Shaka McGlotten is Associate Professor of media, society and the arts at Purchase College-SUNY and Co-Chair of the Association for Queer Anthropology.
Before I left for my summer travels, a young black woman, a student turned activist turned college employee, came over to my campus apartment. I made fresh juice and coffee with turmeric and coconut oil. I spread avocado over toast. We went outside to smoke a cigarette. When we came back she picked at her food.
“Everything ok?” I asked.
She struggled to speak. “Orlando.”
I’d been on an emotional hair trigger for months, so that’s all it took for us both to break down weeping, holding each other.
I was asked to write something for Pride month. It was a bit after the fact, as June was mostly over. But I agreed because I wanted to write about Orlando. And Pride.
I’m a queer studies scholar in addition to being an anthropologist. In fact, the former designation fits me a bit better most of the time. As an anthropologist, I’m “ill-disciplined,” at least that’s the term my friend Neville Hoad used to describe me. I was one of “Katie’s kids,” too, a student of Kathleen Stewart, whose ethnographic style often infuriates more traditional anthropologists. I don’t teach in an anthropology program, and although I am the Co-Chair of AQA and regularly attend the AAA, I’ve never published an article in a top tier anthropology journal. All of this is really to say I’m an academic and, this is probably obvious, spend a lot of time in my head. As someone who straddles anthropology and queer studies I tend to take a critical stance on issues like Gay Pride (“too corporatized, and gay shame might be better to embrace”) or gay marriage (“inherently conservative,” “another form of state violence,” “part of the new homonormativity”).
But, and this has been a decades long process, I am trying more and more to feel with my heart, to suspend particular modes of criticality. I’ve never been especially attached to academic disciplinarity. So I wept with my friend that morning, and a week or so later I walked in a Pride march in Lisbon with my husband. It was a smallish thing, nothing like the two Prides I’ve been to in San Francisco, or ones I’ve been to in New York City, Austin, or Tel Aviv. There was just one float with dancing figures—drag queens, of course, and a few other gender queer folk, a couple who were mostly nude. Behind us, people stretched into the distance. At the front of the march, a group held a banner of the Orlando slain, a potent reminder of LGBTQI allyship across borders. Others had written statements of solidarity on signs or on their bodies. Tears welled in my eyes as a group of older locals waved and cheered from the buildings lining the streets. We queers shouted and waved back, buoyed, not abjected, by their recognition. There was no police presence to speak of, only a handful of cops clustered around the promenade near the water. No corporate logos either.
Writing an essay about queer autoethnography for the queer studies journal QED, I revisited Esther Newton’s “My Best Informant’s Dress,” the first essay by a lesbian anthropologist that openly discussed the “erotic equation in fieldwork.” I was especially struck by this passage: “Information has always flowed to me in a medium of emotion—ranging from passionate (although unconsummated erotic attachment) to profound affection to lively interest—that empowers me in my projects and, when it is reciprocated, helps motivate informants to put up with my questions and intrusions.”
More and more, I find myself working to work with the information of that flows to me in and through my heart. When my meditation teacher posts an image of the goddess Kali to Facebook, it hits home. “Kali cuts off heads so that people can stop thinking and feel with their hearts.” As the post-tragedy debates about gun control, homophobia, and American political life raged, I didn’t give up on intellectual dialogue, or stop paying attention to what political possibilities such massacres might tragically enable. But I did stop trying to figure it out or offer declarative, definitive explanations. I sat with the ache of my heart, the compassion that hurt engendered—I did it alone, and in the company of beloved friends and strangers.