Homophobes Aren’t Good Enough to be Called Gay

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Stop me if you’ve heard this joke: A raging homophobe with a clear history of animus and hatred toward gays really must be suppressing his own homosexual desires, because, apparently, the only “real” motive for homophobia must be self-hatred. I’ve heard this joke thousands of times. Mike Pence. Omar Mateen. Jerry Falwell. Tony Perkins. James Dobson. Vladimir Putin. Chris Cooper’s character in American Beauty. Backwoods Appalachian hillbillies raping grown men in Deliverance.

It’s an old one for sure, but this joke is total bullshit.

It’s also been around for longer than most of us have been alive: in reaction to the nonaggression pact agreed upon by Russia and Germany that year, a 1939 comic panel mockingly depicts Hitler and Stalin getting married with the caption “Wonder how long the honeymoon will last?” Yet, like any old, humorless joke, this one persists. In the wake of this week’s Helsinki Summit, the same tired imagery of two buffoonish leaders emerges calling upon homoerotic, Dom/sub imagery. The shaming of gay sex is alive and well, it being considered shameful enough to paint villainous world figures as repressed gays with kinky tastes.

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I can’t for the life of me figure out why gay men go along with these jokes. Somehow gay sex scandals such as those of Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, J. Edgar Hoover, Mark Foley, and their ilk remain an inexplicable source of vindication for gay men, who somehow believe that their repressed desires cast gays in a good light. These jokes often blur the line between homoerotic desire and child sexual abuse, subjecting abusive priests to the same punchline. This is not a good strategy in our public discourse, nor is it doing us any favors when it comes to learning how to deal with homophobia.

41000011The harsh reality these jokes seem to resist is that some people really, truly, thoroughly hate us. People really do want us gone, invisible, or even dead. This isn’t some pathology born out of repressed homoerotic desire but an honest, earnest, deadly serious belief that some people hold. Attempts to pathologize, displace, and distort the motives of homophobes in the end do us gays a disservice. It suggests that our own desires are capable of wrenching the soul into a murderous monstrosity. It performs the same logic as those who raise the specter of “black on black crime,” blaming gays for their own victimization. It deflects the responsibility of heteronormativity for the harm caused by its totalizing, violent, and insidious agenda.

Let’s instead put blame where it belongs, and call out the heteronormative bullshit that underwrites this rhetoric. Not only are homophobes not worthy to be called gay, they’re not worthy to unlace our boots. Being gay is magical. There are things that we know, things that we understand, things that we experience that these sentient bottles of Axe can never approach. Our sex is off limits to them – they’re not worthy of a fuck, not with us, and not even with each other in our jokes and our memes. They deserve the shame, isolation, celibacy, and fear that they’ve forced on us ever since they built us opposite their image. Calling Trump a fem sub bottom or a drag queen is blasphemy, because fem sub bottoms are the priests and drag queens are the prophets of our gay religion.

If we are to weaponize our sex, let us do it the right way. Let us take it back from those who gawk and gack about how “the parts don’t fit” and force them to approach it with the respect and reverence it deserves.

What’s funnier – anal sex, or not thoroughly wiping your own ass because you’re afraid it’s too gay?

Or, what’s funnier – sucking cocks, or telling your bros how you’re so straight, you eat your hot dogs from the middle?

And again, what’s funnier – being a sub in a BDSM relationship, or getting married and being so miserable you end up making endless, only half-joking references to your wife as your “warden” or “the old ball and chain”?

Our sex is not your punchline, but by God, your homophobic neuroses sure as hell are ours. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Pride Month Long Read: A Guide to Christian Theologies of Sex, In (Approximate) Order from Most Queerphobic to Least Queerphobic

Before we can begin to discuss what Christianity has said, and says today, about human sexuality, we have to make one big important point: Christianity is not, and never has been, monolithic about its approach to it. Even the relative consensus of history is complicated by dissent, evolutions, minority positions, and so-called heresies that have remained influential nonetheless. Yet, when discussing sex and sexuality, everybody is so quick to claim to have “THE” “Christian” theology of it, seemingly unwilling to admit to the plurality of contemporary and historical viewpoints.

