Queer Excellence in Culture
I’ve joked (half-joked, at least) often that “queers just do it better.” And there are certain social stereotypes that perpetuate this idea: think of the hit Netflix remake of Queer Eye. Five queer-identified men come to revise and reinvigorate the lives of other men (mostly straight, but one fellow gay in Episode 4) by working their collective queer magic. Each man’s status as an expert in his domain—grooming, fashion, culture, design, and cooking (or, really, strategic avocado placement)—seems to be, at least according to the idea of the show, somewhat due to his queerness. Beyond the show, it isn’t uncommon to think of gay men, especially, as cultured, refined people with peculiar knowledge of and access to that which is cool or beautiful. Queer Excellence, then, in some ways is living well.
We’ve seen Queer Excellence on display during the Winter Olympics, where our darling “glamazon bitch” Adam Rippon twirled his way into our hearts and into critical political discourse. Rippon’s song (one of those showstoppers that brings the audience to their feet as the diva gives it her all) of Queer Excellence reached an Olympic pitch as Rippon won a medal, blending athletics and artistry, recognized internationally. His version of queerness—femme, fabulous, and sequined—challenged singular versions of masculinity in a way that made everyone take note. His excellence—both in athletics and in performing queerness—gave him a particular opportunity to connect, to communicate, and to leverage his Queer Excellence for elevating discussions important to queer folk.
On the big screen, we’ve seen Queer Excellence on display this past year with Call Me By Your Name, a film adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel, being a nominee for the Academy Award for Best Picture. This nomination comes on the heels of another film with queer content, Moonlight’s, receiving the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture. Moonlight is based on a play by out gay playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney, who won a Macarthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2013 at only 33 years old. So we see Queer Excellence continuing to shape the artistic and cultural landscape of what we consume and consider.
In these examples I’ve given thus far, “Queer Excellence” is someone queer-identified doing something excellent and receiving recognition for, first, being queer, and, second, doing something excellent. This idea is similar to what I’ve seen with regard to the idea of “Black Excellence” over the past several years. Of course, both of these ideas come with complications as well as celebration, and some questions seem to be What compels members of marginalized groups to strive for excellence? and Is there a relationship between blackness or queerness and a need to be recognized as excellent?
Queer Excellence Now: Part I
These past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be queer—both as an “identity” that aids in finding community and also as a positionality that works against stable identity formation. What I mean by that: “Queer” can be deployed variously. Using the word as an identity marker can be politically and socially useful: it’s a way for people to find others who share experiences. But some argue that forming a queer identity is a move towards assimilation into a culture that is unjust and oppressive. This act of identification could, then, be seen as capitulation to dominance. Some definitions of queerness suggest that the idea of stable identity construction leads to normalization and, by extension, marginalization and oppression. All of these questions have come up during a Queer Literature and Theory seminar I’m teaching to seniors at Western Reserve Academy.
One of The Academy’s three “core values” is also excellence (alongside integrity and compassion). And I think that these three core values are ideals we can all get behind. As a prep school, we strive to prepare students to excel in college and beyond. Besides a demanding curriculum and many extracurricular and leadership opportunities, one crucial way to prepare students for a life richly lived is by having our community be diverse in many different ways. We’re a global community of different nationalities, ethnicities, religions, classes, races, values, genders, and—as I’d like to focus here—sexualities. I am an out gay faculty member, and we have several out queer students. So it’s safe to say that queerness and excellence are intertwined here at school.
I’ve been thinking of Queer Excellence at school the past two months, mainly because of two speeches given in front of the whole school by two members of my Queer Literature and Theory course. A tradition at The Academy is for seniors to give a speech; oftentimes, they can be exactly what you might think—reflective, nice, and a bit (or a lot) cliché. Occasionally, though, there’s a speech that everyone feels is resonant and important. You’re always proud of these speakers—they’re brave and putting themselves out there for the full community. But, rarer, I’d say are we impressed, recognizing the “excellence” of what we’ve heard.
