As the sort of queer who rails against corporate rainbow-washing and cops in Pride, I’ve always found it difficult to process the neoliberalization of identity, which reduces people to career strengths and board room assets. The community activist in me hates the valorization of hierarchy implied by the term ‘leadership’, and I consider the Protestant work ethic little more than a bit of cultish corporate brainwashing.
Having got that out of my system, I admit I couldn’t help but enjoy celebrity fashion stylist Andrew Gelwicks’ extensive survey The Queer Advantage: Conversations With LGBTQ+ Leaders on the Power of Identity. Gelwicks reveals, across dozens of interviews, how the experience of being queer offers a range of strengths and not always apparent ones. His interview subjects – 50 of them from a broad diversity of fields – reflect on what qualities their queerness has instilled in them; advantages they’ve been able to tap into throughout their lives.
His discussants range across the breadth of America’s corporate, entertainment, and sports elites (close to 60 percent are men, but Gelwicks also incorporates women and gender non-conforming individuals). Gelwicks is authentic, honest and down-to-earth in his engagement with these subjects, and puts as much of himself out there as he asks of his discussants. The irrepressible optimism and joy he feels for queer community echoes through the diverse collection of interviews, and gives the book a sense of inspired momentum.
That said, I struggled with a plurality of feelings while reading the book. Although some of Gelwicks’ subjects struggled with poverty, homelessness, racism, and other oppressions over the years, they’re all wealthy and successful individuals today. In this, they are a distinct minority, especially given the systemic inequities that lead to queer and trans people facing significantly higher rates of unemployment, abuse, violence, homelessness, poor health, and other negative outcomes compared with those who mesh more seamlessly with the white, heterocentric cis male normativity of our world.
In this context, it’s all too easy for stories of exceptionalism to be used as excuses to deflect attention from pervasive systemic inequities. It can also be depressing for queer and trans folk who struggle with those inequities to read the success stories of those who managed to make it because they had not just drive and skill but that other vital quotient: luck.
And yet, ‘success’ stories like these serve an important role as well. They push back against the still-pervasive narrative that coming out as queer or trans will inevitably destroy one’s dreams, or consign one to a life of marginality. They celebrate the immense potential for creativity, innovation, genius and leadership that queer identities bring to our world. And yes, it can also be inspiring and joyous to read the stories of those who came into their queerness and used it to improve not just their own lives but the lives of those around them too.
Several common themes emerge across Gelwicks’ interviews. Insofar as growing up queer has often meant growing up othered and different from the norm, it’s led to a precocious ability to perceive social conventions, and to realize the constructed nature of behaviours. It often leads queer youth to spend a lot of time inside their own heads, honing a profound capacity to reflect on and analyze the world around them. Being on the outside produces a stronger understanding of that world than being comfortably ensconced within it.
As writer, producer and director Lee Daniels puts it, “We all have a third eye. We have a knowingness that is inherent, and that makes us who we are, as queer people. It’s almost psychic.”
‘Work ethic’ and ‘resilience’ are terms that appear repeatedly. The determination to succeed in spite of repeated oppressions drives many of the interviewees. Uncritical valorization of the work ethic should always be problematized – it may lead to financial success, but is it healthy? Those interviewed convey that innate sense of satisfaction that comes when the underdog triumphs and rises above their oppressor.
Pop musician Troye Sivan, for instance, points out that growing up queer, knowing he didn’t and couldn’t fit in meant that he didn’t do things in life for popularity or status the way other kids did. He did them to get them done and get them done well. This helped him develop a strong work ethic and a love for work as its own end – not as an end toward status or personal gain.
There’s also an equanimity about failure. Perhaps because of experiences of bullying and persecution, a number of Gelwicks’ subjects emphasize the ways in which they came early on to understand failure as a learning process, and didn’t get hung up about it. There appears to be an easier ability to deal, process, and move on than perhaps exists among those who have always expected or experienced uninhibited success.
New York Times columnist and writer Jennifer Finney Boylan offers the fascinating insight that being queer – and trans in particular – has helped her to develop a core belief in life as a process of revision: “If you don’t get something right the first time, your life isn’t over…What is being transgender if not a kind of cosmic way of believing in the power of multiple drafts? Being trans made me understand you get a lot of shots in this life. It’s never too late to become yourself.”
The narratives are short, but there are some fascinating little stories packed in there. Film producer Howard Rosenman recounts how he shifted from a medical career to one in the entertainment industry. He left medical school in New York to serve with the Israeli Defense Forces as a medic in the Six-Day War; after it ended he met composer Leonard Bernstein in Jerusalem (who recognized him as having served him at a café in New York). Bernstein took a shine to him and got him a job back in America as a personal assistant to Katharine Hepburn.
Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff who brought the case that legalized same-sex marriage in America, offers some stirring personal insights into the life experiences and perseverance that drove him and the flukes and good fortune that helped move their case forward. Former White House staffer Jeremy Bernard shares touching insights from being part of President Barack Obama’s team as Obama’s perspective on same-sex marriage grew and evolved (thanks, in part, to the initiative of his vice-president, Joe Biden).
The power of authenticity, the value of being “comfortable in your own skin” and “bringing all of you to what you do” encompasses another range of common experiences described by the interviewees. Many of them outline the middling success they experienced while they were in the closet; fear and worry just as often stifled their creative and problem-solving capacity. Once they came out, they could worry less about the image they presented and act more authentically; for many of them, it was only after coming out that they began achieving their greatest successes.
Television and film director Paris Barclay describes how, before he came out, it took tremendous energy to try to get along with people he worried might not be open to his queerness. Once he came out – and some of them did indeed turn cold toward him – he realized that it made far more sense to let those people fall out of his life. He would instead work with allies with whom he would not have to compromise himself. “By being open about it in the industry, I probably lost some jobs. But I’m so glad I lost them, because they probably would have been environments I wouldn’t have wanted to work in otherwise…Within a very short time, I realized the self-selection of identifying as openly gay was much more beneficial to my career than the closeted approach I had thought would be strategically essential.”
Gelwicks acknowledges in his conclusion that ‘the queer advantage’ doesn’t simply boil down to pat formulas like bullying-leads-to-resilience. “The queer advantage is not linear,” he observes. “The means toward leaving behind a diminished life and claiming a fruitful, self-actualized one are many. Just as there is no one queer experience, there is no one queer advantage.” His book offers a sampling of the range of that experience, couched in implacably positive, optimistic self-reflections.
The inimitable George Takei deserves the last word, especially in the present context of America’s plague of Republican-driven hate-mongering. He reminds us that the only way to succeed is to remain optimistic, no matter what.
“If you’re a pessimist, you’re already defeated,” he says, drawing from the example of the long, drawn-out battle for marriage equality, which originally seemed insurmountable in the face of conservative rage and backlash. “Optimism is what gets progress. Pessimism gets nowhere.“