How to Have Theory in a Terrorist Attack

Is there anything queer about this week’s events?
As someone who lives in New York City and works in lower Manhattan, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last
few days processing and assimilating my experiences on Tuesday. I watched the second plane crash; I witnessed
disbelief, confusion, and chaos in the streets; I became covered in soot, hoping against hope that I wasn’t breathing in
anthrax; I was one of the masses who streamed over the Brooklyn Bridge, jumping nervously every time a plane passed
overhead. I (somewhat irrationally) bought a dust mask from a vendor who had miraculously sprung up at the
Brooklyn end of the bridge, and thought to myself that in some ways New York will never change.
Within a day or so I had discussed with a close friend whether there was a queer angle to all this. We concluded
that there was not. A series of news stories on gay websites soon discussed gay New Yorkers who were among the
witnesses, citing the first-hand accounts of Larry Kramer, Michelangelo Signorile, and others. Then we learned of victims
who were important to queer communities: the gay male couple and their three-year-old adopted daughter on board
one of the airplanes; the firefighter chaplain; the man on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania who may have helped
to overwhelm the hijackers and prevent further bloodshed on the ground. But in spite of my gay political sensibility, my
carefully honed tendency to look for the “queer sense” in the world around me, it seemed like Tuesday’s brutality, at its
most fundamental level, had nothing to do with sexuality.
In fact, I have to say I dreaded reading this listserv digest in the days afterward. I wondered if someone would
perhaps post something about the twinness of the Twin Towers, about the discourse of masculine sameness
surrounding them, about how the rhetoric of siblinghood elides or renders unspeakable the possibility of erotic
exchange between them, about the notion of New York City as Sodom, etc. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand it, when
so many bodies were still being pulled from the rubble; those moments of overriding confusion and destruction seemed
to obliterate difference, including sexual difference, along with all the other richness of human life. I’ve been relieved by
the lack of theoretical interpretation of the events, by the fact that theory, along with the financial markets, can be shut
down in a crisis.
At the same time, it’s begun to occur to me that my experience of flight, survival, grief, and assimilation have
been inevitably inscribed by my gay identity and my investment in queer politics and history. My own experiences
have been colored by my queer identity, just as every American’s experience of the attacks – as of everything else – is
shaped by ethnic, religious, gender, ability, and many other specificities. (Just ask anyone who is Arab American.) My
biological family does not live in New York City (apart from a gay second cousin, who I only learned on Wednesday is
also living in Brooklyn), and in the hours after the attack, after making sure everyone I care about was safe and knew I
was safe, I surrounded myself with “chosen family” here in Brooklyn, people with whom I share memories, interests, and
values, but whose relationships to me are not easily mapped onto conventional kinship grids. On Wednesday, when my
workplace was sealed off and so many New Yorkers sought places of comfort and relief, I took the subway to Chelsea
and sat in Big Cup, the notoriously cruisy coffee shop on 8th Avenue, reading the New York Times. (The Village, where I
might have preferred to go, was closed off along with the rest of Manhattan below 14th Street.) A sign on the door
encouraged blood donation, seeming almost deliberately to point out the inability of much of the place’s clientele to
participate in the most urgent aspect of disaster relief.
My very presence in New York City is part of the city’s and my own gay history; it positions me within a long

American history of young people moving from the Midwest into
urban centers on the coasts, in search of sexual and political
communities. And I think some of the most productive veins in
gay and lesbian history (notably John D’Emilio’s 1983 article on
capitalism and gay identity) teach us that New York City’s status
as the financial capital of the United States — its most visible
aspect in the hours and days following the attack — cannot really
be separated from its status as cultural and sexual capital.
Certainly human sexual diversity is not — as some fundamentalist
leaders in the global South, and ill-informed Marxian critics, have
claimed — a production of western culture or imperialism. Ye t
the specific form and shape of the queer identities and cultures
that I inhabit, and that many New Yorkers affected by Tu e s d a y ‘ s
events inhabit(ed), is just as culturally and economically specific
as were the Twin To w e r s .

As with other cultural experiences shaped by what Berlant
and Warner have called “national heterosexuality,” the televised
prayer services and presidential expressions of patriotism have
been marked by performances of heterosexuality-as-nationalsecurity,
and as always I have had to read my culture against the
grain of its hetero-norms. The stirring to life of the nationalsecurity
establishment, and its accompanying discourses, has
returned many Bush administration officials to the Cold-War
attitudes in which they had their political educations. I am afraid
that we are likely to see reactivated, in the coming days and
weeks, a set of culturally linked prejudices, xenophobias,
homophobias, and misogynies. As marginalized peoples, our
fusion of grief and rage will be specific.

Of course, Jerry Falwell has now posited another sort of
“queer reading” of the attack. On one level, there is little of
interest in his language. However, I do think there is something
that the left can learn from what he has said: I find myself
disturbed by the interpretation on the part of some leftists that
posits the attack as cosmic retribution. I have rarely aligned
myself with defenses of either US foreign policy or global
capitalism (the sins for which the attack was supposedly the just
punishment), but I think we need to ask ourselves, in the
tradition of queer theory, to what extent this interpretation relies
on old-fashioned narratives of Sodom and Gomorrah, on a style
of storytelling that has not often been good for us as queer
people. This is not to say that we should not reexamine national
policies and question the nation’s belligerent response — quite
on the contrary — and I don’t mean to imply that anyone on
this list has suggested that “we had it coming.” I simply think
that the loss of life is too great, the crisis is too pressing, for us
to devote our energies to the idea that some people must be
expunged from the national body politic or the community of
peoples and cultures. Capitalist greed is no more “responsible”
for Tuesday’s attack than gay decadence. Human beings have a
great range of values and beliefs, and as queers so horrifically
know, we must love one another or die.

Timothy Stewart-Winter graduated from Swarthmore College in 2001 with a degree in history and English literature. He lives in Brooklyn.
This essay was posted to a queer studies list-serv a few days after the Twin Towers attacks.