The “It's complicated” column is Ben Sharp’s uninhibited (and English-language) approach to subjects that deserve attention but perhaps shouldn’t always require academic research or too much intellect. Discourse over doctrine or coded commentaries. Ben – a British-born, Berlin-based, gay 20-something with passions for fashion, fried chicken and overthinking – looks to pose questions that are answered differently, in intrinsic relation to our individual experiences and identities.
There’s something strange about the word belonging. This powerful word the ILY team have decided to dedicate energy to with a handful of new articles. I’ve always had this weird obsession with language to the point where I often do my own thoughts a disservice by dismantling the purity of certain words and terms far beyond the meaning assigned to them as they’re employed within a given moment. So I don’t want to get carried away with an overanalysed, possibly downright incorrect understanding the word. BUT. “Belonging” surely only works in tandem with, or rather as a counterpart to a sense of “owning”, no? So if I belong to something – to a group, for example – does that mean I’m owned by something? A little bit, no?
Like, if queer culture offers me a sense of belonging because I’m a homosexual in a world set up by and for a heterosexual patriarchy, am I by the same token owned by that aforementioned queer culture?
I guess not. I suppose it’s not that simple, and I suppose nobody has ever suggested that it’s that simple. I certainly have no recollection of queer culture finding me in my youth and declaring that, what with the acknowledgement of my sexuality and all, I had just signed a contract and I was now owned by queer culture itself. (Of course back then – not even that many moons ago – “queer” held a different meaning for most people anyway.) Yet I can confirm that at times it has felt as if queer culture ain’t buyin’ what I’m sellin’.
As far as the gay experience goes, I’m one of the very, very lucky ones. My family were understanding almost to a point of uninterested as I came out, and I grew up in London. Largely open-minded and progressive, liberal London. What a true privilege. Yet the famed bars and clubs in Soho weren’t tickling my fancy as I was on the cusp of discovering my homosexual manhood. (They still don’t tickle my fancy, by the way.) That is in no way to dismiss the importance of their existence. I am fully aware of the haven they have continued to offer many, many people. The archetypal gay bar, for all its genuinely welcoming spirit and inclusivity, has simply never proven to be to my taste. And anywhere that nightlife as a gay man is restricted to the parameters of a subculture by means of a handful of bars and clubs, and even referred to as the wildly reductive term “gay nightlife”, this rather one-track idea of a gay bar will no doubt reign. I remember being in a gay bar in Munich one Friday night with a then colleague who, upon our arrival, said to me, “all gay bars have that same distinctive smell, don’t they?” I knew exactly what he meant; I can’t stand the smell he’s referring to. I can stand that “that same distinctive smell” exists even less.
Certainly when I was much younger, with not much more than Soho’s steretypical gay bars as my benchmark, I felt uncomfortable to think that this might be all there was for me. In films and TV, cliche-soaked depictions of young gay men discovering their sexuality had always shown exaggerated portrayals of country bumpkins finding themselves in the big city and specifically at the aforementioned bars. But I had easy access to those bars and still wasn’t fussed.
Fast-forward to the present and Berlin, where I’ve been living for a few years and existing quite separately from the city’s iconic, celebrated queer culture. This is a city to which many make a sort of pilgrimage because of its queer sensibility. (Even Uber got that memo: when the taxi service launched in the German capital recently, one poster ad suggested that “straight wasn’t the only way through the city”. Lol...?) And yet I have a similar feeling to that which London’s Soho often gave me. I’m just not that into the “scene”. To take the example of nightlife – that good old marker of the subculture – I mean eschewing Berghain, KitKatClub and the likes. I’m unimpressed by techno music as a rule, and impressed by but not personally attracted to the aesthetics or activities associated with such venues. Obviously that in itself is legitimate, not to mention a relatively luxurious problem to know, but does it mean that that slice of the queer culture pie doesn’t belong to me? That I don’t belong to it?
The problem with the notion of culture is that codes are quickly and firmly assigned. So a quick utterance of “queer culture” or “gay culture” conjures specific images. And, although I might protest that that isn’t problematic, those images – for me – don’t necessarily feel like home. I don’t necessarily feel that I belong to what those images convey.
To solve that problem, it would of course first and foremost be helpful, not to mention spectacularly progressive, if the notion of “queer culture” seemed as strange to the ear as “straight culture”. For as long as being queer means being marginalised, the essence of our culture will be limited and, by that token, limiting. As naïve and utopian as that might sound, it’s worth striving for. And for that, at least in my opinion, a certain balance needs to be considered. A balance between queer culture on an individual level and on a collective, even historical level.
Queer culture on an individual level could arguably be defined as whatever the individual seeks for a sense of belonging. What and how defines who a queer individual is. And while I might protest that I don’t “belong” to the subcultural groups and activities on offer, many do. I’m not looking to dismiss that or any individual’s owning of their identity, affirmed by being part of a community. Queer culture on a more collective level, however, must go beyond the way we live in the moment – and extend to the future. It is the same premise of how those who have gone before us, have allowed us, now, to simply be who we are.
Many of you, I assume, will not have heard of The Queer Bible. I would urge you to click and discover. The Queer Bible strives to engage the queer community with its, in my opinion, unrivalled content, charting historical figures – via personal tributes – who have seldom been made known to the masses and yet contributed enormously to the LGBTQ+ landscape and collective experience. The (so-much-more-than-just-a) blog cites writer and activist Morgan M Page to describe its raison d’être: “There are certain people who make things possible that were not before. If you’re fortunate, you’ll learn about the lives and legacies of those who made your own life possible.”
And so in my self-indulgent, self-exploratory monologue of how I feel about the idea of belonging to a queer community, I realise more and more that I must look beyond the surface-level markers. I belong to the LGBTQ+ community because without it and its inherent understanding of community, my life would have indeed not been possible. The community of activists and icons, the outspoken and the spokespeople made it so that I could live my truth. However much or little leather, latex or Lady Gaga that does or doesn’t involve. Regardless of an affinity for techno, Grindr or memes I just. don't. get. As far as the bigger picture is concerned, the community, as it were, has never questioned whether or not I belong. So why should I?
I want to know more about queer history. I want to belong to a group of humans that have fought and fight for me to be able to identify as me. And I guess that’s what queer culture actually boils down to. Or at least what it should boil down to. Note to self: forget all this subculture nonsense – I don't belong less to the queer community because I'm less in line with the stereotypical poster boy. The queer community is the spectrum of individuals that have fearlessly and fervently made it their mission to carve out spaces in which queer individuals are able to exist, to live and to love, often just by existing, living and loving as their most honest and queer selves.
Artwork: Lena Stewens