“But you could change! Queers are just better.” So explains Edith Massey as Aunt Ida—in John Waters’s 1974 cult classic, Female Trouble—who urges her nephew to reconsider his straightness. “I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries! The world of heterosexuals is a sick and boring life.”
Straightness is about a line and its time: the normative and linear life course; queerness, as Sara Ahmed frames it, a “deviation” from that straight path.1 For queer critics, like Aunt Ida, deviation is desirable; it cultivates the possibility for other, better worlds—fleeting though they may be—outside the “stultifying” deadness of what Jose Esteban Muñoz calls reproductive heteronormativity’s “straight time.”2
And yet, the future in which we all would have lived happily ever after has its allure. One name for that temptation is “homonormativity,” as Lisa Duggan had it; perhaps “settler homonationalism,” Scott Morgensen’s coinage, is even better.3 Both capture the benefits (and compulsions) of normativity while also raising the specter of a “queer” that we can no longer pretend reliably transgresses or refuses the straight path (not that, as Cathy Cohen’s prescient critique laid bare back in the 1990s, it ever did).4
In the ever after of the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision—which granted same-sex couples access to the “nobility and dignity” of marriage (without which, the Court opined, one is “condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions”)—the question must be asked: When “queer” is no longer the marginalized outside of “straight” systems or futures, where might we find that deviation? If queer often looks rather like that sick and boring life, how can we cultivate queerer worlds, or other possibilities?
With these questions in mind, I read three new books that think queerly about straightness and its temporal forms. In The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Jane Ward draws on queer culture to critique straight culture’s toxic masculinity—and offer inspiration. In Yetta Howard’s Rated RX: Sheree Rose with and after Bob Flanagan, Rose and Flanagan’s queerness comes from their perversions of heteropatriarchy, a deviant deviation. The “queer” in Scott Herring and Lee Wallace’s Long Term: Essays on Queer Commitment is temporal: about dilation, deferral, and un/reproductive repetition. All three books provide pathways toward a queer otherwise, while revealing contradictions of queer critique in increasingly straight times.
For Better or for Worse
“I am worried about straight people,” begins Jane Ward’s witty The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, which offers a queer diagnosis of the trouble with heterosexuality: in a word, misogyny. Ward plumbs the “paradox” that heterosexuals proclaim their love for each other while simultaneously appearing to dislike or even hate each other; “the world’s most glorified relationship is often a miserable one.”
Ward writes as lesbian feminist ally to the straight women and men who suffer under heterosexuality, distilling the nasty core of misogyny from a century of self-help endeavors: eugenics-era marriage guides, women’s magazines, and the ploys of “pickup artists.” This “heterosexual-repair industry” (think John Gray’s  Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus) attempts to accommodate, normalize, and even romanticize heterosexuality’s noxious blend of whiteness, masculinity, and violence.
Ward impresses upon the reader how relentless this tragedy is for those who live its form: heterosexuality as an exercise of endurance, a slog with uncertain benefits. “A Sick and Boring Life” is the title of Ward’s chapter on queer critics of straight culture; her interlocutors, like Waters’s Aunt Ida, find straight people “boring.” Tedious, uncreative, predictable, and most of all repetitive, heterosexuality repeats, in order to secure, straight gender in a timeline of procreation, anniversaries, lineage, and inheritance. As viewed by queers, Ward writes, straight culture seems “erotically uninspired or coercive, given shape by the most predictable and punishing gender roles, emotionally scripted by decades of inane media and self-help projects, and outright illogical as a set of intimate relations anchored in a complaint-ridden swirl of desire and misogyny.” As Ward nods to Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism”—“when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing”5—one wonders, why do straight women commit to this?
One answer is heteronormativity: the fact that heteropatriarchy is enshrined not only as “the good life” (marriage, children, and consumer-orientated domesticity) but as Life Itself, the bedrock of history and society. Ward calls for the demotion of heterosexuality from form to (mere) sexuality. She imagines a world in which straight men could learn from lesbian feminist culture to lust after and respect women at the same time, so that heterosexuality could become a “source of connection and mutual regard built through channels of desire, joy, and pleasure.”
I love this inversion of who might best give lessons on living well—“queers are just better”—and the denaturalization of straightness from system to erotics. But given the accumulated weight of heteropatriarchy Ward reveals—and so long as straight culture masquerades as culture itself—I don’t find myself optimistic about this re-enchantment. And I am not certain that queer culture can still be opposed to the “straight culture [that] keeps people having babies, buying products, working hard in the paid labor force to support children, and fearing many of the potentially less boring sexual desires and/or subcultural practices that are inconvenient for capitalism, white supremacy, and the state.”
