Max Bemis of Say Anything. | Wikimedia Commons
G’Ra Asim,  August 22

Queer Poserdom

An emo figurehead places himself at the cultural margins—without assuming the risk

Max Bemis of Say Anything. | Wikimedia Commons
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Watching a grainy YouTube clip of Speedy Ortiz singer Sadie Dupuis performing “Shine Theory” on an unplugged electric guitar in 2013, I felt like I had stumbled upon a pirate radio transmission tuned to the frequency of my defective id. The instantly adhesive chorus struck me eerily as something grifted from my own brain: “I want to want him so bad, but I’ll never recognize the charms that he has. Because my heart looks in on itself and he’d be better loved by somebody else who cares about a face.” Like anyone, I’d heard countless songs about desire, but I had never encountered such a compelling articulation of what it feels like to lament desire’s conspicuous absence. The want of wanting is a sensation that doesn’t often propel the pens of bards. I’d been straining to approximate the properly breathless response to cooed-about faces (and other body parts) since puberty. I didn’t know it was a safe or even comprehensible thing to admit.   

There but for the grace of guitar go I. Though various friends and frustrated dates had accused me of being asexual, my main association with the word was the kind of reproduction made famous by starfish. Before hearing “Shine Theory,” I had never entertained the possibility that words like demisexual or gray asexuality could apply to me. If you’re just moseying through life going the way your blood beats, a relative paucity of blood rushes might not tip you off that your sexuality is something other than standard issue. Epiphanies are structurally less likely to occur via negative feedback loops. I knew right away that the lyrics to “Shine Theory” addressed a kind of non-normative sexuality that I identified with, but I didn’t know there was any cogent vernacular for describing it. I only learned otherwise through an interview with Dupuis. “It would never have occurred to me that I was asexual,” she told the Grey Estates. “I’d had and enjoyed sex but had only ever liked it in my first really long-term relationship. When I learned about the asexuality spectrum, and that secondary sexual attraction is even a thing, my attraction history suddenly made a lot of sense.”

I couldn’t imagine any loan officers turning me down on the basis of my indifference to ESPN The Magazine’s annual “Body” issue.

Realizing there was language and a community for the non-normative sexuality I had chalked up to personal deficiency didn’t quite make it appealing to “identify” as ace. I partially attribute my initial reticence to being brought up in the black civil rights tradition. My folks had raised me to believe that sublimation and concealment were often more conducive to black survival than transparency. But I also had more civic-minded reservations. Asexuality wasn’t an albatross on the job market. I couldn’t imagine any loan officers turning me down on the basis of my indifference to ESPN The Magazine’s annual “Body” issue. I’d never seen a Westboro Baptist Church picket sign alleging the heathendom of people who are virgins into their late twenties. I perceived LGBTQ awareness and advocacy as something made necessary by persistent discrimination. Popping my jersey for gray asexuality seemed too much like a fifth grade boy demanding accommodation on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Marrying a woman and rendering my quasi-queerness largely illegible projected as a highly plausible life outcome. Plus, I was punk—a member of a subculture forever consumed with internecine squabbles about sincerity. Misguided or not, laying claim to anything about which you lack sturdy bonafides is anathema to us. Marginalization needn’t be definitional to queerness, sure, but why do anything to de-center queer folks who are actually in harm’s way?

On the other hand, it’s squarely on-brand that Say Anything frontman Max Bemis—one of alternative music’s most celebrated auteurs of tuneful oversharing—has taken a different tack. Last week, Bemis posted a message on the band’s website titled “A Goodbye Summation,” in which he addresses his sexuality, spirituality, and the band’s plans for the future.  

“I have always been bi-ish or queer or a straight guy who can also like boys,” Bemis writes. “I always talked about it or joked about it with my friends and found it to be blatantly clear I was.”

