On the one hand, I believed it was my responsibility as a white person to educate other white people on the ways in which white privilege, implicit bias, and mainstream media narratives were influencing his perspective. But my approach was lacking in grace, and so to him I came off as hyperfixated and judgmental, further confirmation that I’d drunk the kool aid.
As the chasm widened we struggled to understand what was happening. Were we speaking different languages? Could we really have been this far off in our perceptions of one another? Weren’t we both on the left? Granted, I was “far left,” and he was “left-leaning”–but still, how different could we really be?
For reasons I would later work through in therapy, I eventually caved and began to gaslight myself in an effort to save our relationship. I told myself that I was being dogmatic. I’d become obsessed. I was hyperfixating. I reasoned that these behaviors were indicative of imbalance. In reality, I was grasping at straws to save my relationship.
And so began my efforts to understand the logic of liberalism. This wasn’t about seeking ammunition for future arguments. Quite the contrary. I knew I wouldn’t change his politics (it doesn’t work that way) and I had a vested interest in making peace with this. To my great dismay, the harder I sought out the liberal capitalist rationale, the less rational it seemed, and the more it came to resemble conservatism with a Pride parade: a Pride parade complete with corporations, politicians, banks, and police.
And still I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. The only remaining tactic I could think of was to turn a blind eye to our political differences, and vow to never bring them up again. If you know me at all, you can guess how long that would have lasted. I didn’t have a chance to find out, because he broke up with me.
I’d never been on the receiving end of a breakup, and I wasn’t expecting it. The impact of the rejection was brutal, unearthing a mess of repressed insecurities and trauma responses. Was it because I was trans? If I’d been less dogmatic, or more tolerant, or more authentic early on, would this still be happening? Who even was I? Did I even know myself? Were all of my beliefs and commitments just props to bolster my identity, fit in, avoid abandonment? Was I just a dry drunk? It was definitely a new low, what I’d later describe as a rock bottom of sorts.
I gave myself time to lick my wounds, self reflect, and heal. After a period of navel-gazing, I was ready to get back to social justice work.
Over the next two years, my focus was (and continues to be) on educating myself, building community, and embedding myself in anti-capitalist and anti-racist activism. As I’d long dreamed of doing, I started meeting with comrades who worked in my industry to start the discussion of forming one a worker-owned coffee shop. I joined the Party for Socialism and Liberation, a revolutionary working class party whose goal is to bring about the socialist transformation of society through base building and strategic organized direct action.
This Valentine’s Day, as I sit at home finishing this story before heading to the shop, my brain and heart still vibrating with the powerful energy that filled the room at last night’s tenants union meeting, I’m struck with the many ways that my life, person, and priorities have changed in the wake of that relationship. Being a part of communities that share my values and commitment to liberation, I’ve come to truly love myself, my life, and the people and work that it is filled with.
Life is not perfect, but it’s now charged with purpose, potential, and hope. Now if someone would just invent a leftist dating app.