This list is a rough sketch of the ways particular Christians have approach sex and sexuality. One of the dangers of this list is that it presents viewpoints as discrete systems of thought, while they’re more like a spectrum of views that sometimes overlap, sometimes emphasize different things, and rarely exist in a pure form. What this list is intended to do is to help show the different viewpoints available, and show their relationship to queerphobia and queer persons.

Procreationism

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More of a general category than a separate theology, procreationism is the view that all sex must be for the intended purpose (or at least be in all ways open to) producing offspring. In a sense, all queerphobic Christian theologies are procreationist: this automatically and without deliberation places all types of sexual activity that does not lead to pregnancy outside of the realm of morally acceptable actions. While prohibiting queer sexuality, in some iterations it takes a tacit (as opposed to explicit) condemnation of queer identity.

Within this viewpoint, there are varying degrees of rigidity in terms of understanding how to apply it. While procreationists may differ on questions of, for example, how to apply it to masturbation, or, as in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, whether birth control as barrier is prohibited while chemical contraception is allowable, the general thrust remains that sex is intended for reproductive purposes, and any and all actions that divorce sex from reproduction is a moral sin. For some procreationists, sexual desire itself in all forms is sinful, with sexual activity only allowed for the purpose of childbearing. The only moral options in this paradigm are procreative heterosexual marriage or celibacy.

Proponents of procreationism find support for their position in the letters of Paul, particularly in 1 Corinthians, the work of Augustine and various other church fathers, Thomas Aquinas, Catholic moral teaching (which generally and usually means scholastic thomism), and the practices of the Amish and Hutterites.

Complementarianism

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Complementarianism today is one of the more popular theologies among conservative Evangelicals. Its focus is less on the sexual act itself and more on the relationship between the male and female genders. As such, it provides a rationale for sexual ethics rooted in the “essential natures” of male and female, as understood by Evangelical theology. This belief prohibits, not only queer sexuality, but also queer identity, believing anything outside of the categories of “heterosexual cisgender male” and “heterosexual cisgender female” to be morally prohibited.

Together with procreationism, complementarianism presents a range of attitudes concerning specific questions of application, and varying degrees of severity in its appraisal of the relationship between the genders. While most of its proponents would argue that the two recognized genders, while “functionally different,” are “ontologically equal,” this position nonetheless circumscribes all sexual, indeed, all human behavior on the basis of one’s gender. Men are to be strong leaders, heads of households, take to traditional fatherly duties, be recognizably and traditionally masculine, while women are to be “helpmates” “submissive” to their husbands, domestic in their duties, and to be nurturing, traditional mothers and recognizably, traditionally feminine. The Handmaid’s Tale presents a dystopia brought about by what is essentially militant complementarianism in action. Both procreationists and complementarians are more likely than other types of queerphobic Christians to endorse conversion therapy, or, as they would call it, “reparative” therapy. Complementarian theology tends to provide the rationale for anti-trans and anti-nonbinary gender identities and non-cisgender expression, while procreative theology tends to provide the rationale for anti-gay and bisexual identities and expressions. They overlap so much, but remain distinct because of particular communities identifying with one or the other, with complementarianism being a popular one these days.

Those who adhere to complementarianism find support in particular interpretations of Genesis, the Levitical and Deuterocanonic Laws, and the letters of Paul, particularly 1 Corinthians and Ephesians (though the authorship of Ephesians is subject to great dispute).

Roman Catholic Moral Theology

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Roman Catholicism is itself a big, complex, beautiful, ugly, messy beast. It stands to reason that a faith so self-professedly steeped in history would reflect the complications of the last 2,000 years of mostly-European civilization. In the end, however, queer persons around the world throughout that history have lived a relationship to Roman Catholicism that, for whatever richness they’ve taken from it, has been overwhelmingly destructive for queer persons (among others, cf: “Colonialism”). Roman Catholic moral theology rests on a number of factors, including Thomistic/Aristotelian Natural Law Theory, an Augustinian foundation of Original Sin, and a rigid systematization that makes for the efficient use of institutional and theological power.

