I’m going to start this essay with the conclusion. Why should we be looking for different ways of thinking about and living in the world? Because many of the dominant political social, and intellectual structures that currently underpin our society have proven themselves to be colossally flawed, so we need to begin looking for different ways of doing and thinking about things.
In case you need examples of the flaws, have a look at the widespread economic collapse in multiple countries; the increasing economic disparity around the globe; the severe and ongoing environmental degradation taking place across continents and oceans; the failure of the marriage ideal in the US (the majority of Americans are unmarried and divorce rates remain close to 50% across the country); or even the release this past week of data showing that the number of New Yorkers taking opiod painkillers (i.e. really strong numbing drugs) rose by 22 percent in just two years.
The arts aren’t faring much better, at least in terms of cultural institutions that rely on philanthropy and government support. In some sense these institutions seem to represent an intensification of the problems happening elsewhere — women and minorities of all kinds appear to have it worse in the art world than elsewhere when it comes to money and opportunity; economic disparities appear to be more exaggerated in the arts than in other sectors; and the corruption within and corporatization of the arts is as bad as ever.
But let me also offer this thought on the idea of doing things differently — the reality is that, despite the above, not every state in the US and not every country in the world is doing horribly. And there are some arts organizations that have figured out ways of doing good, inclusive work while also actively supporting the artists they work with. Engaging with different models doesn’t necessarily mean starting from scratch, it most likely means looking around to see who has been steadfastly doing things differently and giving those ideas some consideration.
And that’s what leads me back to the beginning of the argument, and what any of this has to do with queers. To be specific, what I mean when I use the word “queer” is a person interested in destabilizing norms around sexuality — i.e. those interested in resisting not only the idea that to be straight is the norm, but also resisting the idea that there is only one way to be lesbian or gay or trans. And when I use it in the title of this article I’m pushing it a step further and saying that the point is to question any argument that there’s only one way to be anything — female, black, Christian, Muslim, disabled, human, etc.
The New Museum Symposium
This past weekend, I attended the We Who Feel Differently symposium at the New Museum. The symposium was organized ahead of the opening of an exhibition of the same title at the New Museum by the artist Carlos Motta, which opens May 16. The symposium, the exhibition, an ongoing series of live events, a book and the accompanying web-based database, are all elements of the larger project Motta is engaged in, that, at its core, is an archive of fifty recorded interviews with lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer and questioning (LGBTIQQ, which is not an acronym that rolls off the tongue) artists, thinkers and activists from Colombia, Norway, South Korea and the US. The interviews engage these individuals in questions about their work, politics, the particulars of their communities or countries and what it means to embrace difference.
Like all good works of art, Motta’s project generates more ideas and questions than it offers specific solutions. Motta is engaged in a wide inquiry into differences of sexuality and gender that highlights the fact that everyone he interviewed feels differently about all the topics they discuss and each is struggling to build a society or community that embraces those differences.
Many participants in the symposium commented on the elegance of the title of the project, “We Who Feel Differently,” and many of the speakers used the title as a jumping off point, discussing the powerful way in which it highlights not a specific difference, which has typically been the organizing principle behind identity politics of all kinds, but rather the act of feeling differently from others. The raised hand on the cover of the book and on the various websites implies a quietly raised hand in a crowd, waiting to be acknowledged, indicating a desire to articulate a different perspective. And the “we” in the title does not imply conformity among those who would raise their hands, so to speak, but rather a community of people who embrace the fact that there is difference among them.
Among those at the symposium there seemed to be a common frustration, expressed variously, with the fact that when fighting for the rights of anyone who doesn’t fit inside heterosexual normals, there is often, ironically, both external and internal pressure to conform to a certain way of being or thinking. To paraphrase the moderator Ann Pelligrini in her opening remarks, we cannot and should not be asked to be or to look like the dominant culture in order to gain rights. Another speaker, Tiger Howard Devore, described it as “the seduction of closeted assimilation.” Both seem to be referring to a pressure to follow what is often presented as the path of least resistance in the fight for recognition and rights.
In LGBTIQQ communities this “path of least resistance” has taken various forms in the US over the decades. One example illustrated at the symposium by the community organizer Reina Gossett, is that lesbian and gay rights have again and again been put ahead of trans rights because those leading the fight have argued that it would be easier to secure rights for lesbians and gays first, and then deal with trans issues later. Another example, pointed out by both Esben Estehr Pirelli Benestad and Julian Carter, is that within trans rights groups, there are struggles to gain access to medical care that use an argument that says the person was born into the wrong body and so they need to gain access to medical care to correct this presumed error. However, that fight excludes all the trans people who don’t believe that they were born into the wrong body and who don’t believe that the only gender options for them involve attempts to render their bodies biologically female or male, but who still have particular medical needs. These disagreements within different categories end up having serious legal, psychological, and medical effects for those made to shoehorn themselves into categories and struggles that don’t fit.
People get locked into all kinds of categories in our world — thinking that you have to behave a certain way if you’re married, that there are only a couple of ways to be happy, that there’s only one way to be black or lesbian or anything else. The point of all this is that anytime someone is trying to police any term, telling anyone who identifies with that term that there is a single way they must be, that is a point at which we should be asking questions of that person and standing up to say “I feel differently.” Fundamentally, the fight for LGBTIQQ rights is intrinsically linked to the fight of any group that is systematically or structurally excluded from full participation, embodiment and rights in our society because of their difference from a presumed norm. And as more than one speaker noted, you cannot fight oppression of one group by oppressing others. The goal has to be, as Tiger Howard Devore put it, to “demonstrate the value of difference,” regardless of what those differences are.
The Value of Difference
And after attending that symposium and reading through the book that accompanies Motta’s project, it seems clear, to get back to the conclusion I started with, that difference shows us we have other options. Difference shows us that there are other ways of living and being. One of the artists on the second day’s panel, Emily Roysdon spoke about a new project that she’s working on around what she calls “ecstatic resistance.” In the book for Motta’s exhibition, he excerpts a section from his interview with Roysdon in which she describes the idea:
“The ecstatic is about an encounter to me; an encounter where you get turned on just enough that your boundaries shift for a minute. I am interested in work that brings you to this place and presents an alternate reality as a possibility.”
It’s also worth noting here a point that the scholar José Muñoz made during his keynote, “indignation is actively linked to hope.” Clearly there was a recognition by those participating in the symposium that there is a belief in the potential for change, and an understanding that articulations of difference or different modes of thinking are part of the process of achieving change.
There was a great deal more that came up in the conversations during these two days, and a wealth of ideas that will come out of people’s experience of the exhibition and its accompanying texts and events, including critiques of both the arts and politics. But an over-arching theme continues to be that those who feel differently demonstrates new or other possibilities for living, and what we need right now, more than anything, is new possibilities. Too many people are being left out or left behind in the world today, and at a time where we can see this more starkly than ever, it’s simply unconscionable not to be looking for better ways to resolve that.
All the live events associated with this exhibition are taking place on Thursday nights, which are free evenings at the New Museum. You can also get a huge amount of the content from the website. It’s well worth a look, regardless of whether you identify as LGBTIQQ or not.
We Who Feel Differently: A Symposium took place at The New Museum (Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on May 4 and 5. We Who Feel Differently programs begin on May 31 and continue on Thursday nights until July 19. For a complete schedule please visit newmuseum.org.