Queer emotions: affect, policy, and what lies beneath

Although there are crucial differences between life before gay liberation and life after, feelings of shame, secrecy, and self-hatred are still with us. Rather than disavowing such feelings as the sign of some personal failing, we need to understand them as indications of material and structural continuities between these two eras.

Heather Love, Feelings Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

▼ ▼ ▼

The queer political movement in the United States grew into prominence with the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Over the last four decades, queer people have increasingly come out of the closet, protested, marched for pride, faced violence and intimidation, gained some protections and rights from the state, and attempted, in general, to weave their way into the fabric of being in this country. This story is most often told as one of linear upward progress, where setbacks might exist but in which there exists an incremental “arc toward justice,” to paraphrase the ubiquitous Martin Luther King Jr. quote. It is true that the policy advancements made in the name of queer people have changed and almost certainly improved aspects of our everyday life - being queer is not necessarily a figurative or literal death sentence anymore, and queer people are more visible than ever across society. Proponents of this story may point out the decreasing rates of victimization in schools (“The 2015 National School Climate Survey” 2015) and ever increasing public support same sex marriage (“Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage” 2017) as signs of progress. But is any of the “progress” that has been fought for, studied, and celebrated meaningful for the third of queer youth who, according to a 2011 meta-analysis (Marshal et al), have a history of suicidality - three times the rate of their cisgender and heterosexual peers? In what ways is progress meaningful when a recent US study (Meyer et al, 2014) found that LGB adults seeking help from mental health services or medical treatment did not lower the likelihood of a suicide attempt? “Progress” rings hollow when so often queer people still deem their lives to be unlivable.

We must unearth what’s been buried in the dominant narrative of linear progress to understand what advancements are or are not meaningful. This narrative obfuscates, for what lies beneath the surface layer of policy, progress and visibility is the often invisible (and invisibilized) emotional experience of queer people. If these experiences are addressed at all they are done so in a binary: before we were ashamed, and now we have pride (Velasquez). However, as Heather Love alludes to in our opening quote, the emotional experiences of queer people are still overwhelmingly filled with negative feelings: Sadness. Loss. Shame. Longing. Feelings we would rather leave in the past, painful remnants of a time in which queer lives were defined primarily by secrecy and fear, in favor of “positive” emotions, such as the ever present notion of queer pride. As Love points out, however, “Shame lives on in pride, and pride can easily turn back into shame” (2007, p. 28). Pride is no more an antidote for these negative emotions than policy advancements seem to be for preventing queer suicide.

Furthermore, these emotive experiences are not solely individual; we can draw on the notions of affect theory to read and understood emotions as a collective, “affective” force that colors the everyday experience of queer people across space and time. In a neoliberal paradigm, everyday interactions and emotional experiences with the world around us are typically understood and attributed to individual experience (e.g. “something happened to me, and this is how I feel about it”). In contrast, affect theory views emotions as not solely centered in the individual but structural and historical (Velasquez 2017); a reframing might be: this thing happened to me and others like me and before me, and this is how we collectively have and continue to feel about it. Scholars like Elizabeth McDermott and Katrina Roen posit in their 2016 work on queer youth suicide and self harm that an affective approach is what's missing in the dominant analysis of the queer movement, and that we should not be surprised in moments where the data contradicts narratives of progress for we have not yet designed policy that seeks to address affect as a root cause. 

A story of linear progress and the dominant policy agenda behind it leaves no room for addressing the persistence of this queer affective experience, or even acknowledging the continued existence of negative emotions, for they are inherently incongruent with the goals and rhetoric of “pride”. To admit to feeling shame or disgust or anger is understood as having failed as an individual: a failure to appreciate the progress made, which in fact inspires further shame for having admitted to experiencing such negative emotions in the first place. But critical questions beckon for those of us willing to look and feel “backwards” to understand why negative emotions continue to lie beneath the surface; as Love says, “Paying attention to what was difficult in the past may tell us how far we have come, but that is not all it will tell us; it also makes visible the damage that we live with in the present” (2007, p. 29). Across space and time, what “bad” feelings still linger? How do they shape the lived experience of queer people today and the queers of the future?

In looking backwards, we are able to ask and interrogate a movement that has fought to assert its legitimacy and eradicate negative feelings in the process. While our community has seen unprecedented (and perhaps fragile) progress in acquiring civil rights and liberties, we must accept that negative emotions persist. By uncovering how this affective force impacts queer people’s lives, we are able to identify the ways in which the policy advancements of the last forty years have failed to address their collective emotional needs and therefore leave behind “the most vulnerable, the least presentable, and all the dead” (Love 2007, p. 30).

