QUEER is NATURE

Who we are is how free we are.

Editor’s note by Robert Whitehead


There is a standard—all-too-often and all-too-falsely applied—which seeks to substantiate the queer behavior of humans by looking at the behavior of the animal kingdom. 

The logic goes that because the common garter snake or the Appalachian woodland salamander or kestrels or raccoons or elephants create homosexual or bisexual or polyamorous relationships, it verifies that this behavior is natural, as well, in humans. 

There would also be the antithesis to this argument, in which the Macaroni penguin or the Sandhill crane or those terrifying but beautiful swans are said to “mate for life” in heterosexual bond pairs. Because they prop up a certain feeling about the “natural” behavior of straightness, these, too, are seen as emblematic of a way humans can or should live.  

Of course, these are both wrong.

In that way, queerness is not the perfection or the subversion of nature. It is nature. Queerness evades the distinctions of “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad,” and centers its values only on what enhances personal freedom. Queerness seeks to banish hierarchy and promote equity. Queerness encourages liberation in the face of exploitation. 

In that way, queerness is the antidote to our current political moment, with our ever-mounting existential crises. From the rise of white supremacy and xenophobic nationalism, to the restriction of rights around bodily autonomy and reproduction, to the global threat of ecological collapse and climate change. Queerness cannot solve these problems alone, but it can provide a roadmap to understand how we counter the forces which seek to undo our freedom: be free anyway. 

To be personally free means all of us must be free. Those of us with more freedoms must share them with those who have less. Queerness is a door through which all people can enter. This door is always open—it doesn’t unlock only for a certain combination of requirements—but it is our work to make sure everyone gets to the door. 

The paintings and drawings of Andrew Catanese are perhaps what I would imagine resides on the other side of that door. These are wildly colored, deeply hedonistic, pastoral landscapes, manifesting a kind of figurative hybridity and mischievous composition that make a queer world feel possible, if not downright beautiful. 

Filled with dancing minotaurs, snakes with human faces, bulbous frogs, laughing jackals, and crouching humans playing trumpets with their butts, Catanese’s paintings are all set against a lush backdrop of intricately painted bushes, trees, lakes, flowers, ferns, and meadows. These figures and the backgrounds they inhabit are crowded together in a daringly rich cacophony of color that, at once, provoke the tumultuous feeling of this densely-packed modern earth where natural spaces are diminishing and ecologies are collapsing onto one another and the high lyric drama of an ancient ritual or festival. His paintings are at once dystopia and utopia. At once mourning the loss of our natural world and celebrating its legacies. 

When I imagine a queer future, I want to imagine it the way Catanese paints it. 

When I am looking for insight into the queer present, I find it in the poetry of Phillip Matthews. In this edition, Matthews has teamed up with photographer David Johnson to document the witching hour of his poetic process in a project called Wig Heavier Than a Boot .

Johnson’s excruciatingly elegant portraits show Matthews as he metamorphoses into and out of Petal, an alter-ego/drag consciousness/spiritual guide that aids Matthews in writing his poems. Their collaboration is not an ekphrastic exercise (where the poems respond to the photos, or vice versa), but rather record a moment of site-specific performance in which Johnson directs the photoshoot and Matthews/Petal enacts rituals that lead to a poem. In this way, they are both co-creating a moment, marking from two vantage points through two distinct mediums the experience of being present in one single moment. 

Susan Sontag, in her seminal book On Photography, argued that “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; It turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” What this statement fails to recognize is that symbolic possession can be a self-directed process, and that—in fact—we are much more capable of having knowledge of ourselves that the rest of the world cannot access. Such is the case, often, with queer people, who may keep intimate company with a persona that was born out of a closet. To transform oneself into an image that is at once the self and distinctly not-self is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of queer performance, shape-shifting new gender expressions and outwardly projecting fantasies that may have once only resided inside the domain of one’s imagination. These photographs prove that there is freedom to be found by escaping the self, and that to be queer is to be constantly reincarnating.

So it would be that Johnson’s portraits, which capture the figure of Petal/Matthews so generously and lovingly, are not violations. These are invitations. They extend a hand to the viewer and ask them to sit with and study these finely-detailed and deeply-felt renderings, which are not renderings of an object, but of a subject devised by and articulated through a queer understanding of self. Johnson’s photographs divulge the queer secret of selfhood: it is as much a form of art to simply be present in the world as it is to pose for a camera.