All of the readings for this salon, like the only Gay Shame conference to date, happened almost two decades ago. A queer person born on the first day of the conference, in 2004, would be a legal adult today. Whither shame, in the intervening decades?
In the last 15 years, queer community in San Francisco has moved even further from the traditional conception of itself as an antidote to the shame and abjection of straight society. Being part of a queer community is no longer a source of shame – if anything, being ashamed of one’s queerness is something to be ashamed of. People move here from “less progressive” places and leave their shame behind.
The critiques in Gay Shame about Pride being commercialized, losing its meaning, and paving the way for assimilation are still accurate now, but we’re not those type of queers. We don’t want to assimilate and merge into the system, we want to dismantle the system completely. Pride weekend is pretty much like gay Christmas here. Sure, it’s mostly corporate, and sure, the “true meaning” has been swallowed up by a mountain of rainbow-printed plastic crap, but whatever, we might as well have a good time.
We have entered a post-shame era, where being in a same-sex or same-gender relationship is fine. Being transgender and/or nonbinary is also fine. We’re encouraged to take pride in ourselves, we’re not subject to direct abuses by the State, we feel safe in most of our neighborhoods, we can have the same lives as straight people if we want them. But we don’t. We still feel the need to create queer communities, even though we no longer need them to survive.
MARGINALIZATION AND PITY
Shame has been replaced in our discourses by the idea of “marginalization.” To be queer, now, is to hold a marginalized identity, placing us alongside other communities. Although this umbrella identity is a useful political tool because it allows us to understand ways that we might have had similar experiences and shared histories, the turn to marginalization is a disaster for queer creative life because it forces us to think of queerness in terms of economic disavantage instead of the affect of abjection. Marginalization is not an originary affect, like shame. It’s not an affective turn at all, but an economic one, bound up with the morality of fairness.
Assimilation and respectability politics is one way to make the case for equality. But for those queers (and we count ourselves among them) who cannot and will not assimilate, seeing ourselves as marginalized instead of shamed reduces our queerness to an (economic) disability, and our activism to complaining about accessibility and normalization, not liberation and revolution. Calls to normalize who we are and how we fuck so that we can be centered instead of marginalized undermines queerness as a category and as a potentiality for radical social critique. Pity is no substitute for shame.
“NOTHING IS BENEATH US”
Our post-shame era is a cruelly optimistic one. In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant argues that our desire to overconsume and acquire things that we don’t need and swiftly move on from – whether it’s the latest tech object or a flirtation with tarot – is part of being in a persistent crisis of meaning. We’re in a crisis because we don’t have access to shared conceptions of the good life, meaningful communities, or stability. People become attached to these desired things optimistically – they believe, at the time, that they’re going to make them happier. And every time, they don’t, at least not for long. Our pattern of attaching to these things holds us back from flourishing, which is what makes it cruel.
We're not trapped in cruel optimism because we believe that we ought to be able to achieve The Good Life Under Capitalism™ – most of us are pretty much convinced that this is impossible and besides, we don’t want it. It’s because we don’t have a clear idea of what it means to flourish as queer people and communities now that we are not subject to shaming and stigma. Queers here used to associate with each other as protection, forced into an underground by our shared shameful abjection. This lead to a kind of radical inclusivity because the cost of cutting someone out of community was huge. Now that society has told us we’re welcome to participate, we don’t have to be so generous to each other. Quoting Warner, Ellis writes,
“Shame is bedrock. Queers can be abusive, insulting, and vile toward one another, but because abjection is understood to be the shared condition, they also know how to communicate through such camaraderies a moving and unexpected form of generosity. No one is beneath its reach, not because it prides itself on generosity, but because it prides itself on nothing.”
Without shame, there is no need for this kind of generosity. (Note: Warner is not talking about generosity in terms of sharing money, but in terms of allowing people to share in community, being generous with who we include.) Instead, communities come together based on the desirability (moral, financial, aesthetic, erotic) of its members. And its members can be ejected forever for any failing to live up to the standards we now feel entitled to impose on each other.
The cruelly optimistic attachment for us, the anti-assimilationist queers, is to the idea that we can find a queer community that is both a radically inclusive, generous network of interpersonal connections through which we can develop alternative social structures and new kinds of intimacies and sexual possibilities, and also a community based on a positive value. We search for the right people, the people who share our particular Latin neologism for a sexual orientation or gender, our other identities and neurodivergences, our other values and politics. We fragment, and seek more and more specific and unique ways to identify ourselves, and in doing so make ourselves less legible to each other, and more isolated.
A related reason for this identity-Balkanization may be the role that shame and stigma played in the development of queer cultural norms and gestures. How much of gay sex culture came into being as an affective relation with personal shame? As an attempt to fetishize it, or to distance from it? How much came from trying to hide our shameful acts from authorities?
Communities that are based on positive values, whether desirability, creativity, economic power, sexual or gender similarity, shared intersectionality, or ethical conduct, cannot be inclusive in a radical sense. Even a community based on pride sets up a have and have not.
“Either through their accomplishments or through their association with the accomplished group, the proud among us ‘put others to shame’. Once everyone shares pride, no-one has it.”
Without shame, which means nobody is beneath us, our connection to community will always feel tenuous.
This is the cruel optimism of the post-shame era.
Queer desire without shame is simply desire. No more or less radical than the desire of a man for his wife. To infuse desire with the potential to disrupt and devastate straight society, we have to remember and re-embrace our shame.
We must reject the conceptualization of queerness as just another marginalized identity, with its tacit plea to society to take pity on us and accommodate our difference. Demands to normalize queer acts are demands to erase queerness itself, because to be queer just is to be challenging and unpalatable to society.
Whereas historically, queer communities would be riven by drama, fighting, and strife, but nevertheless remained bound by a camaraderie of abjection, of knowing there was no place else we could find shelter, the post-shame queer world is a pick-up-sticks game of boundaries, red lines, call outs, and cancelations. Having no outside force but the dubious economic catch-all of “marginalization” to bring us together, post-shame queers wield shame against each other mercilessly, using it to punish, to purify, and to purge any undesirable elements from the safe spaces we claim to be creating.
But all is not lost. Failure is a uniquely queer art, and shame is one of its core media. We must reclaim shame because without it, we lose access both to a unique set of furtive desires and to a critical point of view from which we can define ourselves against straight society. We can do this not by taking pride, but by becoming shameless. Shamelessness is a refusal of shame that preserves the abjection and severance of our relationship to straight society. Shamelessness demands that we perform the things that make us unpalatable even to each other, requires that we become the agents of whatever is most embarrassing, cringeworthy, and confusing about queer intimacies. Taking joy in being too much, too weird, too autistic, too gay to make normal people of any orientation feel comfortable is our way out of the drab economic fixations of post-shame queers.
Plunge into your shame, it's good for you ~