Affect theoryand the queer experience

The queer political movement has primarily attempted to address the harm done by heteronormativity and homophobia solely by increasing individual access to state protections and rights, in essence a series of loosely collected policy campaigns since 1969. There are obvious ways in which systemic oppression is enacted and undone, such as through policy that limits or grants access to institutions (like the military or marriage). Affect theory is less concerned with these realms and focused instead on building a framework for understanding how people experience the world through their interactions with unequal systems on an emotional level. Further, affect theory helps “describe the ways that everyday experience is structured by inequality...the way that oppression registers at small scales - in everyday interactions, in gesture, tone of voice, etc.” (Love in Chinn 2012, pg. 126). It is in these constant, fine grain interactions that the expectations and norms of society are legislated, and in the case of queerness, the dominant force at play is heteronormativity: the assumption that all people are - or should be - heterosexual and cisgender.

Two pioneers in the mental health research space, Elizabeth McDermott and Katrina Roen, have extended affect theory to the subject of queer youth in their 2016 work Queer Youth, Suicide and Self-Harm: Troubled Subjects, Troubling Norms. McDermott and Roen posit that as queer youth move through adolescence, they grapple, often for the first time, with society’s norms around gender and sexuality, and the ways in which these norms are reified - and that this process has an immense affective outcome. McDermott and Roen are working, in their words, “with the idea that the emotional is not figured as solely residing in the individual (in the form of sadness for example), but instead is understood as relational and implicated in the production and maintenance of social norms” (2016, p. 6-7). They reconceptualize their analysis of emotion as being driven by social rather than exclusively psychological (and therefore individual) processes.

“We want to inject emotions and emotional work back into researchers’ understanding of the lives of queer youth who have become distressed,” they emphasize, asking “How can we prevent suicide and self-harm if we do not adequately comprehend, theorise, the anguish, despair, anger, shame, pain, failure, and self-hatred which young people in our studies told us were a feature of their difficulties?” (2016, p. 13). In this comprehension we can begin to uncover the origins of the negative affect that appears to haunt queer people not just in adolescence, but throughout their lives. McDermott and Roen begin by laying out a threefold critique of the dominant forms of researching and understanding queer youth; first, these forms individualize the problem and risks,typically characterizing suicide and self harm as interior to each subject; secondly, they pathologize emotional distress, tying feelings like helplessness and hopelessness to scales -  a “medicalization of sadness” that prevents researchers and the world more broadly from asking why young people might feel sad, angry or ashamed; and lastly they exclude the complex interconnecting social, economic and cultural factors that can impact youth’s lives, instead relying on a single causal model (victimization causes hopelessness, which causes depression, which in turn causes suicidal feelings and actions) (p. 5-6). In this oft perpetuated framework, suicide and self-harm is caused by unique/individual mental illness and therefore best studied and explained through psychomedical science research methodologies. In looking backwards we can see how this mimics ways in which queer people have always been pathologized (Holler, 2009); by feeling backwards, we can also postulate that the affective toll of this pathologization is the same, even if the intention (addressing queer youth suicide) is more noble.

Instead of all queer youth as being individually “at risk” solely because of their queerness, affect theory allows us to conceptualize the actual risk, and therefore effective interventions, as residing primarily in the numerous social practices that sustain heteronormativity. This reconceptualization forces us to ask not What can we do to reduce the risk of this youth commiting suicide or self-harm because of their identity? but rather What is causing queer youth to consider - whether or not they act on it - the possibility of suicide or self-harm in the first place? This restructuring reflects our interrogation of the rights-based framework that underlies the dominant queer progress narrative; an approach to addressing the collective impact for queer youth may also indicate a path forward for the queer movement in general.

McDermott and Roen do in fact offer an alternative, affective approach grounded in four interconnected elements: recognition, belonging, becoming and material safety. They summarize these elements here:

We highlight the importance of recognizing young people’s genders and sexualities, and facilitating them becoming the sexual and gendered subject they hope to be. We also emphasize the importance of belonging and feeling included within localities, communities, families and friendship groups, and the importance of a safe material environment with a home, finances and a secure education. Life becomes more livable when it is possible to find similar others, to be met with respectful recognition and to carry less of the burden (or to feel less alone with the burden) of battling against normative pressures. (2016, p. 166)

