The English monarch Elizabeth I has always fascinated me – particularly in the way that she is sometimes held up as an example of a strong woman in a position of power – a feminist icon. It fascinates me because, where she alive today, Elizabeth would have been appalled at the idea of being called a feminist. Her opinion of women in general can be best summed up with one of her most iconic and famous speeches, delivered to her troops in the face of impending invasion:
‘I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too”.
Elizabeth did nothing in her long reign to improve the standing of women in her society, rather her approach to her own womanhood was to distance herself from it – she might be a woman, but according to her own understanding of her identity, she was not like a regular woman. She was an exception to the rule which is that woman are weak and feeble. Leaving aside any other (incredibly valid) accusation history may have against her (reigning over a brutal, genocidal expansionist empire or the licensing and legitimizing the horrors of 16th century piracy for example), her legacy as a staunch supporter of the patriarchal norms of her society should, I would think, disqualify her from being lionized as a feminist role model. She did not believe she was worthy of respect because she was a woman, but that she deserved respect because she was better than other woman, that women as a rule were weak and feeble, and that she was an exception.
Although you might find it hard to believe, (particularly if you know me personally or have read anything I have ever written), there was a time when I subscribed to the Elizabeth I school of identity. A much younger me who was not yet quite comfortable with my own queerness sought to gain respect through exceptionality. Frankly, most people in my life knew I was gay well before I did, having had all the hallmark indications in my speech, interests, mannerisms and behaviour. I knew there would be no escaping from or hiding my queerness, but it took me a very long time to own it, and before I owned it, I put a lot of work into styling myself as an exception. I made elaborate shows of my interest in music and media that was fairly hostile to queer inclusion, and was ostentatiously disinterested in what I perceived to be the common interests of gay men. I had no time for shopping, or musicals, or diva worship. I was gay, certainly, but I was not gay like that. I was told frequently by the predominantly straight friends I surrounded myself with that I was valued to them because even though I was gay, I was not ‘in your face about it’. I took that as the highest praise whenever it was given to me. My sexual partners too were largely straight-identified, expressing that they felt comfortable with our hookups because they could never play with someone who was ‘gay like that‘. Looking back, I find it interesting that the social construct of a gay man was what made these men uncomfortable – not actually the idea of gay sex but of the idea of being around someone who they thought of as less-than a man.
One time at a party, a young woman who I did not know, upon learning that I was gay latched onto me and tried to GBF me – she talked about going shopping together and playing dress-up and all the stereotypes that some straight woman fantasize about doing with a gay friend. I was horrified, not because of the assumptions being made about gay men and our assumed enthusiasm for being a straight woman’s pet, but rather that she would think I was like that, that I was one of ‘them‘. I was not. I might have the body of a weak and feeble faggot, but I have the heart and stomach of a guy who likes mosh pits, whiskey and bold cigarettes.
This effort to put distance between myself and my queerness was unsustainable. Whatever the perks of being an exceptional gay are, the cost is high, and it was much higher than my mental health could afford. The primary benefit of being considered exceptional is feeling included by a large part of our society that is usually hostile to people like us. The cost is being surrounded by and reminded of that hostility on a regular basis.
When you are a ‘safe’ gay, you are considered inoffensive but also subjected to a full, unedited and deep look into what that crowd does find offensive. You are privy to their undiluted homophobia in the form of jokes they might be uncomfortable telling in front of a ‘one of those kind of gays’, but ‘you know I am not talking about you right? You aren’t like that at all’. Or maybe the joke is at your expense, but they are only making it because they know you are cool and won’t get offended like a less-exceptional homo might. ‘I may have the body of a weak and feeble queer, but I have the sense of humour of the oppressive majority”.
My life as an exceptional gay was short lived and long ago – I have since grown into an unrepentantly outrageous and defiant queer. But that desire to transcend what we perceive to be shortcomings, rather than to break down the systems of oppression that would ask us to do so is a reality so many of us live in. The things that we believe make us exceptional gays are often the traits we are the most proud of – take a stroll through your local Grindr grid and you will find no end to the number of queers flaunting their self-perception of their ‘least-gay’ characteristics, positioning these things as what makes them better than the rest, be it their status as an exclusive top, their love of cars/sports/beer, their disinterest in the ‘scene’, their muscles, their mascness (4 mascness of course), so many of us lead with the implicit ‘but’. I may have the proclivities of a weak and feeble gay boy, but I have interests, characteristics, and traits that make me an exception to the things that makes other gay boys weak and feeble’.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that to be a real gay you need to live up to every stereotype – far from it. I still enjoy mosh pits, whiskey and (regrettably, still) bold cigarettes. I also don’t understand pop music, couldn’t care less about musical theatre, and hate shopping for clothes more than I hate going to the dentist. The thing that has changed is that I have stopped buying into the narratives of a society that tells me that those things aren’t for queers and have folded all of the things that make me an individual into my queer identity. I have stopped believing that I am weak and feeble and have something to prove to a world that values toxic masculinity above all else. I have lost the ‘but’ and replaced it with an ‘and’ – the things that make me me do not make me better than other gays, our queerness is not something we need to transcend. Because we are already exceptional – living your life as a queer person in this world is an act of resistance – it makes you a hero every morning you wake up and say ‘I am still here, still queer, and still not going anywhere’. We are not weak, we are not feeble, we have the hearts and stomachs of warriors, and warriors that don’t need to apologize to the heteronormative patriarchy for our queerness, too.