We supposedly live in a time where it is “okay to be gay.” This growing sentiment can partially be accredited to the nationalization of gay media and representations in our society. When I was a child, finding gay representations in television and movies was a challenge–it was only in my teen years that gayness became commonplace with media. Ellen Degeneres came out in 1997. Dawson’s Creek portrayed the first kiss ever aired in network television between two men in the USA. Will & Grace portrayed the lives of two gay men in New York City. Even shows targeted at children and teenagers, such as Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-2009), had a gay protagonist within its ensemble. These representations portrayed not only the possibility of queers being accepted within society, but also the notion that LGBTQ people are no different than straight people.
Despite the ever-increasing positive representations of LGBTQ individuals in the media, despite the growing number of states that have legalized same-sex marriage, and despite the fact that we’re told that we live in a more accepting society, some LGBTQ individuals continue to face “backwards” feelings when it comes to sexuality, including but not limited to shame, regret, loss, depression, among others. I particularly think that with the current advent of LGBTQ censorship and oppression going on right now in Russia, backward feelings (which include depression, melancholia, despair, secrecy, among others) as pertaining to queerness have especially been under the radar during the past year. Gay acceptance is taken for granted, and any invocation of the dark past of queer identity is accused of being a non-progressive and archaic turn–but what happens when we consider communities labeled under the guise of LGBTQ that are still considered subaltern in a sense, such as queers of color, queers of low socio-economic status, queers in Russia, or even those who have been affected by AIDS? Is it possible that by focusing so much on the progress and on the positive aspects of LGBTQ politics, that we have come to ignore or brush aside the negative feelings and events that demanded a need for progress in the first place?
The questions above are just some of the ones that Heather Love explores in her book titled Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Her book begins by questioning the possibility of exploring the past of communities that have undergone historical injury: is it possible to explore the past without becoming consumed by it? Can history be explored and analyzed without letting it damage the possibility of a future? Through an exploration of various 19th and 20th century texts that contain homosexuality as an undertone or as an explicit topic, Love intends to create an “archive of feeling” (4) that would allow her to not only understand feelings of “queer” authors who wrote before the modern advent of homosexuality, but that will also allow one to asses the corporeal, psychic, and historical costs of homophobia. By focusing on backward feelings, Love intends to advocate futurity based on an explicit embrace of the past. She also argues that despite the privileging of progressive and emancipatory visions in queer politics, it is important to also focus on backwards feelings because they
serve as an index to the ruined state of the social world; they indicate continuities between the bad gay past and the present; and they show up the inadequacy of queer narratives of progress. Most important, they teach us that we do not know what is good for politics. (27)
Thus, Love tries to tell a history of 20th century representation that focuses on backwardness (shyness, failure, melancholia, loneliness, immaturity, self-hatred, etc.) in order to put the notion of “progress” into question, and to demonstrate that “in a moment where gays and lesbians have no excuse for feeling bad, the evocation of a long history of queer suffering provides, if not solace exactly, then at least relief” (146). The call for backwards feeling becomes even more relevant within queer studies and gay activism when realizing that backwardness has played a major role in defining queer politics in the first place. Love refers, for instance, to the re-appropriation of the term queer, which reclaimed the word “from its homophobic uses and turned to good use–while still maintaining its link to a history of damage–was crucial to the development of a queer intellectual method” (157).
What Love’s book makes absolutely clear is that it is impossible to even think of a transformative politics without possessing awareness of what (or why something) is being transformed. Within some approaches to queer theory and gay activism, there has been a trend in which the past has been discredited as no longer being relevant to the conditions of today’s society. Even more concerning is the fact that some scholars and activists have chosen to ignore the past completely. However, can we achieve progress and transformation only by turning our backs on the past? Love tantalizingly suggests that even though queers may feel compelled to envision a more Utopian future, an awareness of the injuries of queer history make this “orientation toward the future difficult to sustain” (162). Most people are aware of the repercussions and costs of being queer. Given this awareness, the issue is not a matter of learning how to develop hope “in the face of despair”, but rather, learning how to “make a future backward enough even that the most reluctant among us might want to live there” (163). In other words, I take this to mean that the past has to be kept alive not to the extent that it will destroy us, but to the extent that it can provide some sense of comfort and recognition to queers who are apprehensive of their own queerness.
Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2007. Print