This provides a framework for the types of interventions that can effectively address the affective needs of queer youth. The authors continue by describing spaces that encourage these affective interventions and and emphasizing that a commonality of these spaces is their ability to lessen feelings of failure. As McDermott and Roenn remind us: “we live with dominant cultural norms...which discourage expression of emotion; inner anguish, loss, sadness, shame, fear, anger and hopelessness are considered irrational and signs of failure” (p. 144). Much as adults may feel a doubled sense of shame in admitting to negative emotions, youth too feel this burden. McDermott and Roen demonstrate in their analysis how current, “services, practitioners and systems of support are not designed to address the overwhelming feelings of failure, shame, fear and self-hatred with some queer youth are experiencing” (2016, p. 144). We can and must now ask ourselves how the same design flaws apply to the systems and policies that pertain to queer adults, and attempt to pave an alternative path forward.

Recognition, Becoming, Belonging, Material Safety

McDermott and Roen have provided a template for using affective analysis to chart new understandings and more effective interventions in regards to the negative emotions that impact queer youth’s experience with suicide and self-harm. Theorists who focus on affect, like Sara Ahmed, posit that these emotions - loneliness, shame, despair, anger -  do not just disappear past adolescence, and that even as the settings of normative legislation evolve, the feelings remain the same and in fact become “sticky” over time (2004). Our focus now turns to tracing the impact of these emotions through adulthood, and to investigating how the policy changes upon which a narrative of progress has been built have failed to be responsive to queer people’s emotional needs. To do so, we can separate the goals of the queer movement into three broad strokes: increasing access to institutions, decriminalization and de-pathologization, and non-discrimination protections.

Increasing access to existing institutions has likely been the most visible goal of the queer movement, specifically the battles over open military service and marriage equality. Both efforts have consumed considerable time, energy, and funding from the queer community at large over the past twenty years - and have been used as a wedge issue in broader political campaigns. In each fight, we can trace our arc of linear progress moving from an outright ban or exclusion, to a “separate but equal” phase (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and civil unions), to full access - though that access is still challenged in a number of ways today. On a surface level, access to these large and deeply ingrained institutions could be seen as a form of recognition, the first piece of our framework from McDermott and Roen. For many queer members of the armed forces, for instance, the repealing of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a powerful affirmation that they were “part” of America (Faderman, 2015). But recall that an important point is that the recognition should specifically beof gender and sexuality; in neither example were the institutions significantly modified or reconstituted within society more broadly outside of the lifting of procedural restrictions, meaning that the dominant norms and expectations for both military service and the notion of marriage remain heteronormative unless proven otherwise. A “homonormative” interpretation would actually argue that marriage equality reproduces heteronormativity in the ways that it affirms marriage as a legitimate basis for conferring rights to certain types of couples (Kacere 2016).

The incorporation of queer people into these institutions thus only “succeeds” by flattening the recognition of any gender or sexuality, as opposed to affirming a multiplicity of such. There is no denying that for some queer individuals the procedural or perhaps contingent recognition that these institutions offer is deeply and personally meaningful. But an affective reading of this enforced flattening makes visible a harmful reflection of the narratives of silence and secrecy that have been present throughout queer history (Motta and Love, 2016). Queer couples, married or not, must still negotiate the norms, an emotional toll that once again echoes back to McDermott and Roen’s assessment of the burdens placed on queer youth (2016).

Further, access to these institutions does nothing for the efforts of becoming a gendered or sexual subject. Marriage, for instance, presumably requires and seeks to explicitly recognize a deep and monogamous commitment. To achieve such a commitment also presumably requires an individual to already have “become” the subject they want to be (Braidotta 2002). You may “become” other identities through these institutions - married, veteran - but not an identity that is necessarily queer . Also, while both marriage and military service provide pathways to material safety via important benefits awarded by the state, it is important to consider what must be given up - given the arguments above - and who is left out of these institutions altogether. For example, queer youth who commit suicide due to social harm have functionally no opportunity to access either of these institutions; undocumented queer people generally cannot even be eligible military service because of their immigration status (Gonzales 2017).

Lastly, we consider whether these institutions enable a sense of belonging. Here, we can turn to recent data that shows more than a third of queer people hide their relationships or use vague wording when referring to them - despite an alleged “acceptance” of their relationship, or an affirmation that “love is love”, by the government or by popular culture. This ratio of secrecy doubles when considering people who have specifically experienced discrimination in the past year - once again highlighting the recursive nature of negative emotions (Singh and Durso, 2017). If queer people and their relationships fully belonged in society, would we expect this secrecy to persist? We have also seen that even the access that has been obtained is fragile, as attempts to limit spousal benefits for queer couples (Turner v. Pidgeon, 17-424) and denial of wedding services (Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission 16-111) regularly make headlines. Yes, we have gained access to these institutions, but they are not “inherently ours” to quote Velasquez; they do not affirm our identities and do not protect us from normative expectations. They therefore fail to address the affective needs of queer people.

