On Millennial Fluidity; or, a Second Open Love Letter to Nico Tortorella




A FEW YEARS AGO, I helped a friend who teaches at our local public arts high school with a course she was developing on LGBT young adult fiction. The class would be taken by creative writing students in the school’s afternoon conservatory, and my friend wanted to design a curriculum that would appeal to her students. And indeed, the combination of YA and queer content was a “winner” with these smart, socially progressive, aesthetically inclined young people.

My friend invited me to the first day of class, and as soon as the rowdy young folk were assembled in a circle, she invited us to go around the room and introduce ourselves and our preferred pronouns. I had never encountered before a call for preferred pronouns, but, as someone who has written extensively about gender and sexuality, I knew that such introductions were becoming increasingly common among younger people. I was eager to participate and listened attentively as students claimed he or she or they. More than a handful chose they, them, and theirs.

At the time, I didn’t think I was uncomfortable with the declarations of preferred pronouns, but perhaps I was. For when it was my turn to make an introduction, I opted for a bit of snark — which, to be fair to me, is not atypical. I said, “My name is Jonathan Alexander, and my preferred pronoun is ‘sir.’”

Immediately the students protested, some wagging fingers, others shaking their heads. You are not allowed to make fun of this. Don’t mock what we’re doing.

I started to respond that I was “only joking,” but I stopped and apologized, realizing that they were absolutely right; I had been poking fun, playfully mocking — but, yes, still mocking a bit something I hadn’t encountered before, something that was new to me, and something that, admittedly, made me a little uncomfortable.

Experiencing that discomfort — and acknowledging it — was something of a kick in the pants, because I couldn’t shake the sensation that I should’ve known, or felt, better. My first published book was an edited collection of essays on bisexuality and transgenderism. I had published a widely cited article in my field on transgender rhetorics. I was no stranger to trans issues, and while I do not actively identify as trans, I also do not identify as cis, the designation for people whose gender identity matches their sex classification, usually assigned at birth. My relationship to gender is … complicated.

But no, I’m not trans. I have always used he, him, and his pronouns, have not personally experienced what psychologists and psychiatrists call “gender dysphoria,” and am fairly cis-presenting, even if many people identify me (not mistakenly) as unmistakably queer, and a bit on the femme side of a spectrum of masculine performance. Still, I thought I had substantively interrogated my own male privilege and transphobia. But these young people’s assertion of claiming pronouns unsettled me just enough to prompt me to realize that, whatever complications I have vis-à-vis my own gender, I’m still pretty much acculturated to living in a world in which most people don’t feel they have to claim pronouns, a world in which boy/girl and man/woman are still powerful binary paradigms. Intellectually, theoretically, academically, I knew better. But my discomfort signaled that I wasn’t emotionally intelligent about transgenderism. I wasn’t ready for a world in which the “obviousness” of gender would be questioned, and that some of us (usually older, but not always) would be challenged to recognize — and respect — that some people (usually, but hardly always, younger) were rejecting, for whatever reasons, the binary split of the human species into male and female.

Such is our historical moment in the West, and it is a moment in history, with transgender activists, theorists, and others (take a look at the work and legacy of Leslie Feinberg, just to name one) powerfully asserting that the constructs of not only masculine and feminine but also male and female are just that — constructs that have dominated culture and politics in the West but that don’t necessarily have transcultural or transhistorical validity or traction. Other cultures, usually premodern, have used multiple gender categories, and have understood and practiced relations among genders, sexes, orientations, preferences, relationships, and intimacies in very divergent ways from our own.

What makes this historical moment so interesting, at least for me, is the increasing widespread recognition of the constructedness of gender and sex among younger generations — both queer and straight. To be sure, the awareness of such constructedness is hardly new to queer communities, with their histories of drag, of molly houses, of dress codes, of hanky codes, and of butch/femme dialectics, just to name a few instances of gender play and critique. And while more young people are choosing “they” as their preferred pronoun than might have in the past, millennials and younger folk haven’t ditched he and she in such vast numbers as to make “male” and “female” irrelevant to them, or likely to die off any time soon. But enough of them are de facto defaulting to introducing themselves with their preferred pronouns that they are, in effect, acknowledging that gender and sex aren’t as set as we used to think they are — not for these folks, even if many of them are still using he and she. That is, the felt need or desire to declare one’s pronouns acknowledges — and in acknowledging also creates — a world in which gender is not only not obvious, but a matter of self-determination. Gender has moved from a designation, something assigned to you, to a right to identify as one feels most appropriate.

