Promiti Debi | Senior Staff Illustrator
What is the queer experience?
If you would have asked me this a few weeks ago, I probably would have said, “It’s, like, cuffing your jeans and forming a parasocial relationship with your high school English teacher, you know?” That is, until I saw this video on my TikTok’s For You Page opposing the idea of an overarching queer experience. Now, after some comment searching and deep diving, I’m not entirely sure that a singular queer experience exists, either. And that kind of scared me.
The video I saw on my For You Page, which has more than 180,000 views, responded to another creator lip syncing to Jon Cozart’s “After Ever After.” The original creator, taleaar, jokes that all mentally ill queer people born between 2000 and 2005 would know all of the words to “After Ever After” (in case you’re wondering, yes, I do know all of the words). The creator duetting this video, slurpyprincess, argues that knowing all the words to “After Ever After” isn’t an experience everyone in the queer community shares. They criticize the way white creators often encapsulate the whole queer experience to a white and queer experience.
Slurpyprincess raises a good point, but despite their validity, I didn’t want to believe it.
Commenters went back and forth arguing for and against a shared queer experience. To be fair, the original video set up some pretty narrow limits regarding who had a Jon Cozart phase. Still, I did agree that white creators, myself included, can flippantly declare something mostly white people enjoy as broadly queer — “Love, Simon” and its spinoffs, for instance. After my inconclusive comment searching, I scrolled away, dreaming of my shared queer experience.
My emotional devastation in response to this TikTok was a little ridiculous, I knew that, but I couldn’t quite disentangle my sense of self from my vision of a collective queer community. Of course we shared an experience. I thought, much too confidently, that we were called the queer community for a reason. I had this image of a unified queer force taking to the streets in acid-washed denim jackets and boxed-dyed mullets. An article published just last week listed 23 of the best films showing the queer experience. See, it exists!
But if you read the article, you will mostly find that of the 23 films listed, only five include trans stories and only four have non-white protagonists. None of the films star a non-binary individual, and one of them has the audacity to star Jake Gyllenhaal. In Taylor Swift’s November, no less. Suffice to say, I’m not sure that any of these films represent my queer experience, or the experience of most queer people I know. There’s a queer bubble in Hollywood made of white, middle-class, cisgender stories.
So, popular media isn’t representing the queer experience, but that’s not too surprising. This is the same popular media that forced us to accept Glee, after all. My shared queer experience could still exist. Maybe we used to be a community. Maybe, despite my breaking heart, I could at least long for the perfect queer utopia that existed in the past. But if you experienced the past, you already know that it wasn’t a great time to be queer. To the contrary of my delusions, it was notoriously terrible.
The past — a time painted on our televisions in technicolor and sepia. Before I came to college and took Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies classes, most of what I knew about queer history came from scrolling through the LGBT tab on Netflix looking for period pieces. It’s not like they taught us this stuff in schools. The films I found contained glorified representations of queer reality with the harshest corners buffed out of existence. Listicles celebrate this white-centric portrayal of the queer community, and without other methods for learning about our history, it’s the experience so many of us have come to expect.
Some of the most famous queer films recieve praise for their diversity while they write out a majority of our community. The aforementioned Elle listicle proclaims the ultra-popular “Call Me By Your Name” as “relatable viewing for anyone.” This is the film where two scholarly gay men in 1983 share a haughty romance one summer in northern Italy. It’s also the film with the peach (if you know, you know). I, for one, didn’t find “Call Me By Your Name” very relatable. Sure, the movie is aesthetically beautiful and undoubtedly iconic, but it’s not telling the tale of the wider queer community.
Beside the fact that so many of us have never even been to Italy, “Call Me By Your Name” has received a fair share of criticism for its sanitized intimacy and its general lack of gay vibes. After all, a heterosexual man wrote the book, and the movie adaptation cast two straight men to play the gay main characters. That doesn’t feel like a recipe for queer relatability.
After my research, I was beginning to think Slurpyprincess was right all along. The queer community is made up of people who share one thing — being queer. That doesn’t have to mean our entire narrative arc follows a standard form. It definitely doesn’t mean that whatever white queer people find interesting personifies the entire community. There’s so many different ways to be queer that there can’t be a singular experience.
I didn’t want to imagine being queer without a community, and I really didn’t have to. I longed for a queer community that never existed. We always had different focuses, different movements, different voices. There never was just one experience holding us together. It turns out I held a foundationally flawed, idealized image of the queer community. Reality can be just as romantic.
Even without a queer experience, there’s still so much we have in common. We share Pride parades and musical theater and Lady Gaga. We share Sarah Paulson and Subarus and carabiners. We share iced coffee and flannels and moths. We share things I’ve never heard of and things I’ll never understand. And that’s really cool. The more I thought about what made us whole, the more I recognized the variety in our experiences. Being different is what brought us together. That’s something to be proud of.
Rachel writes about queer culture, the queer community and navigating life beyond the binary. Talk to them at [email protected].