- Theorize for What? Reading Black Queer Film and Popular Culture
Still and moving images of black queer sexuality abound in our contemporary moment and bountifully elicit black queer theories of embodiment, temporality, and desire.1 The condition of non-heteronormativity that coheres to national black belonging is a conduit for the imminent, pervasive, and insidious vulnerability to state violence that imperils all black people. The vector of blackness bends, shapes, and refracts violences that circulate through the brutality of gender production, the myriad traumas of sexuality, the virulence of class stratification, and the occlusion of black needs around ability and care. The cultural consumption of blackness makes inescapable the history of black valuation and commodification and makes unmistakable the ties between black worthiness, black pain, and black fascination. These conditions produce a queer blackness of being made evident in films and works of popular culture that conjure scenes of black resistance, black queer desire, and black love and tenderness.2 Black queer cultural production allows for luster, sensuality, and pleasure to not simply rest in our imaginations but be made material, felt and seen. The way that images of black corporeality are made delectable and voraciously consumed is beyond the control of the makers, but all is not lost, this is where black queer theory can issue a measure of redress. In the most capacious and insightful ways, black queer theory names and meticulously analyzes targeted, covert, and free floating anti-black heteronormative impositions that mean to limit our recourse, mistake our glamor for digestibility, and threaten our lives with impunity.3 As Cathy Cohen explicates in her foundational article, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?,” “queer” lives into its radical potential when it refers not simply to sexuality and gender, but describes a political commitment full of coalitional possibilities [End Page 43] and strategies that join together to dismantle mechanisms of systemic oppression and upend limiting conceptions of freedom.4 My understanding of the urgency of black queer theory is informed by the ways that it carries with it that unabashed defiance of dominant power that has given “queer” its radical charge.
In considering the stakes of black queer theory and its relationship to black queer film and popular culture, attention to black trans theory and representation is essential. It must be stated, unequivocally, that the vulnerability of trans visibility is lethal. The murders of black trans women and men continue, with no end in sight. To theorize visual culture and black queerness is to theorize visibility and black transness and contend with the bind of representation that puts black trans and queer people’s lives in jeopardy. This analysis of black queer theory, film, and popular culture is meant to work in concert with black trans theory. The anthology Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, edited by Reina Gossett, (Tourmaline), Eric Stanley, and Johanna Burton, brilliantly and incisively theorizes the trap of trans visibility.5 C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity brings black trans history into contact with a black trans present through a theoretical treatment that produces a rigorous and imaginative intervention into black studies and trans studies.6 Both Trap Door and Black on Both Sides balance their examinations of the racialized gender terror of the past and the racialized gender terror of the present with a world-making impetus that shapes trans futures.
The radical world-making possibilities that emerge in black trans and queer theory call to me, and I reel with a desire that lurches toward the future as I reach back toward a beckoning past. The fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, celebrated in the summer of 2019, is a stirring reminder of the indelible truth that trans women of color inaugurated our contemporary queer movement with their acts of resistance. The trans coalitional movement building work of S.T.A.R, founded by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in 1970, imagined a future that included gender self-determination, the end of police violence, the end of exploitation by the medical industry, and food, shelter, and education for all; we...