Not too far away from the charming and gentrified university campus in central Philadelphia where I initially offered the following meditations, exists another gathering space: a space where black and brown cis- and transgendered bodies were situated as repositories for others’ sometimes gendered fantasies, racialized fetishes, disdain, fascination, affection, disease, dollars, and semen.
I waited there once and I yearned for a deposit.
In my early 20s, I was in search of the embrace of strangers willing to move hands upon my face and move my heart to beat beats and not blues. I desired the type of fuck that easily resembles eros, or rather, intimacy that connects souls and escapes words. I longed for pleasure, a few feet from a corner, on 13th Street in downtown Philly. I was alone and lonely and resisting the urge to do it and pushing myself to let it be done and saying no and embracing yes not too far away from a street otherwise known as Market (how appropriate).
I needed to be touched because touch had always occurred in secret, at least in my life. I craved to be held firmly by tender hands because threatening hands seemed to only operate as weapons in my past. I wanted sex because it was the language that I had been taught, early on, as the means through which one translates connection, pleasure, and desire. Sex work, which I knew nothing about while standing with deep longing and trepidation moving in my body, was not what I intended to provide. No, I wanted to perform love work and traveling to the netherworld of ambiguity was, in my mind, well-worth it. I sought after liberation: freedom from the anxieties of heteronormativitity. And, if I am honest, I wanted to have boundless sex with another man in a “world” that did not create me, but in one that I created. And isn’t it the case that we, queers, are often in search of other worlds because we have been shamed in this one?
13th Street became a site of possibility in a world that rendered my beingness impossible. My imagined and material worlds were never too far away from each other because of it.
Shame fashions imagination.
I never really desired to participate in Pride Parades until recently. This year alone I marched in two large parades, Boston and NYC. In Boston, I marched with an assemblage of blacks and Latinos. We were situated, interestingly, between the Asian and Pacific Islander contingent and a group of queer animal lovers. There, in a sea of queer whiteness, waded the blacks, the browns, the animals, and those who loved all three. I marched hyper-aware of my place in the lineup-under the gaze of animated onlookers, within the close proximity of hands clapping vigorously in praise of the black, the Latino, the animal, and the animal loving queer-in disgrace, in shame because we were visibly invisible.
In NYC, where pride is a bit more immodest … where I marched with great admiration directed at the black and brown young people who marched alongside us … where the black and the brown body doubly signified the center via its queerness and the edge by way of its racialization…where applause was thunderous because, alas, black and brown were visibilized through the once crestfallen bodies of those who escape the violence of heterosexism (but are gripped by racism and class elitism) in queer spaces like Christopher Street in Greenwich Village…I felt the familiar sensation of embarrassment-of what it means to feel disgraced even in the deep of a parade of pride amongst would-be communities of solidarity.
The other times I felt similarly invisible, and there were many, occurred was when I showed up black and queer to white and gay and male-centered spaces anywhere in the US. I can recall, for example, having to attend a young professional LGBT social hosted by several fab and gay and white men at a posh apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of NYC and feeling shamed and abandoned as if I had been hidden under an enchanted cloak of invisibility…except for the unfortunate fact that I was not. I did long for one, however.
Yet, in all three cases-the Boston and NYC parades as well as the Chelsea un-gathering-my presence and the presence of some others felt profoundly necessary. Our black, brown, and animal bodies were at once signs of materiality, of presence, of one’s place in the illusory queer routes and spaces where shame is thought to be disinvited.
Shame produces resistance.
These narratives provide a way for me to think about the ways in which queers (or, rather, this queer) might variously experience shame and the ways in which shame, often conceptualized as a type of negative affect, might also be queered. Indeed, scholars like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Heather Love, and Tavia Nyong’o have penned critical works wherein the affective domain, particularly shame, is queered.
Shame stunts, pushes, destroys, and forms. And while I am careful to avoid rendering shame as an affective response to blameless actions or somehow give the impression that the act of shaming is acceptable, I want to consider shame’s potential to catalyze imagination and resistance in the lives of queers.
Some isolate shame within the realm of negation. For example, Donald L. Nathanson categorized shame as a type of negative affect, coupled with humiliation, in his book Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. Shame is conceptualized, then, as a feeling that is easily fixed on one side of a binary system. On the opposite end of shame is pride. But if it is true that some forms of pride (like that which is supposedly representative of and exhibited in queer parades and spaces) can produce humiliation and some forms of shame (like that which is thought to characterize and move some toward sex work) can catalyze self-awakening, then it follows that attempts to divide pride and shame does not allow for the complicated enmeshment of affect. In other (less complex) words, shame ain’t all negative and pride ain’t all positive. Our resistance to the binaries and dismantling of the boxes, which seek to contain either as if they are stabilized feelings, is a queer act.
What the binary allows us to do, rather easily, however, is to pin our affective responses to the actions of others, which may not be a bad move. If we can successfully demonstrate that our shame as queer persons is the result of, say, a heterosexist society and people or if we can make the case that we, queers, have every right to overly illuminate gay pride in response to our shamings, then we might find reason to support the claim that we, queers, exist as the monolithic vindicated amongst the guilty majority. We need shame as an analytic because without it, and the binary frame in which it is fixed, there would be no need to remake our selves through ritualistic performances of pride. Indeed, there would be no need to proclaim to the “straights” as we march in pride parades, whether in Boston, NYC, or Austin, “We’re Here! We’re Queer! Get Used to it!”
But how are we, queers, to account for the fact that we too shame? How are we to account for the fact that in our proudest and most visible moments we too might render invisible some others? What are we to do when our modesty gives way to racisms, sexisms, transphobia, elitism, and nationalisms that debase, that harm, that shame others? Pride ain’t all good. And shame ain’t all bad.
I want to return to shame’s possibilities, then. Shame stunts, pushes, destroys, forms, and also serves as an affective force that has the potential to ignite the “queer imagination” and move queers towards resistance. It has been the case in my own life that shame, even in its most intense and brutalizing formations, has forced me into uncomfortable spaces (both fictive and material) that kindled my imagination. Whether in a church where I sat under the sound of a verbose and brash sermon that likened me to “Satan” or on 13th Street in Philly where I visibly hid in search of love and sex, shame moved me to rethink the world and to move in the direction of its re-creation.
As a writer, this queer imaginary has proved useful because in it I have often discovered the languages and images necessary for my survival. I have written words that have enlivened me and, in some cases, others. For instance, I will always remember receiving one heartrending note from a person who read an essay that I published on PrettyQueer.com that explored my personal struggle with suicidal feelings. The note read (and I paraphrase):
Thank you for writing this essay. I have been considering suicide and while I do not know what tomorrow may bring, I decided to live today.
The reader seemingly found hope in words that had been birthed by shame. Shame moved me, in those instances, to body forth revelations. I wrote what I envisioned, namely, the moving forward of our bodies in life and not death, the limitlessness of our spirits, the articulating and actualizing of radical politics by communities, the fashioning of different modes of being, and the making of new and just worlds in futures of endless possibility. And shame, surprisingly, produced this queer imaginary and the resistance necessary to actualize it, at least in those moments.
Darnell L. Moore is a writer/activist whose work is informed by anti-racist, feminist, queer of color, and anti-colonial thought and advocacy. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. This essay was originally presented in the form of a public presentation as part of a panel titled “Exploring Queer Shame,” which was graciously hosted by the Kelly Writer’s House at The University of Pennsylvania on October 2, 2012.