Queer Role Models vs. Self Help Discourse
by Jack Mackintosh
What can queer role models offer young queers which self-help discourses never could?
Rimke (2000, 61) has argued that we live in an age of ‘unprecedented preoccupation with the self’. Over the past fifty years, literature, videos, workshops, videos and social media posts touting positivity, self-love and self-improvement have become a trendy and popular genre. In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed (2010) labels this ensemble of self-help and pop psychological discourses the ‘happiness industry’.
She points out that everybody wants to be happy, and critiques that positioning happiness as a choice is not only short-sighted, but ‘normative and disciplining’ (Grzanka and Mann, 2014, 376). Non-normative sexualities and gender identities were once legally consigned to pathology in the UK, and framed as ‘transgressive or deviant…or as just another, optional “life-style”’ (Doty, 1993, xiv). Queer happiness was out of the question. But as the ‘continuum of “normality” has expanded’ (Ludwig, 2011, 67), wider public consciousness of issues of gender and sexuality has followed. There is a plethora of literature on the significance of self-help discourses in a heterosexual context, but a dearth of it on the genre’s importance within a queer context. Yet we can see why queer people might need it, and why they might need it more than non-queer people.
While some critics reckon that debates surrounding queer assimilation into mainstream society have long been ‘universally resolved’ (Bawer, 2013), it has been widely argued that inequalities are distorted by a prevailing sense of social and political progress (Brown, 2012; Tauqir et al., 2011; Mills, 2006). People from all academic disciples have suggested that young queers suffer considerably higher rates of mental health issues than non-queers (Todd, 2016, 2018; Hobbes, 2017; Kneale and Bécares, 2020; Just Like Us, 2021). Queer individuals commonly spend their formative years in bubbles of isolation. A rarely discussed aspect of queerness is the notion that merely standing outside the norm can be an isolating place to be. Ahmed (2004, 147-148) has argued that the shame of being queer in a straight world can manifest like a ‘bodily injury’, a feeling of being ‘out of place, awkward, unsettled’. Discourses which purport to offer queer individuals guidance are often targeted primarily at gay and lesbian people (Dawson, 2005; Downs, 2005; Todd, 2016), and this inequality is overwhelmingly reflected in the mass media too (Doty, 1993; Dyer, 2002; Mueller, 2004; Weeks, 2007; Halperin, 2012). It goes without saying that many queer individuals who crave means of self-understanding may struggle to access material that relates to them.
Today, there is greater queer representation in the media than ever before and finally, there is more than one voice speaking. In this paper I will explore the personas of Olly Alexander, Samra Habib and Bimini Bon Boulash, to suggest that the ever-growing presence of diverse queer figures in the media does more to help young queer people develop a sense of self than self-help discourses ever could. Firstly, Olly Alexander is gay, the singer-songwriter for the band Years and Years and most recently, the leading role in Russell T. Davies’s series about the AIDS crisis, It’s A Sin (2021). He has been described as ‘pop music’s poster boy for social change’ (Bloodworth, 2020). Alexander uses his platform to support underrepresented groups, and dedicates a sustained focus to human and LGBTQ rights advocacy. With a specific focus on his involvement in the BBC Three documentary ‘Growing Up Gay’ (2017), I will explore how Alexander disrupts the myth that struggles with shame end upon coming out, and illuminate his criticism of tired ideas that being queer requires ‘resilience’.
Secondly, Samra Habib is a Pakistani-Canadian queer photographer and activist, known for her 2014 photography project, ‘Just Me and Allah’, and her memoir, We Have Always Been Here (2019). Born and raised in Pakistan until the age of eight, Habib and her family were forced to flee as refugees in 1991, due to the threat of prosecution for their Ahmadi Muslim faith. Upon arrival in Canada, Habib learned that she had to adapt to Canadian culture in order to survive. Still she dealt with daily discrimination and racism while her parents struggled to put food on the table. Aged thirteen Habib was engaged to her cousin, and by sixteen they were married. I will refer to Habib as an emblem of intersectional queer identity, whose life and achievements serve to inspire queer people to value their authentic identities, and to use their visibility as a tool for political resistance. I suggest that her narrative does not reflect a process of ‘performing’ authenticity, but of making visible the authentic self.
