Michelle Tea and the Betrayal of Queer Memoir

Memoir is always a betrayal. When writing about life in queer subcultures, the harm of honesty can feel even greater.

Alana Mohamed | Longreads | August 2018 | 12 minutes (3,094 words)

Michelle Tea has made a career of memoir, and in doing so she has chronicled a generation of queer and punk subcultures. Growing up a lonely and shy teenager, for me Tea’s autobiographical novel Valencia represented freedom. She wrote about sex and friends and death in a way that made me feel alive, kind of like the way watching Party Monster makes some want to do a face full of cocaine. I wanted to be her, or the women she portrayed, who were all so brash and powerful and sexy. With her latest release, Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms, Tea continues to write explosively about her life. But she’s also slowed down and become reflective — while still delightfully contradictory — dissecting the history of the ruptures within the communities which she has documented so well.

Recently, I’ve gotten in the habit of saying people have been “so generous” when sharing their stories. Post-#MeToo, radical disclosure has become typical, if not necessary, to speak frankly about sexual boundaries and trauma. “Thank you for being so generous with your story,” I say to the woman who just described her first fisting experience to contextualize her rape. It feels right, like it acknowledges the spiritually taxing effort that goes into disclosure when someone offers a highly personal narrative. But who talks about their first fisting for the good of the general public? Often, they’re talking about it because no one else will, and someone needs to. It’s not so much a matter of generosity as one of necessity.

It’s a forceful thing, to show up in a world that doesn’t expect you to exist, and to say something it doesn’t expect you to say.

“Why do women who aren’t afraid to humiliate themselves appall us so much? […] I think in part because they post a threat to the social order, which relies on women’s embarrassment to keep them either silent or writing in socially acceptable modes,” so says Emily Gould, best known for her incredibly transparent and often fucked up internet confessions. It’s a forceful thing, to show up in a world that doesn’t expect you to exist, and to say something it doesn’t expect you to say. Such is the way with queer narratives, which often wrestle with grittier realities than the popular Rich Gay trope affords. These disclosures, from writers like Tea, lay bare the legal, mental, medical and physical obstacles that keep working-class queers marginalized. Maybe they are generous, but that’s almost incidental. Generosity is a choice, but queer memoir is a labor that straight obliviousness demands.

It’s also a labor that alienates. Tea likens her memoir writing to addiction in Against Memoir’s eponymous essay. “I don’t want to get sober from writing. I can’t imagine who I would be without memoir. […] Even though the list of people who have been hurt by it grows,” she writes. In an earlier essay, “HAGS In Your Face,” she reports on a gang of San Franciscan butches from the ‘90s, many of whom died from addiction or other illnesses. At one point, while interviewing long-time HAGS friend Silas Howard, she writes, “It’s one thing to discuss your family’s trauma with other family; it’s another thing entirely to release their stories to a world that doesn’t love them.” But that’s exactly what makes Tea’s reported sections of the book so compelling.

“HAGS In Your Face” combines Tea’s personal fascination with the fast-living HAGS with medical reports, historical context, and thoughtful interviews. It’s an incomparable piece of work, and perhaps the highlight of the entire collection. Queers living in San Francisco were, Tea says, at war. “At war on the streets of our neighborhood, as well as in the culture at large, where Senator Jesse Helms famously called us ‘degenerates… weak, morally sick wretches,’ and was backed up by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who compared being queer to alcoholism, and Bill Clinton, who we thought maybe liked us, but who signed the Defense of Marriage Act.” The HAGS, then, were an entire support system in a hostile world, something maybe beyond family. And how could honesty not be mutated by that hostile world, ready to snap up any sign of instability?

