The other day I half-joked to my therapist that all I did on the weekends anymore was protest. Then I realized what I meant was that I had gone to several protests over the course of the previous two weekends. At that point, we were entering the third week of a Trump presidency, and it was already easy to feel a bit worn down. There are going to be at least four more years like this; how are we supposed to get through them? Protesting, donating, calling our representatives, and volunteering to the best of our abilities seem like the most effective options we have (oh, and voting in the midterms!), but few of a citizen’s duties are reliably easy and fun. A renewed determination to participate in our democracy has brought with it repeated calls for self-care and protest by capitalism. It’s okay, they whisper. You’re doing so much already.
In the same vein, earlier this month, the Huffington Post published an essay entitled “Queer Sex is Our Greatest Act of Resistance.” Its author, Alex Garner, argues that because LGBTQ people remain oppressed, and queer sexuality remains marginalized, the best thing our community can do to resist the Trump administration is to, well, get down to business. “Our power lies in the simple yet radical act of queer bodies coming together to pursue pleasure and intimacy,” he writes. “Our sex is how we defy homophobia, sexism, racism, and transphobia.” How exactly these major feats are accomplished by boning isn’t clear.
In fairness to the author, the piece was published three days before the inauguration, before the onslaught of executive orders and nationwide protests began. It was easier, even then, to believe that gentler forms of activism (like changing one’s Facebook profile picture to a rainbow, or wearing an optimistic T-shirt) might make a difference. Still, the piece received praise, at least in some quarters. Out actress Heather Matarazzo shared the article on Twitter, and later tweeted: “The silver lining to this dumpster fire of a day is that I’ll be having cocktails tonight, followed by hours of incredible gay sex. #resist.” It is wonderful that Heather Matarazzo is having lots of incredible gay sex; I’m a huge fan, myself. And Garner is correct when he writes that there is power in being “unapologetically queer.” But let’s not hurt ourselves patting our own backs. Queer sex is great, and it is certainly under-represented, but it is not, in itself, a form of political resistance.
To argue that sex is inherently radical because it takes place between two men, two women, or any number and combination of non-straight-identifying people, is to give ourselves far too much credit for engaging in a pretty basic animal act. If your method of protest is something you were already doing for fun and pleasure, if it does not require you to leave your house, and if it does not extend beyond you and the person (or people) you’re doing it with, it’s not really protest. Protest need not be painful, but generally speaking, the more effective forms require that we sacrifice something of ours (time, labor, money, energy) in an effort to benefit not only ourselves, but the greater communities under threat.
Calling queer sex “resistance” allows us to let ourselves off the hook for activism that requires more of us than getting off — and ignores the fact that much of the LGBTQ community faces crises far more urgent than finding their next lay. Sex rules, but let’s not pretend it’s getting any immigrants out of detention. Notably, the most skeptical reactions to the original piece came from queer people of color and queer people who aren’t having sex — whether because they don’t feel like it right now, or because nobody is interested at the moment. As writer Jasmine Sanders joked, “Queer sex is resistance but if no one wants to fuck you, can you masturbate and resist yourself?” (Does arguing that sex is queer people’s “greatest form of resistance” mean that queer-identified people who aren’t having sex aren’t doing their part to fight fascism?)
It is of course true that certain types of queer sex were once illegal in the United States — sodomy laws, though long unenforced, were on the books in 14 states until 2003. Outside the legal system, a significant percentage of the population still considers queer sex a punishable offense (one for which children are sent to “conversion therapy” camps), and inappropriate by its very nature (see: Delta removing the kissing and sex scenes from Carol). In previous decades, when queerness was heavily policed and criminalized, cruising, public sex, and meeting up in bathhouses were all ways queer people could find and connect with each other — oftentimes risking their safety. Queer sex has undeniably radical roots, and accepting our own desires as real and valid remains a difficult and often extended struggle in every queer person’s life. It has gotten much, much easier to be openly queer in this country, but it still isn’t easy. The messages we receive that suggest we are somehow faulty or morally bankrupt may be more subtle than they used to be, but they are still there, and it still takes work to avoid internalizing them. Having and enjoying queer sex is one way to do that.
Nearly 50 years after Stonewall, there’s still so much to be done. When President Trump allowed Obama’s executive order protecting LGBTQ workers stand, I doubt any but the most privileged of queer people were mollified. An executive order permitting “religious freedom” for Christians who oppose LGBTQ rights could be coming any day now. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable among us suffer; trans women in particular are more likely to be targeted by hate crimes than any other minority group. Just last year, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed a “bathroom bill” making it illegal for trans people to use federal and/or public bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. The full legalization of what we refer to as “same-sex marriage” is a victory for LGBTQ rights in much the same way the passage of the 20th Amendment was for white women — it’s something, and it matters, but it is so far from the end of the story. The fight for LGBTQ rights and representation is far from over. But we are not going to win it from the bedroom.
A few days before the election, the queer activist group WERK for Peace held a big, gay dance party outside soon-to-be Vice-President and conversion-therapy supporter Mike Pence’s Maryland home. From the pictures, it’s not hard to conclude that the hundreds of people who showed up for this event had a lot of fun. No one said the resistance didn’t have room for Rihanna. A queer dance party on an elected homophobe’s lawn is still a confrontation and a challenge. Simple acts of queer visibility and community do matter. Coming out matters. Loving and taking care of ourselves and each other matters, and queer sex can absolutely play a part in that love and care. But actually, physically showing up for our community — especially by those of us who are more privileged, especially on behalf of those who are most at risk, our trans and black and Latinx and Muslim queer brothers and sisters — that matters too, now more than ever. By all means, have queer sex all night long, godspeed and goddess bless, but in the morning, don’t pretend you’ve done all you can.