Finally, Bimini Bon Boulash is a non-binary British drag queen who was a runner-up in the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK (2019-). They have been described as ‘modern-day, punk-fashion drag royalty’ (Newbold, 2021). I will analyse Bimini’s presence in the second series of Drag Race UK, exploring their role in a pivotal moment in non-binary and gender-nonconforming representation. I will interrogate the ways in which Bimini uses their persona to breathe new life into the queer notions of self-preservation and self-care, as a rallying cry for non-normative individuals to preserve their ‘uniqueness’. I will equally explore the impact that this has had on those who view Bimini as a role model and queer icon.
Social justice over Resilience: Olly Alexander
Shame on you: the anti-shame lexicon of gay pride:
In Olly Alexander’s words, ‘I have yet to meet an LGBT person who’s…been unscathed by growing up LGBT’ (BBC, 2017). He states: ‘We want to tell people that we’re proud and that we’re happy, and that being gay didn’t make me sad…it’s made things better, and it can be hard to then go “actually, I think growing up gay in a straight world has really affected me.”’ Alexander touches on the sense among queer people that admitting struggle is a sign of defeat, or somehow betrays an image of queerness which people, both queer and non-queer, do not want to see. Queer theorists have long questioned what LGBTQ pride’s ethos of shamelessness, hope, visibility, self-affirmation and authenticity really amounts to (Berlant, 2008; Mercer, 2018; Ahmed, 2004; Sedgwick, 1993.a, 1993.b).
When the concept of pride emerged in the late 1960s out of the Stonewall Riots and the burgeoning gay liberation movement (D’Emilio, 2002; Mueller, 2004), a fresh attitude towards queer empowerment warranted a ‘call to action’ against shame and all negative emotions attached to it (Mercer, 2018; Love, 2007). Rejecting feelings of ‘shame, self-loathing, passivity, sentimentality [and] cowardice’ as ‘regressive, ignorant, reactionary and politically suspect’ came to be regarded as an inherently political act (Halperin, 2012, 79; Mercer, 2018, 1305). Queer theorists have since proposed that shame is an integral part of queer identities, to the extent of being ‘identity constituting’ (Sedgwick, 1993.a, 5), and that pride’s ‘increasingly exhausted and restrictive ethos’ fails to attend to queer people’s ongoing struggles with it (Halperin and Traub, 2009, 3-4). As opposed to rejecting shame, there might be ‘strategic value’ in embracing it (Mercer, 2018; Ahmed, 2004).
The political is personal:
Whether on stage or in press interviews, Alexander is frank about his own experiences of anxiety, depression, bulimia, hallucinations and self-harm (British GQ, 2018). He situates his personal struggles within the context of homophobic bullying rather than divorcing them from a wider social context, as has typically been common in comparable discourses. While Alexander is resolute in saying that being queer does not guarantee being bullied, he admits being unsure how shame has affected him: ‘I’m not saying that being gay means you’re gonna be sad…but there’s a link and I want to understand it better’ (BBC, 2017). Christensen et al. (2020, 1) note how the concept of ‘resilience’ has become a trendy and popular ‘buzzword’ in the self-help and personal development arena (Sørensen, 2018). This concept overemphasises individual agency (Poon, 2017), and correlates directly with the neoliberal notion of the self (Jupp et al., 2016; Hochschild, 1983). ‘Resilience’ implies that people have the power to eliminate mental health issues by building up psychological determination, drive and adaptability. These are all championed as aspirational values within the neoliberal framework of ‘therapeutic rationalities’ (Poon, 2017; Sørensen, 2018; Christensen et al., 2020; Rose, 1990). The ‘therapeutic rationalities’ framework suggests that the individual can become happy, healthy or ‘normal’ through psychological improvement (Rimke, 2000, 63; Sørensen, 2018; Rose, 1990), thus rendering them ‘entirely responsible for their failures as well as their successes, their despair as well as their happiness’ (Rimke, 2000, 63). The resilience concept adopts a ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude, diverting blame from political issues onto the shoulders of precarious individuals (Butler, 2004).