Writing honestly about queer alcoholism, much less queer addiction, in a time when queerness was considered akin to delinquency, would have been risky, a borderline betrayal. The framing of gay rights as a religious issue (queers here coded as anti-God, unnatural, devils in leather and spandex) begged reactionary respectability politics. But, in the interim, so many voices were lost that queer cultural production takes on new meaning: a zine by Johanna Lee called “Up Our Butts,” the HAG tag, was immortalized by a Breeders song of the same name. The group themselves took their moniker from John Waters’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. This sly, revelatory, self-referential art becomes a testament to the humanity political assimilation would like to deny. In Dissent, Deva Woodly likens the Democratic party’s dismissal of the black electorate to their earlier rejection of queer activists. Nevertheless, she writes, “Over the course of twenty years, they relentlessly and consistently made the case that love is love, and, for people to be equal, the state must recognize that fact.” The “they” in this case hardly refers to the HAGS, who were dying not of marriage inequality, but of addiction, trauma, and poverty. If we forget them and their stories, queer history becomes nothing more than a slogan. Love may be love, bug a hag’s a hag. Tea’s reporting taps in to the uneasy dynamic at play with all queer narratives: how necessary they are, precisely because of their taboo.

HAGS were dying not of marriage inequality, but of addiction, trauma, and poverty. If we forget them and their stories, queer history becomes nothing more than a slogan.

Queer memoir, of course, is a much more specific type of queer narrative, one that hopes to tell some form of truth to an audience. In a later essay, “Polishness,” Tea talks about her waning fascination with memoir, but in “On Chelsea Girls,” a review of poet Eileen Myles’ autobiography, she is riveted. “With Chelsea Girls, Myles forces a cultural and literary reckoning with their life on their own terms, demanding understanding, the text held to the reader’s throat.” There’s a triumph in Myles’ telling of their story that Tea hopes to tap into. She ends by quoting Myles, “I would like to tell everything just once, just my part, because this is my life, not yours.” It’s the kind of stubborn, in-your-face statement that can power through the uncertainty and gaslighting that comes with being queer. Tea writes lovingly about the way Myles’ working-class queer narrative bolstered her own. And throughout her essays, Tea is honest about her own working class background, her shitty teenage summer jobs, making chump change off zines and the water fountain at the mall, supporting herself through sex work after running away from home. In each essay she refuses to take on an impassive writer’s voice and instead makes it known that her observations are made as a working-class white queer.

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When Lili Elbe’s autobiography was posthumously published in 1933, it joined an already long line of queer memoir, but was perhaps the earliest trans narrative by a trans person. Elbe was an intersex Danish painter, who was one of the first documented cases of sex reassignment surgery. Nazi students would destroy records of Elbe’s labiaplasty in 1933, and Allied bombing in 1945 finished off whatever the Nazis hadn’t got to. Elbe’s autobiography offers crucial insight into her experiences trying to legitimize her gender while facing a crumbling lesbian marriage (to Danish illustrator Gerda Gottlieb). Her case is just one example of how precariously institutional documentation of queer stories is. Sometimes all we have are our own voices.

This is increasingly the case on the internet. In a world more gentrified, stratified, and impoverished than before, the internet has become a companion to the lesbian coffee shops and gay bars that Tea often writes about. On Tumblr, I gathered with antsy young queers to speak our truths and reclaim history. We built community by repeating our many truths, but found that sometimes our truths didn’t match up. It seems every Pride, trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFSs), who often describe themselves as cis lesbians being erased from the queer community by lesbian trans women, wage a campaign against Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera’s legacies. Johnson and Rivera were trailblazers, whose stories trans women of color have worked to highlight. Particularly contentious are narratives that insist Johnson or Rivera led the charge at Stonewall, with TERFs insisting that those narratives erase Stormé DeLarverie’s contributions to the riots.


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Who threw the first punch, or glass, or heel at Stonewall? Everyone has their version of what happened that night on June 29, 1969. “Nobody knows who threw the first punch, but it’s rumored that she did, and she said she did,” Henrietta Hudson owner Lisa Cannistraci told the New York Times, speaking about Stormé DeLarverie. While others credit Johnson with throwing the first punch, she told writer Eric Marcus she didn’t get to Stonewall until two o’clock in the morning. Rivera, too, is said to have thrown a heel, a brick, or maybe pennies. Prominent activist and LGBTQ icon Miss Major, who was at Stonewall that night, has said she can’t recall either woman being part of the initial melee.