“So yeah,” he says in summary. “I’m a queer, Jewish, Christian skeptic pseudo-anarchist with a belief in metaphysics and the application of ‘magical’ stuff. Woof.”

When it comes to emo figureheads, it’s fair to wonder if the proclamation of a non-normative sexual identity is a cynical play for relevance. It’s true that my own intense identification with Speedy Ortiz’s “Shine Theory” suggests that Bemis, too, could well have the potential to empower and inspire innumerable others. Listeners engage with countercultural music willfully seeking equipment for living. Music offers unique possibilities for the illumination of self. I couldn’t recognize myself when people called me asexual to my face—it only began to click when Dupuis was strumming my numbness with her fingers.

But Speedy Ortiz is an explicitly politicized band in terms of its engagement with consent culture and feminism in addition to sexuality. Say Anything doesn’t have the same track record, and Bemis’s admission is opportune in a way that wouldn’t apply to Dupuis. Bemis is a white cis dude married to a white cis woman. He enjoys all of the privileges that come with the appearance of being a member of a Brahmin caste. Aligning himself with a social outgroup is unlikely to undercut his privilege in any tangible way. It feels more like someone who is already granted the widest berth in the corridors of power annexing even more space. Is it really altruism that motivates him to publicly clarify that his Kinsey score is slightly different than what his marital arrangement might suggest?

I understand but don’t share woke people’s defensiveness when gender traditionalists insist that the increasing visibility of queer or non-normative identities can be dismissed as a trend. Rather than argue the point with the eye-rolling old guard, I would invite them to take that thinking a couple steps further. If we accept that the gender binary is a social construction, then it’s not a giant leap to suggest that cishet identity is itself a trend—albeit one whose longevity is indebted to aggressive policing. It had to go out of fashion eventually. Why not now?

Social scientists have long recognized gender and sexuality as fluid rather than fixed entities. No one’s sense of self is happening in a vacuum, so why wouldn’t the norms of a given era influence how people define themselves? When a parochial Baby Boomer sneers at a young person who uses they/them pronouns, the former’s commitment to gender rigidity is as much a product of time and place as the latter’s openness to the opposite. Acknowledging the ways in which an identity is subject to the circumstances in which it exists doesn’t make an identity less “real.” (We’re quite generous with this sort of reasoning when trying to sanitize the political leanings of the white working class, but downright miserly when accounting for how other people’s social context shapes their politics.) Compulsory heterosexuality has been a cornerstone of Western culture but presently might be losing ground. Loosen heteronormativity’s yoke, and of course more people will openly defy it.

I pause any time someone invokes “straight white males” as if they are the sole vessels of pernicious isms, the only boogeymen deserving of a wary gaze. Clearly being gay, of color, and a woman is no guarantor of compassion or tolerance. I understand why one might be most critical of persecution that rains down in blows from above, but one can and probably will catch hell from people who are also marginalized themselves. The pervasive use of “people of color” in conversations about racism is inexact in a similarly troubling way, because it so conveniently occludes the fact that non-black POC are about as likely to be anti-black as white people.

While I’m sure many people receive this social justice shorthand with a certain amount of nuance, it would not surprise me if some white men are drumming their fingertips together Montgomery Burns style and muttering “well, what if I’m not so straight, eh?” With a bit of carefully modulated hinting, they can suggest that they may not meet all three of the iniquitous straight, white, and male criteria—and thus can claim that they are not part of the problem and in fact among those who suffer from it.

Though I would not equate Bemis with Kevin Spacey in any moral sense, I do wonder if there is a similar gamesmanship at work in his ten-page missive to fans about the new album and his sexuality. Spacey’s non-sequitur revelation that he dates men as well as women was embedded in a halfhearted admission of misconduct with a minor. Between Spacey’s fumbling sleight of hand and Junot Diaz’s preemptive self-absolution masterstroke in The New Yorker last spring, I’ve learned to be on guard for a public figure’s act of strategic deflection masquerading as earnest self-disclosure. Say Anything is a major beneficiary of a male-centered and misogynistic iteration of the punk/emo movement. It’s hard not to wonder whether Bemis’s grasping for the queer mantle is a means of eliding his band’s role in the stewardship of a subculture that is toxic for women, unwelcoming to people of color, and largely indifferent-to-negligent about the concerns of trans and queer people. You don’t sustain a living for twenty years as the mouthpiece of an emo band without a preternatural ability to weather-vane the vagaries of the zeitgeist.

