Psychoanalysis was, and unfortunately somewhat remains, a field for the wealthy, which means that interactions with so-called lowbrow forms of art and entertainment are somehow outside the scope of what analysts have shown interest in. In a city as segregated by financial class as New York, the wealthy’s interactions with the financially disenfranchised have become even fewer and far between, other than in the roles of server and served. It often seems like we’re living in two different worlds with no bridge between them. To what extent is psychoanalysis’ classism and presumed high-mindedness something that remains under-examined? Does the psychoanalytic field have disdain for supposedly lowbrow interests, things like video games, sports, and various underground youth subcultures?
I don’t think it’s melodramatic to say that the field of psychoanalysis remains guilty for its historically hideous treatment of LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming individuals—a history which this event is trying to reconcile with. It’s no secret that until frighteningly recently, homosexuality and transgender identity were thought of as mental disorders, and the psychoanalytic “debate” about the pathological nature of non-heterosexual identity remains frighteningly echoed alive today. Outdated and patently bigoted ideas about trans people and queer people remain discussed and proliferated at psychoanalytic institutes, and I could tell you some blood-curdling stories about the things people in this field remain unafraid to speak: insisting that “transgenderism” is a form of hysteria or psychosis, linking borderline pathology to non-normative gender presentation, suggestions that the goal of treatments of gay men should be to make them more masculine, or even the idea that transgender people simply don’t exist. These beliefs still have sway in our circles.
I think a lot of these misguided ideas about queer people, queer identity, and queer art are mostly born of ignorance, and it’s incredible to watch the analytic hubris of thinkers who pathologize gender non-conformity without ever having actually interacted with gender non-conforming people. The straight world and the gay world remain quite segregated as well. My hope is that by actually seeing queer art in person, some of it starts to make a little more sense.
Because of many analysts’ total unfamiliarity with actual, lived gay experiences, “gender dysphoria” and the surgeries that may or may not correct this condition take center stage in psychoanalytic discourse of gender non-conforming patients. Perhaps this is because that’s all that gets seen in the consulting room, or perhaps that’s because that’s all certain analysts want to see—because it confirms some conscious or unconscious belief about the inherent sickness of gender nonconformity. But what doesn’t get talked about is a phenomenon that’s becoming known as “gender euphoria”—experiences of ecstatic pleasure, solace, and perhaps even healing brought about when a person’s gender expression—which may or may not be typical in its presentation—is affirmed and celebrated. Drag explores the heights and depths of both euphoria and dysphoria, the agony and bliss of gendered experiences across the gender spectrum. In this way, drag may be considered an expressionistic negotiation of specific kinds of queer and gender-based traumas—or as a kind of (dare I say it?) sublimation.
People in general seem to have a lot of misconceptions about what drag actually is. In the book And the Category Is… writer Ricky Tucker explains how the house ballroom system—a specific subculture in queer nightlife predominantly created by trans, Black, and Latinx artists—arose due to the prevalence of family rejection of LGBTQ+ kids in those populations. The nightlife world is not simply a hedonistic landscape filled with depravity and indulgence. For many of us, it’s a kind of family that has taken on a psychological and social importance far greater than that of our biological relatives. These queer families provide structure, history, mentorship, tradition, work, etiquette, ethics, meaning, support, and most importantly purpose in the same way that biological families do. Despite the universal importance of the Oedipal complex in our psychoanalytic cosmos, psychoanalysts are quick to ignore the role of the gay father or the drag mother—parents who step in to guide the queer children when their biological families abscond. To what extent does the gay family recapitulate the Oedipal situation or to what extent does the queer family escape traditional Oedipal organizations entirely?
I’d like to propose that queer nightlife—at least theoretically—functions as a kind of temporary utopia, a playful inversion of the increasingly dystopian elements of our hyper-capitalist world. In the real world, the queer body is a magnet for violence, denigration, exploitation, and hatred. In the night club, the queer body on display is rewarded, cheered, praised, showered with money, perhaps even worshiped as a source of moral good. In the real world, queer pleasure is treated as a literal political threat—and right-wing legislation and right-wing violence all over the United States are currently attempting to eradicate queer life from the public sphere, as we saw just last month in Colorado. But in the night club, queer life is treated as sacred, and queer joy is holy.
The saying that “drag is inherently political”—an idea that’s become a little bit of a catchphrase in queer circles—is quite radical for people who still assume that drag is simply a man dressed as a woman doing a silly little dance. Even amongst gay communities, and especially before the rise of mainstream drag performers on television, drag performers are and were often subject to ridicule and stigma. Drag, to me, is defined as “artistic expression in the medium of gender”—meaning that it has little to do with crossdressing at all. If we are to expand our idea of drag, or if we actually go look at drag in real life, we can easily see pure avant-gardism in drag’s provocative violations of normality and normativity. In truth, drag has always been political in the sense that the LGBTQ+ community’s most important historical leaders have been drag artists and transgender people since the beginning of time. The recent right-wing characterization of drag as a form of “grooming” purposefully misunderstands the aims and aesthetics of drag in order to phantasmatically transform gender non-conforming people into boogeymen who threaten the “innocence” of childhood. Here I challenge fellow queer people: conservatives want so badly to outlaw drag for kids, but should the political power of drag be rendered inoffensive and family-friendly to begin with? Is our attempt at shaping drag into a non-confrontational art form in fact a betrayal of its transgressive potential? What if drag actually is threatening to structures of power—and what if that’s been the point all along?
If psychoanalysis wants to make amends with the queer community, it will have to confront certain assimilationist assumptions inherent in its thinking. To what extent are psychoanalysts attempting to “normalize” queer patients by coaxing them into behaving more like straight people? To what extent are some analyses actually covert conversion therapies? To what extent does psychoanalysis continue to unconsciously pathologize gender nonconformity even as we supposedly accept queer lifestyles? This is where a confrontation with gender nonconformity in its most ostentatious form—drag—is necessary: for psychoanalysis to understand its own assumptions, it must actually see the thing it’s making assumptions about.
- Eric Shorey is a licensed psychoanalyst working predominantly with the LGBTQ+ community in Brooklyn, New York. He is an advanced candidate at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. He received his MA in Liberal Studies from the New School for Social Research. He has also been a DJ and event producer in New York’s underground nightlife scene for fifteen years. He is a founding member of The Nobodies, an avant-garde alt-drag and performance art collective. His writing on popular culture has been published in Vice, Nylon, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone.
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