In this in-depth feature, Dominic explores queer fear by addressing the weight, symbolism and etymology of the word ‘queer’ and its relationship to fear. By drawing connections between grassroots activism, artistic agency and social justice movements, Dominic examines how the political force of queering enables us to reclaim our space in the public sphere and challenge divisiveness.
Three years ago, I became involved with the Thessaloniki Queer Arts Festival (TQAF), a grassroots initiative that platforms members of the LGBTQ+ community. TQAF was formed to investigate the sociocultural and political phenomena that shape, alter and affect queer identity and experiences through artistic responses. Each year, the festival poses a question (e.g. What is Queer in 2018 and What is Eros in 2019) and through a series of open calls and proposals, the selected artists collaborate with the team to stage a multitude of events, workshops, exhibitions and interventions in Thessaloniki responding to the question. The 2020 virtual edition of TQAF took place in June 20-28 and coincided with a period of self and government-instructed isolation. With the theme, What is Fear?, the festival invited artists, activists, and cultural practitioners to investigate the experience of fear on a personal, communal, and political level. While the global pandemic incapacitated nations and cities fell into states of emergency, fear spread and making sense of it became ever more critical.
The imposed lockdowns coupled with the experience of social distancing amid the COVID-19 outbreak introduced a pivotal shift in understanding how the personal and political intertwine and how we choose to redefine our place within the public realm. We are led to cautiously map out our current state while we imagine our place in uncertain future worlds. Questioning what we fear goes hand-in-hand with enduring a crisis.
Both the festival and the pandemic forced me to think along these lines. 2020 was a year of (un)learning, confrontation and introspection; a period marked by isolation, mental and physical health anxieties, and violence that led many individuals, including myself, to an unruly outbreak of festering emotions and repressed thoughts. Nearly a year on from when I started writing this piece, I entered 2021 with a more coherent view on things. Suddenly, I’ve found myself more aware of how I carry myself in public, more conscious of how I interact with my partner on the street, and more sensitive to queer stories from people I meet along the way. I have become entirely engrossed and enveloped in unravelling the theme of queer fear. Loosening ties with age-old ideas is no easy feat. I attempt here to explore my own understanding of queer fear and how this fear echoes and ripples beyond the limits of my own experience.
Queer politics bring very different individuals into a movement that addresses a myriad of questions around what it means to be queer — both on a personal and sociopolitical level. Queering fear in uncertain times may serve as a field of power or as a carrier of utopian imagination that revisits how we document and express queer fear. This is the very role that activism plays in redefining social orders and the position that many queer artists take when establishing a new order and a new cultural turn.
The queer community has a long and unsettling relationship with fear. Historically, even the term queer carries stories of insults, attacks and public humiliation. Queer is a term described against ‘normal’ and was originally a product of bias and fear. From its colloquial origin to the empowering legacy it attained through social activism in the 80s and 90s, how does its definition and use over time shed light on queer fear? While etymology does not necessarily dictate future meanings or historical development, it does offer a point of departure in understanding the social, political and cultural conditions that shaped the evolution of queerness and the experience of queer fear today. Since its appearance in the 16th century, the term queer has been used to illustrate that which is peculiar, with the Oxford English Dictionary defining it as, “strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric, suspicious or dubious.”
In the early 20th century, the adjective became synonymous with ‘homosexual’ in the United States, and was swiftly adopted to describe gay and lesbian individuals derogatively. The word queer, therefore, was and still is intrinsically linked with anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and hate speech, however, it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that queer was reclaimed by some in the spirit of gay pride. Radical organisations and protest groups such as Queer Nation and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) combatted anti-queer violence, HIV/AIDS related fear and stigmas, and disarmed oppression by successfully reclaiming the word. Today, queeris widely used by those wanting to reject specific labels of romantic orientation, sexual orientation and/or gender identity and can also be a way of rejecting the perceived norms of the LGBTQ+ community including racism, sizeism, ableism etc. Queer is, therefore, a mobile and mutable term: it is inclusive, intersectional and ultimately, driven by a sociopolitical urgency and nowness.
Being queer is being able to challenge common understandings of gender, sexuality, and what is deemed as eccentric, outside the norm, or even dubious. Being queer or queering is an act of questioning and deconstructing norms associated with gender binaries and variance, or what access to healthcare entails, or how terror and violence is experienced, or how intimacy in the public sphere is expressed. Sexual and gender politics as well as social order interrelate as being queer often subjects one to feeling fear when all of these factors are contested. It means fighting about these issues all the time.
