Queer grief and the secret chord with Kate McKinnon: it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah

It shows how fast and repetitively 2016 has thrown up its global shocks that I can no longer remember which act of political violence or extremist victory in June or July prompted the first set of tweets implying that, as this internet-meme-in-waiting put it:

The same sardonic imagination might make it seem as if Leonard Cohen, whose death was announced two days after the result of the US election, had known after a lifetime of meditating on hopelessness and brokenness and grief what was coming, and couldn’t bear it.

Cohen had died, in fact, on the Monday, his death notice held over to the Friday so that his family could hold a private funeral; still publicised in time for Saturday Night Live, the same comedy show responsible for casting Trump as a figure of fun not a harbinger of hatred throughout the campaign, to cold-open its first show since the election with Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton in a dark Oval Office, giving a piano recital of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.

‘Hallelujahs’ are two-a-penny on celebrity TV, cut back to their least savage verses and arranged for harmonised-by-committee talent-show voice, and SNL deserves no credit for providing Trump and his persona with a normalising platform during the campaign.

Yet a rawness in McKinnon’s performance, never releasing itself, still reaches viewers through, or even across the barrier of, the part her show has taken in US public culture. I couldn’t put it into words until I saw these tweets by Aaron Bady:

And when he put it like that – it often takes someone else to put it like that – this, for the first time since Wednesday, was the one that got me.

More than anything else a queer artist has made since the election, except perhaps this strip by the illustrator Molly Ostertag and its devastating last line ‘And you wonder if that was the best it will ever be’:

Ostertag captures what my own gaze reads back into McKinnon. A grief for how much more free you could feel, as a queer woman in America, compared to what you fear might be in front of you even when (especially when) you might have had the privilege of not realising its likelihood before, and compared to how you expected to grow up. It changed in your lifetime, after the struggles of the 1980s, all the tentative steps of the 1990s, under those eight years of Obama; now it’s lashing back. And catching, as it does so, all those younger people, who weren’t supposed to have to have it quite as bad.

Joy and love and art that had to look over its shoulder a little bit less often than it used to, coming to terms with having to do so even more.

Six months ago, McKinnon was its symbol. The makers of the all-female Ghostbusters never said or were never allowed to say that Jillian Holtzmann, McKinnon’s swaggering engineer, was queer; the queer women of the internet started filling in the gaps, as soon as the first trailer dropped and Holtzmann pushed up her yellow goggles to wink to camera, with ’Kate McKinnon’s 10 [or more than 10] gayest “Ghostbusters” gay moments of gay’.


Everything was about Holtzmann, the way that in 2015 everything had been about Imperator Furiosa, and growing up in the 1990s I could never have imagined – could McKinnon? – such a public, instant, transatlantic moment of sheer queer joy.

(I still missed Ghostbusters when it came out;

(and yes, all this excitement for a white American woman in a scrappy uniform licking the barrel of a gun, even if what it does in Ghostbusters is captures ghosts, and we were going to have to talk about this queer militarism thing sometime;)

and now its present is another past.)

Even on SNL McKinnon had been part of that before: her impression of the machismo of Justin Bieber’s Calvin Klein ads in 2015, channelling half the drag kings in America, made Shauna Miller, in The Atlantic, write ‘McKinnon’s Bieber might be one of the most radically queer images to sneak onto network TV right now […] there’s a gay dog whistle on blast every time she’s on screen’.

kd lang’s Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford, in 1993 (lang dressed in a three-piece suit, Crawford pretending to shave her face in a barber’s chair) – if there’s an early 1990s equivalent at all – must have had an effect like that on queer women who already knew each other and what they were and where they could have space to say so.

I had no community like that to know what media images did excite queer women most in 1993. I didn’t know the story about Vanity Fair for years, and tried to know as little as possible about kd lang. What I did do, in 1993 through 1995, was watch a lot of women with short-but-unthreatening hair and trouser suits singing sad ballads and try to read queer meanings into and around their lyrics, not that I had any idea for years more that I was doing that.

McKinnon’s voice catches on a line about touch, and with decades of gay dog whistles to guide the ear, it sounds like queer desire back in the closet.