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One of the self-declared champions of this right to identify beyond male and female is actor and now poet and author Nico Tortorella, one of the stars of the hit series Younger and host of the popular podcast The Love Bomb. Tortorella, in his early 30s, made waves in both the Hollywood and queer media worlds by identifying as bisexual and then marrying long-time friend and lover, Bethany Meyers, all the while also declaring that their relationship is polyamorous and that both reserve the right to date and sleep with other people, men or women or those who identify as neither. The Love Bomb features Tortorella interviewing many of the people they’ve loved, although not all interviewees have also been sexual partners. Instead, the actor-turned-podcaster delighted in the plurality of “love,” exploring, according to the show’s site, “love and the labels associated with it.”

Now, Tortorella (and wife) have chosen the pronoun “they,” asserting gender fluidity as an important, even vital millennial value. In a new book, published this year by Crown, Space Between: Explorations of Love, Sex, and Fluidity, Tortorella traverses some of the same terrain as The Love Bomb in a largely memoir-ish account of their life that also reads at times like a manifesto — and one that understands their generation, millennials, at the heart of the new gender fluidity.

Tortorella announces their ambitions in terms of a movement early in their book: “This book is a rebellion against the rigidity of standardized gender identity and an exploration of all the ways our current generation has evolved to express themselves when it comes to constructs of gender, sexuality, and love. Some of it focuses on my own programming and family dynamics.” Mixing up the usual tropes through which we discuss and describe gender, Tortorella says that writing the book offered them the chance to “giv[e] birth to myself,” and, more provocatively, that “I wasn’t born into the wrong body. No, I was born into the wrong world.” World-changing and world-building, nothing less than global transformation, peppers the rhetoric here:

We are at the precipice of big changes toward love and inclusivity. The future is fluid. But so is the past. We as human beings have all always been fluid in some capacity, our journeys perpetually in motion, ready to bend and shift when necessary. It is precisely in that space between where the truth resides. The real magic. The self-actualization.

With such a backdrop, Tortorella launches into their story, recounting more chronologically than in The Love Bomb, their various crushes, intimacies, friendships, relationships, breakups, and hookups across gender lines. They acknowledge that the journey has not always been fun and games. Tortorella describes an upbringing in a household with strong Italian roots that they appreciate to this day but also one with an added mixture of homophobia that hasn’t yet been forgotten. More progressive influences, though, were plentiful, and Tortorella nods to the books of Ram Dass and a vegan aunt and uncle enamored of raw food, yoga, and crystals. Still, Tortorella had to grapple with their own internalized homophobia, in particular their ability to pass as a cisgender straight white male whose first same-sex encounters were both exhilarating and shame-inducing. As they say, “We are all working with the hetero-patriarchal ideas of gender we’ve received through conditioning, but this doesn’t mean we can’t queer the fuck out of them.”

Indeed, Tortorella persisted, pursuing their desires, questioning their assumptions about whom they should love, and how — as well as what — their desires mean in terms of not just sexual orientation but also gender. What is a man, or a woman, and how do gender and sexuality interconnect? Tortorella comes to an understanding of gender, sex, and sexuality that essentially suspends definitional particularity in favor of a capacious embrace of desire apart from identity:

My gender and my sexuality are not defined by what I wear, or even whom I’m sleeping with at any given point. They are defined by who I am. Which is something that is constantly changing as I critique myself and grow as a person. Every new thing I learn changes who I am and how I understand my place in the world. This is my fluidity, this is my space between. It’s a way to work within socially constructed ideas about “men” and “women,” and express how I actually feel inside to find ways to be true to myself.