This ‘tough love’ attitude has been identified in the highly appraised and criticised ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, launched on Youtube in September 2010 to combat the spike in LGBT+ teen suicides by gay activist and journalist Dan Savage, and his husband Terry Miller. A fundamental split is established between the negative and positive (‘bad’ and ‘good’) parts of the narrative, wherein very few ongoing processes are presented; ‘things got better the day I left high school’ (Miller, It Gets Better Project, 2010). As such, the campaign champions an ethical concept of individual resilience, founded upon a ‘cultural idealisation of one-dimensional behaviour’ (Christensen et al., 2020, 18; Gill and Orgad, 2018; Gal et al., 2016). The negative part of the narrative is ‘detached from a broader sense of social-cultural deficiency’ (Gal et al., 2016, 1704), and associated with the negative social environment of adolescence. In one startling sentence, Savage instructs queer viewers: ‘You have to tough this period of it out and you have to live your life, so you’re around for it to get amazing’ (It Gets Better Project, 2010). The bullying faced by Miller and Savage is consigned to exterior and unchallengeable forces which, it is implied, other like-minded queer youths can only hope to put up with. In turn, the social problems of youth violence, gender-based inequality and structural oppression are transformed into ‘the personal responsibility of queer youth’ (Grzanka and Mann, 2014, 372).
Conversely, in ‘Growing Up Gay’ Alexander advocates an ‘anti-resilience’ approach for dealing with homophobic abuse, identifying social stigma as the core issue. This notion of ‘anti-resilience’ is important because it emphasises that it is not the queer individual’s responsibility to protect themself from harm. Specifically, Grzanka and Mann (2014, 272) argue that discourses like that of ‘It Gets Better’ put the onus on queer youth to combat heterosexist violence ‘with a psycho-social refashioning of pain, depression, anxiety and, indeed, suicide into inactive hope, introspective resilience, personal fantasy, and political complacency.’
Lovelock (2019, 557) too has analysed how gay celebrities have portrayed the gay figure as ‘a blockage to emotional contentment’. He (2019, 557) cites Gok Wan’s (2011) autobiography, in which Wan describes his strategy for coping with homophobic bullying: ‘As long as I felt good about myself, they could never harm me’. In this ‘troubling and highly problematic’ framework (Lovelock, 2019, 557), it is not homophobic bullying that is presented as the obstacle to the gay subject’s happiness, but the gay subject himself; ‘the gay male subject is addressed with a moral imperative to re-signify the (negative) meanings of his gayness…by learning love and taking pride in his sexuality’ (Lovelock, 2019, 557).
In conversation with Hattenstone (2021), Alexander explains that he would still come to school in eyeliner knowing he would likely be bullied for it, and that he would not be able to fight back. When the bullying in sports lessons became unbearable, he stopped going to the lessons. His testimonies are as much about accepting defeat and being vulnerable as they are about queer resistance. In ‘Growing Up Gay’ Alexander talks about harming himself while he was being bullied, and reads diary entries about his experiences of bulimia. He also interviews Shawn (25) who struggles with a drug addiction, a teenager named Connor (15), and a student called Tom (21) who suffers from bulimia. Connor describes having come out at thirteen, and being pushed down the stairs by another student in a homophobic attack. He talks about the pain of ‘people targeting you for no apparent reason other than for you being you’ (BBC, 2017), and explains that he attempted to take his own life as a result of the bullying.
Inspiring social change
Whereas testimonies like Wan’s (2011) and Savage and Miller’s (2010) vindicate the negative social atmosphere, by encouraging queer youths to develop resilience to adversity (Grzanka and Mann, 2014, 376), the first-hand accounts presented in ‘Growing Up Gay’ attest to the vulnerability of queer youths. Experiences of homophobic bullying are portrayed as complex rather than one-dimensional and linear, and affective strategies are used to advocate help-seeking. First and foremost, Alexander recognises that homophobic abuse will not end until social attitudes have improved. He states: ‘Everyone I have spoken to was either bullied at school for being LGBT, or it was made clear that it was shameful. Imagine the benefits to them if that was directly challenged’ (BBC, 2017). He and a friend stage a workshop at a secondary school in London about becoming LGBTQ role models, where they talk about bullying, mental health and the struggles of being LGBTQ. Alexander equally tells the class about his own experiences of bullying.