The first time, it’s ‘baby, I’ve been here before’ so close to ‘I used to live alone before I knew you’; the second time, knowing what comes next, it’s that very first line, ‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord’, when for so long a secret chord was all that queer music on television could ever be.

There isn’t even a line about touch for McKinnon’s voice to have caught on. I don’t know what I heard. A clip of Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Adia’ is getting in there; except, through an archive I could only have imagined as a far-off fantasy in the mid-1990s, I can establish in seconds that the darkness and the piano probably mean it’s ‘Angel’, not ‘Adia’ at all, and the date and a few other things mean –

– what they mean, which were my fault, and which they shouldn’t have had to.

The song runs to three minutes, just right to fit into a Eurovision Song Contest in the mid-nineties from Norway or Sweden if the song wasn’t by Cohen and if they lit the stage up bright blue; and already it indexes so many secret chords that I have trouble seeing a Hillary Clinton in that scene at all.

And this is all in a period of cultural production, or one we’ve just come out of perhaps, where queer creators have been going back to that past of closeted viewers watching closeted performers as a past. The meanings of the silences and hesitant glances in Carol, released last year, echo their fifties originals, carrying their double meanings through the screen for queers, but assume a straight audience, as well as a queer audience, that understands how to read them and knows what unhappiness it caused.

Their equivalents in The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s novel, were like that because they were on the bounds of what it was permissible to print, with the author’s name herself concealed as ‘Claire Morgan’.

Reading The Talented Mr Ripley, a few months after seeing Carol, I was struck by a reading – galling but true to its time – in which what triggers the murder that Ripley spends the rest of the book trying to cover up is perhaps itself an incident of deeply sublimated queer desire, which Ripley can’t acknowledge and his friend – so successful a performer of straight upper-class masculinity that his name gets to be Dickie – simply can’t accept.

Ostertag’s comic and McKinnon’s song, through my interpretive filter but perhaps for others, both tug at the fear of potentially having to take that fear back into your own present. That suddenly, for four years, for eight years, under whatever circumstances the president’s fundamentalist and white supremacist advisers in the White House choose, you will have to think much more carefully before making a declaration that might just have been becoming everyday, that need not have been a declaration at all.

The clampdown on social media that writers like Masha Gessen or Sarah Kendzior have feared could manifest in an assault on the virtual spaces where radical and progressive social movements organise – or the swarm harassment that a hostile White House could allow to have the same effect – would take away an everyday space that queers not familiar with the history of state repression of radical movements had come to take for granted; where the first thing you could expect to log on to in the morning was a gifset of McKinnon’s Holtzmann, not a swastika.

(Remembering: Americans are not the first people this has happened to.)

Back to the video to write this post and there is McKinnon’s wink right there, I thought it was, the first time, but there was so much else to hear.

The wink, in the armoury of queer signalling, is the throwing star. An instant flicker of the eye, stealing the moment of safety or bravado, to say unambiguously yet deniably: I’m saying this thing and I’m also saying something else. You catch her wink in time to recognise it, or you don’t, and then the rest of the encounter becomes Was that my imagination? A magic from a time when you couldn’t just play it back, let alone count on being able, not just once every few months but daily, to seek, find, celebrate, name, share.

One wink with swagger, one wink with grief, and all in the same year.

There is McKinnon’s second, on such a loaded line, ‘I used to live alone before I knew you’, heavy with queer solitude and history; a signal from a time that the men in the White House call paradise, when the gay dog whistle could never be louder than a secret chord.


Queer nation and queer time: on transatlantic solidarities, fear, imagination

A few days after the Orlando attack, queer people in Hull, just like in other cities round the United Kingdom, held a vigil.

I don’t make it to that many things after work when I’m drafting a new book, far less two or three things at once, but I walked down from the university to the gay bar near the station where people were supposed to be gathering, and by the time I came – a colleague I knew from the staff LGBT network had had the same idea – there must have been two or three hundred people, already filling up the square around the war memorial.


We heard the speeches, and dozens of people left tributes I hadn’t thought to bring, and I wished there’d been more said about how most of the 49 dead had been Latino as well as queer, but my main impression was: I’ve never seen so many LGBT people at the same time in Hull.