Fighting about these multilayered issues on a personal or even large-scale level can instill a crippling sense of fear as living in fear and/or being feared have become ingrained into queer experience. The livelihood of queer individuals is often paralleled to how others view queer lives. Phobias against the community have defined parts of its history; hatred, discrimination and prejudice are all forms and expressions of fear that other and alienate. The fear or dislike of someone based on their gender identity and/or sexual orientation has even become embedded in the language associated with LGBTQ+ experience. The term for bi is followed by a description of biphobia, lesbian by lesbophobia, homosexual by homophobia, trans by transphobia, and so on. Our glossary carries a heavy freight of opposition, antipathy and disapproval. Queer fear, therefore, arises when violence, aggression, antagonism and oppressive attitudes are used to bash, bully and marginalise the community. When queerness is deemed as a suspicious characteristic that poses a threat to society at large, queer individuals are forced to undergo a kind of social reflection into the ways of being queer. But what happens when we queer fear?
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t eased fears for the community either. The added pressures of lockdown and social distancing measures led to the cancellation of over 500 Pride parades and other important solidarity events globally according to the European Pride Organisers Association, whilst queer venues face risks of going bust with forced closures, redundancies and stacking bills. The loss of queer venues is not only a recent phenomenon; London has lost 58% of its LGBTQ+ venues since 2006 according to a 2017 report by UCL’s Urban Laboratory. Queer spaces are not only safe havens, but archives, relics, and historical monuments that must be safeguarded. These spaces are vibrant and intimate meeting points for a large portion of the community. Fears over lost spaces mount while the potential of a safer and queerer future is being threatened by the loss of basic rights.
Nevertheless, this past year has witnessed a turn to the digital realm as virtual grassroots ventures and queer events sprawl across the internet in an effort to combat anxiety and unite the community. We are better equipped to report the hate crimes and anti-LGBTQ+ violence that take place globally thanks to internet activism and technological advancements that aid documentation and sharing in online communities. These newly formed inclusive spaces provide platforms for expression, breed online communities, and guide conversations around what it means to be queer today and how we can combat dormant and active fears. Online communities are now operating in such a way that act as an anonymous channel for many and can remedy some of the fears driven by the crippling pandemic, severe national policing, violence and economic uncertainty. For example, when TQAF organised a fundraising auction in October 2020 to support the crowdfunding campaign for Zak Kostopoulos – a prominent Greek LGBTQ+ activist who was killed in Greece in 2018 – the global community of activists, artists, and allies joined to participate and support the cause. Against the backdrop of a misguided and prejudiced polemic brought on by the failures of the Greek police and media, the LGBTQ+ community and social justice initiatives took matters into their own hands. Through #JusticeforZakZackie, the community harnessed the momentum of mass participation via social media in order to raise awareness and bring justice to those responsible for Zak’s murder.
From grassroots activism and civil society initiatives to arts-led organisations and entertainment venues, the LGBTQ+ community continues to create safe spaces for cultural exchange and social gatherings to take place. Despite the chaos of cancellations amid the pandemic, queer event organisers were among the first to move events online; staging festivals, exhibitions, Pride happenings, talks and symposiums that celebrated queer history, culture and community. TQAF itself also took place online last year. The virtual element of the festival not only allowed it to function as a grassroots initiative without any formal source of funding, but it also expanded the potential of collaborating with queer artists across the globe and made their works accessible to audiences in over 100 countries. By addressing how the queer community faces fear, the festival investigated the personal and political dimensions of queering fear in uncertain times. Queer artists taking part in TQAF 2020 developed alternative methods for remedying and deconstructing fear by proposing parallel modes of living, challenging LGBTQ+ norms and tropes, and reframing prejudices and phobias. The political utility and force of queering is once again becoming a potent tool in activism and political pushback. Queering fear is an act of resistance, deconstruction and defiance to the structures, institutions and constructed dualisms that dictate early formulations of identity.
The queering of fear is demonstrated through the work of multidisciplinary Polish queer artist, Nat Portnoy, who took part in TQAF with her short film, 42 Days (2020). In the film, we dive into the deep corners of Nat’s mind as she overlays facts about Huntington’s Disease with scenes of her own irritability and agitation when contemplating the 50/50 chances of inheriting this terminal illness. Portnoy narrates, in diary-style format, the nuances and realisations regarding her personality, body, and sexual and gender identity, whilst she attempts to navigate through the fear and discomfort brought on by the illness and straining familial relations. The film begins with the moment she finds out about her father’s suicide attempt; now after the loss of her father, she is left to unpack the aftermath of his death and her own mortality. In 42 days (the amount of time it takes for her to receive her test results for Huntington’s), Nat attempts to rethink death and dying, as mourning becomes entangled with a reactive and fragmentary social reflection.
