I feel at peace with myself and enjoy my life a lot nowadays, which struck me as a bit odd the other day. Part of that odd feeling I think stems from themes I have noticed crop up consistently in fiction about gay men’s lives: persistent self-loathing and engaging in unhealthy relationships. Some popular titles that include these themes include Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman, Real Life by Brandon Taylor, and Memorial by Bryan Washington. The queer protagonists of these novels possess deep insecurities, date men who mistreat them, and lack self-awareness about their intrapersonal and interpersonal patterns.
I am not suggesting that these stories are unimportant or that artists should only portray happy, healthy queer men in their work. Gay men – especially gay men with additional marginalized identities related to race, fatness, femininity, and more – go through a lot of oppression and it’s important to capture that oppression and its effects. I acknowledge the power and compassion of honoring people’s pain without trying to force them into healing or more positive emotional states right away. Especially in light of the AIDS crisis in the United States and how the government’s mishandling of that situation killed many queer artists and queer people in general, I feel grateful for the presence of queer art and how that art exists in a heteronormative world.
At the same time, I feel annoyed when these stories about queer pain receive the most publicity or popularity compared to art that promotes queer joy and healing. While I recognize the importance of honoring queer pain, I often also notice that some people glorify the suffering in novels like Call Me by Your Name and Real Life. I have read reviews and reactions to these books that describe the characters’ pain and their relationships as beautiful, as testaments to the power of love, and other laudatory phrases. I find this praise problematic especially because these novels feature explicitly unhealthy relational behaviors that I hope we can all strive to avoid perpetuating in our own lived relationships. While we can avoid forcing characters to seek healing if they do not feel ready for it, I also hope we can acknowledge that misery in and of itself is not redemptive or worthy of veneration. In fact, limiting queer characters to their suffering without any possibility of self-growth or self-love strikes me as just as, if not more flattening and oppressive than only calling for queer characters’ happiness.
When I think about how much I love myself, I suspect my loads of self-love stem in large part from my female and feminist role models. For example, as a kid I really identified with Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender and how she worked through the trauma she experienced in her childhood and while strengthening her waterbending skill, all while still maintaining her warmth and nurturance. I also vibed a lot with Raven from Teen Titans, who had a traumatizing relationship with one of her parents and over time developed a more healthful relationship with her emotions with the help of her friends. Of course, as anyone who reads this blog knows I try to follow in the footsteps of Caroline Knapp, a writer who advocated for thinking deeply about oneself, going to therapy, and loving yourself regardless of external factors like your body’s size or if men find you attractive or dateable. While these girls and women experienced a lot of pain in their lives, they also sought out opportunities for self-growth, as well as healthy relationships with themselves and others.
I guess I write this post to alleviate my own slight guilt for feeling happy and fulfilled on the day to day now as a queer Asian American man. While I want to grow in certain areas and will always have more work to do to contribute to social justice, I also want to honor how things in my life are pretty good right now. I love myself and treat myself with self-compassion, I feel connected with close and healthy friendships, and I recognize a male romantic partner may or may not ever emerge in my life and I’m gonna thrive regardless. I don’t need some super intense angst-provoking relationship for my life to feel compelling, nor do I have to experience consistent or even somewhat consistent self-loathing to feel secure in my Gaysian identity. I’m reading books on my couch, listening to BlackPink and Twice while typing away on my laptop, and looking forward to visiting my close friends in-person in mid-May. I’m doing well, really.
How do you feel about pain and suffering portrayed in fiction, especially if you also identify as a member of a marginalized community? General reactions or responses to this post? In terms of queer M/M books I’d recommend that are more hopeful I’d advocate for Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert, Gives Light by Rose Christo, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (this last title includes a lot of queer pain and queer hope without excessively glorifying either, in my opinion), to name a few. Until next post!