Queerness seeks to make room for us to name ourselves. It seems ever-expanding and ever-in-conflict with itself because of this, but these are the growing pains of self-determination.

But this concern over the Firsts of Stonewall, as Susan Stryker explains, is really “a proxy battle for more entrenched structural conflicts.” Which narrative you choose to believe in signals something about your brand of queerness, and your history of resistance. Of Marsha P. Johnson, Myles E. Johnson (no relation) wrote, “She threw the brick in the tradition of Plainfield and Newark in 1967, and Watts in 1965,” citing black riots as a points of resistance in American history. These stories begin to take on a greater importance, outside their speakers and naysayers.

“Perhaps the stories of Iggy’s origins are not mine alone, and thus not mine alone to tell,” Maggie Nelson wonders in The Argonauts. She’s talking about her son, who she loves, but struggles to separate her identity from. Any story we tell about ourselves begs this question. If queerness is not only internal (a feeling, a “love is love”), but a reaction to external forces that assume cisgendered heteronormativity, then it implicates other people. Who do we claim under the umbrella of queerness and how much of a claim do we have to these stories?

TERFs will often hold fast to the claim that Johnson, in particular, did not describe himself as a trans woman, but as a gay man. They hold this argument up as a triumph of some sort, instead of embracing the elusive project of identifying. For TERFS, there is nothing fluid about gender or sexuality; rather a straight, cis hegemony exists outside of us, ready to dictate our lives to us. Queerness instead seeks to make room for us to name ourselves. It seems ever-expanding and ever-in-conflict with itself because of this, but these are the growing pains of self-determination.

Tea talks about this tension in her essay, “Transmissions from Camp Trans,” a lively piece of investigation into the protest party for trans women just outside the now shuttered Michigan’s Womyn’s Music Festival. The utopian women-centric event refused entrance to trans women in its waning years. Tea travels there in 2003, during a boom in consciousness about gender identity. At the time of her writing, there’s also a slight hiccup in this protest, in which trans men have inadvertently become an exotified attraction for nearby Michfest attendees. “For the trans women relying on Camp Trans as a site of protest, this new incarnation—as a sort of spring break for trans guys and the dykes who date them—has been infuriating,” she writes. In our multiplicity, there is ample space for oppression and privilege to form strange mutations, accidental silencing, more blind hostilities. If our individual voices are supposed to build community, I wonder how the narratives that bring us to consciousness help or hurt this phenomenon.

Tea, for her part, reports on Camp Trans with a nuanced sympathy. “There’s a lot of fear here,” she writes when Michfest volunteers cart over a transphobic manifesto in a wrong-footed attempt to start dialogue, “people afraid of each other, afraid of their own ability to do the wrong thing from simple ignorance, their own ability to bungle a peace offering, to offend the person they sought to help.”

The internet is a kind of specter throughout Tea’s book. It haunts her Camp Trans essay, when she talks about the resurgence of trans protest and Michfest’s online responses to them. A 2011 essay on Erin Markey’s irreverent YouTube videos anticipates the kind of nihilistic shitposting humor that will soon come in vogue among the young and disenfranchised. Some of her essays are pulled from xoJane, the now-defunct feminist lifestyle site launched by Jane Pratt. In “Gene Loves Jezebel,” Tea talks about finding a new friend based on the shared graffiti about the band. “I once tagged GENE LOVES JEZEBEL on the side of a Cumberland Farms while waiting for the bus into Boston. The next day someone had taped a photo of the band on the newsstand at the bus stop. I freaked out and daringly left my phone number there…” It was hard to find weirdos. Now, maybe the process isn’t so different, just that the tags are easier to find. The essays in Against Memoir are, however inadvertently, a portrait of the miraculously rapid rise and slow decline of online queer coalition. Now, Tumblr is dying so obviously, it warrants little more than a mention in an essay about disappearing online spaces. In its place are progressive websites like Them, a Condé Nast product. It’s not exactly a shrinking community — there are still many hubs of online activity for queer people — but as the rhetoric of queer liberation enters the mainstream, the risk of tokenization and cooption becomes more apparent. One needs to look no further than Roland Emmerich’s whitewashed Stonewall or Reina Gossett’s accusations of plagiarism against David France to see how eagerly our stories are consumed. This seems contradictory: queerness should resist tokenization by its very nature, but the art of queer memoir, so important to building our histories, is also at risk of being decontextualized in a way that reinforces hetero-patriarchy.

