LOVE WILL SAVE YOU

A.V. Harrison, from This Series, 1970-75

As a self-described Big Gay™, I occasionally seek out queer news media. I do not enjoy this. Every time I type Them.us or Autostraddle into a browser it fills me with a deep sense of shame, both in myself for feeling so separate from queer culture at large, and at queer culture for its piss-poor sense of what constitutes newsworthiness. Yet I do this every few weeks because it seems important, from an ethnographic standpoint, to keep abreast of the things the gay community deems important enough to write about.

Gay news is bad. Gay news and journalistic standards occupy nearly separate circles of the same Venn diagram. It’s an online ecosystem built on breathless praise of neoliberal politicians that sidesteps the issue of How To Have Politics entirely. It riffs endlessly on the usefulness of cancel culture while simultaneously calling out authors, actors and social media personalities for meaningless slights that have no long-term significance. It encourages parasocial relationships with public figures. It takes Trump’s offhand remarks at face value, shunting them into anxious screeds that encourage the reader to panic, but not to consider the probability of whether the man’s ravings have any likely consequences. It revels in the clapbacks, the sassy merch, the coupons for sex toys, and the most inconsequential tea you can find on the internet, all while having no sense of what constitutes actionable, helpful information.

So sure, the news is bad, and every time I see a friend link to a Pink News story in utter seriousness I cringe so hard I could implode. But what worries me more than the news itself is the state of unfettered emotional investment this style of discourse encourages. Gay news swings between two poles: hypervigilance and hypercompersion.

Hypervigilance is for the negative: threats of anti-gay legislation, upticks in hate crimes. These are justifiable fears, but there is a sense of scale involved that these stories omit. Just because a bill has been proposed, it doesn’t mean it will pass. Just because hate crimes happen, it doesn’t mean they will happen to me, a white person in an affluent liberal city. Though there is a contingent that is encouraged by these threats to the gay community, be it the Proud Boys or the Boogaloo or whatever the 4chan militants of the moment are, these groups’ actions are generally difficult to predict outside of the context of protest events, and as such are not something I would recommend the average person worry much about. Taking in enough of these stories encourages a manner of self-marginalization that I have noticed amongst people overexposed to them. They experience a generalized despair that precludes any marginally useful actions, like donating to aid funds or getting involved in ground-level politics (I do want to note that these actions don’t solve the problems of anti-gay legislation and hate crimes, but they do contribute to a sense of personal fulfillment that can keep the wolf from the door for a time, and may provide some measure of support to those in need). Poisoned on the idea that the whole world hates them, they are rendered unable to act.

In a landscape so bleak, good news must provide a hefty counterpoint for the panic-stricken. This good news is often comparatively small – a TV show featuring gay characters, a personal essay about feeling affirmed (oh my god, there are so many thousands of personal essays) – so it winds up being an oversized section of these sites’ content, provided rapturously and, again, without scale, which encourages a hyperempathetic worldview. Clearly these stories are supposed to be personally illustrative or satisfying for the reader, despite the fact that they have no personal relevance beyond a desire to queue up Netflix, or the general human ability to empathize. To describe the feeling these stories are intended to evoke, I am borrowing the word ‘compersion’ from polyamory theory. Compersion is defined as a state opposite to jealousy, a fulfillment brought about by witnessing others have experiences that you desire. Compersion is beyond empathy; it is closer to emotional entanglement. In reading these soul-baring accounts of people I don’t know in relationships I can’t mimic, on trajectories I cannot follow, it feels like the ideal gay person is supposed to experience compersion for every strangers’ positive experience, and exist in state of sustained hyperempathy. Even minute exposure to this seems tiring to me, a person with robust boundaries between my self-concept and the media I consume. But to someone with a lower threshold, I imagine this sensation could be dangerous, and could easily result in emotional burnout or unrealistic expectations for personal relationships. The messaging behind so many of stories in this vein seems to be ‘love will save you from this bleak world’. That strikes me as a dangerous thing to promise, especially amongst demographics that statistically experience heightened rates of precarity.

I am currently counting down the clock on a large gender-affirming surgery, and these stories have taken on a new shade of offensiveness as a result. I see a great deal of messaging about how the ecstatic love of my communities will ferry me through my recovery. I have no caretakers; I have no lovers willing to spend weeks doing undignified things to assist me while I’m mostly incapacitated. I am not unusual in this way. I think most people would be met with a decent amount of skepticism if they reached out to their acquaintances to arrange this manner of intensive care for themselves. Yet if I am to believe the media I see, I should infer that my surgical results will be worse than average because I do not have the boundless support network made out by gay media to be the norm. I feel systematically alienated by this, and I’m someone with a decent amount of control over their emotions. Someone else could easily be driven to despair by this same idea. That’s an infohazard. It’s irresponsible to promote.

I would love to take the reins back on gay media and create an environment where nuance is encouraged, where facts matter, where celebrities are inconsequential, and where we don’t need to be spoon-fed optimism to feel secure about our place in the world. As an extended community, we have constructed very stupid idols that are due to be burnt. We shouldn’t need to construct this desperate folklore about how love will save us. Maybe we don’t need saving. Maybe we’re fine. Maybe the only sinking ship here is our skewed perception of our own vulnerability.