These are big-hearted, even attractive claims, bristling with agency and self-determination. They also bristle a bit, potentially rubbing the wrong way, with a lack of recognition that not everyone in our culture, much less our world, is positioned in ways that allow them to readily claim and enact such agency with regard to sexuality and gender identity. To be fair, Tortorella is aware of their own privilege, including their accumulating wealth and success in various media industries, and they acknowledge that it might even appear odd for someone with their privileges, including model-level attractiveness, to be stepping out on such queer limbs. Tortorella plays a cis-straight male very convincingly on Younger. As they put it, given “[m]y straight- and cis-passing privilege […,] why does it feel like I’m fighting so hard to rid myself of these skins?” The answer may be because they can. Wealth and security — Tortorella talks about writing their book from the comfort of a newly bought upstate New York farm — allow certain people to be capacious in terms of identification: “I am comfortable today calling myself a queer, nonbinary, bisexual (or pansexual, depending on the social-context semantics), happily married, polyamorous/non-monogamous human being.”

To be fair, their capaciousness isn’t just postmodern play with commodified identities. Tortorella is not without a critical consciousness of the stakes of their fluidity — both personally and politically. Personally, Space Between chronicles in part Tortorella’s struggles with alcohol addiction and drug abuse, which we are asked to understand as failed coping mechanisms for Nico’s initial inability to come to terms with their plural desires, as well as the still fairly persistent straitjacketing of the Hollywood industry of its stars into conventional gender roles. When beginning to announce their bisexuality, Tortorella’s “team” of managers and handlers advised them against being too out loud and proud. But, again, Tortorella persisted, inspired in part by a trans friend who told (at the time) him that he was really, deep down, trans — even if he wasn’t going to undergo traditional sexual reassignment surgery. Indeed, Tortorella provocatively understands their transness as their embrace of gender complexity — a capacious transness that we’ll get back to later in this essay.

Beyond the personal, Tortorella offers glancing critiques of capitalism, highlighting how gender and even sexual orientation identity are ultimately part of “social constructs [that] work to separate and harm all of us, in ways that are in service to people who already have material wealth and power.” In a nod to recent political tropes cast with a sci-fi edge, they bemoan a “matrix” that “has been masterfully configured to keep us oppressed and silent while the 1 percent reaps all the benefits. A system built to make a select few successful while the rest of the world perishes. A system built to keep us apart. A system built to keep us down, dormant.”

Space Between was preceded by a film that Tortorella produced and in which they star, Fluidity, and a book of poems, all of it is you., a mantra that appears frequently in Space Between. The film, which was released to various streaming services in 2019, was directed by Linda Yellen (who had been an executive producer for the 1986 television movie Second Serve, based on the autobiography of trans woman Renée Richards). The film is advertised as “[t]he story of ten millennials living in New York City whose sexual lives intersect in the age of social media — where likes, impressions, and virtual ‘connections’ threaten the very notion of personal relationships and human intimacy.” The “frame” of the film consists of a graduate student conducting interviews with millennials about their intimate lives and the impact of social media on them, with the interviews interrupted by varied scenes of erotic encounter crossing gender and sexual orientation lines. Desire here is fluid indeed. But the film’s many characters also have to resist the ongoing pull of gender stereotypes and expectations as well as the consumerist approach to intimacy enabled by social media platforms that allow one to approach others for sex as though they are shopping. Some of the characters learn, perhaps a bit predictably, the value of unplugging.

While Fluidity offers some mild cautions about the pitfalls of tech-driven “connection,” the book of poems returns us fully to Tortorella’s voice — big hearted, wide open, full throated, and Whitmanian in its embrace of themselves and the world. For Tortorella, all of it is you. The book is divided into three sections — body, earth, universe — and reads like a catalog of perceptible and phenomenological existence. We begin in “body” with poems on sperm, egg, conception, womb, birth, breath, blood, DNA; we then expand out to “earth” with lyrics describing land, waters, air, fire, wood, metal, light, energy; and we take our biggest scope with “universe” and verse on the big bang, space, solar system, astronomy, fun, moon, stars, Mercury, Venus. Or, as Tortorella writes in the introduction, “i wanted to start at the beginning, so i began quite literally with the origins of life, inception and birth, and through the three sections, the poems take you on a journey through human life and connection to the world around us, and finally to the universe and beyond.” If desire is fluid, then all of it is indeed potentially you — and everyone and everything — so why not celebrate the merging of identity with the universe? The poem “identity” stakes out just such an expansive — and expanding — territory, moving from the particularity of Tortorella’s life to the more that they intuit is possible:

my masculinity is fragile. my feminine freeing.
the recovering alcoholic who still smokes
organic tobacco. occasional psychoactive
dabbler. the diving deep into mysticism and
meditation learning what it means to be healer.
the actor, first great love.
the activist, next great love.
the actorvist, the player of words.
the frolicker. the voice on the podcast.
the celebrity.
the not this not that beyond definition.
the work in progress.
my you is me.
i am me. the i. fluidly.

Whitmanian indeed! I can almost detect the scent of armpits, an aroma finer than prayer.

A contrasting aesthetic is useful here, and I have a hard time not thinking of James Franco when I read or watch Tortorella. They are both actors-turned-writers with ambitions to play among the fields of genre and media. And while Franco doesn’t identify himself as queer, his work in multiple venues variously explores homosocial intimacy (Pineapple Express), outright homosexuality (King Cobra), and generally subversive and illicit sexualities (Palo Alto). The best queerness in Franco’s work comes in the chaste homosociality of best male friends (Pineapple Express); more often — and more disturbingly — queerness is unsettling, hidden, perverse, or renounced. In one of his most provocative films, I Am Michael (2014), Franco portrays a real-life gay activist who attempts to cure his homosexuality and ultimately becomes a Christian pastor. Perhaps, ultimately, Franco’s vision is a straight man’s imagination of queerness as a latent possibility, but one still fundamentally shameful, a queerness desired out of the corner of the eye when you’re hoping no one is really looking. It’s what some men might want, even some straight men, but can’t pursue, indulge, or even readily admit because to do so would disturb their identity as men. It’s a, pardon the pun, straightjacketed desire, and often, for that, pathological. And, perhaps because of that vision, after reading or watching Franco, I pick up all of it is you. and breathe a sigh of relief. I’d rather live in Nico’s expansive world — and hope it’s more the direction we’re moving in.

Admittedly, with such expansiveness comes some grandiosity, and Tortorella begins their introduction with the proclamation: “let it be said: this book has one of the greatest titles of all time” — and the admission that “all of it is you. was conceived, mapped out, and written in forty-five days.” But, often fetchingly, the grandiosity fits the themes of the book, as well as the vision and even the ethics of Space Between.

Fight the system. Don’t let it keep us apart. We know this tune, this song, this chant, this cry. We’ve been down this street before, and we’ve marched this march. But it feels fresh in Nico’s mouth, as I listen to the Audible version of his book. Is it just that I have a crush, or that they still sound so young, renewing the call to push at what constrains us?

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Tortorella figures their fight, this rebellion against the matrix of gender categorization, as driven particularly by their generation, the millennial generation. Walking the tightrope between individuality and fluidity, they assert that,

Beyond a rebellion against the rigidity of standardized gender identity and an exploration of all the ways our current generations have evolved to express themselves when it comes to the constructs of gender and sexuality, [my] book is about the infinite singularity that unites us all, the all of us, the all of you.

Given this generation’s (and the even younger one’s) propensity to introduce themselves with pronoun preferences, I think Tortorella might be on to something; recognizing — and honoring — gender fluidity might be one of their generation’s signature modifications of our collective social and political reality.

Maybe. Others are less certain, and I turn now to some gentle caveats to Tortorella’s attractive enthusiasm. For instance, Thomas Page McBee’s lovely 2018 memoir, Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man, can be read alongside Space Between as a complicating companion to the narrative manifesto Tortorella offers. In his book, McBee, a trans man and journalist, writes about his experiences training for an amateur boxing charity event. His primary question in undertaking this challenge is poignant and powerful, cutting to the heart of the contradictions of contemporary masculinity: “Why do men fight? I began to see the question as a proxy, a starting point, for what I initially thought of as a very personal experiment: If I shone a light on the shadowy truths about how I’d come by my own notions of what makes a man, could I change the story of what being a man means?” Such questions — what makes a man? and how can we be men differently? — seem pressing in the context of Donald Trump’s and his followers’ rages, #MeToo, toxic (often white) masculinity, and the ongoing crisis in masculinity because of continued dramatic shifts in the workforce. In response to this context, McBee doesn’t argue for moving beyond gender; rather, his experiences in and out of the ring lead him to a complex understanding of masculinity and being a man, one that sees in the figure and practice of boxing the contradictions — and possibilities — of masculinity:

With its cover of “realness” and violence, [boxing] provides room for what so many men lack: tenderness, and touch, and vulnerability. The narratives we see about boxing matches always start at the ending: two guys in the ring, squaring off. The violence obscures the deeper story, the one about the fighters who see your biggest weakness and teach you how to turn it into an advantage. In gyms all over the world, men are sharing their worst fears, men are asking for help, men are sparring one another with great care.

For McBee, such complexity is still very much a part of the evolving experience of masculinity, even for younger folk, such as millennials. He notes that “well-off ‘makers’ in cities dressed like lumberjacks and dabbled in bespoke artisan crafts [trying] to reconnect with old-fashioned, hands-on work” try to cultivate “attitudes toward masculinity that many men insisted were radically different from previous generations.” At the same time, however, sociological surveys suggest something very different: “Millennial men as a whole turned out to be as ‘traditional,’ and even less egalitarian, in their attitudes toward gender as their fathers — which made experts eventually posit that growing up with fathers impacted by the masculinity crisis made them more, not less, resistant to gender equality.” Changing attitudes about gender and embracing the kind of fluidity and capaciousness that Tortorella imagines might be harder than it seems.

But the vision and possibilities remain fetching. Gender and queer theorist Jack Halberstam’s 2018 book, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability, offers history, critique, personal narrative, and its own manifesto for embracing the creative art of living that trans*-ness signifies — an embrace that relies, as both Tortorella and Halberstam suggest, on a critique of the systems, structures, and regimes that produce power through the proliferation of classificatory schemes and knowledges of gender and sexuality (to channel a bit of Foucault for you). At the same time, however, while wanting to honor a range of creative approaches to and play with gender, Halberstam worries that we might be producing too many new identity categories that then in turn create more exclusions, even a sense of alienation as ever-more fine-grained identities pose barriers to understanding and belonging. Thinking of Tortorella along these lines, I can’t help but wonder when their self-identification as “queer, nonbinary, bisexual […] happily married, polyamorous/non-monogamous human being” starts to seem less like fluidity and more like a checklist for being hip, cool, with it, radical, and progressive. Halberstam offers instead that, “[t]he solution […] is not to impose ever more precise calibrations of bodily identity but rather to think in new and different ways about what it means to claim a body.”

Halberstam’s radical vision of trans* (note the asterisk, the punctuated marker of open possibilities for connection, “trans” able to affix and modify nearly anything) is that “trans* bodies challenge the nature of reality itself.” As such, Halberstam’s conceptualization of trans* is every bit as capacious as Tortorella wants theirs to be: “If we shift our focus […] away from the housing of the body and toward the notion of ‘transition’ — perpetual transition — we can commit to a horizon of possibility where the future is not male or female but transgender.” This capacious understanding of trans* does not negate previous models of transsexuality that viewed the body as the house of gender, a house that sometimes needed to be renovated to match better the perceived gender of its inhabitant, but rather expands the notion of trans* to include models of life fashioning around an embrace of the transitoriness — dare one say, fluidity? — of identities, intimacies, desires, and potentialities. By moving in, through, and beyond gender constructs of male/female and masculinity/femininity, trans* is able to “throw the organization of all bodies into doubt.” And with doubt comes the opening onto the unknown, potentiality, futurity itself.

With that said, Halberstam worries that contemporary trans* youth are cut off from their histories, the admittedly complex and sometimes painful histories of trans* experiences, of people who pushed at medical, social, legal, and political understandings of what it means not just to be a “man” or a “woman” but a person. They caution that the pursuit of identity acknowledgment, of visibility, even of legibility might foreclose an appreciation of the messiness of the past — a past full of creative accommodations, artful survival, and ways of making community and kin that might provide inspiration for those like Tortorella seeking to expand our sense of the possible through our bodies, our desires, our genders, our intimacies, our connections. Halberstam cites, for instance, Paris Is Burning as a film that not only documents the fierce rivalries of a community of color’s drag performers but also celebrates the fiercer friendships and networks of care of “adults taking a somewhat different path to normative maturation.” These are folks who not just claimed bodies and identities but also forged sustaining ties of kinship, family, and collectivity. How many young trans* people know this history, celebrate its creativity, and learn from its innovations?