At heart, Roman Catholic moral theology attempts to harmonize Scriptural revelation with the natural world. It seeks concepts and philosophical tools to make Christian morality coherent, and to make of it a “reasonable” faith. While the results often appear incredibly abstract and remote, this whole project serves a very important practical purpose: it provides the intellectual framework for the consolidation and effective deployment of the male-driven, hierarchical social and ecclesial power of Catholicism. The very intent of the project itself, that precedes any of its propositions or systematizations, is inherently queerphobic. Queer sexuality (known variably as “sodomy” or “acts against nature” in this tradition) cannot possibly fit into its philosophical schema (and, frankly, jurisprudence) because queerness inherently resists systematization and the juridical regulation to which Roman Catholic morality aspires. While Roman Catholic theology distinguishes between “acts” and “persons” in such a way as to affirm the dignity of queer persons while describing queer orientations and identities as “morally disordered,” its aim in affirming personal dignity is precisely to remove personal autonomy.

Proponents of Roman Catholic moral theology often argue for the “natural”  dimensions of sex, constructing a “Natural Law” that regulates and determines the ends, legitimate means, and internal disposition necessary for sex to be morally good. It preaches that legitimate sex must be “procreative” and “unitive” – it must bear children (or be open to it), and must be unitive between the opposite genders, furthering and deepening the marital relationship. And queer sex doesn’t – and never can in any possible way, by the definitions set down by Catholic moral theology – make that cut. Orthodox Roman Catholic theology, as found in the Catechism, every theological tome bearing a nihil obstat and imprimatur, and the works of figures such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Demian, Bernard of Clairvaux, and the moralist of the Catholic tradition all serving as architects of this massive machine, have all built a system hellbent on defining, for the very sake of excluding, queer identity and sexuality.

Catholic Phenomenology

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Catholic phenomenologial theologies of sexuality are something of an oddity in the landscape of Christian theologies of sex and gender. Uniquely rooted in 20th century phenomenological philosophies, particularly those of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Max Scheler, the aim of this viewpoint is to ground traditional Catholic moral theology on family, marriage, and sex in the language and methods of European Continental philosophy. Intending to uphold but not in any way alter or progress Roman Catholic moral theology, it by nature is abstruse, lacking systematization and thus resistant to the many, many attempts to state it in accessible terms. It remains controversial even among orthodox Catholics.

What makes it difficult and dangerous from a queer standpoint is the intense personalism deployed by this method. Catholic sexual phenomenology’s chief architect Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) begins by locating his reflections in human experience, taking the sexual union and the marital relationship itself as a source of theology. He not only does so in a way that reinforces the traditionally-concocted roles of male, female, and procreativity, but he also completely erases queer experience – so much so, that in several secondary sources of this theology, his work becomes the rationale for either condemning queer sexuality and identity or by arguing that, phenomenologically speaking, queerness doesn’t even exist. Catholic phenomenology demonstrates that one of the most vicious ways to attack queerness is to pretend to be speaking from inside its personal experience while fundamentally denying its perceptions – to state in another way, Catholic phenomenology attempts to deny queer ontological validity precisely by affirming every person’s universal human validity. To state in yet another, this time phenomenological way, it attempts to foreclose on the disclosure of queer appearance by erasing the possibility of queer being.

The chief texts of Catholic phenomenology of love and sexuality are all deliberative reflections on the corpus of Christian theology as a whole. Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility and Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body serve as its inaugural texts, with an entire cottage industry of popular workshops, popularizing books, formative curricula, and educational organizations committed to disseminating this mode of sexual ethics. Adjacent to this is Jean-Luc Marion’s text, The Erotic Phenomenon, the theological aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the school of 20th century Catholic theology known as La Nouvelle Théologie, which stand as its kindred and its accomplices. If there exists a need to develop a robust, invaluable phenomenology of any particular queerness, then it will arise independent of, and at least partially in opposition to, this kind of phenomenological terrorism.

Communitarianism

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Christian moral theology tends, as both habit and goal, to attempt universal moral principles that apply to humankind as a whole. The advent of late 20th century poststructural approaches to ethics rightfully disrupts this until-recently unquestioned orientation of ethical reflection, as does the increasing awareness of the complexity of a pluralistic world that frustrates any attempt to produce binding moral structures. Communitarianism refers to a particular reaction to that frustration: by focusing the scope of Christian moral theology only to extant and active Christian communities, its proponents aim for a sort of comparative moral excellence defined by the “uniqueness” and “oddness” of the Christian life as distinct from the modern world.