Alexander asserts that the legacies of rejecting feelings of shame make mental health hard to address in queer communities, but he admits that talking about mental health is ‘hard for everybody’, including non-queer individuals (BBC, 2017). As a successful musician, actor and activist, Olly Alexander is a role model for both queer and non-queer youths, and living proof that life can ‘get better’, though he does not gloss over the fact that he continues to live with the legacies of trauma from childhood and adolescence. In conversation with Alexander Campbell for British GQ (2018), Alexander discusses his commitment to raising awareness about mental health. Both he and Campbell talk frankly about their experiences of depression and being on antidepressants. Alexander admits that he may be on antidepressants for the rest of his life, but that reducing the stigma has helped him to see his mental health in better perspective (British GQ, 2018).
Harnessing authenticity: Samra Habib
Authenticity through the confessional
Langellier (1999) has explored how narrating one’s biography is a performative act, which underpins ‘social positioning and negotiation over belonging’ (Gal et al., 2016, 1699; Kraus, 2006). Lovelock (2019, 551) further suggests that ‘discourses of emotional introspection’ carry particularly high levels of commercial currency and contribute to the ‘affective economy’ of public life (Marshall, 1997). Lovelock (2019) argues that stories of ‘authenticity’ can generate economic and cultural profit (Sender, 2005), and that the ‘therapeutic ethos’ of neoliberalism provides a space in which queer narratives of struggle represent lucrative forms of ‘emotional labour’. Through channelling their ‘emotional and existential transitions’ into emotional labour, Lovelock (2017.b, 97) maintains that queer individuals can accrue public visibility and commercial value (Sender, 2014; Skeggs and Wood, 2012; Poon, 2017). He (2019, 557) therefore proposes that the idea of embracing one’s authenticity is ‘deeply intertwined’ with issues of power’, and endorses the neoliberal obsession with therapeutic introspection.
Samra Habib’s story, which she chronicles in her memoir (2019), is certainly a story of queer struggle. However, I argue that it marks a clear distance from the framework which Lovelock describes above. Jin Haritaworn (in Tauqir et al., 2011, 178) has described queer Muslims, queer people of colour and queer people in the Global South as ‘impossible subjects’, who are simultaneously criticised in the Global North for not speaking up about their oppression, and pitied for being trapped in a ‘pre-modern developmental position’. Haritaworn (2011, 178) further argues that when ‘subalterns’ are invited to speak, their voices are reduced to ‘hyperbolic suffering and testimonial.’ Hence we can see that there is power in Habib’s narrative. Scholars have noted how narratives which link the ‘narrating subject’ to their (minority) social collective are particularly important to minority groups (Gal et al, 2016; Langellier, 1999). Mohrdar (2020) has commented that reading We Have Always Been Here is like‘reading young Habib’s diary — the emotions feel raw and present. Itis an act of queer defiance. Habib interrogates ‘the rule that queer and Muslim is an oxymoron’ by finding herself within both identities (Haritaworn, 2011, 178-179). Far from being ‘granted a voice’, as Haritaworn (2011, 179) believes the ‘exceptional queer Muslim’ usually is, Habib’s narrative in We Have Always Been Here is proof of an existence that is ‘at its best manipulated, controlled and diluted, and at its worst non-existent’ (Mohrdar, 2020).
Indeed, what truly sets Habib’s memoir apart from other narratives of queer ‘emotional labour’ (Lovelock, 2019), is the fact that it tells the story of an existence that is frequently erased. Homonormativity describes how the sexual politics of neoliberal-capitalism separate queer populations into hierarchies of worthiness (Duggan, 2002, 2003; Fung, 2013; Griffin, 2007; Brown, 2012; Rubin, 2011). Some queer people are incorporated into wider society, provided they conform to and replicate the values of heterosexual society (Rubin, 2011; Halperin, 2012), while others are excluded. It has typically been argued that white, gay and lesbian, educated, cisgender, able-bodied white men and women who deviate from the norm ‘solely in their sexual orientation’ (Gal et al., 2016, 1704), are the prime benefactors of homonormativity. By contrast, bisexual people, sex workers, drag queens, immigrants, disabled people, working-class people, non-binary people, trans people and queer people of colour pay the costs (Halperin and Traub, 2009; Rubin, 2011; Tauqir et al., 2011; Brown, 2012; Duggan, 2002, 2003; Griffin, 2007). Consequently, the normative celebrations of ‘gay policemen, lesbian mothers, business leaders, corporate employees, religious devotees, athletes, and politicians’ in pride marches have predominantly reflected the interests of white, cisgender gay men and lesbian women (Halperin and Traub, 2009, 9).
