In photos, she has always reminded me of my high school English teacher; in person, she’s similarly sharp, the contours of her face angled even in the dull light.
She says, The essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy1, and orders a G&T.
I ask for a soda and lime, ask, “But what do you mean by ‘artificial’?” I point to the little plastic cup in my hand—“Does camp love this?”
She doesn’t laugh; picks her glass up off the bar.
“And anyway,” I say, “Why do we have to associate something like camp—something that people associate with us queers, with mincing, with drag queens—with the unnatural? Isn’t that kinda bullshit?”
Camp taste is much more than homosexual taste, she says, looks at me pointedly. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation. This last part said as though that was all there was to say. Then, Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment. It is a kind of love, love for human nature.
By that I think that she must mean that humans are nature.
Then, after a pause: Camp is a tender feeling.
…I say, “I’ve always liked camping.”
After all, a peacock still fans its tail…
after all what was it when me and a boy in my high school class first got together in a tent—a thin layer of skin between us and the fields outside—but entirely natural and entirely artifice? “This will take practice to be good at,” I thought.
I sing myself. 2
Mine is a sissy’s environmentalism. Do not ask me to go climbing. I won’t go. If I see a snake of any size, I’ll scream like a Victorian headed for the fainting couch. I choke up at downed trees. I love to hike, but every basic white gay on Tinder says he loves to hike. I’m the friend you invite camping because I can cook and occasionally light a fire; not the friend who can read the map or identify wild grasses for you.
I listen to birds without knowing their names. I cook so you will remember the land has fed you. I find nature in feeding you, feeding myself—one day I want all these nutrients to go back into the dirt, so please don’t put formaldehyde in me. I worry. Does it sound like there are as many birds in the yard as there once were?
Not gay as in I kiss boys in the woods, but queer as in I am always thinking about climate change a little.
“Are straight people ok?” reads the text under the screengrabbed photos of a woman, her pregnant belly bearded with bees. She is beaming, abdomen covered completely in the black mass of insects. Perhaps the photos are a kind of environmental statement. Perhaps the couple recently read about declining bee populations. Perhaps they thought that’s what the world needs: more bees; more babies.
I run into a former coworker on a walk. She is round with pregnancy, and I stand six feet back from her belly because no one shares air anymore. A few miles from where we are, there will be a protest later today about the murder of George Floyd by the police. “I just think it’s time for us to bring a new, antiracist generation into the world to do what we couldn’t,” she tells me. I am stunned by this woman in her early thirties already passing on humanity’s betterment to the next generation. As though she bears no responsibility to it, as though we have aged out of the world.
What, really, is the difference between queer audacity and straight audacity? Between the bee-covered woman and a drag queen other than identity?
I see two distinguishing points: first, the unspoken adjective in the sardonic “are straight people ok?” is almost always “white”; second, this relationship to the world, which sees the job of one generation as only to produce the next which they say will fix the world, is an irredeemably straight kind of audacity. It’s that audacity that got us here, that believes industry will secure our future instead of destroy it.
Why does it follow that heterosexuality necessarily monopolizes optimism?3
I was a chubby kid with thighs that carried me fast up mountainsides. I took to hiking the way some people take to swimming. My aunt said I was a billy goat, and later that maybe I was a mountaineer in a past life. I just loved the feeling of my heels pressing the earth.
I always needed time outside, time alone. Away from the eyes of other people, I could imagine myself as anyone else. Once, when she didn’t want to play with me, my best friend said, “God! Go be a sad gnome or something!” It could have been cruel, but instead it was funny. So I became The Gnome.
In middle school, I find a moment to tell my first crush I like him. He’s the boy I sit alone with outside of art class almost every day. Later, I also tell him that a “faggot” was once a bundle of sticks—set for burning. Which is how he came to call me that—“bundle of sticks”—instead of a goat or a gnome. We didn’t sit together after that.
A decade after, I turn to the man I’m seeing, say “I think I’m in love with you.” I feel the breath between that and when he says, “I almost just said that to you.”
“A child deserves to be raised by a mother and father,” the same man says to me just before “You know what I mean.” And putting aside his bad politics, I never felt sadder for him than when he said that with the same mouth that kissed my knuckles, my lips, my chest, my inner thighs, that breathed “I love you” into my mouth.
This is not a screed against having children, nor a suggestion that queers don’t have them. I simply reject the notion that production alone improves the world.
The heterosexual script is reflexive because of its pervasiveness: we confuse reflex with nature. We raise children assuming they will be straight. That’s, perhaps, how artifice became a queer means of escape, how camp came to be unnatural and therefore queer.