Several weeks ago, just after a weekend-long student production of The Laramie Project, a student of mine stood to give his speech in our school’s chapel. He had just finished acting in the play, and he was reflecting on how powerful that experience was—not only for him, but for the full cast. The play showcased the danger that queerness can pose for a person and that hate taken to an extreme can lead to death and community destruction. Then, in the midst of his powerful call for acceptance and inclusion, he came out as gay. Having seen his speech in advance, I was a nervous wreck for him, experiencing all the symptoms that escalate to a panic attack. He’s the type of student that people—students and adults alike—pay attention to, and I knew that this exposure of something so personal was not an easy decision. But here he was, heart chakra forward, telling his truth. But a minute after he made this revelation, the room stood and applauded…for his Queer Excellence.
I am not suggesting that our community is one of universal acceptance of queerness. I am confident that this student, having recently come out, will be called names, misjudged, and mistreated by some of those same people who applauded him. I am confident, too, that people in that room whom he loves will hurt him unintentionally. But even the biggest cynic or bigot there that morning could not help but recognize the eloquence, composure, and elegance that was on display. As he stepped off the stage, I wondered what he felt. I do hope that it was love more than fear; relief more than anxiety—that whatever shame or guilt he harbored melted away like the snow did later that week.
Anxiety was something that another of my students—this one openly gay and widely respected for his leadership with regard to LGBTQ+ inclusion—mentioned in his senior speech last week. He painted the picture of waiting to hear about his early decision application to his dream college. When he found out he got in, he talked about feeling sad more than anything. He then wondered if all the sleepless nights, his hair loss from stress in the preceding weeks, the series of panic attacks he suffered were worth it. He said he felt alone. That’s about the moment I’m pretty sure I could have expired or melted or turned to ash. There was absolutely no joy in his Queer Excellence—getting into one of the world’s best and most selective schools, achieving what we all want our students to achieve: admission to his dream school. There was no joy in his show of pride that, in my opinion, made this community more loving, more excellent and compassionate.
I walked with a colleague and dear friend back to my car, and I just sat there for a few minutes. And I suppose I’m still there sitting with him in a full silence that comes when you know something is deeply sad, true, and important. A few things came to me, and I tried to voice these to my friend, on the drive to our classrooms while Messiah played in the background. First, I felt guilty and a profound regret for the darker side of pushing for what is perceived as excellence—for this student in particular and for many others. I don’t take enough time to stress the importance of happiness and fulfillment in my students’ lives, but instead equate excellence with achievement. Secondly, he talked about the opportunity cost that comes with the work to be excellent: happiness, community, little moments of bliss. Dedicating oneself to the work of being academically, athletically, and otherwise excellent takes time and often does not leave time for self-care, for nourishment of a different sort. Finally, what he said onstage was an eloquent, emotional call to recognize the darker side of Queer Excellence in my own life. I know the stress of feeling that, because you are queer, you must achieve excellence to validate your existence. I know the feeling of being less than—internalizing that—and then making that part of the reason that perfection is the rule. I know the process of learning that love, acceptance, and defeating gay shame is, indeed, excellence beyond measure.
Queer Excellence Then
When I knew that I was gay (junior high), I viewed that as something wrong, sinful, a defect. But I reasoned that, if I were perfect in every other way (I know—naïve), if I embodied the Latin motto—Excellentia—of my school, then I would be acceptable and worthy of being loved. How this manifested itself: each assignment was well done, and I didn’t accept a report card that had anything below an A+. Imagine a hormonal gay boy channeling all of his latent desire into the most beautiful 3-D model of a cell or simple harmonic motion lab reports that were nothing short of (as my students would say) “extra.” It’s safe to say that everything was “a huge deal,” “epic,” or “full-throttle.”
I still remember my school’s grading scale: 95-96, A-; 97-98, A; 99-100, A+. For me, amidst my gay shame, I knew that I had to be better to validate my presence. In academic competitions, I wanted to be at the top. If there were leadership positions to be had, I would seek them. I remember receiving my SAT score report, where I saw that I had missed one math question; I thought very seriously about retaking it so that it could be perfect.
Every minute of the day was scheduled, and I had a rich life of the mind; I got everything I possibly could out of the programming at my high school. I achieved and then achieved some more. I felt that accumulating a resume of honors shielded me from potential rejection by my family and friends. I felt that, even if I were rejected by my family or friends because of being gay, that my Queer Excellence would help me find my way and move forward. I felt that if I kept myself busy enough, I wouldn’t have time to desire a relationship or sex or intimacy of any kind. I built a great wall of achievement.