People write through impossible circumstances to clarify their impossible circumstances; they write to build up their communities while risking that they might hurt their communities.

Tea describes this kind of precarious power in “Against Memoir,” where memoir encourages a static reproduction of old resentments, particularly toxic when discussing intra-community issues. After performing a highly entertaining ten-year-old story about a poet named Sara who had stolen her girlfriend, Tea reflects, “Times change and people change, perspectives shift and new information comes to light, and forever in the pages of that book Sara is the destroyer of my young lesbian romance. I am forever done wrong.” The strange contradictions of queer memoir are never-ending. People write through impossible circumstances to clarify their impossible circumstances; they write to build up their communities while risking that they might hurt their communities.

When Audre Lorde set out to write her autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography, she was keenly aware that her truth may have been separate from another’s. When she writes about her own first serious lesbian relationship, she also writes about mental illness, addiction, romance, and monogamy. Muriel is a former electro-shock therapy patient, who engages in an affair while withdrawing from Lorde. All factors at play make for a precarious truth-telling. Lorde subverts the stoic memoir with retrospective additions like:

More than twenty years later I meet Muriel at a poetry reading at a women’s coffee-house in New York. her voice is still soft, but her great brown eyes are not. I tell her, “I am writing an unfolding of my life and loves.”

“Just make sure you tell the truth about me,” she says.

I wonder often if Muriel was happy with how she was portrayed in the book, or if she at least felt Lorde was honest. The older Audre speaking to us gives distance to a painful time, something Tea typically doesn’t allow for in her writing.

It’s been fascinating to watch Tea play with the idea of memoir. Her previous novel, Black Wave, tried to offer distance in the form of fiction. Still based on California queers and a struggle with sobriety, the Michelle in Black Wave lives in a world on the edge of the apocalypse and has two moms. These fictionalized elements highlight the constructed nature of our stories, especially when the novel splinters into separate timelines that often contradict themselves. There’s no easy read of what’s true and what’s not, however strangely reminiscent the narrative may be of “real” stories.

Queer writers have been teasing the boundaries of truth and fiction for years. Gertrude Stein famously wrote her own autobiography in the gossipy The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. (Toklas, it is worth noting, released a book of her own: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, which contained, among its many treasures, charming accounts of her life and a reportedly excellent recipe for pot brownies.) Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a revealing portrait of what it’s like to grow up as a gay boy, with winks and nods to White’s own life. Nelson, in The Argonauts, creates a kind of pastiche, either writing to or about her husband, the artist Harry Dodge, while sourcing everyone from French thinkers to campus activists. These varied modes of storytelling leave room to acknowledge the construction of narrative, while still attempting to write to a cohesive truth.

But as Tea acknowledges, even this practice takes on stories we might not have full authority to tell. It’s a far cry from Myles’ insistence that they have the right to their own story. By the end of Against Memoir, Tea quotes Nelson as saying that “our stories ‘trap up, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things they distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it.’” This is certainly true, but Against Memoir, with its dynamic interrogation of memoir, and it’s compassionate reporting, acts as a kind of corrective. Tea might disagree, insisting the damage is done. “You can’t really make amends when you’re still drunk. I can’t really do anything when I’m still writing,” she decides. But in writing, she’s at least found a way to be self-critical. If that’s not a solution it is, at least, the best Tea can do.

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Alana Mohamed is a writer and librarian from Queens, NY.

Editor: Dana Snitzky