From Queer Failure to Queer Innocence
What comes after acceptance and pride?
Posted Jan 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Queer Failure is the internalized belief that, in being an LGBTQ+ person, we have somehow failed at being “normal." Of course there’s nothing wrong with our gender or sexuality, but when faced with our parent’s disappointing gaze, or our friend’s bewilderment, or even our own self-doubt, it can certainly feel that way. Queer theorists including José Muñoz, Jack Halberstam, and Benny LeMaster note that, in order to overcome this sense of inadequacy, we must turn Queer Failure on its head.1,2,3 In short, it’s not we that failed society, but society that failed us by not making room for our existence.
Flipping the onus of social expectation can help us reject the presupposed “norm,” and in turn help us accept who we are. This huge, self-actualizing step is what we call Pride. Admittedly, our first attempts at Pride are rarely eloquent, elegant, or even patient. After having our identities politicized by so many for so long, we may push back by ranting online, or taking to the streets in literal protest, or arguing with uninformed members of our family, or partying at the Pride parade like we’ll never get another chance. Sure, we may get carried away, but we’re learning to validate both our voice and our existence. Likewise, many of us may withdraw to safe spaces of our own making, in an attempt to distance ourselves from toxicity. Sure, this can turn into self-isolating behavior, but once again we’re in a growth state, learning to prioritize our personal needs.
Yet, having moved from Queer Failure to Queer Pride, we may still feel vaguely insufficient.
Self-doubt consumes a lot of time and energy. Combatting intolerance consumes a lot of time and energy. Defending our integrity consumes a lot of time and energy. And while it’s important to value every hard lesson learned, sometimes it can feel like we missed out, as if the school of hard knocks isn’t accredited. Likewise, it’s not always clear what we missed out on, but our frames of comparison usually stoke our feelings of inadequacy.
A lot of my LGBTQ+ clients introduce themselves as old souls who had to grow up quickly, or very young souls thrust into very adult situations. This is usually their segue into sharing which of their developmental milestones were delayed, or even skipped. Maybe they were stuck in the closet, turning inwards while everyone else learned to socialize. Or maybe they were abandoned and had to learn independence and survival while everyone else learned interdependence and collaboration. Or maybe their friends and family were totally supportive, but they were nowhere near a gay scene—making that first kiss a little hard to get. Or maybe they had to choose between affording gender affirmative surgery or college. Or maybe, having never had a long-term relationship, they got hooked on hookup culture. Or maybe they're nervous about being a nonbinary parent next to all the moms and dads in the neighborhood.
Sure, they can minimize their uncertainty, but what if they don’t want to have a stiff upper lip?
This is where Queer Innocence becomes invaluable. As an active process, Queer Innocence is the mindful appreciation of being an LGBTQ+ person.4 It can certainly overlap with our sense of Pride, yet while Pride concerns expression and visibility, Innocence concerns awe and cherishment. It can take a lot of forms, from reveling in gender euphoria, to being giddy about a first date, to being moved by a song. Indeed, anytime we permit ourselves to be excited about some mundane thing, we demonstrate how precious and worthwhile our everyday existence is. As a result, we are more likely to meet our own inexperience or lack of knowledge with curiosity instead of self-depreciation.
Innocence is a charged word for a lot of people, especially when it’s mistaken for ignorance, or purity. I like to remind clients that children are often described as innocent, but they’re not willfully ignorant (since they’re still learning), nor are they idyllically pure (as they're tracking mud everywhere on their way to the cookie jar). So what are we talking about? What is innocence?
If pride is the emotional antonym of shame, then innocence is the emotional antonym of guilt. As children, many of us are robbed of our sense of innocence because we’re made to feel bad or sinful about who we are (shame) and what we do (guilt). We’re told, as children and teenagers, that our play instinct is wrong. We’re told that we can’t wear certain clothes, play certain games, or hug certain friends. For this reason, reclaiming our innocence as adults can be a vital step. Any active behavior that permits us to cherish our sexuality and gender identity with a sense of wonder helps us trust and intertwine our play instinct with our sense of self-worth.4
Having turned Queer Failure around, many of us still take things too seriously, or struggle with our arrested play instinct, or judge our naiveté far too harshly. Even if we valiantly defend our strengths we may still be compensating for our struggles with substance abuse and co-dependent relationships. Why? Because just as society didn’t make room for our sexuality and gender identity, it didn’t make room for our innocence. We were told we were stupid if we didn’t know something. We were told to be embarrassed if we didn’t get it right the first time. Even within the LGBTQ+ community, we were told to go big or go home, and that there was no room for inexperience. It might be time to reject these expectations, too, in order to reclaim our innocence, just as we reclaimed our pride.
Muñoz, J. E. (2009). Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NYU Press.
Halberstam, J. (2011). The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press.
LeMaster, B. (2018). Pedagogies of Failure Queer Communication Pedagogy as Anti-Normative. In A. Atay and S. Toyosaki (Eds). Critical Intercultural Communication Pedagogy, (pp.81-96) Lanham, MD: Lexington Books
Stitt, A. (2020). ACT For Gender Identity: The Comprehensive Guide. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.