Unpacking the other fake binary: Success and Failure

Never in my thirty-four years have I dreamed of marriage, children, a house with a yard, an impressive job, or a fancy car. Once or twice in long-term committed relationships, I have entertained one or two of these, for my partner’s sake. 

“The reason is… you don’t want kids,” said an ex during The Breakup Conversation. Funny, I thought, I never said kids were a deal breaker. But that wasn’t really the point. The point was that the stuff he was really invested in, I wasn’t, and vice versa. We had tried to overcome our differences, but ultimately we failed. Or did we?

In his work The Queer Art of Failure, transgender author Jack Halberstam makes the case that “failure” by conventional standards (i.e. failure as defined by white heteronormative Christian values, i.e. capitalism) is preferable to success. He makes a distinction between what he calls “high theory” and “low theory,” stating that low theory seeks out eccentric, non-conventional, or ‘outsider art’ — works that are not taken seriously by “the art world” or academia. These works might be described as “antiestablishment” in the sense of antidisciplinary, antinormative. Because they aren’t constrained by (or because they fail at) academic ideals of rigor, restraint, and seriousness, they can be awkward, savage, silly, mundane, and irreverent. In short, they play by their own rules. And in this way, they embody resistance, disobedience, and self-creation: much like queerness itself.

As a young person I was taught that homosexuality is sinful, unnatural, and something we don’t talk about. Coming out as queer and then later as trans would mean disappointing—or failing—the people who raised me, on a deep, more or less cosmic level. But gender and sexual norms aside, there was a whole host of other things I’d failed at: career, relationships, identity, self esteem, eating, drinking… the sense of failure was pretty all-encompassing (and it was part of what I got blackout drunk to escape).

Long after I’d rejected the beliefs of my upbringing, I still craved the approval of those who instilled them. And I found this infuriating — as well as confusing. Why did I care what some homophobic transphobic Christians thought of me? While I didn’t agree with their standards of success, my internalized shame and guilt made it difficult to tell where they ended and I began. It was in these muddy waters that I discovered a truth that would change everything: No one else can decide for me what it means to succeed or to fail; and, my successes and failures, however I define these words, are not the measure of my worth.

This realization didn’t happen all at once. It took multiple rock bottoms, comings-out, breakups, and dark nights of the soul. But once the idea took hold, my perspective slowly started to shift. I started to see myself, not so much as a failure or victim, but as a survivor, a creator, and a truth-seeker. What I care about, what interests me, is the journey: the process whereby I come to a deeper understanding and acceptance of myself, and a deeper understanding and empathy for others. This is my truth, my standard of success or a life well lived, and the more authentically I live it, the more I attract the people and experiences that nourish it.

So I’m not a family guy (at least not in the conventional sense). Or a career guy. Or a socialite. I’ll probably always make a very modest living, because I prefer simplicity over extravagance, and my freedom, creative work, and sense of justice will always be what is most important. So actually, by my own standards, I have been extremely successful! I manage a coffee shop, a job that I enjoy most days, and that leaves plenty of time and energy for my passions: writing, organizing, working out, and cuddling my cat. I have housing security, which means I’m safe and able focus on my work. I own a little condo in a part of town I adore and feel totally at home in. I am sober. I’ve transitioned. I feel at home in my body, at last. I have a daily writing practice. My days revolve around poetry, coffee, and meaningful relationships. I am a part of a queer community, a trans community, a recovery community, and a community of activists dedicated to bringing about lasting social change.

The success/failure binary functions to uphold the ideals of capitalism: individualism, conformity, productivity, and profit. So I say, along with Halberstam, let’s embrace failure in the capitalist sense, and success in the sense of cultivating a life and world that values trying, failing, learning, healing, loving, creating, and growing. In a word, let’s queer it.

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