Further extensions of this analysis have suggested that queer Muslim and queer people of colour’s identities are denigrated to particularly great political effect. Jasbir Puar (2007) coined the term ‘homonationalism’ to describe the alignment of certain LGBTQ people, with the nationalist powers and ideologies of the countries they reside in (Brown, 2012; Tauqir et al., 2011). LGBTQ rights are used to neo-colonial effect, it is argued, to justify xenophobia and racism against ‘those principally Muslim others deemed to be opposed to liberal social values’ (Brown, 2012, 1066). Habib (2019, 215) attests to the ‘very real fear’ she felt during childhood that revealing her Ahmadi identity would put her in danger. Upon arrival in Canada it was her status as a Pakistani refugee which endangered her, and upon realisation of her queer Muslim identity, she was opened up to attack from all sides.
Visibility as resistance
In light of this, more than anything Habib’s book is about carving out a place for queer Muslims. The theme of looking to others for guidance is inescapable in Habib’s memoir and in her photography. For Habib (2019, 215), it was the process of realising that multiple factors define her which finally gave her the insight to begin looking outside herself. She (2018) explains that she ‘wrote the kind of book I wish I had access to growing up as a queer Muslim kid’. Mohrdar (2020) writes; ‘As a first-generation immigrant, so many parts of the book made me want to scream…I wanted to tell her stories to other people, because they were my stories.’
The ‘Just Me and Allah’ project took Habib all over the world, and was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2016. Habib describes her encounters with other queer Muslims as experiences of mutual learning: ‘I saw parts of myself in my subjects’ stories, whether they were refugees from Iran or kids from Brooklyn’ (Habib, 2018). For Saba from North Carolina, the importance of Muslim visibility forms a central part of her daily life. Saba describes her love for the hijab, explaining that it makes her feel ‘connected’ to her Muslim identity, and empowers her amidst the surge of Islamophobic attacks in America: ‘since Trump has been elected, I have been wearing it every day when I am in public….it feels like an act of defiance and oddly makes me feel safer’ (Habib, 2018). Leila (Berlin) also refers to her hijab as an act of political resistance. ‘My hijab is political, my hijab is resistance’ (Habib, 2018). She styles her hijab the way she wants, when she wants: ‘covering my head is a part of me. And just to disturb the Islamophobic system I would keep doing it. I also decided to shave my head. You wanna see what’s under that hijab? Sorry boo, no long black hair soft and shiny like you may imagine…I’m not Jasmine from Aladdin’ (Habib, 2018).
Preserving the self: Bimini Bon Boulash
In recent years, a new industry which preaches self-care and ‘wellness’ has emerged, promising to help people ‘live their best life’ (Booth, 2018). While some have generously referred to the ‘wellness industry’ as a more nurturing offshoot of the self-help industry, others have argued that it is merely a modern permutation of it (Spicer, 2019). Either way, modern notions of self-care have appropriated once radical queer and feminist ideas, and stripped them of their political potential. Audre Lorde (1988, 1997) suggested that, for those whose existence has been threatened countless times before, surviving in itself is an act of ‘political warfare’. She was specific about what radical self-care is and is not. Her definition of self-care is practically the antithesis of how it might be defined now. As Sara Ahmed (2014) has noted, Lorde ‘gave us a strong critique of neoliberalism, even if she did not use that term.’
