Queer Resilience

QUEER RESILIENCE

WORDS BY JOSH RIVERS

The mark of any queer person’s humanity appears to be indelibly linked to their resilience. Resilience is extolled as one of our queer virtues, indeed the bedrock of our existence: in the face of increasing and persistent adversity, we keep getting back up, keep pressing on, keep surviving. But resilience is defined as the ability to recover quickly from difficulties, a specificity of action I’ve not understood the word to mean before this moment. Why quickly? Who decides how quickly is quick enough? What if we don’t recover quickly, but keep moving forward anyway? Are we still resilient? It seems our understanding and use of resilient joins a canonical lexicon of Virtues of the Oppressed that upon further inquiry might not bear scrutiny. Is resilient even a good thing to be?

Other definitions of resilience include the ability to withstand immense pressure and the ability to bounce back and return to original form. The former is an exercise in rigidity in a world that always wants us to be something else. Bayard Rustin, a queer Black icon to whom I look for unending inspiration, withstood immense pressure and at great personal sacrifice. Throughout his life agitating for justice, he kept coming back to fight, despite being thrown in jail repeatedly for “lewd acts” (read: cruising), where he wrote heartbreaking letters about whether or not to deny his desires. Which leads us to the latter: even if we’re able to withstand the pressure, even if we appear to bounce back and return to form, are we not forever changed by the very life that demands so much resilience?

“Why quickly? Who decides how quickly is quick enough? What if we don’t recover quickly, but keep moving forward anyway? Are we still resilient?”

To understand resilience, we have to place it in the context of its necessity. Resilience is at once a testament to an individual’s determination to survive and an indictment on a society that demands it. Perhaps my issue with resilience-as-virtue is that the pressure to be resilient lies firmly on the person for whom resilience is essential to survival and not on the systems, structures, and societies that demand resilience in the first place. As Guilaine Kinouani writes on Race Reflections, “While some may argue that by focusing on [our] psyche, we stand a better chance at building our psychological or psychic resilience… such unbalanced attention actively locates the disturbance in [us].” I can’t help but feel that all this pressure to be resilient is in lieu of an active interrogation into why we have to express such resilience at all. Can we, in confidence, extol as a virtue something so reactive as resilience?

If resilience is the ability to recover quickly, then maybe resilience is less a virtue and more a muscle, one that we have to train. Perhaps what we’re looking for is acknowledgment of the courage it takes to dare to live, to get back up. Admittedly, I may be nitpicking to find a reason to reject resilience outright, to lay down the gauntlet for a day, to say “I don’t want to be resilient anymore”. Maybe I find it all to be rather too much, this pressure of resilience and maybe it’s too close to the steely edifice I’m trying to dismantle, the toxic masculinity I’m trying to reject.

“If resilience is the ability to recover quickly, then maybe resilience is less a virtue and more a muscle, one that we have to train. Perhaps what we’re looking for is acknowledgment of the courage it takes to dare to live, to get back up.”

Or perhaps I want to exist within my own definition of resilience, one that isn’t ahistorical, but that acknowledges the time, place and context of its necessity, and one that doesn’t tell me my resilience is anchored to speed. Or perhaps I resent that resilience requires so much of me so often and nothing from the external pressures that demand it. Resilience in theory and execution is emotionally, mentally and physically expensive. Perhaps in using resilience to confer admiration, we should do so remembering that it all comes at such a cost; and that our decision to continue on knowing the cost doesn’t, in fact, make us resilient — it makes us courageous.

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