There is cultural capital that comes with foregrounding one’s queerness, but who is and isn’t fit to be a possessor of that capital? As a DIY punk musician myself, I have mulled this question often, especially when submitting my band to leftist-minded festivals and venues. I appreciate and admire when organizers make a concerted effort to include underrepresented demographics, but I also feel vaguely ornery about filling out a census form every time I email a Soundcloud link. It’s like applying to college all over again—complete with the shrill protestations from the rock-n-roll counterparts of white affirmative action plaintiff Abigail Fisher. The questions on some of these applications have demanded rather inorganic interrogations of my collaborators about how they identify. Would my multiracial bandmate like to spell out which races she claims? Would my trans bandmate like to also acknowledge that he’s pansexual? Are these dudes who appear to be able-bodied cishet white folks actually, uh, marginal in some way I should know about? Which part of this data dump of identity modifiers is actually consequential to people who want to hear music that slaps? As a black person, my susceptibility to (or more darkly, worthiness of) persecution is the headline in most facets of my life. While our identities absolutely inform the music my band makes, foregrounding the ways in which we are disadvantaged has the ancillary effect of priming listeners to receive our music with the same baggage that feels inescapable elsewhere in life.

“Are you ready to rock tonight, Baltimore?! A couple of us are heirs to traumatic history and beleaguered with systemic disadvantages even today. Alleviate some of that white guilt with the purchase of some sick threads at the merch table!”

Admittedly, the songs I write and sing do provide some insight into how it feels to be gray/colored me. But rock music is also supposed to be an incubator for the bloom of what Zora Neale Hurston calls the cosmic self. Reifying the primacy of race, gender, and sexuality in what is putatively a vehicle for transcending those markers might ultimately tether it to Earth. Of course representation matters, but billing our band as one fronted by an African-American gray asexual still feels like burying the lede.

I’d wonder why a band that viewed challenging heteronormativity as part of its mission statement would name itself after a canonical boy-meets-girl flick.

As a listener, however, I’m aware that identity modifiers in punk have become a means of calibrating the audience’s horizon of expectation. When I consciously seek out a band that announces itself as representing a queer sensibility, that sensibility can become as much of a genre staple as palm-muted power chords. If Say Anything had been advertised as a queer band throughout their career, I would be disappointed to find that the lyrics overwhelmingly center the preoccupations of aggrieved male characters who believe they’ve been wronged by duplicitous women. I’d wonder why a band that viewed challenging heteronormativity as part of its mission statement would name itself after a canonical boy-meets-girl flick. It would be like going to check out a band billed as ska and hearing a set containing no horns and no upstrokes to speak of.

All these riddles are extensions of the fundamental paradox of punk culture. It’s a genre about aestheticized disaffection, but it has historically been dominated by people with the least impeded access to freedom, peace, and health. Punk most often amounts to white people upsetting an applecart that only serviced gentrified neighborhoods to begin with. I’m not convinced that white dude presence in punk has actually shifted from uncontested stranglehold to desperate ankle clutch, but if it has, there’s plenty of precedent for the idea that belonging to an outgroup gives you a bounce in the counterculture polls. The definition of hip that Norman Mailer coined in 1957—“the sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle”—has remained an organizing principle. The queer poser may just be the latest case of jungle emperors getting fitted for wise primitives’ clothes.

G'Ra Asim, a writer and musician, is a graduate teaching fellow at Columbia University.

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