Perhaps, however, it is unfair to focus on access to institutions as having an affective impact, given that those institutions were never designed with queer people in mind; perhaps access has enough positive impact for those who are able to utilize said access. What about laws and policy that apply to everyone? We move now to the major efforts for decriminalization and de-pathologization of queerness, as represented by the examples of the overturning of sodomy laws in the 2003 Supreme Court case of Lawrence v Texas and the removal of the homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. In both of these instances, the focus was on removing a “negative” recognition of queer people - policies and laws that viewed queerness as being a disease by the psychomedical community, and deemed queer sexual activity as illegal and punishable in the eyes of the state. But the removal of this negative recognition does not inherently lead to a positive one, nor does it (once again) have a meaningful impact of the societal norms that legislate queerness as still being “wrong”, even if there is not formal policy behind it. Harm is still done to queer people by the notions that underlaid these policies, and can be identified in parallel with a narrative of progress that documents their removal. For instance, for many trans people, a diagnosis for “gender dysphoria” is required to access medically necessary treatments for transitioning - a reiteration of the pathologization of a form of queer identity as mental illness (Morgan 2015). As earlier data showed, psychomedical services still fail to recognize queerness without inherently associating queer individuals as being “at risk”. Though the context may have changed, we can once more see how an emotional experience that’s predominantly shaming, othering, and lonely has persevered.

Lastly we turn to one of the longest standing battles, and one yet won: legal non-discrimination protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act by adding gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes. This can be seen as a direct response to the discriminatory experiences that queer people face. As one recent study states, “LGBT people still face widespread discrimination: Between 11 percent and 28 percent of LGB workers report losing a promotion simply because of their sexual orientation, and 27 percent of transgender workers report being fired, not hired, or denied a promotion in the past year. Discrimination also routinely affects LGBT people beyond the workplace, sometimes costing them their homes, access to education, and even the ability to engage in public life” (Singh and Durso, 2016). This may, on first glance, seem like a policy initiative that may be rooted in affective purpose, for the elements of discrimination described that this would allegedly impact are ones that impact most people’s everyday lives, to refer back to our original definition of affect. However, we see some elements of where this fails in both our previous arguments and in one's specific to this case. As with decriminalization and de-pathologization, the removal of a negative harm (legal discrimination on the basis of a queer identity) does not necessarily mean a positive one will manifest in its place. Further, the realms of the Civil Rights Act refer primarily to transactional settings. While such settings are important, there are numerous everyday interactions that occur outside these bounds that reinforce heteronormativity - and therefore would have a similar affective force. I would posit that we may see a similar progression as with the previous two categories, whereby even if this policy goal is achieved, the legislation of norms will merely adapt and that the affective experience of queer people would not change. Perhaps there would be benefits to material safety, as it would be theoretically harder for queer people to lose their jobs, for instance. But this seems like a small solace in the face of an unending reinforcement of negative emotions.

These instances represent specific moments within a movement that has been multifaceted and focused on incremental improvements to the lives of queer people. But an affective analysis shows that these improvements - even if they positively impact some queer people - have never changed, nor even considered as worth addressing, how queer people emotionally interface with and navigate the world around them. These policy efforts are based on a flawed assumption that removing constraints, or undoing exclusion, automatically or inherently undoes the harmful norms and intentions that led to those policies to begin with. The last five years in particular have seen a spate of visible changes, such as the legalization of same sex marriage. Yet hate crimes and violence against queer people are on the rise, in particular for trans women of color; queer people still commonly face discrimination in and outside of transactional experiences, and in general are uniquely vulnerable as a population (Wile 2016). What emotions must these realities invict in the collective queer consciousness? Sadness. Loss. Shame. Longing. But what policy solutions on the table are designed to contend with these negative emotions?

Looking forwards, feeling backwards

The affective force of queerness is inescapable. Just narrowing the scope of my own life to within the writing of this treatise I have experienced multiple moments where my non-normalness has been made apparent. It’s the conversation between two women in a coffee shop in Boston who have just participated in a blood drive, laughing haughtily at the notion of men having sex with men. Do they know or care about the history of pathologization of queer people? Have they identified me as such a person and wish to taunt me?  Should I say something to defend myself? (I stay silent.) It’s doing research in the NYU library, perusing the queer studies section only to realize it is sandwiched precisely between books on pedophilia and prostitution. Are the librarians intentionally and forcefully reminding me of the undesirable acts so often associated with my sexuality? Is there no other place in the library our stories could be housed? Will I ever escape the spectre of negativity associated with being queer that’s always just in the periphery?

