I’ve been using fiction to deal with my political anxieties for a long time. After George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, I decided the only way to deal with my feelings was to write and publish some smut. So I guest-edited an issue of an erotica magazine about “despair sex” — a whole passel of stories about people using sexuality to mourn an unbearable loss. I wrote a story for that collection myself, full of super-queer kinky sex as a coping mechanism for the failures of our political system. The main character describes herself as “sadistic and sarcastic, but not Socratic.”
A couple years later, though, I got deeper into my fears about our political system, and the ways that it could fail me. I wrote a story called “How I Went Back to the Closet,” about a gay man who is super out and proud — until he isn’t. (For some reason, in 2006, it felt easier in various ways to write this story about a gay man than it would have been for someone representing other letters in the LGBTQIA+ acronym.) I keep thinking about that story lately, because I feel like my queer community is stronger and bigger and more inclusive and more uncompromising than ever — but in the back of my mind is the fear that one day, we’ll all be forced to start hiding who we are.
In “How I Went Back to the Closet,” the real estate market collapses in 2006 — I was two years too early — and the financial system melts down, which triggers a huge economic crash. A few large corporations weather the crisis and start buying up every other company, and jobs get harder and harder to find. And then queer people start to realize that even if discrimination is illegal in theory, in practice there just aren’t any job opportunities for anyone who doesn’t fit in with the right “corporate culture.”
In retrospect, this was obviously a reflection of my own sheer terror of job-hunting as an openly trans woman. Applying for jobs was the only thing that I still hadn’t done since transitioning, because I’d been lucky to have a very chill gig for a long time, with accepting, supportive coworkers. I’d heard plenty of stories of trans people facing blatant discrimination — which was legal at the time. And indeed, soon after writing this story, I had two situations in a row where I was told I had a job, only to have the offer rescinded after they realized I was trans.
“How I Went Back to the Closet” is dated in a bunch of ways. Some of the language isn’t great, and some of the queer characters feel a bit tropey now. But I still think about the basic idea of the story all the time, because I think it’s still super relevant.
Economic inequality and corporate monopolies have not become less of a problem since 2006. And according to a survey from the National LGBTQ Task Force, trans people are twice as likely to be unemployed as everyone else, and way more likely to be underermployed and to have income below $10,000 a year. Another recent study found more trans people are unemployed than cis people, by 10 percent, and we’re way more likely to be poor. This was before covid-19, and also before the recent Supreme Court ruling that banned discrimination against us.
My worry is that you can have a million laws on the books banning discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people — but there will still be fewer employers, as companies continue to consolidate. And as wealth is concentrated in a few hands, we will all have to dance at the whims of our plutocratic overlords. Covid seems to be accelerating the trend of a handful of winners and many losers, and BIPOC and QTPOC folks, in particular, seem to be doing worse than everyone else.
You only have to spend some time looking at the #TransCrowdFund hashtag on Twitter to see the amount of suffering and need out there right now, while a few giant corporations post record profits. (I encourage you not just to look at that hashtag, but to give as much as you can spare to as many of the people on there.)
When I wrote “How I Went Back to the Closet,” I was trying to warn about the danger that we could gain civil rights for LGBTQIA+ people, but overlook rising economic inequality — and that inequality could make our rights all but irrelevant. We could be free to be ourselves, in a world where all the wealth was in the hands of a tyrannical few.
Lately, of course, I hear people making the opposite argument: progressives should stop worrying about “identity politics” and focus only on economic issues. “Identity politics,” in this context, meaning human rights. Meaning the rights of marginalized people, including BIPOC people and LGBTQIA+ people and disabled people, to exist. To live our lives. To have equal access to the fruits of some glorious redistribution.
But the longer I watch politics, the clearer it is: we need both. Economic justice and social justice must go hand in hand, because one is about the fair distribution of resources, and the other is about making sure those resources are for absolutely everybody. And it’s just bad strategy to force people to choose between full personhood and economic opportunity, full stop. A political movement that prioritizes both things will energize people, and clarify the stakes.
But the other piece of this thought experiment still sticks in my mind: the notion that the closet will always let you back in. Which seems like a weird notion: once you’ve come out to your friends, loved ones, coworkers, etc., then everybody knows you’re queer and there’s no taking it back. Except that you make new friends and meet new coworkers, and most of the time they’ll only know what you tell them about yourself. Most people won’t bother to get curious or dig up your past, unless you give them some reason to wonder. And even though we always say everything on the internet is forever, it’s pretty easy all the time to bury a lot of your past, if you try hard enough.
Most of all, heteronormativity means that straight people tend to assume that everyone else is straight, unless they’re given reason to suppose otherwise. Cis people assume everyone is cis. And so on. That doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have a lot of paranoia that people might find out what used to be common knowledge about you — you definitely would. And you’d never know for sure what people might know.
Like the protagonist of “How I Went Back” says, “what I thought was an irreversible process was more like a plant that needed tending or it died.”
Not trying to be a downer, or scare anybody. Part of how my writer brain works is, I always ask: How could things go wrong? And when I look at all the progress we’ve made in the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s hard not to notice that those gains are not being shared equally by all of us. But also, it’s scary to realize that our civil rights are arriving in tandem with rising plutocracy. And I don’t quite see how those two trends can coexist forever.
Top image: Steve Rhodes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
I was in conversation with Veronica Roth the other day at the Portland Book Festival, and you can view the video of our discussion about chosen ones and Chicago pizza vs Detroit pizza here (registration required).
This coming weekend, I’m the guest of honor at Chessiecon, a wonderful convention in Baltimore, and I’m going to be having a chat with K.M. Szpara in which we’ll probably talk about capitalism and queerness. Chessiecon is all online this year, and they are still taking registrations.
The latest episode of Our Opinions Are Correct is all about books that will get you through the long winter ahead.
Please pre-order my young adult novel Victories Greater than Death, coming in April 2021. Also, the book version of those essays I’ve been writing about how to use creative writing to survive hard times, Never Say You Can’t Survive, is out in August 2021. Please do pre-order these from your local bookstore!