Queer Heroes

Define hero. Define queer. Put the two together and defend your choices.

This piece was originally written for The Queerness – the original version can be found here.

Queer heroes. Even the title is a direct challenge. Define hero. Define queer. Put the two together and defend your choices. Show your workings out.

I sat down with a group of colleagues a week ago and discussed the use of the word queer. They were all my age and older, and the response was pretty much universal. Queer was a word that shouldn’t be used in polite society, and the effort to rehabilitate it, to re-possess it as a description of a way of being, a positive statement about individuals who had seized upon the word and made it their own, had not reached them.

I’m guessing I’m pretty much preaching to the converted on that one, but it’s a point that needs to be made because, for much of my life, not many people were defining themselves as queer. I’m old enough to remember when gay was seen as an all-encompassing term, not as such a specific category as it is today. For a few brief years Tom Robinson’s Glad to be Gay was an anthem for anyone whose sexuality didn’t fit into a hetero-normative box. The universal acceptance today that gay means gay men was not always the case, and Glad to be Gay was adopted as an anthem for the much broader spectrum of people whose self-definition was that they were not hetero-normative, even if those words weren’t common currency.

In that regard the debate about what gay meant was a precursor of the debates that led to the emergence of queer theory, and it was part of my lived experience. As a leftie with an avid appetite for books and articles I knew there was a gap in my reading that reflected a gap in the discourse around sexuality, feminism and the personal experiences of so many of us. I’ll never know, now, how many of the lefties I cooperated and worked with were experiencing the same cognitive estrangement from the debates we were part of, with their insistence upon formality and categorical certainties, but it was part of my experience.

QUEER WAS A WORD THAT SHOULDN’T BE USED IN POLITE SOCIETY

The problem was, and remains, that the emergence of queer theory was an academic pursuit, not the practical application of ideas to a political reality. That’s not a criticism, by the way; in the ideological environment of the 1990s the idea of queerness as an alternative to neo-liberalism and its neo-conservative mirror image simply was not possible.

What’s the point of that preamble? First and foremost, it’s an attempt to explain why I found it so hard to describe and identify a queer hero of my own. I’m not in the business of appropriating other people’s lives and re-categorizing them to fit my frame of reference, so looking at someone else’s life and saying, your experiences fit my description of queerness isn’t an option.

Then there’s the reality that other people’s motives may turn their actions into something less heroic than we might hope. Leo Abse comes to mind; in pushing for the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting males in private he was heroic. His views on why that should be done, and his dabbling in Freudian explanations of male homosexual attraction were, at best, ill-informed and at worst homophobic.

Abse is a fascinating case in point. He was exposed to Freudian ideas at an early age, and debated them with his brothers, one of whom was an eminent psychiatrist. His other brother, Dannie was a superb poet who criticized overly theoretical approaches to science in his ‘Letter to Alex Comfort’ as ‘Those clever scientists who dissect away the wings and haggard heart from the dove.’ What would Leo Abse have thought if he had been brought up not with Freud and Marx but AnnaMarie Jagose? We’ll never know, but the Freudian frame of reference that was the sheet-anchor of Abse’s thought makes him an impossible hero, even if having him as the MP for the town where I grew up, and meeting him, was a constant reminder of that there was another intellectual world outside the straight and narrow confines of the valleys.

That’s just one example of why I can’t conscript a hero into this queer universe, when so many of the experiences of my life are, in effect, from the pre-history of queerness. Similarly, the act of identifying as queer someone who doesn’t self identify as queer feels wrong, like an act of appropriation.

What filled the gap in my personal discourse? How  did I reach a point where my view of the world is encompassed by the intersections of queer theory and marxism? I was an avid reader from before the time that I went to school. Anything and everything was grist to the mill, but at the heart of my reading in my teenage years were the outliers of what we called science fiction, as if it were a catch all phrase. I didn’t know enough to call it speculative fiction, or to know the difference between space opera and the cosy catastrophes of John Wyndham, but those early adventures in reading opened up spaces and ideas in a way that was life changing for me. The constant pleasures of ‘what if’, of alternative realities and a multiplicity of possible outcomes led me to the kind of bookshops where speculative fiction was not just about one innovative event, but a complexity of parallel universes and interwoven timelines that went to places where the urbane and frankly cliched Dr Who of the 70s and 80s would not venture.

