How to come out at the end of queer community

Last month, queer discourse on social media was consumed by a post addressed to ‘baby gays’. Its thrust: young queers who spend all of their time online, having endless arguments over the ‘correct’ use of an increasingly complicated and ever-shifting array of labels for endless sub-sets of queer identity, are ignoring the long, messy history of queerness – a history where those labels quickly begin to fall apart. ‘Go outside’, the post implored, pointing to pride events (and an ‘LGBTQIA dungeon’) as spaces where encounters with older queers could expose young queers to diverse and conflicting expressions of queerness.

The charge read as follows:

Instead of appreciating the wide diversity of people who exist in the LGBT community who are brave enough to share themselves you’ll just be formulating posts and tweets in your head for when you get home about how “problematic” it all was and it’s honestly tragic.

The post was shared with fervour by queers young and old. They, we, expressed our frustration at this apparent obsession with language over some more grounded connection to the past and present lives of queer people. Queerness seems to have been reduced to an endless series of labels to be dreamed up, applied and policed; transformed into something abstract, rather than lived.

Discussions like these speak to a growing generational divide in online queer discourse, as young queers online perform dizzying linguistic experiments in queer identity, impenetrable to anyone on the outside. I want to be careful here about how I talk about what the kids are doing – I’m very aware that, if we really want to know, we should just ask them. This generation didn’t choose to grow up in the social media age, nor did they choose to live through a global pandemic that has made online interaction a lifeline. But reflecting on these unfamiliar practices, I do want to try and situate my own responses to them in a historical and political context, and consider their possible consequences beyond the moralising claims that young queers don’t understand what ‘real’ queerness is.

When I think about these questions, I remember a story I wrote years ago when I was a journalist for the Star Observer, an LGBTIQ community publication, about the 40th anniversary of the Metropolitan Community Church in Australia. The MCC, as it’s known, was originally established in the United States as a haven for gay and lesbian Christians who had been rejected by their own congregations.

As part of the story, I interviewed Peter, a gay man who had been attending MCC Sydney for over thirty years. I asked an obvious question: how had his congregation changed over the years? He told me that, for the first time in the history of the congregation, a significant proportion of newcomers who were under thirty were also what he called ‘unchurched’. Rather than seeking out the MCC after rejection from another church, these young queers had never been associated with a church of any kind.

I asked Peter why, and he told me:

I’m fifty-eight years old. I grew up in the 70s and the 80s and it was just an amazing time. But these young guys [are lacking a real] sense of community. When I was their age I had a gay dentist, I had a gay doctor, I had a gay accountant for my taxes – everything was gay. With HIV/AIDS that all fell apart, and so the community today, the gay kids today, don’t have that type of gay community.

The implication is that, without community, young queers had nothing to come out into. For Peter and perhaps other queers coming of age before the AIDS crisis, coming out was a process of enculturation into a specific community. Rather than simply something you said, it meant learning to be gay in a specific place and time, and importantly, learning how to do that from other people who had learned it before you. Without access to that process, the act of coming out becomes abstracted to, effectively, a speech act, absent any social contextualisation. I can say: ‘I’m gay,’ but then what? What does that mean, and to whom?

Speaking to this point, Peter said of the unchurched queers coming to the MCC: ‘I think they’re looking for something that gives them an idea of how they should act, what they should be.’

While Peter focused on the destruction of queer communities during the AIDS crisis, the past forty years have also seen the steady dismantling of community under neoliberal models of capitalism. The march towards ‘acceptance’ has also meant the incorporation of queers (or some queers, at least) into labour markets as productive members of society. These economic and political shifts have moved queerness away from communities and into the private domain of the home, as individuals and family units.

Queer theorist Michael Warner has written about this shift, focusing in particular on the ways that public policy has destroyed former sites of queer sexual expression such as bars and beats, limiting possibilities for enacting queerness in public space. In his 1999 book The Trouble with Normal, Warner brings the neoliberal turn and its effects on queer communities into focus alongside the legacy of the AIDS crisis, framing both historical forces as fuelling a generational divide. He argues: ‘Since the most painfully instructed generation has been decimated by death, the queer culture of the present faces more than the usual shortfall in memory.’

Warner was making these arguments more than twenty years ago. However, while the impacts of the AIDS crisis and neoliberalism have been disconnecting young queers from community and history for decades now, social media has played a fundamental role in shaping the focus on language and identification online currently under fire in these online debates. Social media requires a constant self-making through self-narration that fuels the abstraction of queerness into infinite fractals of queer nomenclature. In other words, what we’re seeing online may be something new, but it also represents the acceleration of an intergenerational divide set in motion decades ago.

With few places left to find the kind of social contextualisation that might help us learn how to be queer beyond a set of linguistic expressions of identity, what can young queers do, let alone the rest of us? Those annoyed by the ‘baby gays’ online pointed to an apparent failure to engage with the ‘reality’ of queer communities and histories, but what are their options for doing so? How do we become queer in the face of the dismantling of actually existing queer community?

The term itself, ‘community’, has become contested within queer discourse, and is now largely stripped of meaning through the emergence of professionalised LGBTIQ not-for-profit organisations. (I should say here that I have worked in these organisations for many years.) When we say queer community, what we usually mean now is demographic.

In short, there are endless good reasons to seek queer meaning in the kinds of discussions of language and identity young queers are having online, from the intergenerational erasure of the AIDS crisis to neoliberalism’s dismantling of community and the emergence of professionalised queerness. The flood of criticism of young queers online does reflect a genuine shift in the ways we make ourselves and our identities, but it is unreasonable to expect young queers to find meaning in the present or the past unless we are willing to make something for them to find.

These communities do exist. I wrote last year about Sydney’s legendary queer party Kooky, and one of the reasons I think there is such an amazing community surrounding the party is its genuine age diversity – eighteen-year-olds can bump shoulders with queers in their 60s. This is rare in queer spaces, and in contributions from young queers to the discussion online, I saw many who said they wanted the opportunity to get to know older queers but didn’t know how. A few years ago, I tried (with mixed success) to create similar opportunities for queers to connect with our histories by setting up a reading group that focused on short, radical queer texts published over the past seventy years.

The past year has made queer community feel like an even more elusive idea. But we can, I hope, still find new and creative ways to build spaces where we can connect across generations, and where we can continue learning how to be queer.


Image by Luis Villasmil

Benjamin Riley

Benjamin Riley is a Sydney-based writer and researcher interested in queer politics, HIV and the legacies of the AIDS crisis. He also works in public health policy, with a focus on HIV and sexual health. You can follow him on Twitter at @bencriley.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Such an interesting read. As a young person who has only come out as queer in the past 2 years (corona central) it has been difficult to find community and a sense of belonging. I certainly relate to the feeling of ‘Now what?’ Ironically I too have found queer community through a queer inclusive church. It’s good to hear about the background of all this. Thanks!

  2. This was a lovely read, and straddled the line really nicely between thoughtful analysis/critique of ‘the abstraction of queerness into infinite fractals of nomenclature’, and genuine empathy for why this may be occurring. It’s definitely made me re-evaluate the role queer community plays in our lives.

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