1. Before making the case for queer futurism, I want to briefly reference afrofuturism, the most important futurism and touchstone for all futurisms to follow. What is afrofuturism? Afrofuturism is "a movement in literature, music, film, fashion, and other forms of art featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture." (Wikipedia.) Examples include Michael Jackson's moonwalk, Parliament-Funkadelic, novels by Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, everything about Grace Jones, Black Panther, and too many more to list. (The term was coined in 1993 but has been applied retroactively.) Afrofuturism is, implicitly or explicitly, a form of political protest and alchemy; it's a means of acknowledging a past filled with slavery, subjugation, exploitation, degradation, murder, and every form of cruelty and injustice, and, through the use of a "parallel narrative," transforming this history into something powerful and inspirational. Ditto with outdated stereotypes. In contrast to hopeless narratives about the past and the present -- at least as the past and present are typically portrayed by mainstream outlets -- afrofuturism is optimistic. It's a means of using the past to tell stories that empower instead of victimize. It envisions a future in which institutions do not silence and oppress. The sankofa bird -- which has roots in the cultures of West Africa -- has been adopted as an important symbol by many afrofuturists to represent the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future. (Janet Jackson has one tattooed on her wrist.)
2. While nobody should pretend that gay history is marked by the same level of torture, displacement, and oppression as black history (and especially African American history), it is -- let's just say -- bad enough. Some basics: for centuries, people engaging in homosexuality have been vilified, shunned, and killed. Gays are regularly beaten up (or worse) for being gay. Gay establishments are regularly vandalized. With a handful of exceptions, they (we) have been portrayed in books and movies as child molesters, superficial dandies/fashionistas, sinister villains, desperate loners, and asexual bffs: in short, many of the worst tropes are, not coincidentally, gay tropes. With a few noteworthy exceptions, gays are never given the lead and when they are, their story often ends in death and heartbreak. Things happen to gays; gays are not allowed to make things happen. An alarming number of books, movies, and television shows do not have gay characters at all. According to groups that tally these kinds of figures, gay representation has been declining in the only universal medium: television. As someone who watches my fair share of television, I have no trouble believing this. I have also noted the unrelenting torrent of dialog in critically acclaimed shows that needlessly (but hurtfully) references and mocks gay sex (especially anal sex between men, the most feared and vilified form of gay sex). While the political advances of the past decade (in the United States and many other countries) have been encouraging, the threat of judicial and legislative rollback is here.
3. The conventional narrative about gay men in 2018 is particularly tired and in need of reinvention. So often, I've bought critically lauded books by or about gay men (the latter often written by authors who are not gay men, which is always a red flag but one that's ignored by seemingly every book critic) and have been disappointed. I will sift through page after page and think, "This book is supposedly about gay men and I am a gay man, but it says nothing to me about my life." Or maybe I'm wrong to claim these novels say nothing about my life, because much of what's depicted in these books -- which might range from AIDS to anonymous sex to loving Hallmark relationships or even complicated relationships -- is rooted in a reality that to some extent is undeniable. We know people who could be characters in these books. We know ourselves. The ongoing toll of AIDS, the incredible willingness of gays to explore unconventional (i.e., non-heterosexual) sex, our astounding acuity in picking matching colors, our ability to raise children and march for justice; such things exist in reality and have shaped me in the same way they have shaped every gay (a term I use loosely to encompass anyone who identifies as LGBTQ). These are the facts and stereotypes we must confront in the course of our daily lives, just by virtue of being gay. That said, what these novels fail to do (for me) is transcend my reality, not only when that reality is bad, but also when it's good (which it is, some of the time); instead, these stories mire me in conditions and judgments that may arouse anger or empathy and possibly pride but ultimately make me feel hopeless because the depicted change is not radical enough. Those three words are important, so let's repeat them: Not. Radical. Enough. What these books fail to recognize, in other words, is that if I wanted to feel hopeless, I could simply spend a few hours with my memories, recounting the myriad ways in which I, like every other gay, has been judged and silenced and turned away (or when the opposite has been true, as it sometimes is). My point is that gays do not need to be told through fiction how we have suffered or managed not to suffer; instead, we need stories about how we've not only survived, but have also conquered. Realistic, literal survival -- especially as it's depicted on television, with the same actor in a bad gray wig -- isn't enough to make us feel genuinely hopeful. Sure we can feel good learning about someone who maybe didn't commit suicide after a bad date or after being in the closet for fifty years or that someone lived through the worst of the plague or managed to live through the police states in which gay sex was still criminalized, but these are not narratives that transform our place in society (which requires a wholesale transformation of society and not a mere "evolution"). For that, we need something more, something along the lines of afrofuturism, but for gays. Something that exists outside of reality or even possibility. Something we can call -- in the attempt to be as welcoming as possible to everyone who doesn't identify as straight -- queer futurism.