When I started college—undeniably having achieved a tremendous amount—I had sophomore standing, more scholarship money than could legally be paid to me, and a lot of time on my hands even though I was taking 21 hours of credit. That’s when I really had to grapple with being queer—in the silence of a dorm room or library—and I withered with fear. But even that withering under fear did not affect my performance academically, which, in some ways, is a manifestation of queerness. If you are queer, you learn to perform—to conceal, to pass and, later, to perform as queer, to perform as oneself. Even as I was suffering, I played the part of put-together scholar.
The second semester of my freshman year of college, I began to come out to friends. I couldn’t sustain the performance any longer, and I craved the ability to be open, to share with others who I was, to build a community that wasn’t based on half-truths. Side note: No one (or very few) was surprised. Later, during graduate school, I came out to my family. Maybe, I finally felt that I had achieved enough, had earned enough honors to balance the ledger sheet against the gigantic debit of my queerness. Gay shame had turned me (a writer) into an accountant. You would think that that feeling of needing to be perfect and to achieve would go away once most people seemed to accept me for being gay.
Instead, though, the years following those first ventures into truth will look something like this: vacillating between feeling powerful and powerless. I’ll have to come to relearn again and again that what I thought was the nature of love wasn’t accurate…that with all of the knowledge I’d accumulated I hadn’t scratched the surface on love. I’ll also have to learn to become vulnerable and honest. I’ll have to work to invite people to see me, to be with me, to know me. I’ll have to figure out what Queer Excellence really is, that maybe it lies in showing love without needing someone to prove worthy through achievement. I’ll have to figure out that maybe Queer Excellence is allowing myself to be loved not because I’ve achieved enough to deserve it but because I am who I am.
Queer Excellence Now: Part II
I have been a teacher now for ten years, and I have always been thinking about how my own queerness plays a role in who I am as a teacher. The answer is that it affects everything I do, how I think, and how I know. Too, Queer Excellence as a teacher looks a lot different for me than Queer Excellence as a student. While a student, I thought that achievement would be make me worthy to be loved—that the “excellence” would eclipse or neutralize the “queer.” Now, I see these two ideas embrace: queerness continues to challenge what I view as excellence; excellence continues to make me revisit my understanding of queerness.
This semester, I began the Queer Literature and Theory seminar by taking a look at Jose Esteban Munoz’s introduction to Cruising Utopia in which he says that queerness is about possibility and futurity. That’s my belief, too, about education and one of the principle reasons I love teaching students at boarding schools. Here’s what bell hooks says in Teaching to Transgress, “The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.” I see the classroom as a queer space and the roles of teachers and students as queer ones—they dwell in possibility; they are performed and constantly shifting.
What I want most for my students is that sense of freedom—to be, do, act, love, and speak as they must. And, yes, to feel worthy to do so not because they have achieved enough, paid enough, or are privileged enough but because their presence, their being in the world, as the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty says, “condemns [them/us] to meaning.” Queer Excellence, for me as a teacher, means creating opportunities for students to read themselves and the world in order to find sufficient voice and meaning—to embrace that freedom that comes from feeling loved unconditionally. Embracing that freedom and understanding themselves as people of meaning and consequence, in essence, is another type of coming out. It’s a coming out of shame. Here’s more from bell hooks, this time from Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope:
When education as the practice of freedom is affirmed in schools and colleges we can move beyond shame to a place of recognition that is humanizing. Shame dehumanizes. There can be no better place than the classroom, that setting where we invite students to open their minds and think beyond all boundaries to challenge, confront, and change the hidden trauma of shame. We do this by enacting a politics of affirmation where difference is accorded respect and all voices deemed worthy. As teachers we can make the classroom a place where we help students come out of shame.
I would add to that: it is also a space where teachers come out of shame and into a more hopeful, even queerer Queer Excellence. Part of that recipe is listening to and watching students claim their truths, lay bare their hearts, and speak their minds. Part of that recipe is recognizing the magic and brilliance of your students that rises to the level of wisdom. Part of that recipe is gratitude that you’ve learned enough to forgive and to love yourself, to free yourself from shame so that you can recognize the joy and hope of Queer Excellence in others.
Douglas Ray is author of a collection of poems, He Will Laugh (Lethe, 2012), and editor of The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. He earned his B.A. in classics and English and M.F.A. in creative writing from The University of Mississippi. He lives and teaches at Western Reserve Academy, an independent boarding school in Hudson, OH.