The queerness I crave

To read queer literature is to be confronted by the bizarre buzz of your interiority being transcribed by someone else.

Published : Jul 13, 2023 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

A still from the movie adaptation of Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name.

A still from the movie adaptation of Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. | Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

I crave queer literature, not just because of affinity, the desire to feel represented, mirrored, ricocheted, though there is that, too. Spending the month of June reading only queer literature—Cavafy’s poetry, Grace Lavery’s memoir, Eva Baltasar’s fiction, Andrea Long Chu’s provocations, the annual retreading of Call Me By Your Name—made me realise that this, perhaps, is a bulwark against the singular, blinding, warping onslaught of commercialisation that spins Pride Month into something it wasn’t ever intended to be: ideologically accessible, politically comforting, morally cut and dried, ethically reputable.

There is something spiky about queerness. It puts pressure on every cultural assumption we have taken as sociological fact. It rips apart the seams of sealed ideas. Take the lesbian protagonist in the International Booker Prize-shortlisted Boulder by Eva Baltasar—horny, a cook on a merchant ship off the coast of Chile, domesticated first by lust, then love, into a relationship that chips away at her sense of self; where a conventional family bodes doom in her heart, “I am under the thumb of a live, proliferating force [her child] that prevents me from leaving and threatens to sever my body, which wants to escape, from my head, which was made to stay.”

Queerness fills space with ideas you would never think to put into words, and you are confronted by the bizarre buzz of your interiority being transcribed by someone else or, in some cases, being viscerally challenged, whipped, like a fleshy fruit being serrated. Reading Grace Lavery’s memoir, Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis,I looked down at my genitals as a sociological trigger point. Lavery writes with brute bareness of how, when she was transitioning, her erect penis felt like an “existential threat”; how desire and identity can feel antithetical, “the desire to turn into a woman proves that you aren’t one”, and how she wants to unsteady neat notions of the “trans memoir” where someone always knew the gender in their heart.

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Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist Andrea Long Chu digs their heels deeper into this quicksand: “It must be underscored how unpopular it is on the Left today to countenance the notion that transition expresses not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire. This would require understanding transness as a matter not of who one is, but of what one wants.”

These are texts that grope at insecurities, which hang around our body like loose threads, and these texts tug, tug relentlessly, till all the threads unspool. This is the queerness I crave. One that does not express itself simply, like an anaesthetised slogan, incapable of that sandpapered tone.

When Leo Bersani begins his essay “Is the Rectum a Grave” with “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it”, he pours light into our sex life, those tired afternoons when desire feels more like an itch, a heavy burden placed on the body. Sex can be that, too. Not just pleasure but complicated. Turn your gaze towards Garth Greenwell’s two novels, What Belongs To You and Cleanness, where he catalogues every thought during sex—the violence of bondage, the grimy texture when you pay for sex, the vivid and almost laborious awareness of the self, of sex as transactional—as he tries to make sense of the disorientation that desire leaves you with.

Take this scene of what it means to have sex, to be crumpled by it, and yet crave the crumpling. When, in Call Me By Your Name, the 17-year-old Elio first has sex with Oliver, the older doctoral student staying the summer in his parents’ villa somewhere in Italy, what he first experiences is sharp pain, then the accompanying feelings of disgust and doubt. This, alongside the intense longing Elio has for Oliver, produces a confounding torpor. Does he want pain? Is his heart lunging towards the very thing that causes his body pain? Is there pleasure in this pain?

The next morning, when Oliver realises the pain that he has caused, his response—a kind, strikingly charming response—is to give Elio fellatio, to make him experience consummate pleasure untouched by pain.

Queer literature is shrouded by these fumes of desire and longing. Cavafy’s poetry recursively lunges back again and again into those beautiful afternoons of beautiful sex with beautiful men. Commercial or commercialised queer literature has often tried to reduce it to tropes, to make the inarticulate thing articulate and waterproof. To create an object of sympathy. To shield it against political critiques that have not been made yet. It feels so safe, so tame, so righteous, so unsexed.

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Even the word “pride” is essential to think about here—the opposite of “shame”. There is an anxiety in this neatness, too, we cannot pretend otherwise. This anxious rhetoric—to make sense of oneself in a world where one’s body, one’s pleasure, one’s intuitions are constantly undermined, one’s moral citizenship is constantly brought up, the legality of one’s love and lust constantly tested in the tetchy language of law—gets internalised as one part of the way we articulate our self. We want to believe our identity is neat. We end up believing our identity is neat. Commercial queer literature and cinema is that shaky bridge being tread between the two.

“The moment we think of our identity as being formed by desire, we open ourselves up to moral complications, because desire is not trained in morals. ”

What is lost are the many glass-cut edges one experiences. How does a person so insistent on and conscious of their dignity, their respectability, their shame in public, yearn to be choked, slapped, told they are a dirty little thing, spanked until flesh turns crimson, or dog-collared around? Suddenly, the facade of dignity crumbles. Its performance becomes apparent; its negotiability, threatening. If one’s dignity is encoded into one’s identity, it is stable. But if it is a facade, it can slip—the fear is in the slippage.

The sex columnist Zachary Zane’s memoir-manifesto, Boyslut, attempts to address this urge to explain desire, given “sex is not intuitive”, to make it seem ethically explicable—the apologies, the explanations, the justifications. Zane tries to explain—biologically, psychologically—his feelings during aberrant sex acts and why they give him pleasure, only to recognise how the body colours outside the lines of societal circumspection. It is not because the body is a rebel. It is because the body does not see the lines. He speaks of how he prefers sex without protection, even if that leaves him open to STDs. He speaks of his many, many trips to the STD clinic. This is what he wants. This is who he is.

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The moment we think of our identity as being formed by desire, we open ourselves up to moral complications, because desire is not trained in morals. It makes it hard to make a case—in the courtroom, in the drawing room. What a categorically silly life it is then, to tell some soft lies and earn some rights, some respect in return.

The things we do, we say, we believe, just to be alive.

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at

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