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Queer desire, Carolin Emcke, All About Women. Image: Jo Duck

Image: Jo Duck

Borders of desire

Romance between heterosexuals is normal, but queer attraction is still taboo

Jonno Revanche

[See Carolin Emcke speak about desire at All About Women on Sunday 10 March. Get tickets here.]

Narratives in the media around LGBT issues tell us that queer shame has all but been vanquished in our egalitarian, equal-marriage voting society.

Pushing the Grindr icon on my phone at any given time (modestly hidden alongside a group of innocuous tabs to mask its appearance), that feeling is immediately challenged, and I’m greeted with a familiar scene: an endless grid of disembodied torsos stretching into infinity, blurred faces by the hundreds, and a plethora of empty profile photos with stark charcoal backdrops.

Sentiments about “pride” remain relevant while anonymity is still widespread. The discreet and pernicious nature of so many gay dating apps makes me wonder whether the perception of the queer community shared amongst our kind is even slightly coherent with what the wider public thinks.

Indeed, many of us still see intimacy and the immediate visceral realities of queer sex as something that must be hidden or airbrushed; it’s considered ungodly and shameful, or risky. It must only take place in private.

“Many of us still see the immediate visceral realities of queer sex as something that must be hidden or airbrushed; it’s considered ungodly and shameful.”

Carolin Emcke’s ideas about desire

The theorist and reporter Carolin Emcke is clear that these hiccups in continuity are not just randomly occurring. In her native Germany for instance, they’re direct results of age-old legal and cultural standards that have only been half undone, concepts of bodily purity inherited from the Nazis. The terminology around the body politic “lived on into the federal republic….and is still in evidence in a government draft of a penal code yanked under Konrad Adenauer in 1962.”

Homoerotic practices existed, she writes, and “were not regarded as abnormal, but lust was never allowed to acquire such depth or power that it might have assumed existential proportions.” Her 2012 book How We Desire, published in English in 2018, is aptly named. So much of its breadth unravels the ins and outs of actual intimacy, going beyond just “identity” and the LGBTQI reputation, and of queer figures in our shared imaginations.

Carolin Emcke speaking at re:publica 2017, 'Reflexion: Love Out Loud'

Expectations of public queerness

The first proper, foundational relationship I experienced, that felt truly reciprocal and devotional, involved a lot of hand-holding. It would happen around his friends, around mine, on buses and in shopping centres of the late 2000s.

Even though I was an expressive person and made questionable sartorial choices that would have identified me as a “publically queer person”, and could have been ostracised there and then, it was visible intimacy with a man that aroused scorn, passive aggression and outward aggression, even a weird kind of ambivalence from friends.

Colonial and patriarchal hangovers do tend to make LGBTQI/queer people wary and defensive even of one another, and cultural expectations demand that we create a sanitised public self devoid of overt sexual activity. Fran Tirado touched on this recently, writing on the 2018 film Call Me By Your Name: “When I did eventually see [it], I discovered that the almost-sex scene pans away from the lovers before their khakis are even removed.”

Queer desire, Carolin Emcke, All About Women. Image: Jo Duck
Image: Jo Duck

Though LGBTQI identity is much more widely accepted now by media, there are still limitations where LGBTQI intimacy is concerned. It doesn’t just manifest in the way we’re regarded by the heterosexual en. Progressive people will still express unease or ambivalence towards open acts of homosexual affection and interpretations of sexual acts.

They are not any more strange or bizarre than hetero copulation—on reflection, even “vanilla” sex is often excruciatingly messy, wet, and fundamentally bizarre. However, it is clear that many people believe homosexuality is inherently pornographic.

“Sex positivity” as described by feminists often does not translate into the discourse around queer sex and the shame attached to it. Many of us carry some kind of leftover anxiety from harassment, from previous confusing sexual experiences—ones which would have been able to be navigated more thoroughly if we’d had the language, the know-how, and the agency to consent properly.

Thinking beyond heterosexual standards

Queer identity opens opportunities to think beyond the outcomes pushed by heterosexual norms. “What if the nature of our desire is constantly changing,” writes Emcke, “growing deeper, lighter, wilder, more reckless, more tender, more selfish, more devoted, more radical?”

Current relationship models decree that one size fits all, with a family unit the ultimate destination. By opening discourse about the shame attached to queer sex, we dispel discomfort and pathology even beyond the borders of our limited worlds.

Jonno Revanche is a writer and photojournalist from Adelaide. Their work often touches upon subcultures in isolation, living between gender binaries, alternative ecologies and psychogeography. Their work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Polyester, The Guardian, Cordite, Krass Journal and Novembre. Follow @jonnoxrevanche

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