4. A quick search for the term shows that queer futurism has been already been coined and used but -- in comparison to the tidal wave of afrofuturism -- is barely a drip of water in a Sahara of stereotypes and clichés. Before addressing where it is, let's talk about what it is (and what it isn't). With the caveat that I'm not a gatekeeper of anything, here are some ideas: first, works of queer futurism (like science fiction and fantasy) require its audience to suspend any belief of operating in the "real world." You know how you sometimes close a book and think "wow, this is probably happening somewhere right now"? That book is most likely not a work of queer futurism. Romans à clef and similar "novels" in which the narrator is obviously a stand-in for the author most likely do not qualify. Second, works of queer futurism require queer characters, and not just in secondary roles. These characters do not need to be comic-book heroes, but at least one or two of them should feature a narrative arc of empowerment and not victimization. The kind of torture porn about gay men that has spawned several bestsellers over the past few years may or may not have artistic merit, but it's not queer futurism. The same can be said about small love stories that end in heartbreak for a sad teen: possibly good on some artistic level but definitely not queer futurism. Third, characters in a work of queer futurism must be "real" or "authentic" with their gayness, however that manifests. As we all know, being gay or queer includes an amazingly wide spectrum of behaviors; it's one of the reasons so many straight people have historically detested us. Any or all of these behaviors are ripe for use in queer futurism so long as they're not being used in the attempt to degrade or disenfranchise the person exhibiting the behavior. We can laugh with the character, but in a work of queer futurism, we are never laughing at them.
5. So where are the works of queer futurism? Let's begin with the self-interested and obvious: the novel #gods, written by yours truly in an attempt to deconstruct straight society and rebuild it from from a gay perspective. The novel is not exactly set in the future, but it's set in world in which immortals are returning to society and where a secret organization of gay operatives is working to find and protect them. Meaning it's not our present. I'm not here to convince you it's a good or bad novel -- and I've heard both -- but that it does fall squarely into queer futurism. Another example: the latest (self-released: where is Hollywood?) movie by Brian Jordan Alverez called Grandmother's Gold; set in imaginary, quasi-apocalyptic future (three years from now) in which the internet has been turned off, it's about a group of friends in L.A. who walk to Malibu in the attempt to find some gold supposedly being hoarded by the grandmother of one of the friends. Ultimately it's a (very funny but very serious) rumination on the essence of "family," which is an important question for many gays. This movie, which featured none of the melodramatic death and heartbreak I associate with the handful of "meaningful" gay movies that have crossed into mainstream awareness or "acceptance" over the past few decades, made me feel hopeful: queer futurism. Another example is Homo Action Love Story, a novel by Ben Monopoli about a professional paintball league in the future where many of the players (and primary characters in the novel) are gay. There's (hot gay) sex and kidnapping and international intrigue, which would be over-the-top in many contexts but works here when you remember that the characters are gay and that nothing like them exists in our current (insanely homophobic) professional sports leagues. Although it's set in the 1980s, I think we could consider Pose a work of queer futurism for the lavish, otherworldly balls depicted on the show, balls in which young gays are literally transformed by costumes and music and the opportunity to walk a runway. There's obviously much about club culture that intersects with queer futurism and we should all make a point of recognizing as such. Ditto with comic books. If a tedious show like Westworld featured gay robots taking over the world, it would be a landmark in queer futurism (and twenty times more fun to watch). I'm sure there are many more examples; my point here is not to create an exhaustive list, but merely to encourage people to think about queer futurism and what it means. To possibly make the connections between different kinds of art. The next time you read a review of a gay book in the New York Times, maybe you'll ask whether it's a work of queer futurism and think about why or why not. I suspect the answers to these questions will have implications that go well beyond the world of fiction. Will queer futurism have a moment? Will it break through? Will there be a gay Black Panther? I'm not sure. Maybe some day. What I know is that there's a lot of resistance, especially in literary fiction circles, to gay narratives generally, and specifically to those that reach beyond reality and incorporate "genre" to tell stories that do not conform to the stereotypical depictions of gays. My sense -- based on my reading of the gay books they review -- is that the NYT and conventional world it represents is not ready for queer futurism. I know in my own case, I've spent quite a few years shouting into what often feels like a void. I'm not even sure how many gays are ready to step outside of our reality, because there's always comfort in the known, no matter how dispiriting. But reading about afrofuturism gives me hope for queer futurism. As with afrofuturism, queer futurism is not just an artistic movement about the future, it's about what we can do now to reshape the past with possibility and in this way discover the new and better worlds of our collective gay dreams.