I don’t blame that man for saying that. After I came out, I had to retrain myself to imagine a future with a man rather than a woman. Coming out requires imagining a new world for yourself, and I had practice.
Amazing! He’s a whole new kind of life. Blue eyes blazing, and he’s going to be my wife. 4
There are limits to our imaginations though. Being raised to be a straight man doesn’t, for example, teach you to imagine how you’d handle a group of men screaming at you from a truck.
I can tell you who my first crush was: Lee who worked at our neighborhood greasy spoon. I was six, and Peggy—my babysitter who was a little on the older side, a little worse for wear, probably a lesbian—took me on a walk along a dried streambed near our first house. I tripped on a rock, gouged out a piece of my knee: you can still see the scar. My leg gushing, Peggy and I hustled up the hill to where Lee lived. I recognized him from the diner, but it was strange to see him somewhere else. He cleaned out my knee and bandaged it up on his front porch.
I couldn’t tell you anything about what Lee looked like now except that he was, I think, probably in his twenties and had dark hair. But I can remember the feeling of being nurtured that way, of feeling him smiling while he fixed me up.
I’m in danger here of coming back around and rediscovering “born this way,” but please don’t misunderstand me. I completely don’t care whether it’s my genes or hormones or my shitty dad that made me queer, and I’ve always resented that bullshit. “Born this way” like we’re supposed to be begging our way back into “nature” when heterosexuality is itself artifice. I was a queer kid, but gay is to straight not as copy is to original but as copy is to copy. 5 Straight identity only exists because people were anxious about being queer, which is to say unfixed.
We define Nature as everything outside ourselves. We deny our human natures.
Not gay as in a reaction to heterosexual, but heterosexual as in a reaction to queer.
Show me what animal would call themself heterosexual but you.
Apropos of nothing I once had the thought that moths must be queer. So I bought a book on moths. When you know you know.
Around the time I met Lee, my favorite animal was the possum: this land’s only marsupials. Ecological weirdos; Morbid drama queens; Ecosystem cleaners. My mom’s gay coworker gave me a pink possum toy, one of only two stuffed animals I earnestly cuddled growing up. That fall, in the woods by our first house I found a baby possum’s corpse after our cats got to it. I pet the body until my mom found me, made me wash my hands with water so hot it hurt.
Twenty years later, after a hard freeze, the agave that’s taller than I am in my parents’ new front yard showed signs of stress, including one leaf that bent over towards the tip: limp wrist. I text a photo of it to a queer cousin: “Is he…you know?”
The agave, like most succulents, can reproduce asexually. It simply makes its own future.
Not gay as in human, but queer as in more-than.
But how can I write about being queer in the age of climate change without writing about AIDS? Without writing about the fact that, like so many others, I am the aftermath of a kind of apocalypse? Without reminding you that the Earth First! activist, Christopher Manes, said we environmentalists could see AIDS not as a problem, but a necessary solution?6 About how Exxon scientists knew how serious climate change was in the eighties? About how AIDS wasn’t taken seriously until it wasn’t just queers and black people getting sick? How can I talk about queer futures without noting that even if queer adults weren’t systematically kept from children–-queer children—that my generation would have still grown up with a fraction of the role models they should have?
I am one of the only gay people I know of my generation to grow up knowing many gay adults. What is a queer future without a past? With one apocalypse behind us and another coming?
The optimism of heterosexuality is a shallow one: Future generations, future technologies, aren’t solutions to present harm. The logic of fossil fuels tells us that we need carbon to protect the lives we have grown accustomed to in the future. It justifies this in the face of environmental calamity by relying on the future, by insisting there will be technology to clean the atmosphere. Fossil fuels rely upon our lack of imagination, upon the belief that the yet-to-be-born (people, technologies) will be better, more capable, more righteous than we who are already here.
Not apocalypse as in the end of the world, but queer as in that which keeps going.
The question becomes: How to proceed once the alarm has already been sounded?7
There is the one whose teeth were like little round stones: so smooth and curved. Below his ribs, a third nipple—abundance. He said there wasn’t much sensation, but I played with it anyway.
There is the one with a machine in two parts attached to his hip and thigh whose secret language told him his blood sugar. I called it his friend. After we broke up, I woke one night thinking I’d heard it alerting him to an impending low.
There is the one who left me Frank O’Hara poems copied out by hand. Who was always happy to bite and be bitten. Who once paused with me, suspended in kissing, as my phone played John Darnielle whining Hail Satan! Hail Satan!, and the humor of us being two boys kissing to that sent us into fits of giggles.