Halberstam’s mention of Paris also raises issue of race and ethnicity, particularly as we should never assume that all queers and trans* folks of all races and ethnicities experience, configure, understand, perform, or identify in the same way. Halberstam is particularly attentive to queer of color critique, noting the ways in which trans* folk of color offer their own understandings of — and innovations about — the operation of gender in our lives. Halberstam sifts their analyses through the thinking of Saidiya Hartman, Roderick Ferguson, and C. Riley Snorton, among many others, to consider how transgenderism has often, especially in the past, been figured and treated in pop and mass culture as a white phenomenon; in contrast, in other kinds of communities, particularly communities of color, “other terms exist in other communities and […] these other terms indicate the function of gender in relation to a specific set of life experiences.” Fortunately, newer pop cultural images from shows like Pose are diversifying the ethnic and racial representation of trans* folk. Further, in a provocative and lovely twist, Halberstam reminds us that the “bathroom issue” that many trans* people face is akin (albeit with a difference) to the segregation of bathrooms into white and black spaces in 20th-century America — the public bathroom serving (again and again) as a charged space for the regulation of gender and race, sometimes simultaneously. Halberstam eloquently asks how we might reimagine public toilets architecturally to remove the disciplining of bodies into fixed categories of either race or gender. Comparably, McBee speaks to some of the complexities of thinking masculinity across ethnicities and different identity groups, adding in a strong class component for consideration as well. Some people can’t afford — either materially or psychically — the kind of gender play that Tortorella advocates. I know all too well, given my own working-class background, that gender deviation from set standards of masculinity or femininity in certain communities presents opportunities for immediate disciplining and punishment. The number of trans* and queer youth who are homeless remains disproportionately high compared to non-trans* and non-queer young people, the former often outcast from their homes because of their “deviance.” Such kids can’t afford fluidity, even as some of them would likely die, by their own hands or the hands of others, if they attempted to remain in their communities and hide who they are.

When I read Halberstam and McBee, I do wonder — as does Tortorella — about the privilege needed to enact the kind of gender fluidity they propose. With that said, and I think Nico would agree, we don’t have to abandon gender to embrace its fluidity. McBee’s memoir is testament to this, as is Halberstam’s work. (I remember Jack telling me earlier this year that I could refer to them as he or they, whichever.) Perhaps we work where we are, doing what we can, surviving, making the creative most out of our situations, but also pushing, as we can, for more available freedom. With that pushing in mind, models are useful here, as is the inspiring history of those who have gone before and have pushed to make possible the lives of those they could only imagine. If there’s one thing I miss from Tortorella’s Space Between, it’s this engagement with history, a grappling with those who have gone before, an attention to the lessons learned. Nico’s is a beautiful book. How much more beautiful would it be if it struggled not just with the immediate past of Nico’s life and their current generation, but with the generations that have made possible — have helped make imaginable — the contemporary fluidity that Nico embraces?

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I want to pause before proceeding because I can imagine a different version of this essay, one that’s cranky and critical — of Tortorella as well as of the penchant among some youth to identify as “they.” That cranky review would note that the adoption of they, or even just the declaration of one’s pronouns, is hardly universal, tending more to coastal and urban centers, where it runs the risk of seeming hip and cool, an identity trend for (probably mostly) white kids. And, speaking of white kids, what about Tortorella themself? Might they be something of a gender charlatan, somebody capitalizing on the trendiness of youthful radicality and revolutionary fervor to give an extra bit of pizzazz to a package that might otherwise just seem like another pretty white boy in Hollywood? I acknowledge those critiques but persist in a reading of Tortorella with the grain. I’m suspending my own history of mobilizing multiple hermeneutics of suspicion that would shred Tortorella and their work as just the epiphenomena, the effervescence, of the commodification of real gender critique that is now marketed as the new, bold, fresh — that is, the newer, bolder, fresher! — set of identities to which corporations can pitch their gender-bending fashions, accessories, and lifestyles.