In this view, queerness is considered something of a “worldly” decadence, a defining feature of the fallenness of the outer world. Those who find themselves with a queer sexual orientation or gender identity, insofar as they are to remain faithfully Christian, must find the strength to live a life of sexual holiness as defined by traditional Christian notions of chastity and marriage. Communitarians place less emphasis on individualistic questions such as the nature or meaning of sexual orientation, and more on how those with particular orientations contribute to the “witness” of Christian holiness as shared by the whole community. Perhaps most communitarians would consider a same-sex or bisexual orientation, or non-cisgender identity, as an unfortunate “affliction” calling for great compassion and support, but so would some complementarians and procreationists. Communitarian Christianity struggles not only because of its queerphobic tendencies, but also because of its more subtle but no less pernicious forms of misogyny and sexism.

Communitarian sexual ethics are especially popular among many those embracing “Emergent” theologies, such as that of Shane Claiborne (though several Emerging Church theologians, such as Tony Jones, support marriage equality), and it also finds support in earlier texts of Stanley Hauerwas, and the late Mennonite theologian (and serial abuser) John Howard Yoder. Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self and A Secular Age are the major philosophical works for the overarching ethical framework of this viewpoint.

Accommodationism

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With accommodationism, a major shift in theology take place which begins to assess the Christian moral tradition, not in terms of philosophical or theological reflection, but in terms of the pastoral dimensions of its sexual ethics. Its aim is to provide a means to reasonably “accommodate” the presence of queer persons in the life of the Christian community without sacrificing the “integrity” of Christian sexual ethics (as defined by any combination of the main strands of anti-queer theology discussed above). An accommodationist mindset might be referred to as “welcoming but not affirming,” as it still, at least in theory, values the presence of queer persons while denying the value of their queerness.

The accommodation in question can take may forms, but each allows, at least to some extent, the living out of a queer identity. Some churches may allow queer members to identify as queer, as long as they don’t act on it sexually; some may allow for same-sex relationships but without formal blessing through marriage or official recognition; some may understand queerness as sinful, but no more sinful than any other act such as divorce or masturbation; others may simply take a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” approach to the personal lives and identities of its queer members. In either case, accommodationism preserves and sometimes exacerbates the dialectical tension between queer experiences and queerphobic theologies; in the guise of the “pastoral,” theological systems go unexamined and inflict profound damage on those embodying queer experiences.

Recent decisions within the United Methodist Church, as well as the practices of more moderate Roman Catholic parishes and some mainline Protestant churches, demonstrate accommodationist tendencies. These are more robustly articulated in “Third Way” churches, those that seek a “middle ground” between the condemnations of traditional sexual ethics and the ethical innovations of queerness. The Gay Christian Network (now Q Christian Fellowship) refers to such a positionality as “Side B” in its binary imagination, between Christians who affirm (Side A) and don’t affirm (Side B) gay people. Its proponents tend to take the fallacious view that courting fire from both the right and the left is a signal of inherent virtue, and interpret that bilateral opposition as a source of pride and confirmation. Texts supporting it include those of N.T. Wright in an interview at First Things on “gay marriage,” Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, and the moral theology of Charles Curran’s The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis.

Welcoming & Affirming Theology

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Churches taking the first step toward embracing queer persons and identities will often refer to themselves as “welcoming and affirming.” They acknowledge the value of both queer persons and their identities, though they tend to be predominantly heterosexual cisgender communities. Welcoming and affirming churches accept and sanction same-sex marriages, same-sex adoptions, and oftentimes advocate for LGBTQ rights. They march in Pride parades, give gay-friendly sermons, and work to provide safe spaces for their gay congregants.

I say gay, and not necessarily queer, because the greatest shortfall among welcoming and affirming congregations is their frequent blindspots toward trans and non-binary genders, as well as overly simplistic schemas of pastoral care and ministry in LGBTQ spaces. Any attempts at theological formation or education on LGBTQ matters happen almost exclusively on the “101” or apologetic level, the interests and social structures of the church rendering any deeper or more queer-nurturing formation unnecessary. The questions being asked, and the answers being produced, center around finding support for committed, heteronormative same-sex relationships in Scripture or tradition, and the only exploration of the lived experience of queer persons centers around the legal question of discrimination and the inaugural drama of “coming out.” The vast majority of gay-affirming churches are in fact theologically moderate, sharing only a few breath’s difference between themselves and the “Side B” types above. Sometimes they even exist within the same congregations, sharing an “agree to disagree” truce on the matter. “Open and affirming” in practice mostly involves a highly domesticated version of gayness – monogamous same-sex marriage isn’t so much allowed as it is expected. Actual instances of queer sexuality still frighten the moral and social sensibilities of open and affirming Christians.