Lorde’s work sheds light on how structural inequalities are deflected by being rendered the responsibility of individuals, who ‘in being given the capacity to overcome structures are assumed to fail when they do not overcome them’ (Ahmed, 2014). Poon (2017, 140) reminds how ‘neoliberal subjectivity endorses the care and transformation of the self in order to take best advantage of a market economy’. In evoking the individual’s prerogative to indulge themselves so as to ‘live their best lives’, the self-care industry hopes to boost individuals’ potential as consumers (Lovelock, 2019; Genz, 2015). Self-care in Lorde’s terms is not about self-indulgence. In The Cancer Journals Lorde (1997, 76) critiques how self-care is used as codeword for happiness. Attempting to always be ‘happy’ might mean ignoring the things which threaten our very existence: ‘looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life’.
Surviving RuPaul’s Drag Race
Poon (2017, 142) argues that ‘the contemporary notion of self-help’ is perhaps best embodied in the ‘idea of radical transformation or the makeover, a standard feature of today’s chat show programmes and reality TV.’ Here I argue that, just as self-help and self-care discourses turn neoliberal ideals into ethical challenges (Gill & Orgad, 2018), the lexicon of self-love and acceptance in RuPaul’s Drag Race masks a less celebratory ethos. In this case, I hypothesise that non-normative queens like Bimini Bon Boulash have to work harder than others to achieve success.
The use of reality TV tropes like transformational makeover scenes and challenges which pit contestants against each other situate the RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-) franchise firmly within the reality genre (Edgar, 2011, 134). This production takes the typical makeover show or talent/beauty contest to a new level. It parodies Project Runway (2004-) and America’s Next Top Model (2003-) to provide an altogether more entertaining and drama-filled form of television. Drag Race has become a firm fixture of mainstream viewing, and an even firmer fixture of queer culture(s). RuPaul’s mantra ‘if you can’t love yourself, then how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an Amen?’ surely seals the show’s status as an identity-affirming, body-positive touchstone for queer inspiration, joy and guidance.
On this year’s series of Drag Race UK, Bimini was widely praised by the judges throughout the series. They had won four ‘RuPeter’ badges by the season finale, more than any other queen, and were the first queen ever to make it from the bottom two in the first week to win the ‘Snatch Game’ in episode six. Before the winner was announced, a Radio Times (2021) survey found that two-thirds of Drag Race fans supported Bimini as the winning queen. But the final decision comes down to RuPaul himself, and he crowned Scottish queen Lawrence Chaney. Many viewers were in ‘uproar’ over the result (Storey, 2021), voicing the opinion on social media that Bimini was ‘undeniably robbed’ (Rennex, 2021; Wheeler, 2021; Damshenas, 2021). I do not intend to argue that Bimini’s crown was ‘robbed’, nor do I suggest that RuPaul’s choice to crown Lawrence Chaney denotes a fundamental distaste for gender nonconforming contestants. These are things I simply cannot say.
However, LeBesco (2004, 271) points out that ‘reality TV has had a hand in changing images and perceptions of transgressive sexuality for better and worse.’ In 2011 Edgar (145) argued that, despite its unprecedented representation of queens of colour, queer queens and working-class queens, Drag Race failed to present drag identities in a diverse and inclusive authentic way, rendering itself ‘merely entertainment’ (Edgar, 2011, 134). Not only this, but she suggests that those who attempt to break free of the normalising processes that the show encourages are punished for it. Is it possible that the ethos of RuPaul’s Drag Race, ‘a monument to trans and queer representation’ (Hermes and Kardolus, 2019, 463), might create an atmosphere in which non-normative identities have to work harder to survive?
I propose that there are awkward sides to the show which are obscured by its apparent ethos of inclusivity. As Hermes and Kardolus (2019, 464) have argued, definitions of femininity and womanhood in Drag Race are ‘surprisingly rigid’, and queens who diverge from hegemonic, cisgender, ‘real’ representations of femininity have been punished since the show began (Edgar, 2011). The ‘failure to repeat gender norms’ is not regarded by the judges as subversive or empowering, but as a failure to perform drag successfully (Edgar, 2011, 133). If we turn to the first episode of series two of Drag Race UK, in which Bimini spent their first and only week in the bottom two, the judges’ main critique was that her tucking tape was on show; RuPaul: ‘That second look did tell lots of stories’, Michelle Visage: ‘Including where she ate last night!’ (RPDRUK, S2E1, 2021). This detail has served as a red flag for the judges repeatedly throughout the show’s run, marking an uncomfortable policing of the body (Edgar, 2011; Hermes and Kardolus, 2019).
