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Queer Joy Hunting

Have you been longing for queer joy throughout the pandemic? You’re not alone…

By Jaime Woo

This year, I went hunting for joy. That feeling of joy can be elusive, even in more ‘normal’ times. The definition of ‘normal’ is up to you: while the pandemic comes to mind first, it’s arguable that we haven’t experienced a recognizable form of normal since 2016 – yet it’s the pandemic that has most sharply curtailed familiar joys.

I’ve missed working from my favourite table at a coffee shop. And watching Netflix can’t replace the collective feeling that comes from sitting in a cinema, laughing and crying and gasping simultaneously with others. My body has been grounded for too long, whether it be 38,000 feet in the air on a plane or 15 feet on a bouldering wall.

Thankfully, we haven’t completely abandoned joy, having found it in other and often unexpected places. I revived my love of baking, gambled with keeping plants alive, and discovered the pleasure of reading during the daytime while walking in laps around my neighbourhood. I deepened my love of jazz by listening to the biographies of the greats, marvelling at how so many packed so much impact within such a short time.

But what I’ve longed for most, specifically, is queer joy. I’ve seen joy defined as positive experiences related to feelings of freedom, safety and ease; for me, then, queer joy is that exhilarating feeling that comes from being able to express our queerness clearly and with force. It is a state of both attitude and space, and, sadly, for many of us, the ways we found queer joy have been temporarily shuttered.

I’ve missed hanging with my friends at Drag Race screenings. I miss the energy, and sometimes I will transport myself back to Disgraceland where Vicki Lix, Selena Vyle and Hillary Yaas of the House of Lix would stomp the house down. I follow their (physically distanced) adventures through Instagram and their Squirrel Talk podcast, and it’s a nice little amuse-bouche for when we can meet again.

One thing I’ve learned during this pandemic, though, is that you cannot just try to transfer experiences from in-person to online. Zoom calls, with their staccato audio delivery, are a great example. We’ve adjusted our speech patterns to match Zoom, and I’ve found you lose the join that can come from piling onto one another, voices on top of voices.

Instead, we must adapt to change, as so many drag performers have expertly done. Something I’ve learned to appreciate more this past year has been the pleasure of nonsense. We live in deeply serious and troubling times, and to give yourself a moment of nonsense isn’t gluttonous – rather, it is a breath of fresh air so you can recharge before reentering the waters.

The spelling bee I watched on the Speakeasy Twitch channel was a great example of the joy of nonsense. Two teams of local drag performers competed to answer words correctly, and nothing mattered in all the best ways. The host, the stunning BomBae, wore bobby pins for eyelashes, one of which would later be used to help fix a technical difficulty.

And there were technical difficulties: the sound didn’t work, people cut in and out, at one point the feed had to be replaced with a Simpsons-esque “please stand by” card. You’d be forgiven for thinking the audience would be frustrated, or irritated. Instead, it was the complete opposite. Every glitch was a recognition that we’re all human, and that we are all in this together. After all, a glitch only matters if the audience thinks it matters.

The pandemic has taught us that while we like to think we are in control of our lives, life will go in the direction it wants. We can either sneer at how things aren’t going as we expected, or we can try to transform what we can into something joyful. When technical difficulties happened, the audience jumped into the chat to discuss how amazing the performers looked, and oddly but charmingly began to riff on toe-related puns. It reminded me of how you can spin gold out of hay, from here toe eternity.

It’s a reminder that while joy can come unintentionally (although it also seems like the world is intent on crushing it), it’s far better to create joy. We must do what we queer people have done since forever: we must create our own joy, especially when there is none visibly, obviously around us.

We show love in new ways. My friend Russ, unable to return to his hometown for the Christmas holidays, instead transformed it into time with his chosen family. He performed days of holiday baking, filling beautiful, iridescent boxes with red velvet cookie sandwiches, marshmallow squares and Oreo cookie bark, and then delivered them to friends’ doorsteps on Christmas Day. Most people were by themselves that day, and yet through his gesture they were reminded that they were not alone.

We lift ourselves out of this situation, yes, by being honest with our experience through it, and also by remembering that we are not alone, whether or not we have someone physically around us. We can end up taking a microscope to our own suffering and dive so deep it seems like nothing else exists. This isn’t true. There are others in the same position as you.

It can feel selfish almost to hunt for joy when the world is in such a gloomy place. Beyond the tragedies, the climbing number of deaths from the pandemic, we have a year where governments at home and around the world have willfully ignored those who are most needy. No paid sick days. No universal basic income. Instead, we have told people they are “essential” and repaid them with a handclap, while the “non-essential” wealthiest doubled, tripled, or more their wealth.

Finding queer joy is not to accept any of those injustices. In fact, it is a chance to remind ourselves that we have worth, while also demonstrating that act as a clarion call that change must happen.

As the wise Thich Nhat Hanh notes in his The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: “The ocean of suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see the land. The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy. When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to care for it. But don’t overlook all the healthy trees. Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life – the beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, the many flowers and trees. To suffer is not enough. Please don’t be imprisoned by your suffering.”

We can build it for ourselves, even when we are in a situation we weren’t planning for. One final example: I live alone, and I have recognized that instead of my place being somewhere just to inhabit, now that I have been here around the clock I must make it reflect myself more fully. Finding queer joy meant reimagining each occasion as one that celebrates not just how we survive but how we thrive.

The artificial Christmas tree that normally comes down after the holiday has refound life as a joint Valentine’s Day and Lunar New Year tree. It will be an emblem for Valentine’s Day, when I will spend the time making myself a beloved meal (fried chicken, gumbo and cornbread), spend the time to beat my face, put on something fancy, watch Crazy Rich Asians, and then settle into a nice, long bath. I will centre on the idea of love, and will remind myself of the love that I have for myself, and for the ones around me. Then, over Pride, it will become a Pride tree, wrapped in rainbows and glitter and other items of fabulousness.

The tree is a reminder that things do not have to follow convention, especially in these unconventional times. We create the world we want to live in, and so if the Pride tree sparks your joy, the idea is all yours. We don’t know when this pandemic will end, but the practice of crafting queer joy can stay with us long after it eventually does disappear.

JAIME WOO is a writer based in Toronto, focusing on the intersection of technology and culture. He’s best-known for his Lambda Literary-nominated book, Meet Grindr, dissecting how the design of the infamous app influences user behaviour.

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