And so many generations all together – from teenagers with enough support from their schools and families to be working it all out as they go along, so much more confidently and so much more quickly than I ever managed, to people the age my grandparents would be who didn’t even understand for years whether there was anyone else like them.

Part of this was my own fault. My own LGBT friends are too scattered for any Pride to be somewhere where I meet up with a real-life community, and Hull Pride in July usually happens when I’m away for research – but, still, I’ve never seen so many LGBT people at the same time in Hull. I certainly never thought I’d see rainbow, bi and trans flags ringing the Hull cenotaph.

A day before, or maybe a day after, I watched a news clip in my office from the vigil in Soho. The crowd there filled the old gay quarter, past and all around the Old Compton Street pub where 19 years ago, while I was in sixth form figuring out what a sexuality I hadn’t accepted until then meant for how I was going to live in the world, a white British man had planted a nail bomb because he wanted to start a race war.

A friend and colleague in my department – who’s straight, married with children, but working hard to make the university a better place for the LGBT students we know about and the ones we don’t – popped round, soon after I’d seen the clip from Soho, to gently ask how I was doing after what had happened in Orlando.

I remember saying: I’d never have thought, in 1999, so many people would have come together in London to commemorate an attack like that in the USA. I was also saying – because queerness so often is about also saying – : I’d never have thought, in 1999, the straight coworkers I could expect to have in 2016 would understand it might be kind to check in on a queer colleague after a mass attack in an Orlando nightclub or Old Compton Street.

In different ways during the 20th and 21st centuries, part of being queer as an identity – knowing that something about you means you go through the world in a particular way, which is similar to others like you – has very often been recognising that queer people in other countries may be having experiences more like yours than straight and cisgender people in your own.

These are lived and everyday links, going back longer and extending further than people might often think – one chapter in the volume on east European gender history I’ve just been editing links up the lesbian and gender non-conforming volunteers of Scottish Women’s Hospitals (well-known in early 20th century British lesbian history) with their counterparts on the Yugoslav avant-garde arts scene – but they’re imaginative ones as well.

And they’re political. You understand that the options in front of you as a person who isn’t automatically going to, and often can’t, live the same life as someone with the same background who had never even had to question their gender or sexuality will be more limited;

(less so than they used to be; sometimes; at least now)

and that because of that, queer people before you, and at the same time as you, mapped out ways of existing and moving and creating and loving and just being that showed compulsory straightness and patriarchy and the gender binary were really what the limits were.

American queer theorists like Jack Halberstam and Lee Edelman wrote, at the turn of the millennium, about ‘queer time’: the idea that the arrow of time mapped out by and for straight people and straight families simply doesn’t – and, they often implied, shouldn’t – structure queer lives. Perhaps it need not structure straight lives either.

The New York activists who met through the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in 1990 and called their own direct action group ‘Queer Nation’ did so at a time when ‘the nation’ in America meant the resistant cultural solidarity of Black Nationalism but also an ideal of the American nation to which sexually non-conforming and gender-variant people were told they could only marginally and conditionally belong, and the state that used the American nation’s symbols was the same institution that beat American queers up on the street.

By 2016 that state was the same institution that flew killer drones above queer and straight Muslims in Yemen, drove pipelines through Native territory in North Dakota, and shot down African-Americans of all sexualities and genders in the street.

It was also a state which, under Barack Obama, had extended rights that many queer people in the USA had grown up never believing they would have: marriage equality; gender recognition on federal documents including passports; federal support for trans health care; a Department of Justice prepared to stand up to the legislatures of North Carolina and other US states that waged their backlash against changing norms by restricting trans children’s and adults’ access to school activities, public bathrooms and everyday life.

Doing the Stars and Stripes, or Britain’s own Union flag, up in queer-liberation pink looked like a far less radical act in 2012 or 2014 than in 1988 or 1990 – to the extent that sometimes (more than sometimes) it helped draw dangerously simple maps between a progressive ‘Britain’ or ‘America’ and a backward ‘Russia’ or a threatening ‘Islam’; to the extent that some of the slogans, styles and heritage of that earlier radical queer period could even start to look complicit in a militarism and nationalism they had originally been designed to fight against.

Lady Gaga, speaking at Hillary Clinton’s last pre-election rally in Raleigh, North Carolina and performing her manifesto of liberal queerness ‘Born This Way’, struck for many viewers an uncomfortable note in a black uniform and red armband first worn by Michael Jackson during his visit to the White House in 1990.