The difficult truth about welcoming and affirming Christianity is that it is still beholden to a deeply heteronormative imagination concerning gender roles, procreation, and one’s sexual life, including number of partners, types of sex being had, and the purpose of that sex. It still emphasizes procreation, but more subtly – either through childbearing itself, or through the question of what the talents, contributions, and presence of gay Christians adds to the life of the church, community, and world. Further, the types of queers being affirmed tend overwhelmingly to be gay white men and white lesbians. By semantic construction, in order for a space to “welcoming and affirming” of queer persons, that space must be fundamentally a straight space – and thus the systematic and structural mechanisms that create and deploy queerphobia remain in place. Including particular queer persons into a queerphobic structure doesn’t make that structure any less queerphobic – it just neuters actual queerness and renders it unthreatening. Figure that write in such terms include Matthew Vines in God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, Justin Lee in Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gay-vs.-Christian Debate, and Brandan Robertson’s Gay & Christian, No Contradiction.

Queer Theology

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When discussing queer theology, we’re not discussing any particular content or claim necessarily, but rather a method, or pattern, by which one does theology. It is an attempt at both a recovery and a disruption: it seeks to recover queer voices that have been silenced and erased through heteronormative histories and theologies, and it aims to disrupt those heteronormative structures at their core. Queer theology differs significantly from merely pro-LGBTQ, pro-queer, pro-gay theologies in that it operates independently of the legitimation of heteronormative approval. Queer theology, in other words, doesn’t ask permission to exist in church spaces – it is always-already present, even in those spaces where queer persons have been forcibly oppressed.

At its heart, queer theology begins with a simple but profound assumption that “gay,” “lesbian,” and otherwise queer voices have always existed in history, the Bible, and the theological tradition of Christianity. It looks, not simply at what is present in these bodies, but what is absent. Queer theology would look at, for example, Peter Demian’s 11th century polemic Liber Gomorrhianus, the text which coins the term “sodomy” and provides a vituperative condemnation of it as a sin of the highest gravity warranting forceful suppression even and especially among the clergy, and note a few peculiarities of erasure. For one, Peter Demian doesn’t actually name (explicitly) any individual guilty of or supportive of “sodomy.” This is true throughout the history of same-gender love in Christianity: while condemnations are plenty, there are no surviving voices that speak in support of it, or in defense of it. A queer theology would argue that anthropologically, condemnations of this force do not exist in isolation. If there are such texts condemning certain practices as widespread and insidious, then it stands to reason that these practices had practitioners, defenders, and apologists. Where are these voices? Who are they? Either they’ve been lost to history, or placed under erasure – censored, annihilated from the discourse altogether, removed from the written history by the dominant powers. The task at hand is to retrieve those voices, and then allow those voices to disrupt the dominant power’s hold on the way sexual ethics are produced.

Queer theology, in the end, rests not so much on any claim or assumption, as important as they may be, but on its positionality. In essence, it has no “essence;” it has positionality, but no content. It is whatever is self-consciously “not normal,” whatever is marginal. The task of retrieving erased voices requires a great deal of intellectual prowess and a kind of “detective’s” logic, meaning queer theology can be very complex, cerebral, and challenging, much the same way that queer theory itself can be. When your goal is to disrupt power structures and their truth-claims, language and logic dismantling the very concept of truth-claims can go to the very heart of our assumed reality itself, making it appear as esoteric and arcane as an operating system’s source code. But it is also surprising, eye-opening, and highly rewarding, and thankfully, there are several figures who have produced accessible, digestible texts on queer theology. Various figures within it include Mark D. Jordan in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, Patrick S. Cheng’s Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, and the collaborative Queer Bible Commentary.

Queer Liberation Theology

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If queer theology hinges mostly on theory, then queer liberation theology centers primarily on practice. More specifically, it emphasizes resistance, solidarity, and intersectionality. Queer liberation theology may best be described, in fact, as “liberation theology, queered.” It centers on the sexually oppressed and places them in solidarity with the marginalized, including those in poverty and the colonized.