What would Aunt Ida say to all those ordinary queers who work in an office, have children, and celebrate wedding anniversaries? Do we need to worry about queer people now too?
In Sickness and in Health
If Ward offers a queer rescue to straights stuck in a sick and boring life, Yetta Howard’s Rated RX: Sheree Rose with and after Bob Flanagan explores the queerness of the sick. Well known in the BDSM and crip performance worlds, Sheree Rose and celebrated “supermasochist” Bob Flanagan made endurance-based, hardcore sadomasochistic performance art in the 1980s and ’90s, until Flanagan died of cystic fibrosis in 1996. Rose and Flanagan were a couple in art and life, living a 24/7, full-time Mistress/slave relationship, and central figures in the Los Angeles BDSM scene.
Rated RX is a pervert’s coffee table book: half interviews with Rose and short essays by performance artists and scholars about Rose’s work, and half archival images of her four decades of work. It’s meant as a queer feminist corrective to the erasure of Rose in the couple’s story: “the thing that people don’t understand is that Bob was my invention,” she says. Forefronting Rose’s artistic vision and documenting her legacy, Rated RX disrupts the trite heteronormative narrative of male genius/female muse, in which Rose is caretaker or helper to Flanagan’s tortured artist. In his “Slave Sonnets,” reprinted here, Flanagan writes about Rose: “she could have been a lesbian but loves / hot dick, except what’s often connected / to the prick is another prick trying / to run her life, so now she’s got the keys.”
Is theirs queerness within a straight form? Rose and Flanagan did marry the day before he died (so that he could be buried at Mount Sinai Cemetery), but most of their 16-year relationship took the form of SM slave contracts—a perversion of the marriage license. Rose’s own path is one of unexpected deviation: from a bored housewife stuck in a married-with-two-children life with her first husband in the 1960s to the center of the LA feminist, punk, art, and BDSM scene of the 1970s. “I became aware that there was another life for me outside of traditional marriage,” she says mildly.
It is not only the femme domination, a gender inversion, that queers the couple’s art/life. Rose and Flanagan’s endurance performances of extreme pain (which Rose, in another afterlife, reperforms with queer artist Martin O’Brien after Flanagan’s death) shuttle between sick bodies and sick desires, eroticizing crip/BDSM corporality.
When “queer” is no longer the marginalized outside of “straight” systems or futures, where might we find that deviation?
In Visiting Hours, for instance, the scene is a children’s hospital: Flanagan is on a hospital bed, surrounded by children’s toys and medical equipment repurposed as sex/BDSM toys; Rose hoists Flanagan off the bed to hang upside down by his ankles. Their work explicitly inverted—“perverted,” as contributor Amelia Jones puts it—the reproductive futurity of heteropatriarchy. In Matter of Choice, Rose attaches plastic dolls to Flanagan’s naked body with fishhooks, over a soundtrack of crying babies and Flanagan’s own ranting portrayal of the Christian conservative founder of Operation Rescue. The piece’s climax comes when Rose attaches the last baby to the head of Flanagan’s penis, and he begins to swing it between his legs, singing “Rock-a-bye baby.” Rose situates this piece in the 1980s antifeminist culture wars: “a fishhook hurts going in and even more coming out. It is not so easy to get a fishhook out. You’re hooked. That’s what happens to women when they have babies—they’re hooked.”
In both art and life, Rose and Flanagan’s heterosexuality was, to say the least, not “straight.” Like Waters’s Aunt Ida queerly inverting the coercive pressure of heteronormativity, Rated RX celebrates a deviant debasement of the tragic heteropatriarchy Ward describes. It might be sick, but it’s not boring.
’Til Death Do Us Part
Scott Herring and Lee Wallace’s collection Long Term: Essays on Queer Commitment takes a quieter, more domestic turn. I’m tempted for parallelism’s sake to say that this book is about the boring rather than the sick, but that doesn’t describe the volume or its chapters. Against the cruel optimism of the straights in Ward’s book, who desire a happily ever after that will never arrive, and aslant the sadomasochistic endurance games of Rose (and Flanagan), Long Term’s temporalities are more tentative forms of holding on, weathering, in spaces of the queer ordinary.