I CAN’T CONSCRIPT A HERO INTO THIS QUEER UNIVERSE, WHEN SO MANY OF THE EXPERIENCES OF MY LIFE ARE, IN EFFECT, FROM THE PRE-HISTORY OF QUEERNESS

That led me, almost inevitably to Michael Moorcock and a love hate relationship with his tricky, slippery, allusive and elusive story telling. The combination of heroic novel structures and characters set in recognizable streetscapes in a recognizable West London was both a culture shock and a comfortable familiarity. The result is a foregone conclusion; my queer hero is Jerry Cornelius; shape shifter, polymorph and perpetual hero who wanders from novel to novel, from high concept meta universe to graphic novels in a way that fascinated and  intrigued me.

I’ll argue with anyone that the speculative fiction of the 60s and 70s that was epitomized by Moorcock was vital to my understanding of the world I live in now and deserves a wider, more appreciative audience.  Not just because of the quality of the writing, and the narrative(s), but because, in the time before queer theory was born, some of its parents and ancestors were the writers of speculative fiction. They were not alone and had their literary analogues, adventurers, like Kathy Acker who were testing the literary form in ways that I think made queer theory possible. In that world Moorcock, with his constant challenging of the boundaries of the believable, and of narrative style alongside the multiple iterations of his heros and heroines reigns supreme.

There’s another reason why I love Jerry Cornelius though. I left school at 16. Moorcock’s novels, with their pulp formats and relaxed style were a grounding in post-modernism, in philosophy and, improbably, the theatrical wonders of the comedia dell’arte. They opened up for me the idea of the archetype in narrative and the unreliability of the narrator. They also taught me something about the idea of seeing each piece of writing as part of the author’s whole body of work. Jerry Cornelius is unreliable in a tragic and heroic way that can seem to be a simple literary device if each novel is seen as an individual text. The way in which Colonel Pyat, a bit part character in the earlier novels turns into an unreliable to a fault narrator of the grand historical novels such as Byzantium Endures made me reconsider all that though. This was not a plot device but a well thought out use of the idea of successive works within the same speculative universe that shared elements of our time and space, but which let Moorock toy with intersecting narrative arcs and contingent fictions.

IN THE TIME BEFORE QUEER THEORY WAS BORN, SOME OF ITS PARENTS AND ANCESTORS WERE THE WRITERS OF SPECULATIVE FICTION

To a boy trying to avoid becoming the same man as everyone else, Moorcock was an educational playground where conflicting narratives and intersecting worlds were the maps on which I learned to listen and say why not rather than accepting the inevitable. It wasn’t an instant process though.

Realizing, as I have, that to understand my world demands rigorous attention to other stories, other potential worlds, was not an accident. One night, alone and lonely, some time around the start of the 1990s, I opened Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, and discovered the idea of contingent evolution. Contingent histories suddenly became a logical way of understanding the big questions about why we are here, and what led to us being who we are, even as I struggled to understand the drawings of the Burgess Shale’s bizarre and amazing creatures who never flourished for no more reason than chance.

My view, founded in nothing more than my fragmented, undirected reading is that understanding queer theory is closely associated with ideas like contingent evolution, with speculative realities that insist on dethroning norms and unfounded certainties. I can’t, and don’t want to co-opt Gould as my hero, not just because of scruples, but because Jerry Cornelius with his narratives of chance and drama got there first. Science may have confirmed that chance plays a central role in understanding which reality we arrive at, but speculative fiction, with its chaotic, flawed, unreliable and utterly human characters like Jerry Cornelius, heroically led the way.

Sport and Identity

The case of Lauren Jeska threw into sharp relief the conflict between our post-modern understanding of identity and the traditions of organised sport. In case you don’t know, Jeska is a trans woman who stabbed a UK Athletics official after she felt threatened by their insistence on her proving her testosterone levels didn’t give her an unfair advantage in competition against other women. In one of those glorious paradoxes that history throws up, the official she stabbed, Ralph Knibbs, was someone whose own sporting career was blighted by his defence of his identity. As a black man, Knibbs turned down a chance to tour South Africa with the British Lions  in 1984 because of his opposition to apartheid, and was never again selected for England, meaning that one of the best three-quarters I have ever seen went uncapped.

The accepted use of drugs in sport, via therapeutic use exemptions, and the rules about the use of prosthetics amongst paralympians challenge the very idea of sport as being a neutral test of strength and skill in a way that highlights the complexity of Jeska’s situation. There was a time when Oscar Pestorius was only controversial because of the row about whether his prosthetics conferred an unfair advantage on him when running against non-amputees. The contrasts and the differences in how Lauren Jeska was treated point towards a deep set of contradictions at the heart of sport.

Should an athlete be banned because of an advantage that the treatment of their body, their very humanity, confers on them? And if not, how should we categorize them, or define success?

Let’s start with a banal example. I am a chronic asthmatic. I use two medications under a generalized therapeutic use exemption that means I can breathe more effectively than I otherwise would.They undoubtedly confer a performance advantage in cycling – using a peak flowmeter I can measure that advantage. Should I be banned from sport?

