A queer ‘we’?
by Linn Marie Tonstad
In human life, no one gets what they deserve. Life ends in death. In that regard, we’re all in the same boat, together in our separation.
All having is loss. Yet, to move as a mortal body that knows it will die is to have life itself, and life abundant.
No one gets what they deserve, but everyone deserves better than what they get. No one gets what they deserve: the damage I have done to others, or connived at, is never quite brought home to my doorstep. To get what I de- serve would destroy me if it were calculated ac- cording to guilt, fault, and debt. To get what we deserve would destroy the possibility of us, for we cannot survive that calculus. But to get more than we deserve might set us free: from desert, from the logic of merit, but also free for relations beyond calculation, for a justice outside the law of responsibility, consequence, and blame.
We work against unjust deaths, but where do we go to rage against death itself? A world without death is not something we can work for (for the denial of death is the denial of life), but nonetheless we long for more than this, for ourselves and for each other.
Even if a good death is the only ultimate bodily mercy, there are mercies that aren’t ultimate: local mercies, moments of respite, an unexpected smile or fuck, a kindness. In a state of emergency, when do we get to ask what life is worth living, and what, beyond mere survival, we are living for? As Audre Lorde said, some of us were never meant to survive (from the poem “A Litany for Survival,” 1978). And mere survival is not enough: we want more. When survival is all some of us are offered, and others of us not even that, it is time to demand more, much more—pressed down and running over.
In a time when life together means bodily life apart, a queer “we” must demand much more than this. To preserve the possibility of “we,” we have had to distance ourselves from each other in the ways that matter most. But life apart is for the sake of life together; with- out life together, life apart is not life. Life apart shows us its impossibility, for life apart is unsustainable. The life to come must reflect what we are learning. Our need for each other remains, regardless of our desire, and our desire is for each other. Who will we become?
To be a queer “we” means not knowing who we are nor who we might become. We have thrown ourselves willingly, riskily, desperately into the space of possibility. We have discovered our desire, trusted it, and been overmastered by it. A queer “we” should be a threat to civilization as we know it, or as we knew it. Since the formation of a “we” always inaugurates a “they,” a queer “we” must be formed aslant. A queer “we” cannot come from sameness, inclusion, or recognition. A queer “we” takes shape against the systems that produce sameness, inclusion, and recognition as their only possible ideals.
So, who is for us, and who is against us? Queer, the identity, can always form a “we” by distinction and distance: “We are not like those queers over there. We are not a threat. We are good citizens who simply want to love our families, for love is love.” But queer, the polit- ical position, cannot form a “we” in the same way. As a political position, a queer “we” forms around those who have had the choice made for them: the unassimilable. Queer, as a political position, stands with those who don’t have the choice to conform or to belong, and not with those whose nonconformity can be turned on or off at will. As a political position, queer is not a romantic ideal of individual dissent but a find- ing oneself alongside others who never had the option to walk through the door of inclusion, respectability, and power.
To speak is to risk—to speak for “us” even more so—but all risks are not the same. Insurance companies are in the business of quantifying risk; a queer “we” is not. It is difficult to hold these insights together, but to opt for one over the other is an unsurvivable con- cession to the demands of transparency, legibility, the calculable. A queer “we” refuses the demands of respectability and productivity, even though some queers want these same ideals. Therefore, a queer “we” is not inclusive; a queer “we” knows that enmity and antagonism are real.
A queer “we” reflects an ethics in which antagonism is never overcome, even as we learn that we are already in relations that destroy us and remake us. A queer “we” knows that life together includes death and loss, that the body that lives is the body that dies. And because death is the necessary end, a queer “we” fights and grieves and works for the life of the body that is so much more than survival, so much more than living, and going on.
Instead of reproducing what already is, a queer “we” finds another option. As queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid puts it, “Queers are searching for God’s nipples and soft lips and trying to bite them in oblique ways in order to achieve some oblique transcendence in their lives” (The Queer God, 2003, 49). And so, we become a queer “we,” a “we” of strangers and the estranged.
Linn Marie Tonstad teaches Christian theology and gender and sexuality studies at Yale Divinity School. She is the author of two books: God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude (Routledge, 2016) and Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics (Cascade Books, 2018).