The Radical Queer Liberation Of Cringe

I was going to post on New Year’s Eve that my resolution this year is to embrace being cringe as a radical queer liberation philosophy with a thread about what that means to me. I got about 2-3 tweets in before I was so afraid of it being cringe and harmful that I abandoned it.

I don’t think I’ve ever failed on a New Year’s resolution so hard so fast. But of course it wouldn’t need to be a dedicated resolution if it wasn’t something I struggle with. So I will keep working on it. Like most philosophies, it takes a delicate balance to not overdo, anyway.

In watching a lot of older queer movies, reading a lot of older queer journalism, and generally trying to learn the history through primary sources and how queer people depicted themselves, I’ve started developing my theory of The Radical Queer Liberation Of Cringe. A lot of queer reclamation philosophy, performative queerness to avoid erasure, and the very core philosophical concept of Pride (and why and how we celebrate it) comes down to expressing “I am cringe, but I am free.”

This was especially prevalent in older pre-internet communities faced with an even greater degree of discrimination for whom avoidance was functionally impossible. If people are going to cringe at you anyway & call you slurs, embrace that as an untouchable part of your identity.

As no group is a hive mind, this was always a hotly debated philosophy. As Hannah Gadsby put it, “Where do the quiet gays go? Where are the quiet gays supposed to go? I still do. I’m just like… whew. The pressure on my people to express our identity and pride through the metaphor of party is very intense. Don’t get me wrong, I love the spectacle, I really do, but I’ve never felt compelled to get amongst it. Do you know? I’m a quiet soul. My favorite sound in the whole world is the sound of a teacup finding its place on a saucer. Oh, it’s very, very difficult to flaunt that lifestyle in a parade.”

Harvey Milk was as abrasive as he was inspiring, even to the queer community of San Francisco. Gilbert Baker, the creator of the Rainbow flag, pretty much lived his life as a performance of camp. Real men like Baker who were as sincere as they were performative were the basis for some stereotypes, down to “fabulous” being noted by the Bay Area Reporter as his favorite word. They leaned into it as intentionally as queer people today color code themselves with flags. The entire concepts of camp & drag are to lean into cringe. Dykes on Bikes & the Imperial Court are good examples from early Pride marches. Though not everyone agreed this was good.

This got a little lost around the turn of the century as a combination of the generational technological divide and the decimation of the community by AIDS left many queer kids in online spaces to essentially raise themselves. Which is how you get communities like Tumblr. These kids—impressionable, wide-eyed, full of fire, but lacking the wisdom of experience or an understanding of community history—reacted to the schoolyard bullying they faced and poor representation in mainstream media, and chose avoidance and resistance to cringe.

This was also around the time gay marriage began to be legalized. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on November 18, 2003, in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that same-gender couples had the right to marry (and subsequently that designation like civil union constitute discrimination). Licenses were to begin being issued on May 17, 2004. On February 12, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom kicked off a rebellion of cities & counties unilaterally issuing same-gender marriage licenses outside of state law in view that marriage bans were unconstitutional. It didn’t last more than a few months before being quashed (and arguably led to Prop 8 being passed in California), but victory felt inevitable at that point, even if we had to wait longer. Vienna Teng captured the feeling very well in “City Hall”, seen here in a 2005 performance with an interpretive dance.

Respectability politics played a large role in the fight for same-gender marriage, & the idea that the good & normal queer people just wanted to settle down & be part of mainstream society. This shift was hotly debated in the community as to whether this played into queermisia and the rejection of people who had no interest in being mainstream or respectable (i.e. people who embraced cringe).

So the radical liberation philosophy of cringe began to be replaced as the dominant philosophy. We’ve slid now into the respectability politics and purity culture of “good representation” to appeal to allocishet people & educate them instead of often messy depictions for ourselves. What we really need is both. Hedwig and the Angry Inch were as necessary as Big Eden in 2001. In Critical Role today, Essek is as important as Caduceus for realistic depiction.

Queer people are complicated and messy as often as we’re boring and soft. We don’t owe anyone anything telling our own stories, and we definitely don’t need the promised carrot of respect that always turns into a stick. The philosophy of cringe is a rejection of being palatable to everyone. Be richly flavorful instead. Be as cringe in rainbow sequence celebrating queer coded villains as you are cringe for shipping two soft boys in a hurt-comfort coffee shop AU fanfic. Go ham on sweet sports anime. Love old movies like Torch Song Trilogy and Waiting for Guffman where gay men feel liberated by cringe and their performance of queerness is a major point of the plot. In Waiting For Guffman’s case, the point is that all the allocishet normative people are just as cringe, but in more accepted ways, even when their behavior should be far more unacceptable (like Ron in the Chinese Restaurant scene).

Now, one core folly of embracing cringe is that there can be a fine line between being cringe and ignoring the concerns of other marginalized people. Sometimes people do have legitimate reasons for asking those things not be done. That’s always going to take a lot of balancing. Sometimes that’s hard to hear and process worthy criticism when half of what you’ve heard in life is that you’re a harmful disgrace who threatens society and most of that was BS. Being stubbornly alienating out of spite can easily turn into alienating people who really need your solidarity to help both groups.

My purpose in trying to embrace being cringe is that I get so fixated on potential harm and the fear of being a bad person willing to hurt people out of selfishness, carelessness, and ignorance, that I will often destroy my own well being and ability to enjoy anything out of existential dread. I start to feel overwhelmed with intrusive thoughts about how comfort and relaxed enjoyment are essentially non-religious sins and only abstinence from pleasure and constant penance can make me a halfway acceptable person demonstrating I’m working on myself.

Which is obviously terrible and no one should live like that. Intellectually I vehemently reject that and would never wish it on another person. It’s not just ineffective, it’s actively in the way of real liberation and the ability to keep fighting. I freeze up to the point of being able to engage with anything beyond crying. This is not the reaction anyone trying to give hard-to-hear but constructive criticism wants. It’s alienating and it turns all criticism into a personal attack. It’s classic and much-derided fragility. You’re supposed to just take it and not react except to change. I also occasionally drag other people into my gravity well of despair and self-hatred, and that’s not fair to them either. But intrusive, self-destructive thoughts are hard to control and if I could just stop having them I wouldn’t be mentally ill. I would also like me to stop.

So while I’m mindful of the pitfalls of cringe, it seems like a useful tool to get me out of this hole & on a better path. I don’t have to stick with it forever. Just like you put down the ice ax & take off the crampons once you’re off the glacier, but you needed the teeth to grip the ice. no one worth listening to thinks walking yourself into a crevasse is going to change anything.

It’s good to be mindful of other people’s needs, but not to the point that you consistently destroy what you need and love and feel human through to please them. Especially the most extremist views of people you don’t even respect. I’m trying to stop making myself so small that I’m ashamed of existing. Cringe can be the radical act of embracing that all people and all things they create are at least a little flawed and that you deserve to be seen as more than what other people dislike about you. You’re worthy in all your foibles. You have nothing to prove. This was the lesson of our queer elders in the art they made, and their lives as art.

So here’s to a little more cringe and a little more freedom this year.

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