(Do Queer Nation’s ‘army of lovers’ mean the same when the two bearded sailors kissing have been trained and sanctioned by the state to kill?)

What queers know, like what migrants know and like what anybody with a womb will know, is how easily freedoms can disappear.

You feel it.

Maybe only deep in the background sometimes, maybe screaming violently in front of you, something about your body and how you live in it and where on the planet you are doing that means that you at least think it, sometimes, in a way that a straight white man living somewhere that he holds a passport has never known that he would have to do.

Every legal victory that activists won in America or Europe, every piece of pride that started being taken over ‘equality’ in the name of the nation forgetting how many of the same nation’s laws and police officers had been standing in equality’s way, helped tell a story about time.

Things can only get better, sang the first Blair government, charged with implementing European court judgements on gays in the military and an equal age of consent. It gets better. You were born this way.

Weimar Berlin, and hundreds of men and women and others who loved people they never used to think that they could touch, presented themselves to the world in ways they’d never seen, found out about the surgery and care that would make their bodies seem more like themselves and that had never been more advanced than at this time, right now, whose lives and notes and names were about to go up in smoke when the stormtroopers burned Magnus Hirschfeld’s library.

The tone-altering epilogues to more than one book, researched during the 2000s and published after 2013, on how space for gays and lesbians to define themselves after the silences of communism was tentatively finally opening up in Russia.

The line between bodily autonomy and losing it for queer people is called politics. The same line for cis, straight people is called dystopia.

There are freedoms I have, which I didn’t expect, which my elders still won for me, and which I could lose again in ways that, if they were proposed for straight people, would be ‘some Handmaid’s Tale shit right there.’

(Dystopias like that still happen. But they need more guns.)

If you’re straight and married, especially if your right of residence depends on it, imagine watching last night’s election like many of my friends in the US, knowing the result could determine whether you were allowed to stay married to your husband or your wife.

If you’re not trans it would be almost inconceivable, some clichéd mid-20th-century exploitative pulp fiction thing, to picture a government coming to power after an election forcing you, as a man, to live life as a woman, or you, as a woman, to live life as a man.

There’s a scene in V for Vendetta – a film which, like The Matrix, has extra valences now the public know it was directed by two trans women – where a young woman, Evey, is held in the concentration camp where Britain’s fascist government detained and tortured the terrorist V.Through a crack between floorboards or a gap inside the wall, Evey finds a letter written by a woman called Valerie, imprisoned and executed as a lesbian, committing her memory to a future occupant of her cell.

The horror is closer when it could be you. So much further away, still, when you are white. The horror is still closer.

We use imagination to say so. To give it more of a name; to start describing it for someone else; and then to be able to put it back again.

There’s a scene in The Matrix — there are many (like it, but this one is mine); (or might be, if I’d actually go back and watch this thing again) — there’s a scene in The Matrix, after some action sequence or other on a rooftop, where the Wachowskis have Trinity and Neo deliciously and thrillingly identical; a second order of queerness that in 1999 I didn’t even know was queer at all and in 2016 is a space that ought to have my name on it and even in 2003 would have had no more resonance than ‘why has she got to be with a man all the time’, certainly not compared, at least not then, to the section of the third film with Rachel Blackman channeling Private Vasquez in Aliens for ten minutes.

I’ve had the luck and the privilege of an early adulthood where the space for me to know myself and name myself and recognise myself has multiplied in front of me, where I could even be confident about sharing more of that with people who weren’t queer, to even start translating the more difficult bits into images that other people might understand, and where I could see younger people so much better equipped to do that earlier, ready for the rest of their lives, that I thought: They’re going to have a better time than me.

(It hasn’t been a bad time. It just took a while.)

Throughout my school years a law in England and Wales called Section 28 prevented schools doing what Parliament and the right-wing press referred to as promoting homosexuality and queers might call showing us that we exist. Homosexuality was either a sensation or a social problem; there wasn’t even a concept, let alone a movement, of ‘trans youth’. I couldn’t say if staff or students were more afraid to come out. I didn’t get the support I needed, when I started putting the pieces together wrong.