All of that might be true. But I want to read generously. I want to believe. And part of that desire to believe comes from having been wrong before. Over 20 years ago, early in my career as an academic, a colleague and I savaged Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out, and her character’s coming out on her show Ellen, as very likely just an attempt to address increasingly circulating rumors through an increasingly belated preemptive strike that could be turned to potentially good publicity. Moreover, our analysis deployed queer theoretical concepts to critique her and her characters’ performance of lesbianism as insubstantial, fraught, and unsexed. I think the title of our paper played with the opening of a standard and snarky joke about DeGeneres’s television sitcom character: “What do you call a lesbian who doesn’t sleep with women? Ellen.” We were harsh. We weren’t necessarily wrong.

Except we missed something crucial. Whatever you might think of Ellen — a rather rich white woman who has consorted with the likes of George W. Bush and Tom DeLay, compromising in my mind her queer card — her coming out did help launch a new era of televisual images of queer people. It’s one that, absolutely, is still woefully underdeveloped in terms of breadth and depth of representation. But it is one that marked a substantial shift from previous generations’ experience of queers on TV, and one that influenced a generation of young people to become more tolerant of sexualities not their own. Critiques are important. So too is recognizing gains made by a corporate construction of the media industries.

So, I don’t know if I’m wrong about Nico. They might be a corporate construction of a media industry, hoping to capitalize on a trendy approach to gender. Having read their book, I personally don’t think so. I think their story is as genuine and as earnest as those of the young people I’ve been teaching over the last several years — young people who are facing a world that needs, desperately, some new ways to encounter, connect, relate, and be intimate — with each other and with our planet. Indeed, what I find so attractive about Nico’s — and Halberstam’s and McBee’s — engagement with gender is their collective sense of the possible, especially at a vexed and dystopic time. They not only desire to change the world. They desire desire. Specifically, they desire that desire be able to change the world. In the process, their stories and analyses aren’t just about personal awakenings; their personal accounting is always turning outward to resist the constructs that bind, normalize, and prescribe. What is desire if not that turning outward, that move to engage with the other beyond yourself?

What haunts all of this thinking, Nico’s and others’, is the question of whether and how radical changes in the sex/gender system will affect larger socio-political structures such as capitalism, neoliberalism, consumerism, and the various prejudicial –isms that bolster them. There are no easy answers to this question, but in approaching it we might take a cue from Tortorella’s character in Fluidity, Matt, a somewhat morose fashion photographer who feels increasingly alienated from his friends and his work, despite being a mover and shaker in a hip creative industry. Matt wanders the city and comes across a group of largely black and Latino youth playing basketball. He stops to take pictures, getting into the scene, marveling at their skill, the beauty of their bodies. We then see Matt looking at his pictures, a friend saying that they are some of his very best work. Matt, too, loves the pictures. They are “authentic.” Except they aren’t. They are someone else’s authenticity, that of the youth playing ball. Matt begins to realize that he cannot consume someone else’s authenticity and adopt it as his own. He’ll have to find his own path, his own way of lowering his defenses, engaging others, connecting, making kin, even as he recognizes that he can be inspired by others.

What we are witnessing in these scenes is the reeducation of Matt’s desires, away from the consumer-driven paradigms of social media (swipe right, swipe left) toward the unfamiliar, the scary, the potentially messy, the unknown risk in asking a stranger out for coffee. We see Matt starting to desire desire. That is, he’s not just switching objects of desire; he’s opening himself to desire as itself an opening to the unexpected, possibly the unintended, even the unknown.

At its best, Tortorella’s Space Between issues us all the call to desire desire — the outward turning, which in turn might turn ourselves inside out. But so be it. However naïve it might be, I would choose this desire. And so, yet again, I love you, Nico, for reminding us not only of the spaces between but of the spaces we can’t even yet imagine.

¤

Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 16 books, including Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (2016) and a critical memoir, Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017), which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. He can be reached through his website: https://www.the-blank-page.com/.

 

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