An open letter to my queer sisters, brothers and assorted others:
The Covid-19 pandemic is certainly turning life upside down. “Business as usual” has been cancelled or curtailed, from employment to education to entertainment. As the infection rate and death toll climbs, a sense of foreboding is coming to permeate the collective consciousness. “Pandemic” is a big word. How bad will it get? When will things “go back”? We don’t know the answers to these questions, and we won’t for some time.
But in the meantime, we suddenly find ourselves in a world where our usual concerns don’t apply. Instead of fretting about workplace politics, maybe now we’re wondering if unemployment benefits will cover our expenses. Rather than worrying about our place in the pecking order at school, we’re missing our friends and wishing we weren’t stuck at home with cranky parents. Last month, we were fantasizing about kissing the cute checker at the grocery store, but today we’ve got a mask over our mouth, and are hoping the TP will be back in stock soon.
Collectively, we are experiencing apprehension together. It is a perfectly natural stress response. “Fight, flight or freeze” are the classic reactions, and we’ll be seeing varying forms of each as this virus winds its course through the social body, with both people and institutions.
As queer folks, we might have certain advantages for dealing with a crisis. After all, we are outsiders to some degree or another. Those of us who do not automatically benefit from the system just for being who we are — that is to say, those of us who are not straight white men — can have a perspective that is clearer for being separate. In the absence of being given clear roles to fill, we have had to make up our own. We might even question the utility of assigning roles at all.
So, when things “fall apart,” we are not as put off as others. We weren’t counting on the ground under our feet to be that steady in the first place. Therefore, we have the potential to get through the shocked stage more quickly and attend to the what must be done in the new situation. (This is how I feel, personally, anyway.)
But I won’t ignore certain cold, hard facts, either: It’s all too tragically true that when a crisis hits, those who are already vulnerable tend to get hurt first and worst, and queer folks are disproportionally vulnerable. In that way, our queerness matters very much. I don’t for a minute want to underplay that. Or ignore that vulnerability is also disproportionally decided on the basis of race, sex, class, etc. These oppressive inequalities are endemic to civilization, with origins going back millennia (to the Neolithic Age, in fact). I take them very seriously.
Conversely, some queer folks have chosen to take an increasingly active role in steering the ship of state and in shaping conventionality. The pursuit of “marriage equality” is an example. So is corporate Pride sponsorship. And Pete Buttigieg. At the heart of this approach is the insistence that we are just the same as straight folks, except for one little twist; that “love is love” and “family is family” and sexual identity is just another flavor of normal. For such people, the status quo is something to defend, not — as those with anarcho-primitivist tendencies like myself will insist — to up-end. However, assimilationism carries its own inherent risks. As Martin Luther King said: “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”
At a broader scale, a crisis like this virus could put the so-called “Culture Wars” on hold. If we are coming together to face this situation as a society, it would make sense to set aside our differences and cooperate at the level of basic humanity: that is, with compassion, intelligence, and responsibility. In other words, this isn’t the time to stomp around with a sign saying, “God Hates Fags,” even though the laws of the land grant that right. Nor, I might gently suggest, is it the right occasion to spend a lot of time with the finer points of pronouns and labels. If, as it is probable (in my mind, anyway) that our society will not bounce back to its original pre-pandemic form, then we should all be prepared to rejigger our priorities from here on out. Put another way, after this thing shakes out, things might look very different, both for better and for worse. Flexibility will be more practical than digging in. (This is ancient lesson. See the story of the Oak and the Reed, as told by Avianus, a 5th-century pagan and Roman poet.)
This isn’t the last crisis that our society will face. We live in a time of entropy, in which formerly stable systems are breaking down and becoming more chaotic. This is true of economics, politics, and — most consequentially — the climate. Disease outbreaks will become more common as mosquitoes move further north, and as pathogens are released by melting permafrost. We will be revisited by that rare-of-late but all-too-common historical agricultural event: the famine. Floods, fires and storms will cause damage that’s never repaired. We might well look back on the Coronavirus episode as little more than a brief rehearsal. Whatever ways that our queerness, or our color, or our enculturation can help us, the better. Whatever ways that they hurt, we should drop them.
And, lest we forget, from a non-human perspective, a healthy ecology is all that matters, and our social issues are of no importance whatsoever. For all the species suffering and going extinct, and for all the habitats wiped out by our “development,” human civilization is itself a deadly crisis. In that context, no, our queerness doesn’t matter, except in how it might inform our ability to embrace humility and act with grace. Other than that — I’m sorry to say — it’s just ego.