“I’m not real, I’m theatre”

Lady Gaga, "Born This Way" video

If you were asked to choose a single expression that most concisely epitomised the realisation of one’s queer identity, you would most likely arrive at the phrase, ‘coming out’. For many closeted individuals, these words represent a more daunting prospect than the emotional acceptance of their sexuality, reflecting a deeper thread of cultural specificity within them. Somehow surpassing a synonymy with homosexuality and reaching a state of gay tautology, ‘coming out’ has shaken loose all other contextual implications to the extent that to describe anything as such outwith the homosexual feels rather queer indeed.

However it’s only when you begin to tease apart such an idea that you begin to realise that the homosexual feels notably detached from the concept at its core. At the heart of it, the notion of coming out is focussed not on the formerly closeted friend, family member or acquaintance but their evacuation and the absence left behind. It speaks nothing of the environment the individual now finds his or her self in, accepting or otherwise, but instead fixates on the former state of entrapment, isolation and the capitulation of that identity. To ‘come out’ is not to accept your true self but to abandon your former state of identity, as if it had ever held any validity in the first place.

When we interpret the phenomenon in this way, we begin to see the universalism of both the idea of “coming out” and its many performative ideas that permeate our culture, queer or otherwise. The ubiquity of the concept may seem initially farfetched but even a brief scrutiny of our attitudes towards social minorities; our conventional gender roles or the media that perpetuates them reveals that coming out is an entrenched and perpetual part of our daily lives, even within that typically vacuous of art forms, the pop song.

Azealia Banks, "212" video

While music is no stranger to exploring the big ideas of our society, when the inflammatory rap song of the year tackles the notion of the identity closet in between screaming ‘I’mma ruin you cunt’, questions ought to be raised. In a recent interview New York-born lyricist Azealia Banks discussed the topic of identity ownership in her breakout hit, ‘212’. The song depicts an ambitious artist who struggles to realise their true potential in the face of the oppressive, destructive reality of fame in patriarchal New York, personified by Banks herself through cutting vocal flourishes and vulgar threats. Describing this challenge to realise one’s true identity, she notes in the interview:

‘… every artist has had that time where they were just coming out and there are artists that don’t ever come out. Imagine having written 10 books and none of them ever seen the light of day? Imagine like you’re trying to be a model and you think you’re so beautiful, but then you can’t get any jobs.’ 

What’s intriguing about this quote is not the lack of an acknowledgement of the homosexual connotations of ‘coming out’ (the song itself extensively discusses the acquisition of a façade sexual identity for the means of self-preservation but chooses to manifest this in a homoerotic as opposed to heterosexual sense) but instead the surprisingly strong parallels present between the homosexually closeted and the creatively undiscovered that it unearths. Is there really such a difference between accepting one’s creative identity as an artist and queer identity as a public homosexual?

Both situations share an uncontrollable aspiration to reach a state of existence in which those around you accept your true self at the sacrifice of your abandoned identity; to attain that social respect is certainly mutual to both. More interesting is the wider implication by Banks that to be closeted is to be heteronormative, to be unremarkable, and so by connection to be famous is in some way the equivalent of being homosexual. (Both can involve a fair amount of glitter.) It is the suggestion that by identifying as gay that the individual thus opens him or herself up to a new form of persecution, of analysis, just as those who share their creativity do with the media, with fans. That ‘coming out’ is an act of personal, creative and social exposition on a mass scale; somehow justifying those around you to have an opinion because as an individual, you have set yourself apart at intrinsic level, willing to be judged.

If we continue along this line of thinking, of a mutual dilemma between the notable and the homosexual, it isn’t difficult to draw very obvious comparisons. Looking through any newspaper is likely to uncover stories discussing both celebrities’ right to privacy in our society and the seemingly never-ending moral debate to grant queer individuals the same rights as those who are considered normal. In the eyes of the majority, it often seems that gaining notability and gaining a queer identity may as well be one and the same, it sets you apart in a way that creates such a permanent division that the very abyss of comprehension breeds a disturbing fascination in some, over what we do and how we think. This obsession can be seen to manifest through our celebrity-plagued tabloids and through the rhetoric of those organisations that seems intent to demonize homosexuals for being the other, the heathen, those at perpetual fault.