Ahmed (2014) stresses that, for some of us, ‘To have some body, to be a member of some group…can be a death sentence.’ Survival becomes a ‘radical action’. Though death is hardly a likely consequence of failing to conform to the gendered norms in RuPaul’s Drag Race, we can take from Ahmed’s analysis that people who defy normalised ideas about sexuality and gender can either try to conform to hegemonic ideals, or else try to ‘survive’. Bimini has spoken before about their struggles with performing gender roles: ‘I used to do a lot of things that were seen as more feminine, and people stopped that, and people really…chipped away at me until I conformed. And now this is just taking back control of that for me’ (Cosmopolitan, 2021). The look which earned Bimini a place in the bottom two was in homage to Norwich City football club, Bimini’s home town. It consisted of a skimpy green and yellow leotard, lace-up, thigh-high PVC platform boots, a peroxide mullet, a gold cross around the neck, and a Norwich City scarf. Since the end of this year’s series, Bimini has posted an Instagram of the look, writing: ‘Reposting this Norwich City look because I still stand by it being ICONIC because it was all about subverting gender stereotypes and you all slept on it because you were told a bit of tape being on show undermines a great CONCEPT!…Flipping this script and bringing that culture to the mainstage of drag race was still one of my favourite ever looks!’ (@biminibabes, 2021.c). Indeed, it is a shame that tucking tape could prevent a queen on Drag Race from being given the credit they deserve.
Love yourself – say that again!
Lorde writes critically about how indulging in self-care can distract from fighting injustice. In defence of her term, Lorde argues that self-care is an of self-preservation. Here I argue that through the language they use and their status as a queer non-binary icon, both as a contestant on Drag Race UK and as a media figure, Bimini conveys a radical message of self-love and self-care to queer fans. Crucially, I propose that Bimini’s employment of themes of self-care reflect a return to Lorde’s original sense of the term, marking an invocation of activism through queer survival. However, I contend that Bimini’s use of radical queer and feminist thought recognises the power of queer joy, advocating a vision of not only collective survival, but of collective thriving.
Bimini has voiced that the progressive conversations surrounding gender are different now in that they are not only about celebrities, but about ordinary people. Arguably, they and non-binary queen Ginny Lemon helped to open up and normalise this discussion in the third episode of Drag Race UK. Ginny tearfully describes having always struggled with their identity; ‘I don’t love myself in any way’ (BBC Three, 2021). The emotional exchange which ensues features intermittent cross-cutting between ‘confessionals’, and footage of Bimini and Ginny holding hands across a work table. In the voice-over Bimini states: ‘non-binary isn’t a new thing, it’s just a new term.’ The camera cuts back to the two of them: Ginny: ‘I’ve never had the support, I grew up in a very working-class council house…anybody who was any different from the binary was a freak, an outsider.’ Bimini: ‘I’m still finding out who I am, as are you…and it’s a battle every day’ (RPDRUK, S2E1, 2021). This was a ground-breaking moment for queer and non-binary representation on UK television. After the episode aired, Grant (2021) interviewed a non-binary individual who came out to their mum while watching it. They attributed the fact that most people have ‘never known someone like that on TV or in their life’ to the reasons why people might not be understanding of non-binary identities. Another individual, Aislinn, said they cried when they saw the conversation between Ginny and Bimini, because it was ‘two non-binary people having a conversation, instead of it being a non-binary person explaining themselves to someone else’ (Grant, 2021). Aislinn felt that the conversation was ‘for’, and not ‘about’ non-binary people. It is this sense of relatability which Bimini associates with the positive responses to their conversation with Ginny Lemon. They argue that people relate to stories like theirs because ‘you’re actually listening to someone – a human being – talk about their feelings and their experience and seeing vulnerability’ (Attitude, 2021).
