Kyle Bella

Feeling Backward into 2012

Filed By Kyle Bella | December 30, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: 2011 roundup, David Wojnarowicz, Heather Love, HIV/AIDS, LGBT solidarity, Mark Doty, queer critique, We Were Here

As I sit in my house in Philadelphia, I'm ready to say good-bye to 2011. I've struggled for a while to put coherent thoughts together: not because they weren't there, but because this year has, in no uncertain terms, broken-reflection.jpgredefined the way I live and interact with the world around me.

Back on March 11th, while walking down 13th Street in New York City to make a trip to the High Line with a friend visiting from out of town, I was punched three times in the face by an unknown assailant, in circumstances that remain unresolved and fit into a larger pattern of anti-queer violence occurring at the time. The assault resulted in three fractures, and required facial reconstructive surgery and a two month recovery window.

Though I have healed, and my face now is virtually indistinguishable from my face before, the memory of the incident itself and the subsequent recovery lingers in my mind. Sometimes walking the streets and having someone rush up behind me sets my heart racing, or I recollect, in quiet, contemplative moments, how I had to force myself out of bed to once again walk the streets that poet Mark Doty so aptly describes as "gorgeous, inescapable, and on fire."

But I did force myself out of bed and as uncomfortable as it was sitting along the glass wall of the Union Square Whole Foods, I sat there confronting my past and how I struggled to define myself beyond the anti-queer violence that continues to run rampant in this country despite otherwise significant legal reforms. But I did so only because I had a history of struggle at my fingertips that has been drawn into the present in very noticeable ways. This constitutes the framework for moving forward into 2012.

An Underground Legacy

Before exploring that framework, allow me to backtrack to October 2010, which is when I first saw the Hide/Seek exhibit at the Smithsonian, which would later become famous for its removal of the David Wojnarowicz video "A Fire In My Belly." The exhibit, though it often fails to include people of color and women in its representations, is a powerful retracing of an often underground legacy of artistic expression in the face of vehement opposition. But I am also grateful to the exhibit for turning me on to Wojanorwicz's Waterfront Journals.

Just a few days before the assault in early March of this year, as I sunk into a bench along a pathway of Fort Greene Park, I had a copy of Waterfront Journals in the purple tote bag that would be bloodied as I tumbled to the pavement on 13th Street. As I do almost every time before opening the book, I remember pausing at the image of the man on the cover: his flesh is a map of the city and he seems to scream and run while massive flames billow from his back.

I've never seen a more appropriate cover image. The conversations in the pages cover a string of horrors ranging from poverty, homelessness and suicide attempts to homophobia and sexual assault. Despite these horrors, however, there is a sense that some invisible force runs through the fire, flailing as it struggles to make the margins of society more visible for everyone to see. I remember penning an imagined conversation to Wojnarowicz that day, which ended with the words, "run run run run run."

The Cost of Visibility

As June and July melted together in the summer heat, the memory of my assault seemed to dissipate until a moment toward the end of July when I was walking down into the tunnel at 13th Street Station in Philadelphia. As I was walking I approached a group of teenagers who called me "faggot" and, as they walked away in the opposite direction, suggested I be beaten because I was queer. It was an uncanny moment of realizing that because of the way I dress, talk, and what my interests are, I continue to be threatened by violence on an almost daily basis.

Now, as winter has finally arrived and the passage of time feels so pronounced, and I'm confronted by every experience that has happened this year, I struggle to make sense of these thoughts because my view of the world has completely shifted. The struggles to gain access to health care, stable employment, education, and a sense of freedom and affirmation are explicitly queer struggles, but they are also struggles that extend explicitly into non-queer spaces - particularly in communities of color that remain controlled by virulently racist rhetoric and institutional policy.

But I also paused because the weight of these social problems is tremendous. 2011 was, no doubt, a moment of startling visibility for LGBT individuals in institutional settings. However, the consequence of this visibility was some of the strongest anti-queer backlash I remember seeing. From the "Don't Say Gay" bill in Tennessee to the visibility of religious fundamentalist organizations at home and abroad, it's clear institutional policy alone will not change this opposition or strengthen connections among queer individuals and between queer and non-queer groups.

To build this community, we need to be more open and honest about what we want and desire from our government, others within our communities, and the rich history of past struggle I mined to move beyond difficult moments in the present. Exactly how we can do this depends on local concerns since queer people live radically different lives depending upon their location (geographical region, urban or non-urban, etc.). But the truth is that we need to be more frank about our origins, and our struggles to realize what is it we find pleasurable.

Feeling Backward

Thinking of pleasure brings me to my favorite film of the year, Weekend. An indie hit, it tells the story of two 20-something men who meet one night at a gay bar in Nottingham and form an intense connection that is broken apart by a series of unexpected circumstances. Some critics have tried to peg it as a romance, but that's inadequate to describe the frankness it uses to talk not about sex but how, as an act of connectedness, it is realized. Weekend is often subtle, but the complexities in the narrative are evident with a little bit of patience, and force the viewer to redefine their expectations while questioning their own experiences.

I bring this film up because it offers an important reminder for doing what University of Pennsylvania professor Heather Love calls "feeling backward" into 2012. As the connection between these two men develops, they work to retrace their past to see how it influences the way they feel about each other. In an age where we are confronted by queer images, queer sexuality, and queer love, we continue to largely forge into the future without talking collectively about the images we are creating.

2011, in honoring the legacy of 30 years of struggling against AIDS, did achieve moments where it felt backward. From honoring Wojnarowicz throughout the art world, to reviving Angels in America, and the release of the brilliant documentary We Were Here by David Weissman, there were moments where the past felt more present than ever. But anniversaries are not the only times where this type of remembrance is important. 2012 is not a year of anniversary, but as an election year, it offers the more politically potent moment to feel back into queer past, and proclaim, "We are united in disavowing violence against anyone who doesn't fit the heteronormative, white, male image. And here is what we are going to do to stop this violence."

In 2011, violence showed its ability to negate, destroy and take life. The memory of what those punches back in March tried to take from me have not gone away. But in 2012, let's create something new by honoring the legacy of what has been destroyed, and the force that continues to say, "run run run run run."


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