Early forms of Latin American liberation theology left alone the needs and struggles of the sexually oppressed. It took the passionate voice of one of its students, Marcella Althaus-Reid, not only to call them out on that erasure, but to pioneer a theological standpoint that seeks to further the cause of an explicitly sexual liberation. She would argue that the Christian European colonization of Latin America (the Conquista) disrupted and destroyed the sexual way of life of those who were conquered. The tool used by the colonizers was that of “decency” – the system of purity and virginity, of acceptability and normativity that regulated the sex lives of the subjugated. Queer liberation theology dismantles notions of “decency,” placing an emphasis on the role of sexual transgression and the essential intertwinement of economic and sexual justice. It demonstrates how the indecent excess of desire found in queerness proceeds from the excess of Incarnation, of the desire in God to dwell within humanity. To encounter God is to encounter indecency.

One of the greatest contributions liberation theology offers is the ability to arrive at a point of praxis in resisting any number of types of oppression, all while viewing oppression through an unmistakably queer lens. This sidesteps the need for “decency” in liberative struggles of any sort, and it achieves a means by which oppressed sexual expressions such as BDSM, pornography, promiscuity, etc. become mediums for encountering God. Perhaps more than any other Christian theology of sex, it takes seriously the body and lived experience. Texts relevant to this kind of theology include Marcela Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics, as well as The Queer God, Miguel A. De La Torre’s Liberating Sexuality: Justice Between the Sheets, and Pamela R. Lightsey’s Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology.


The clear takeaway from this survey is that Christianity is not a monolithic entity with one single approach to sex and sexuality. That being said, those working to examine its theologies of sex and sexuality from the benefit and perspective of LGBTQ+ persons would do well to understand that power dynamics that infuse the relationships between these viewpoints. Christianity, historically and even in contemporary society, remains a hostile space for LGBTQ+ persons because those who bear the most power within it use that power to oppress.

To find a queered Christian community is to find a community of resistance.

And for some, any Christian community is an option they can never authentically consider.

My Weekend With Winter Guard: The Freak Flags and the Freaks That Fly Them

I’m an individual of a certain age and disposition that makes particular forms of cultural media a lens through which I see new cultural experiences. My cultural diet has over the years has consisted of parody mock-umentary films focused on social outliers, such Michael Patrick Jann’s 1999 teen comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous which easily ranks among my top 10 favorite movies (I said it was one of my favorites. I didn’t say it was exactly a cinematic masterpiece). I have a particular place in my heart for the entire oeuvre of Christopher Guest. These films are the anti-sports films, the anti-popular teen stories. For every the Rudy, there’s an Angus; for every Remember the Titans, there’s a Bad News Bears. While my more “in” peers gleefully consumed such fare as Clueless and the Bring it On franchise, I was obsessing over Welcome to the Dollhouse and anything starring Parker Posey. Teen comedies speak to particular themes relating the experience of growing up – one’s social self, one’s family and education, and even one’s socioeconomic experience and family life. For a kid such as myself who was a chronic “joiner” and whose college application resume included leadership positions in marching band, Business Professionals of America, Texas Association of Future Educators, Academic Decathlon, and theater – and who lived with both feet on the wrong side of the tracks – those teen films that featured an earnest, quirky social outlier were a natural source of appeal. And those films, and the constellation of quirky cult comedies that I grew to love, profoundly inform the way I understand social relationships and cultural practices.

Which brings me to the topic of Winter Guard.

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This last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Southwest regional competition for Winter Guard, held here in town at the Coliseum at the University of North Texas. Before this weekend, I had no idea that Winter Guard even existed. I would come to understand it as a very unique blend of Color Guard (the team behind the flag and baton choreography in a marching band), theater, and staged choreography, all dressed in costumes reminiscent of Olympic figure skaters. The sheer amount of glitter, sequins, and spirit fingers involved is staggering. Each team performs a routine to a piece of recorded music, utilizing a sometimes-elaborate set of props, staging, and narrative. It can be light and fun, like routines set to popular Broadway hits, or it can be abstract and avant-garde featuring modernistic music and spoken word poetry in the style of Judy Funnie.

So.

At the risk of unintentionally or carelessly giving offense or insult to the persons dedicated to the impressive athleticism and artistry of Winter Guard, I’ve got to be real.