When I picked it up, I expected Long Term to focus on queer marriagelike arrangements in the post-Obergefell era. Instead, disability and carework are the volume’s most prominent scenes of queer commitment: palliative care for a dying mother or companion animals; living on after a partner’s catastrophic stroke; living with gendered and queered chronic illness. While a few chapters center more typical “long-term relationships,” the main subject is what contributor Elizabeth Freeman calls “chronic” time: persistent and ongoing, without resolution. The authors pause on small scenes of the mundane, finding queer attachments in “suspended time and repetitive actions” and the thickness of the everyday.
For instance, Scott Herring reads Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life as a queer critique of redemptive (one might say pastoral) narratives of longevity (happily ever after, friends forever), which rely on psychotherapeutic notions of self-improvement (so that the accusation of “commitment phobia” in Ward’s women’s magazines becomes a weapon in a war against institutionalized commitment of all kinds). Heather Love’s concluding chapter rereads homosociality (misogyny) to find in friendship and pedagogical spaces semiprivate, depersonalized forms of durable intimacy that present alternatives to the privatization and property relation of marriage. Annamarie Jagose and Lee Wallace’s chapter on Nat Randall and Anna Breckon’s The Second Woman, an endurance performance of heterosexuality, takes up the queerness that emerges through the repetition of the straight form. The chronic/queer is a temporal state of suspension, a saturated and stretched-out time and space, thick with repeated attachment, not going anywhere.
Long Term’s queer is neither straight’s opposition (like Ward) nor its deviation (like Rose and Flanagan). Instead, queer is the pause that reveals straight forms as already queer. It is only from the outside that any long-term relationship appears stable, write Jagose and Wallace: “inside is another story.” Yet even as I love the refiguration of queer as neither salvation nor spectacle, I am left wondering: What is queer, if not a site of oppositionality to or perversion of hetero/forms?
Queer Ever After
Over its relatively brief life, queer theory’s most enduring object of critique has not been heterosexuality (straightness) but heteronormativity—straight systems and futures. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s canonical 1998 definition set out heteronormativity not as sexuality but rather as form—the access to a sense of “invisible, tacit, society-founding rightness” that, back then at least, was both privileged and exclusive.6
These three books show us what has changed, and what has not. Heterosexuality remains mired in misogyny, and heteropatriarchy rules the day—even as that same heterosexuality has never been singular or set. Meanwhile, homonormativity now, too, promises a happily ever after of work, children, and family that seems at odds with the foundational force of queer critique. It is in this context—the same year as Obergefell v. Hodges, in fact—that the call for “queer theory without antinormativity” emerges.7 And yet, as foundational as I have found Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson’s questioning of queer’s axiomatic (if phantasmatic) “oppositional posture” in my own work, these days I have fresh appreciation for the challenge Jack Halberstam poses: “Without a critique of normativity,” Halberstam warns, “queer theory may well look a lot like straight thinking.” What is queerness without anti(hetero)normativity, without the force of being “against, against, against”? When the sick and boring life is not only for straights, we need a queer critique without queer exceptionalism to challenge the compulsory naturalization of straight lines and straight times without exaggerating the stability or stasis of the norm as form.
Ward, Howard, and Herring and Wallace give us a queer that isn’t assuredly antinormative or transgressive, and yet still might offer another path. I need that opening, the deviation, however minor, as a possibility for life outside the union of family/state/civilization, outside the domesticated temporalities of duration, outside the privatizing system of ownership-as-love. More pleasure and less possession; more genital torture and less toxic masculinity; more unexpected deviation and less stale and stifling coercion. That is my queer ever after.
This article was commissioned by Gretchen Bakke.
- Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press, 2006). ↩
- José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York University Press, 2009), pp. 49, 22. ↩
- Lisa Duggan, “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism,” in Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, edited by Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson (Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 175-94; Scott Lauria Morgensen, “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities,” GLQ, vol. 16, no. 1-2 (2010), pp. 105-31. ↩
- Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” in GLQ, vol. 3 (1997), pp. 437-65; “What Is This Movement Doing to My Politics?” Social Text, vol. 61 (1999), pp. 111-18. ↩
- Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011), p. 1. ↩
- Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 24, no. 2 (1998), pp. 547-66. ↩
- Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson, “Introduction: Antinormativity’s Queer Conventions,” differences, vol. 26, no. 1 (2015), pp. 1-25. ↩