on queer archetypes, in every sense of the word.

do you know what archetypes are? lately i’ve grown obsessed with them, in no small part because of my wild unknown archetypes deck (pictured below), which is beautiful and confusing and which i don’t really know how to use. the definition of archetype is: “an inherited pattern of thought or symbolic imagery derived from past collective experience and present in the individual unconscious.” So, basically, they’re symbols and roles that are meaningful to every society on earth, regardless of location, time, etc. Once I started thinking about them, they turned up everywhere, including the line “the possibilities are endless/just laughter in the corner/of some archetypal diner,” in one of my favorite songs of the summer, “Margaret” by Swearin’. Of course I hadn’t noticed that line until I’d listened to it over twenty times, but by then, it was feeling like magic.

i picked a few cards to illustrate:

But what I’m thinking about lately is queer archetypes. Not just queer in the sense of sexuality, but queer in every way to exist outside of mainstream society. I grew up in 1980’s/90’s suburban long island, surrounded mostly but not entirely by white people, surrounded mostly but not entirely by people who wanted to conform, who went to church or temple and mouthed words on the appointed day but did not commune with the divine in any meaningful way. There was very little internet back then, and it was hard to find movies, TV, music or books that didn’t reflect the above values.

Yet, i turned out very different from pretty much everyone with whom I grew up. I did all this weird stuff that was just my instinct–some people told me they had these instincts too but they stuffed them down tight– and when I left town and found “my people” (in quotes because i don’t always enjoy the company of people who are like me, and most of my deepest human connections are with people who are not like me at all on a surface level, and also because some of “my people” are definitely from that town!), it was kind of funny because there were so many weird similarities between us. We’d been doing the same things! How did we all know?

I met people who thought they were aliens when they were children and waited out at night for their real parents to come and get them. I did that too. People who gravitated towards train tracks and bridges, not just for the danger but also for the implied movement, even when they weren’t ready to move yet. People who wrote until their hands hurt, people who understood why watching the leaves fall outside your window is more meaningful than doing your homework will ever be.

Why do so many people experiencing psychosis, who don’t know each other, who are from different countries and states and religions and lifestyles, have similar delusions? i have heard so many people say that the FBI is spying on them through their cell phone, their TV, their radio that i am wondering if it’s actually true. so many people think they’re Jesus–believers and non-believers. Why do so many punks have garlic tattoos? Why do so many zinesters have typewriters (and typewriter tattoos)? How did we all figure this out, locked in our houses, safe behind the door, so far away from each other?

There is an archetype for us, i guess–The Rebel, a word that sounds so cringey because it’s been misused and misrepresented and misunderstood and mocked. When I take a quiz about which archetype I am, that one comes up quite a bit. A lot of the names of the various archetypes are a little cringey. Other ones that come up a lot for me are The Artist, The Eternal Child, The Writer, The Healer, The Performer, the Storyteller. I embody a lot of these but there are also places that I don’t fit in. There are also places where we’re having experiences that are outside something bigger than ourselves and there is no word for it, because so many societies (esp. colonial/ colonized ones) hate and shun us.

One thing I’m thinking about in particular is the experience that a lot of queer/gender-non-conforming people have, of being a relatively normal small child, living the way your family lives because you don’t really think otherwise, and then seeing a queer person and just realizing that there were other ways to be. That jolt of recognition and the realization that you weren’t ever going to be the same again. Alison Bechdel captured it in her graphic novel Fun Home, which was then turned into the song Ring Of Keys which has made thousands of queer people cry. It’s about a simple moment–young Alison, sitting in a diner, saw a butch delivery woman and was awestruck–but didn’t really realize why until so much later. Her dad, a closet case, saw her staring and mockingly asked, “What? Do you want to look like that?”

What’s the name for that person? It’s not The Mentor and it’s not The Crone and it’s not any of those other things. So many queer people know what you’re talking about when you talk about that moment and so many straight/gender-conforming people, however well-meaning, just don’t get it at all. I dunno. I don’t have any special memory of a “Ring of Keys” moment from my childhood but I do remember back in 2012, when I was 30, I went to Rye Playland (a/k/a the place where Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” video was filmed. Also I have never in my life inserted so many youtube videos in a blog post) with my mom and siblings for my mom’s birthday, and it was a really good day, and I’d just survived a bad time in my life and was really shining, I had hot pink hair and wore contacts and it was probably the cutest I’ve ever been or ever will be again, and anyway, I was standing around with my siblings for some reason, probably waiting for a member of our party to go to the bathroom or get food or something, and I looked up and a girl who looks to be about 11 or 12 is giving me that Ring Of Keys look, and I smiled at her for a second and then looked away, because I lacked a certain courage, because I didn’t know the name for the Ring of Keys person and so I didn’t know how to embody her, because I realized what was going on a second too late. I tried to catch her eye again but she looked super-sad. So I’m going to reach in from the tangled thread that binds us all somehow and say: if you were ever on the receiving end of that broken eye contact in this exact highly specific situation, the other person didn’t break eye contact because of you. They didn’t break eye contact because there’s something inherently wrong with you. That may have been implied, but you’re actually great. You’re actually great and they’re extremely flattered that you saw a hopeful future embodied in them. Hopefully next time they have the bravery to return that stare for as long as you need them to. Hopefully, you no longer need them to.

3 thoughts on “on queer archetypes, in every sense of the word.

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