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The Gay Politics of Cute


Have you seen this video yet? It’s gone viral, and it’s incredibly adorable.

Two gay dads and their sons take the stage to advocate equal marriage, and their son Emmett can’t contain his impatience. Apparently wearied by his dad’s earnest appeal for marriage equality, Emmett repeatedly pushes the microphone away, saying that he “wants Daddy to stop talking.” It’s a perfect representation of how one particular kind of gay relationship is just like one particular kind of straight relationship, and it’s a very sweet and relatable moment: kids will be kids, no matter who raises them. But in the context of gay cultural politics, adorable virality gives me pause. I worry that we’ve exchanged a politics of critique for a politics of cute.

Maybe it’s because of the headline attached to the video on the website I first saw it on, the liberal feminist stronghold Jezebel. “Adorable Kids Adorably Interrupt Marriage Equality Conference.” As the headline makes clear, the video hasn’t gone viral because of Paul’s clear, eloquent, elegant reasoning: “Extending the freedom to marry to all loving and committed couples,” he asserts forcefully, “is in the best interest of all children and families like ours throughout the state.” The video has gone viral because his son—boys will be boys—has no patience for it. Notice how the argument Paul makes, grounded in solid Constitutional logic, is effaced by the liberal squee at his son’s adorableness. That squee literally interrupts the political discussion taking place.

cute gay cookies
So Cute!

The pressure to normalize gay relationships, to make them relatably cute, seems to me to sacrifice the critical, rational reasoning that should be an integral part of gay politics and its position vis-à-vis American politics in general. In place of a coherent critique of heteronormativity, we’ve developed an insatiable appetite for wedding photos, for pictures of babies, for videos of children like this one. In short, we’ve sublimated critical politics into affective effusion.

And the consequence of this is that general American political discourse across social media has taken to supporting one, very specific and very normal, kind of affective relation: the nuclear family. Two dads, two kids, a minivan in the garage in Minnesota. And the rationale for this substitution of one version of gay relationships for the whole, this sexual synecdoche, is, “OMG look how cute!” This rationale isn’t only insufficient; it’s pernicious.

A gay cause’s going “viral” in 2013 has a very different intonation than the virality of gay politics in the eighties and nineties. Encountering in the 2010s the absolute assuredness of queer commentary from that earlier period that “we” have all lost loved ones to AIDS provokes, for me at least, something like double consciousness. I grew up in the historical pause between the heavy campaigning from groups like ACT-UP in the eighties to provoke the US government to acknowledge HIV/AIDS as a matter of national concern and the Christian fundamentalist push in the early twenty-first century to lionize abstinence as the only sexual option outside of marriage. My first formal sex ed class was in the fifth grade. I learned how to use a condom in the seventh. I was already in college by the time such education was considered inappropriate for teenagers.

silence death
This trauma is and is not mine.

I have not lost loved ones to AIDS, and for this I am, very profoundly, thankful. When I came out, right around the year 2000, I very occasionally found myself subject to denunciations linking homosexuality to AIDS: “I hope you get AIDS and die” was, when I was a teen, already a (largely) laughable anachronism, if nevertheless a reflexive connection I wanted desperately to disavow. My defense against such sentiments was to mock that link between homosexuality and death. It was, for me, the cry of a stupid retrograde minority—after all, Will & Grace had been a staple of network television for years.

But there is nothing cute about being told that a stranger wishes you to die. If that reflexive connection is now broken, that fact doesn’t assuage the affective impact of someone you don’t know enjoying the prospect of your death. As if recoiling from that sort of sentiment, too often gay people abandon, rhetorically and politically, those with HIV and AIDS.

HIV/AIDS is a trauma that is and is not mine. It is a collective trauma to which I am heir, even and perhaps especially when I want to forget it and look at wedding portraits. It has a claim on me as part of the cultural discourse I have no choice but to engage in. And I worry that gay politics has denounced this claim in order to straighten out gay relationships, to make them relatable and—if all goes well—adorable.

One of the ugliest idioms of gay male culture is “AIDS-face,” a phrase used to characterize the appearance of men whose bodies have undergone degeneration due to the disease. In fact, it’s more than ugly—it’s hideous. It indexes the disavowals that are often performed in gay discourse, often by omission but sometimes explicitly. It makes those men who are, in a non-genetic but nevertheless quite real sense, my forebears into that against which a desirable vision of gay life is defined. Viral videos efface the shared memory of viral death. The red of HIV/AIDS ribbons bleeds into the red of the Facebook icons in support of gay marriage that, too, went viral last week, and the slippage remains unremarked.

It shouldn’t, not in a moment when bareback, or unprotected, sex has resurged in gay porn and culture generally and rates of new HIV and other STI contraction among gay men are rising. And it shouldn’t, because it implicitly cordons off those living with HIV or AIDS who aren’t LGBTQ from gay politics instead of enabling coalitional action.

The Supreme Court has now heard two crucial cases challenging Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, and the oral arguments suggest they’ll uphold Prop 8 but strike down DOMA, electing not to ground a final decision in the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment but, instead, in states’ rights. If SCOTUS does structure its decision that way, it will be a real and significant step toward equality, if not the full leap I would have wished for.

And I hope that if SCOTUS makes that choice, and the struggle for political equality continues, we won’t allow the adorability of an expanded vision of marriage in the US to blind us to the ugliness in both the political decisions that have until now restricted that vision largely to heterosexual couples, and to the ugliness in the willful forgetting that has too often propelled gay cultural politics this far.


Chris Shirley is happy to see you.

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