The narrative of fear, exaggeration, investigation and caution featured in both the secular and the sacred is certainly nothing new but still proves effective due to our morbid enthralment in that which is not our own. To hold up someone so similar yet so grotesquely distinct from the typical has long proved to be an effective discourse because it inspires its very own journey, its own transformation that can far too easily be twisted into one of corruption, of the fall, harking back to the original cautionary tale.

Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga

The notion of ‘coming out’ is one that will be an unavoidable, if not important, part of the lives of many queer individuals. However, the prominence of the issue may very well overshadow the fact that a great deal of the hostility faced by outed queer individuals is not in fact to do with their sexuality but more the disruption of their performative charade of heteronormativity. Just as we seem obsessed with the origin of celebrities, searching for a state of normality that predates the genesis of their intrigue, it’s the fixation upon that former self, that contrived identity that fit neatly into the lines of regularity that is mourned, not the birth of a truer individual.

It is this mirage that we give far too much credit to, this last tenuous link between the homosexual other and the heteronormative self that is somehow seen as a valid component in our culture’s sexual identity. By valuing the performance of normality that we all lock behind us in the closet over the truth, we give it strength through the idea that it was ever somehow representative, somehow real. If it was Judith Butler that argued that all gender was performative, it was Lady Gaga that proclaimed, ‘I’m not real. I’m theatre… and this, this is just rehearsal.’

And it will only be once we stop attempting to peer behind the curtain, only by abandoning the belief that deep down we are all the same, can we move past this social complex that those that are dissimilar are worthy of discussion, interrogation, and, inevitably, cultural consumption. Only then will we move beyond this cultural fascination with others as a distraction from scrutinising our own identities. Only then will we close the door on the shock and awe of coming out.

– This article was originally published in the first issue of the University of Glasgow queerzine publication, Polariin October 2012.

3 thoughts on ““I’m not real, I’m theatre”

  1. Fascinating piece. Can it be extended to some / most / all of the rest of the population who sense that they are different, though not in any definable or easily labeled way such as “queer”? In fact, does anyone actually feel they ‘belong’, that they (as you say) “fit neatly into the lines of regularity”? It may be that we are *all* hiding behind a more or less “contrived identity”.

    • Thank you! That’s a very valid comment on the topic, I think there’s definitely something to theories of performative identity and cultural pressure. Interestingly, a lot of it is linked back to queer identities by philosophers such as Michel Foucault, he argued that the homosexual identity was effectively created by society in order to regulate people better. The idea was that if you create a marginalised identity and actively subjugated it, the majority of people would make an active effort to identify with the dominant, supported, version. (In that sense you could argue that heterosexuality was born from homosexuality.)

      In brief, everyone to a varying degree is socially guided into codified models of behaviour, taste and morality via their wider culture. I think queer identity is a particularly interesting example of it because the realisation and acquisition of their ‘true’ identity is more culturally prominent because it involves an active inversion of one’s public identity. (Whereas these changes are likely to be more subtle in other fringe identities that exist along similarly marginalised cultural stereotypes.)

  2. Having started to think about this, it seems we are probably all acting a role – or series of roles – most of the time, to make ourselves appear more ‘acceptable’ – or more interesting! to the person/people we are with. Much of that may be based on stereotypes, our own perceptions of stereotypes, and our preconceptions of *other people’s* perceptions: our ‘performance’ in a given situation will vary depending on the response of the ‘audience’. So, if chatting to a stranger on a train :), one might not initially reveal gender preferences until one has worked out what their response might be: with a crowd of friends on a Friday night out, one’s role in the group – as leader, or clown, or ‘the sensible one’ – may already be established, to be lived up to OR deliberately contradicted as the mood takes us – and whether the rest of the group seems ‘up for it’.
    I agree, though – creating social ‘outcasts’ – whether based on sexuality or colour or wearing the wrong brand of trainers – starts in the school playground. Humans seem to constantly strive to group everyone into ‘us’ and ‘them’. Why? THAT’s the big question!! Is it inbuilt, or learned?

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