These questions, unanswerable for certain, stem from a sense of shame that is always near to the surface, and one that I am now able to identify as being common across queer generations. Velasquez shared a similar story, noting that, “while that experience didn’t necessarily drown me in the well of loneliness, it certainly had much much more power over me that I would have preferred at all.” In an affective framework, injustice can be more easily understood as a persistent experience, one that imparts an experience that is unwanted, and one that allows us to place what may feel like an emotion that is unique to yourself in a specific time and place within a broader picture, where the threads between cause and effect/affect are not just interpersonal but historical. We have traced how this is more than merely a rhetorical or semantic choice; there are powerful implications in using this framing for understand the interplay of queer experience and queer policy. An affective reading of the efforts to advance queer rights refuses to accept that this type of political movement alone is enough to achieve any kind of meaningful change in our queer lived experience.

As Velasquez once more articulates, “The basic problem isn't that I'm sad that I can't be included in certain...institutions because I'm queer; the reason that I'm sad is the historical grief that I carry, and that we carry, hasn't been resolved and until we begin to reckon with that, it's time to accept that there is no true progress narrative.” To address the affective force, we must first accept that it exists. If we do, we can see new lines of policy to be explored: Where are the spaces for queer youths and queer adults to be recognized, and to recognize each other? How can school and family environments be influenced to provide a space for becoming gendered and sexual without harm? Can we raise the bar for what it means to belong within a given space? What ways can we meaningfully address the lack of material safety for queer people, particularly those of color? To answer these questions - to look forwards - we must first start by being willing to feel backwards.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2004). The cultural politics of emotion. New York: Routledge.

Braidotti, R. (2002). Metamorphoses: towards a materialist theory of becoming. Cambridge: Polity.

Chinn, Sarah E. (2012). Queer Feelings/Feeling Queer: A Conversation with Heather Love about Politics, Teaching, and the “Dark, Tender Thrills” of Affect. Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy, 22(2), 124-131. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/trajincschped.22.2.0124

Faderman, L. (2016). The gay revolution: the story of the struggle. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Gonzales, R. (2017, November 23). They're Undocumented And Want To Join The U.S. Army Before It's Too Late. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from https://www.npr.org/2017/11/23/566283249/theyre-undocumented-and-want-to-join-the-u-s-army-before-its-too-late

Haas, A. P., Eliason, M., Mays, V. M., Mathy, R. M., Cochran, S. D., Daugelli, A. R., . . . Clayton, P. J. (2011). Suicide and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Populations: Review and Recommendations. Journal of Homosexuality,58(1), 10-51. doi:10.1080/00918369.2011.534038

Holler, J. (2009). Pathologizing Sexuality and Gender. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from http://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/visions/lgbt-vol6/pathologizing-sexuality-and-gender

Kacere, A. L. (2016, September 10). Homonormativity 101: What It Is and How It's Hurting Our Movement. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/homonormativity-101/

Love, H. (2007). Feeling backward: loss and the politics of queer history. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (December 5, 2017).

Meyer, I. H., Teylan, M., & Schwartz, S. (2014). The Role of Help-Seeking in Preventing Suicide Attempts among Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior,45(1), 25-36. doi:10.1111/sltb.12104

Mitchell, T. (2017, June 26). Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from http://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/

Morgan, J. (2015). Trans* health: “diversity, not pathology”. The Lancet Psychiatry,2(2), 124-125. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(15)00022-x

Motta, C., & Love, H. (2016). History’s Back Rooms: Carlos Motta Interviewed by Heather Love. Public Culture,29(1 81), 113-127. doi:10.1215/08992363-3644421

Sejal Singh and Laura E. Durso. (2017, May 01). Widespread Discrimination Continues to Shape LGBT People's Lives in Both Subtle and Significant Ways. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbt/news/2017/05/02/429529/widespread-discrimination-continues-shape-lgbt-peoples-lives-subtle-significant-ways/

Turner v. Pidgeon, 17-424 (December 4, 2017).

Wile, R. (2016, June 12). It's still dangerous to be gay in America. Here are the statistics that prove it. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from https://splinternews.com/it-s-still-dangerous-to-be-gay-in-america-here-are-the-1793857468

Matthew Kastellec