Further evidencing the major impact that Bimini has had on non-binary and queer audiences, a mural was painted in their honour in a Norwich underpass by local artist Knapple, with the help of transgender activist Sharpay Salazar. It referenced Bimini’s verses in ‘UK Hun?’, and in the season finale song ‘A Little Bit of Love’, depicting Bimini in their Norwich City look against a backdrop of the transgender flag. The mural read: ‘Bimini babes, watch the queen conquer/Whether you’re he, she or them!!! #TransRights’. The significance of identification here is clear; Salazar stated: ‘I’m super proud of Bimini’s journey on the show – even though they didn’t win they still won our hearts….They’ve opened the doors to many, many discussions that are going to affect people’s lives for the better’ (BBC, 2021). Unfortunately, within days of being painted the mural was vandalised (BBC, 2021). In response to this, Bimini wrote on Twitter that they were not angry, but had ‘sympathy’ for the people who vandalised the mural, for feeling ‘threatened or intimidated by a message portraying love, positivity and kindness’ (@biminibabes, 2021.a). Another of Bimini’s tweets reads: ‘To be trans is to be yourself and being yourself is beautiful. We need to learn to love, celebrate and protect each other from all forms of oppression and hatred.’ (@biminibabes, 2021.b).
It is clear that queer cultural texts, symbols and media figures can provide queer individuals with uniquely empowering insight. Substantial evidence suggests that positive role models enhance self-esteem (Cheung & Yue, 2003; Wohlford et al., 2004), and that there is a definite relationship between the media and queer identity (Gomillion and Giuliano, 2011; Bringaze and White, 2001). There has long been a lack of positive queer role models in the media. Indeed for many queer people, there has been a complete absence of media figures that bear any relation to them. As such, I hypothesise that young queer people have typically been more likely to turn to self-help discourses because they have lacked alternative sources of positive guidance. 2021 has been an important year for queer representation. Non-binary university student Owen Hurcum has been elected mayor of Bangor, Wales; the gay black American rapper and singer-songwriter Lil Nas X sparked controversy for sliding down a pole into hell and giving Satan a lap-dance; and American actor Elliot Page became the first trans man ever to be on the cover of TIME magazine.
In this paper, I have attempted to convey how Samra Habib, Bimini Bon Boulash and Olly Alexander explore the themes of justice, resilience, authenticity, and visibility in their queer work, activism and personas. Olly Alexander inspires young queer individuals to reject the idea that they have to put up with struggle and liberates them from the burden of refashioning their lives to ‘get better’ (Grzanka and Mann, 2014). Though Alexander cannot solve queer youths’ experiences of violence, he uses his platform to advocate making mental health a topic of conversation, and to speak about the damage that homophobia can do. Habib’s memoir and photo series are testament to navigating hardships towards a more solid notion of ‘authentic’ selfhood. In her (2019, 215) words, ‘dedicating your life to understanding yourself can be its own form of protest, especially when the world tells you that you don’t exist.’ Habib’s work is political activism which reminds us that queer Muslims exist, while equally declaring that their existence is not for the gaze of curious non-Muslim people. She builds a narrative ‘of being together, and therefore of “being” with just a bit more ease’ (Mohrdar, 2020). Finally, Bimini’s persona and presence in themselves are declarations of the potential of non-normative identities in 21st century Britain. The framework for self-care that Bimini employs might subvert that of Lorde (1988, 1997), in that it calls for ‘indulging’ the self in love. However, it marks a radical return to the political and activist roots of the term by calling for queer collectivism.
I do not suggest that these queer figures consciously create self-help narratives in and of themselves. Rather, I have proposed that they fulfil the objectives of self-help discourses, thereby eliminating the need for them. By giving queer individuals a chance to ‘see’ themselves, and to imagine a future that is achievable and relatable, these queer role models perform the work of guiding young queers who struggle in silence or in isolation.
Jack Mackintosh (he/him) lives in London and is about to graduate from the University of Sussex with a Master’s in Gender Studies. He’s never written a piece for a publication before but is thinking about doing it a lot more. Find him on Instagram @jaackmackintosh
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 ‘UK Hun?’ was performed by queens Bimini, Tayce, A’Whora and Lawrence Chaney, as their contribution to the ‘RuRuVision’ contest, in the fifth episode of Drag Race UK (season two). It was met with enormous praise, reaching number twenty-seven on the official UK charts.