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why are we suddenly claiming everything is queer?

From iced coffee to walking quickly, we take a deep dive into what the new stereotypes say about the changing face of queer representation.

by Brian O'Flynn
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18 July 2019, 11:55am

In the last year we’ve seen a strange phenomenon emerge in online queer communities. A vocal cohort of LGBT+ meme-makers and viral tweeters have begun to claim ostensibly mundane activities as canonically queer. They have claimed walking fast is queer, not being able to drive is queer, not being able to do math is queer, carrying loose cards in your pocket instead of a wallet is queer, drinking iced coffee is queer. This list is not exhaustive, and is subject to constant updating in an entirely democratic and ad hoc process, whereby if any suggestion receives enough support (i.e. surpasses a certain viral threshold) then it acquires legitimacy. But what makes this phenomenon so fascinating is that it seems to have sprung out of nowhere: authority is derived not from tradition but from sheer majority rule.

The trend is by now well documented. Vice called them the “new gay stereotypes”, and deep dives have been conducted into individual instances of these stereotypes; see also, these GQ analyses of why iced coffee and walking fast are gay. These investigations have attempted to retroactively justify the queer readings imposed onto these activities by couching them in the context of geography and sociology: suggesting, for example, that gays identify with walking quickly and not driving because gay populations are highest in urban environments.

Though the question of why certain stereotypes stick is an interesting one, the most interesting question here, and the one yet to be answered, is: why do we want new stereotypes at all? Where did the compulsion to claim a new set of identifiers originate?

A good place to start to understand queer stereotyping is with cultural figures, because there already exists significant academic literature on the subject. Stanning Carly Rae Jepsen is just a current example of a very old gay practice called ‘disidentification’, which occurs when queer people identify in great numbers with a non-queer piece of culture, e.g. a song, a film, a singer, an actor. Throughout history, queer people have become attached to non-queer figures, onto whom they project some facet of queerness (for example, it’s thought Judy Garland was beloved because she was so self-destructive, and hence embodied the queer art of failure).

What is new with this online phenomenon is that LGBT+ people are projecting queerness onto a broader range of ostensibly non-queer activities: not just cultural activities, but economic activities, consumption patterns, consumer goods, actions and even inactions (like not driving). We’re finding new ways to disidentify. It’s odd, because it was often argued that disidentification occurred because of a lack of actual queer representation. In a time when we have more queer representation than ever, why is our appetite for disidentification growing instead of shrinking? Though we might understand the creation of these new gay stereotypes as a logical extension and expansion of the practice of disidentification, it’s worth asking: why expand now?

My first port of call was to speak to someone who cemented one of these stereotypes in the online collective. Mike Dolan’s tweet declaring “gay people walk quickly because we constantly have Toxic by Britney Spears (143 bpm) playing in our heads whereas straight people have Closer by the Chainsmokers (95 bpm)” got 44k likes. I asked him why he thought so many queer people were enjoying this communal bonding exercise of proposing and propagating new stereotypes.

“I think it’s about having something to ourselves that straight people can’t get -- humour that is purposefully and aggressively insular so as to confuse people who aren’t in on the joke. That is probably at least partly sparked by the commodification and sterilisation of LGBT+ culture in the mainstream,” Mike suggests. This analysis feels convincing -- it’s surely no coincidence that we’ve seen a surge in self-stereotyping amongst LGBT+ people online in the same year that we’ve seen Iggy Azalea, Taylor Swift and countless others attempt to shoehorn themselves into contiguity with queerness. In a world where capitalism has decided queerness is a hot new USP, it’s unsurprising that anxieties about our identity should accompany our desire to avoid commodification and exploitation.

Perhaps the creation of new stereotypes is our attempt to maintain the integrity of the queer outgroup, in a world where it feels like all sorts of ill-intentioned impostors are trying to signal membership of that very group. It would certainly confuse posers; the activities claimed by queer people are now so unpredictable that it feels like those outside the community, or not initiated into the proverbial bank of online humour that is Gay Twitter, would be left scratching their heads.

Mike also suggests that the phenomenon could very well be just a meme in itself: a kind of self-parody purely for lols, or an attempt to mock the very act of stereotyping. “It’s a satirisation and exaggeration of the process we went through being told that certain character traits and ways of expressing ourselves were gay,” he says.

“I think it has something to do with the fact that a lot of traditional gay stereotypes actually aren’t accurate. It’s like... if those things can be gay, why can’t walking fast and not driving also be gay? Maybe it’s about rejecting the idea that we live gay lives where we do gay things that are separate to our everyday lives where we do mundane things: I’m just as gay when I’m walking to work as I am when I’m sleeping with men,” he concludes.

Dr. Michael Bronski, Professor of the Practice in Media and Activism in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, advises; “We should ask how these new self-generated stereotypes fit into the larger, complex tapestry of what we might call ‘gay folklore’. For example, what are the larger, interconnected stories gay men tell themselves as a community to make sense of their lives? The larger purpose of any folklore is, ultimately, to reinforce group cohesion, collective sustainability and strength. These stereotypes, then, set gay men apart and position them against culturally reigning notions of heterosexuality,” Bronski explains. So, are these new stereotypes fundamentally about finding new ways to differentiate ourselves? In short, yes.

It seems in this case we’ve moved from an oral tradition of folklore to a viral tradition, where myths are passed on through memes and tweets rather than ballads. Bronski warns that this means we should be wary about how much substance these new stereotypes actually possess. “We now have the ability to invent and spread new stereotypes at amazing speed. Is this new agility in communication the real reason why these new stereotypes -- some of which seem a little fanciful rather then rooted in an emotional reality -- spread so quickly?” he cautions.

Bronski and others are keen to emphasise there is not just one driving factor -- no pun intended -- behind the trend. We should of course take into account that newfound political freedoms just mean we feel comfortable laying claim to things that we previously may have been embarrassed to own. “There has been an increasing willingness to question what is meant by stereotypes, because stereotypes have historically meant demonising behaviour considered to be 'effeminate',” Dr. David Alderson, a senior lecturer at Manchester University specialising in queer literature tells me. The process of embracing new stereotypes may simply be delayed reclamation, because we live in a world where the effeminate can now be enjoyed and even glorified in men. “The phenomenon you're talking about may be related to the weakening appeal of masculinity,” Alderson explains.

In summary, it shouldn’t be surprising that we are seeking new vehicles (figurative or otherwise) beyond cultural figures, with which to signal our queerness and bond with each other. As i-D wrote this month, the changing economic structures in urban environments are forcing queer people to find new sites of community building -- they’re no longer relying on fixed gay bars but are creating new types of spaces like queer festivals. Isn’t it logical that, just as changing economic structures have forced economic improvisation, changing cultural structures would breed equivalent cultural improvisation? We now live in countries where gay marriage is legal and RuPaul’s Drag Race is one of the most popular shows on TV. It’s naive to think we could transition into this new era of cultural empowerment without altering our modes of expression. How could stereotypes of the past serve our needs now when our needs today are so different?

Whether the fleeting memes of today will become a lasting part of gay folklore or disappear next month, what we do know is that they have resonance in this moment. Given our ever-changing environment, it’s likely we’ll continue to evolve new online stereotypes as we walk, quickly, into the bright queer future.