Lurking behind that question are a whole series of assumptions and beliefs about why I should be allowed to use drugs to enhance my performance, but other athletes can’t use the same drugs to enhance their performance. The very notion of disease, as a deviation from a norm, which should be corrected, is hugely challenging, but also hugely reinforces the idea that there is a norm.

That normative process, of saying that there are men and women, bodies that function well, ideals of physical perfection, is at the heart of sport. Indeed it’s arguable that the central role of sport in our society is to reinforce and uphold those normative processes.

At one end of sport is the area of sport science, exemplified by the degree of analysis laid out in this article about the work of one sports scientist. One quote should suffice; “You can only understand normal physiology if you can understand perfect physiology.”

Is that where I, as an individual who recognizes the full range of human realities, the intersecting spectra of gender, race,class and the contingencies of life that shape our bodies, want to be?

One of the biggest changes in sport over the last fifty years has been the rise of the paralympics, with their intricate systems of classification that allow athletes with similar types of body or mental abilities to compete against each other. The problem is that rather than rejecting the idea of norms, or perfection, the Paralympics reinforce them by using the traditional ideals as fixed  reference points.

I grew up in a world dominated by social sports, team games where everyone was assigned a role, if they were chosen, and by individual sports, where coming second was to be first loser. Conformity to the ideals that the sports were designed to exalt was a pre-condition of inclusion, and sometimes that meant a silent, sullen acceptance of those ideals, even if they were incongruent with my beliefs.

Ralph Knibbs comes to mind again. One of the pre-conditions of acceptance in the upper echelons of Rugby Union was to be silent about its awful record on the conjoined issues of racism and apartheid. The idea that a player’s attitude or character might drive selection decisions is still current; when he was asked to explain why Mike Brown didn’t make the 2017 Lions squad Warren Gatland said “When we select a squad, it’s not always about the rugby content.”

The ideals of physical perfection that underpin the work of some sports physiologists are just one strand of what explains performance, just as ability as a player is only one measure of what drives selection for a rugby team. On my bookshelf is Bradley Wiggins’ glossy, ghost written account of breaking the world hour record for cycling. In amongst the beautiful images it cites factors contributing to performance that include atmospheric pressure, temperature, and the effect of the crowd on the oxygen content of the air within the velodrome. That’s as well as Wiggo’s physical attributes, and, unmeasurable and ill-defined, his colossal will to win.

All the results, the records and the achievements are proxy measures for the idea of the ideal, an idea that is utterly intangible, but which somehow reflects how we, as a society,  feel at any given time.  If the ideal is a cultural construct, then the rounded politically aware humanity of Ralph Knibbs can be  a greater achievement than the dozens of caps gathered by some of his peers if we want it to be, if we can change our culture to prize more than just performance on the pitch.

In some ways this has drifted a long way from sport, and from the way in which queerness and gender variety challenges ideas of identity in sport, but it’s a journey worth making. The reality, that sporting performance is not a fixed reference point, but an arbitrary selection of one or more of the points where a multiplicity of factors intersect is a hugely useful metaphor for our personal identities.

I should declare an interest here; I am a competitive cyclist, possibly the worst competitive cyclist in the north east of England, by some distance. By my standards however, I am the best cyclist I can be, and, bearing in mind all that I am, and all I have been, I’m happy that I am as good as I can get to be. That is the goal I set myself, because it was the only goal I could achieve. What happens to all the athletes who set out to be the best in the world, and fail? Their fall back, the reserve position,is ’I did my best.’ Since I cannot control who is better than me, starting from that position makes the most sense to me. THE REALITY, THAT SPORTING PERFORMANCE IS NOT A FIXED REFERENCE POINT, BUT AN ARBITRARY SELECTION OF ONE OR MORE OF THE POINTS WHERE A MULTIPLICITY OF FACTORS INTERSECT IS A HUGELY USEFUL METAPHOR FOR OUR PERSONAL IDENTITIES.

Do we need to dethrone ideals, in pursuit of the personal? This week Nike threw a huge amount of resources, technology and money at the pursuit of a ‘barrier’ – the two hour record for the marathon. In the process they used aids and arrangements that were outside the boundaries and rules of organized athletics, so that even if Eliud Kipchoge had achieved Nike’s goal, it would not have been an official world record.

Doubtless the arrangement was financially beneficial for Kipchoge, but is this kind of sport, the distance running equivalent of parachuting from outer space to earth in order to sell more cans of Red Bull, a model of sporting participation that fits in a non binary, multi faceted world?

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