Nat Portnoy turns to documentary and autobiographical filmmaking in an effort to intimately tease out the influence of religion, familial bonds (or the lack thereof), state and societal conventions on her own livelihood. She reflects on the femme body, sex work and being queer in a conservative, Catholic setting and sheds light on how fear manifests when she battles with accepting her own fate. Questioning the religious structures she was raised in, “I have never been a believer, but thinking about this disease, I wonder what sins may have inspired such punishment,” the artist negotiates the terms of her father’s illness by attempting to find answers through prayer and faith. This display of “hypocrisy” in the dishonesty of praying unveils the social conditioning many individuals face when they’ve been raised in ultra-religious, conservative environments. The artist’s own consideration of faith becomes paralleled with the strong opposition and discrimination queer individuals have faced in Poland’s predominantly traditionalist Catholic society. Having a default religious and/or political inclination without knowing how you got it reveals how ideological beliefs establish truths on what is deemed normal or what expectations one must live up to. Nat’s self-understanding is ultimately negotiated with her surroundings and the context in which they exist. Destabilising these shaky notions is a form of queer resistance to institutionalised norms and power structures.
The artist contemplates various coping mechanisms that enable her to forget or ‘feel something’ as she looks for closeness by pushing herself toward “random people,” as she describes. For many queer individuals, the constraint of time and the imbalance that is found in an overbearing system of ‘normal,’ ‘straight,’ ‘white’ linearity, strains queer survival. Queer fear is defined by a failure to be normal. A failure characterised both by the hope (and disappointment) in reconstructing and reli(e)ving a painful past and reimagining a queerer future. In multidisciplinary artist Li Yilei’s latest digital zine, Venus Im Pelz (2020), also exhibited at TQAF, Li navigates through abstract manifestations of tropes regarding gender variance and constructions of binaries. Through minimalist poetry and photographs of repositioned dolls, Li forms “stories about desires for an ideal.” By photographing and repurposing dolls, Li creates “therapeutic expressions for rediscovering the presentation of [their] self-image and gender identity.” Li expresses their anxieties and fears surrounding decades of socialisation that have consistently split gender into male or female, blue or pink, where boys play with toy trucks and girls play with dolls. This incessant need for societies to swing between binaries has eliminated the possibility of a middle ground, a queer time and space where one is able to be neutral and malleable. Fluid understandings of gender become central to Li’s practice, who literally deconstructs and reconstructs gender by “caring for, pampering, torturing, scarring and degendering the lifeless forms,” each day leaning toward a reimagined tomorrow.
While Nat contemplates her father’s death, Li portrays the ‘death’ of a binary that has constrained their identity. Through Li’s ongoing research into the state of gender dysphoria, agalmatophilia, and pygmalionism, Li places themself in an ‘othered body’ that is “neither here nor there,” and attempts to fill a void that is left by the remainder of “sociological space-time heterogeneities.” This alternative proposal of a state of being that is in constant motion defies homogenous classifications of sexuality, gender and the sense of self. Li’s reimagining of the possible relationship one may have with their body shields the queer individual from fear. This ideal offers up the potential of a queer utopia by providing a new approach to thinking about cultural production, hierarchies, and power dynamics, thereby reconstructing queer association, belonging and identity.
Despite the significant advances made by queer artists, much work remains to be done and this becomes increasingly clear in creative practices as queering not only strives to introduce intersectional experiences, but additionally challenges existing social institutions and structures. Queer defiance has become one of the main pillars in most minoritarian social and artistic movements through a resistance to and rejection of dominant structures, just as critical queer performativity like that expressed in Nat Portnoy’s 42 Days and Li Yilei’s Venus Im Pelz can offer an antidote to fear. Now, more than ever, we must act up and queer fear. Taking effective, tangible social and political action is becoming increasingly imperative to addressing queer issues, such as LGBTQ+ violence, discriminatory policies and legislation, and the ongoing loss of safe spaces. How we reclaim our presence in the public sphere, whether that be physical or digital, ultimately relies on how we choose to challenge divisiveness.
Queering fear is about building up the community. It is about destabilising normative discourses by tackling the intersectional issues that are affecting all of its members. Solving gun violence is a queer issue. Protesting about BIPOC and Latinx rights is a queer issue. Advocating for free health care is a queer issue. Exploring emerging and ephemeral instances of intersectionality and the experiences of others is a queer critical way forward. Every day, we are faced with more and more challenges. In these distressing times, we must not remain silent and complicit; queering fear online or in the streets will help us navigate through uncertainty.
Nat Portnoy is a multidisciplinary queer artist, graphic designer, performer, pornographer, filmmaker, activist and sex educator born in Poland in 1987, currently based in Zaandam, in The Netherlands. Nat Portnoy is working with mediums such as video, installation, object, photography and painting. Her projects are mainly based on theories of sociocultural construction. She is interested in examining the cognitive processes of pleasure, exploring its connotations with fetish, self-representation, identity, ritual and the complexity of language used to determine desire. “In my artistic practice, I like to refer to existing ideologies and believes, examining it through the knowledge of a collective and personal experience.
Li Yilei (b. China) is a multi-disciplinary artist whose body of work spans sound, text, installation, and photography. Their work is plagued with the polarity of giving too much but not enough – a concentration of painfully minimal subtle moments, to chaotic, scattered sonic and visual languages. Li’s works are abstract manifestations of an inquiry into tropes of phenomena, existence, power dynamics, and the politics of sound and listening.