Static sexuality

Living in Liminality

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To some amalgamation of fate and chance, most of the adult figures from my childhood were queer couples. My parents’ close friends, scattered amongst the London boroughs, fostered an image of queer normalcy through their partnerships. Queerness wove itself into cheese boards in Kensington, slices of ginger cake in Hampstead and in cups of tea balanced on wobbly metal pub tables on the Holborn high streets.

I viewed these partnerships with rose-colored glasses, enveloped in the comfort of charity shop sofas and surrounded by the warmth of those homes. I see now that what I received was a simplified narrative, ignorant of the complexities that lie underneath not only the relations I witnessed, but also the concept of queerness itself.

As I now sit in a different physical and social location, I still wish for my own queerness to be as nonchalant as pub afternoons, as carefree as the cutting of cake. I still grapple with the idea that I will have to exert intense emotional work to understand where I fall on the spectrum of sexuality – a position that will continuously change along with my own perspective.

What I was presented with as a child was one side of the heteronormative binary of sexuality. The binary, constructed by the hegemonic discursive powers, set the terms for my understanding of queerness: I saw queerness on one side of the binary, facing opposite the daunting conventionality of, well, straightness.

The media I consumed was my halfhearted attempt to find validation, to see parts of myself on the screen. Queerness, however, is often represented in mainstream art and media as a reproduction of this heteronormative binary of sexuality. Films tend to use queerness as a crutch for conflict, presenting characters with an all-or-nothing, either-or dilemma.

It is to my deepest dismay that my first queer film that I viewed by myself was “Blue is the Warmest Colour.” I must credit my father for introducing me to “Maurice” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” but I wanted my viewing to feel like something of my own initiation. My selection seemed like a right of passage into the realm of queerness that was rich in desire of the sexual and emotional kind. 

While the characters were not presented with an overt “to be gay or not to be gay” choice, there existed the binary of emotional intensity, found between the queer experience and the static heteronormative experience. 

I came away from “Blue is the Warmest Colour” with the idea that queer sex itself had to be an emotionally wrought experience, a transcendental event that would forever change my life perception. This is far from the truth, and only creates an abstraction of what queerness should be. Instead of my own individual interpretation, I relied heavily on the tropes and fantasy creation, which I actively pursued and then projected upon. 

This is not to critique the emotional struggles of the characters themselves, but rather of the values placed on those struggles. Character traits are replaced with conflict over one’s queerness; the relationships themselves are reduced to a romanticization of internal turbulence with regard to identity.

The historical context behind many of the queer films that have reached critical acclaim is worthy of inspection, however. The settings where the characters reckon with their queerness against any internal social expectations influence the ways they can express themselves. The location of that self-expression, as well, is cast to the side, away from normalcy: Perhaps the characters come into their queerness in a hazy remote field, or in front of a ritualistic bonfire, but regardless, it is a fantasy space. 

That fantasy space only allows those relationships to be experienced within that location, and in turn, characters are allowed to interact with their queerness in that space alone. 

Sexuality becomes compartmentalized, forced to fit within the mold of each social situation. Queerness itself is thus fixed by stereotypes, all fluidity drained. Because media presents queerness as this monumental, pivotal moment, I tend to treat my own identity as constantly progressing toward a climax. 

But the temporality of my queerness is anything but a start-stop situation, flickering between one side of the binary to the other. Instead, queerness itself floats in the grey area between the two sides – the liminal space.

For me, it makes sense that queerness exists in liminality. Queerness has been the subject of violence, the demonstration of human emotional capacity and the beauty of identity formation and maturation. The liminal space no longer needs to be read as uncertain; rather, it can be a freeing area, as it can extend past the bounds of the binary to claim redefinition.

Identity is not adhering to one side of the binary, but rather found in pieces floating in liminal spaces, only able to be grasped at but never fully understood. The grasping at the wisps of myself comes through the questioning of artworks that seek to normalize the narratives I am drawn to. 

Francesca Hodges writes the Monday A&E column on exploring liminal spaces within art and identity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.