They were going to have a better time than me.


But times change. Section 28 came off the books, another legacy of that first Blair government, in 2003. The spectre of another – They’re teaching our kids how to be trans! – looms over every panic about young people’s gender clinics, gender-neutral toilets, trans health care and hormone blockers in puberty that clogs up The Guardian and the Express and Woman’s Hour.

And they change quickly. How few Yugoslavs, even in 1988, running in the perpetual crisis-as-normal mode that characterised late 1980s Yugoslavia, expected to live the lives they did in 1992 or even 1990. Reading media from the build-up to the Yugoslav wars in my mid-twenties, when I was researching my PhD, changed how I thought about British, or American, politics and society and instability in a way that it’s hard to go back from, in a way that Alexei Yurchak summed up in the title of his book on the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union: everything was forever, until it was no more.

The journalist Sarah Kendzior, writing consistently about the risks of authoritarian Trumpism throughout the election campaign, was able to perceive them so much earlier and so much more clearly than many of her colleagues because she had previously been an anthropologist researching authoritarianism in post-socialist Uzbekistan.

The writers Aleksandar Hemon and Charles Simic, remembering the rhetoric of Serbian politicians such as Slobodan Milošević and Vojislav Šešelj from their Bosnian-American and Serbian-American positions, were both able at very early points in the campaign to recognise the strategies Trump used to exploit ethnic entitlement and construct a politics of fear.

Authoritarian regimes and the people who seek to become them depend, to mask their implications, on the filter of it-can’t-happen-here. Nobody promises to turn America into a dystopia or Britain into a fascist regime, not least because grand narratives of the national past teach the public that the nation’s existential enemy of the twentieth century, Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, was one of those; they promise to make America or Britain great again.

Part of making the Yugoslav wars possible, not possible but day-to-day imaginable, not day-to-day imaginable but likely, was for ethnicity to start to matter: to be the main lens that people looked through to make sense of the crisis, and who had caused it, and who needed to be in fear of each other.

Ethnicity had to inform the whole of everyday life. Some Croats and Serbs and Bosniaks would say now that for them it always had. And maybe it always did. For others, especially in a city like Sarajevo, their ethnicity and religion in the early eighties determined which Christmas they celebrated, or whether their mixed family got to have Christmas twice, or whether they had Muslim Bajram as well or instead; and in 1992 they were making life-or-death decisions based on where their ethnicity made them think they might be safe, where it meant that they could safely get to, what other people would think about them if they stayed or left.

Identities fluctuate in their political significance, and they come up strongest when people believe or are led to believe that that identity is why they’re under threat.


Ethnopolitical conflict works like that.

The anxieties over ‘dilution’ or ‘undermining’ national cultural values that racists and xenophobes intensify in order to mobilise public support for restricting immigration work like that.

Queerness as a political identity works like that, too.

The shift from an individual identity, describing something about one’s own everyday and personal life, to a collective identity, that does things with other people, that experiences things with other people, that feels solidarity with people I don’t know, that makes political demands and has political struggles, because there is something to struggle against.

The filter of it-can’t-happen-here is a lot more fragile when you are queer.

Queerness and nationhood in my own work have often been, not in opposition, so much as in tension, with each other. The novelty of nations imagining themselves to be world leaders in LGBT rights, then using them as a symbol for dividing the rest of the world up into civilised and backward; or using a queer curiosity, the product of having to ask questions about things to do with bodies and identity, sex and gender and style, that straight and cis people would take for granted, to ask questions about wars and nations on the basis of everyday things.

But there is also a solidarity, a consciousness, that – more viscerally than reading about international far-right co-operation and racist policy exchange – makes you feel that an attack at a queer nightclub in Orlando or an election that threatens to tear up American queers’ federal rights has something to do with how you had expected to live and how you might be going to expect to live as a queer person in London or Hull.

The it-can’t-happen-here filter is a fiction. It can, it does, already, on the margins of society or rather on the bodies of the people who have been pushed out to them, with racism determining who already comes to harm the most.

It can, and it does, but to look into the future and see the spread of it, and the pace of the spread, and the fear of the pace of the spread, is what makes people brace against anticipated wounds although they’re across nations, the space that helps to constitute queer time.