There is the one who wrapped one grapefruit arm around my chin as I jerked him off and didn’t let go when I tried to pull away. Who made me think of the baby rabbit I once held in the woods, its soft fur brushing my hands as it tried to escape them. Who, like me, eventually let go.
There is the one who made noises like a small animal in a barely heated apartment I slept in a couple of nights a week. I cried when I fucked up his birthday cake, but we ate it all anyway and slept with our bellies full on his air mattress, pulled close to keep warm in the New England chill.
As a little boy, people always mistook me for a girl: waitstaff; strangers; once an older man with his hand suddenly on my shoulder, telling me I was headed for the wrong bathroom. My mom always attributed this to my positive qualities. It was because I was polite, because I was friendly. Boys, she explained, weren’t usually like that. I love my mother for this, for not being my grandmother who once told me to artificially pitch my voice down to stop the confusion. As an adult though, I have to guess that what people were really responding to was something hazy about me, something emergently queer.
As an adult in Salt Lake City, I ride my bike a few miles up to the mouth of City Creek Canyon. Even though I almost always wear headphones these days, I leave them at home this time. Before I make it into the hills, I accidentally end up walking off the trail and can’t figure out the best way back; I wind up scrambling along the creek bed, insisting to myself that the trail will probably reappear soon.
Back on the trail I wonder: Am I more man or more queer? Is that a calculus more to do with me or with artifice? Which has shaped me more? What is the limit at which a grackle is a grackle and not its own incredible self-declaration: Static-screaming-hissing?
Perhaps only by risking the incoherence of identity is connection possible. 8
I went on a hike and thought about my gender in the woods; how queer.
There is a creek by my parent’s house: a riparian grassland nestled behind the neighborhood. Take a right out our front door and head to the end of the block. There, you’ll find a space in the fencing between property lines, a wooden wall set a few feet behind it to hide the gap. It would be easy to miss. Beyond that portal is a path leading to a set of concrete stairs, down to a long, narrow stretch of grass and trash and limestone. Across the creek, tents and camping gear are signifiers of someone who’s made a home there.
I frequented this place as a little boy, pacing the grass and looking up at the houses behind me, vigilant to the threat of being watched. It was here I did the magic of world-building; I’d imagine myself a butch warrior girl, or a version of me [chubby, bookish] gifted with magic powers. I entered into other lives. I imagined other worlds. This liminal ecosystem: the place where I could unmake myself and make me anew.
When I grow up I want to be a list of further possibilities. 9
When the sirens sound, you’ll hide under the floor. But I’m not gonna go down with my hometown in a tornado. I’m gonna chase it. 10
I am tired of hearing that it’s hopeless. I am tired of being told that the only hope is the future. How do we keep going in a climate changed world if we cannot imagine future pleasures or present solutions? How do we keep going without being able to imagine a world that keeps going? If I can’t have utopia, then give me just-okay-topia. Give me a world where tender feelings can replace unthinking despair and unearned hope.
I check the AQI to see how the air breathes today and imagine myself braver in the face of terror.
I laugh my hyena laugh. Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough. 11
A possum jogs across the street in front of me, slips into a storm drain.
When you’re queer, you have already unlearned one life that you were assured you’d have and imagined another. We are practiced in the art of letting go. The world is messy and damaged and uncertain. It is also worth the work of trying.
 All italicized text in section I is quoted directly from Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.”
 I sing myself… Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
 Why does it follow that heterosexuality necessarily monopolizes optimism? Michael Snediker, “Queer Optimism”
 Amazing! He’s a whole new kind of life. Blue eyes blazing, and he’s going to be my wife… The Magnetic Fields, “When My Boy Walks Down the Street”
 Gay is to straight not as copy is to original but as copy is to copy. Judith Butler, as quoted in Nicole Seymour, “Strange Natures”
 see AIDS not as a problem, but a necessary solution. Christopher Manes as quoted in Nicole Seymour, “Strange Natures”
 How to proceed once the alarm has already been sounded? Nicole Seymour, Bad Environmentalism
 Perhaps only by risking the incoherence of identity is connection possible Judith Butler, as quoted in Michael Snediker, “Queer Optimism”
 When I grow up I want to be a list of further possibilities Chen Chen, “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities”
 When the sirens sound, you’ll hide under the floor. But I’m not gonna go down with my hometown in a tornado. I’m gonna chase it Phoebe Bridgers, “I Know the End”
 Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia
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