The entire affair struck me in a state of fierce ambivalence. My inner fag was rejoicing in ecstasy while my inner cool-kid critic was cringing (and yes, straightie, I get to use the word “fag,” and you don’t). Admittedly that says more about me than about Winter Guard, and I’m happy to dress down that inner critic and tell him to shut up and let people enjoy things. But there’s something more going on here, something that my socializing into the logic and mechanics of off-kilter social outlier movies teaches me to pay attention to that makes my experience of this fierce ambivalence utterly delightful, because had I been in an environment where this was a possibility, I would have done everything I could to have joined Winter Guard as a high school student.

There’s a social politics at work that makes Winter Guard a thing. These kids (and adults) are from the same crop that produce band nerds, drama kids, glee club singers, dancers, and a cappella choir singers – these are not your teen flick-style stereotypical “cool” kids, as cool as these kids may be. There aren’t football players or cheerleaders. Chapters of Winter Guard most often must invest enormous sums of money into costumes, props, set pieces, equipment, and travel, not to mention the countless hours of visualizing, choreographing, rehearsing, and performing the routines that make it to the competitions, meaning that these chapters arise out of schools and communities of at least relative affluence and leisure.

And I’m gonna say it.

It’s gay as fuck.

 

This isn’t just “Olympic figure skating” gay. This is what happens when all the Olympic figure skaters form an army and forcefully take control of the opening ceremonies. There is, quite simply, no heterosexual explanation for this.

Events like marching band and Winter Guard are outgrowths of military ceremonials. Some countries, in order to boost nationalist fervor, still utilize events involving elaborate performances of brass bands, flags, rifles, marching, and choreography. Understood in its historical context, Winter Guard makes perfect sense itself as a form of parody, which is why it so strikes my parodic imagination. Winter Guard is a queered form of nationalistic display, a ceremonial reflecting the destabilization of the social hierarchies that nationalism favors and promotes, and upon which it depends. The “cool” kids in high school are best understood as “normative,” because it is they whose lives and narratives construct the wider social system of “normal” and “deviant.” It is they to whom all that is “normal” belongs, including nationalist narratives and systems of social privilege. Without the “cool” kids, in high school or beyond, there is no nationalism. There would be no system of dominance of particular groups with particular characteristics over others. We struggle with thing like bullying and violence in schools, but we’re far too often blind to the insight that the reason we tolerate these things is because they’re social pedagogy. Bullying and school violence trains, forms, and disciplines kids into living in a society based on rigid social hierarchies and systems of dominance.

Something about Winter Guard, and the spirit behind it, disrupts the system of symbols used to legitimate nationalism. Rifles become wooden toys for tossing and spinning. Flags become flying steams of color and frivolity. Military-level precision, discipline, and physical exertion becomes, instead of an expression of power, an expression of play. Winter Guard replaces the stars and stripes with sequins and glitter, and the lethal force of an infantry brigade with the deft handling of a rifle toss with a behind-the-back catch. Ultimately, it represents a cloud of possibility: if these symbols can be turned around to frivolous ends, what about nationalism itself? What about militarism? What about social power systems?

For the many people who participate in Winter Guard, and its many fans, I’m sure very few of them don their tights, pick up their dummy rifles, and devote countless hours of practice and physical exertion for the sake of disrupting a power system. To them, it’s fun. It’s meaningful. It’s a way to work toward something with a group of other people, and to compete and strive for something beautiful and exciting. Their focus is on the thrill of perfecting that saber twirl and that coordinated hand off on the downbeat of the music, as the audience cheers when each rifle lands safely in the hands of the one who tossed it. Like the lion’s share of worthwhile endeavors, the magic of it can’t be intellectualized or summarized by a critic or an academic.

But for this raging homo whose academic streak dukes it out regularly with the kid who grew up watching dark teen satires, I like to think that maybe those brightly-colored freak flags are doing something more than just twirling in the air. I like to think of them as a form of blissful resistance and defiance, as they take these deadly serious trappings of nationalized, militarized power and turn them into something that would make most “cool,” “normal” kids cringe, as if to take the gun out of a soldier’s hands and, bedazzling it and using it as a parade baton, telling him, “Oh, yeah hunny, this isn’t for you anymore.”

Here’s to the freak flags, and the freaks that fly them.

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