Vaclav Havel Library Foundation Fellowship Essay: Detmer Yens Kremer
Some Thoughts on Resistance
by Detmer Yens Kremer
Immortality was a cloak I wore that safeguarded me from all wrongs, and when it was rudely torn from my limbs I was dumbfounded and afraid. My strangely religious, strangely communist hometown never appreciated difference, and being queer was for many a step too far. I had gotten used to spit, words, shouting, and even the occasional balled fist or thrown pebble became part of a routine. I became comfortable with scrapes and bruises because I knew as soon as I found a way out, I would leave and breathe and heal.
One summer day I was swimming laps in the local pool and as I climbed out I saw I was surrounded by all of them. As I was no longer intimidated by foul words and malicious stares, a well-placed kick on the chest was chosen as an alternative. I fell back and the chlorinated water filled my lungs. My hands raked through the blurry blue but there was nothing to hold on to. Darkness was flooding my sight and mind, and all I could think was this is it. Somehow my automatic pilot turned on and I reached the steps. I pulled myself out of the water and lay flat on the sun-warmed tiles. In sight of the body guard, they did not try anything again. I turned onto my back and stared in disbelief up to the clear blue skies.
Vaclav Havel, in his essay “the power of the powerless,” describes how systems of power are based on rendering invisible individuality in order to convince people to conform to and perpetuate hegemonically imposed structures. However, and this is what I love about his piece, he does not claim that these structures consist of impersonal architecture created ex nihilo. “It works only,” Havel writes, “as long as people are willing to live within the lie.” Havel understands that structures of power might seem larger than life, but the only reason these structures are sustained is because we live in them. Resistance becomes a question of leaving and building a new structure.
However leaving is not enough. I refused to continue living in my hometown, yet by escaping, the system remained intact. It is not that I feel guilty about my decision, it was one made rooted in safety concerns and educational opportunities elsewhere, but I do often consider the structure that remained unquestioned as I exited the stage. My microcosm of violence and homophobia quickly gave way to the concrete reality of former Yugoslavia. Although filled with beautiful and kind people, the aftermath of war was visible – the bullet holes a macabre connect the dots, the refugee camps remaining full after decades.
There are libraries worth of books and movies that have attempted to unearth what caused the Yugoslavian conflict, but what appeared to me was the overarching idea of who was the other that contributed to fracturing Yugoslav society. After I learnt more about the conflicts and crises that we as a humanity seem to create again and again, it felt like the root was always the fear of difference. Often this fear translates into suspicion, violence, and hatred. It was a fear that could turn neighbors and friends into sworn enemies.
In this argument it seems that the mere presence of the other causes conflict, which is a logical fallacy. The presence of the other is not at fault, but fear as a response is. It becomes paramount to find alternative reactions to difference. Resistance is key to counter nightmares incarnate. How resistance is defined becomes the next step after understanding why conflict erupts. Many people – from places of privilege, oppression, and the intersecting gray areas in between – have engaged with resistance, but for this brief essay I want to take a closer look to queer resistance. The magnificent Gloria Anzaldúa wrote that the queer person is simultaneously the ultimate other and the one common denominator across all borders and possesses the potential to unite. When I read her words I recalled the violence I experienced, and started to see the explicit persecution of queerness everywhere– whether there be war or peace, from Raqqa rooftops to Saint Louis sidewalks. Queerness defies the structures we are used to, and seeks to inhabit spaces that do not exist. The queer imaginative threatens the status quo, and thus queerness become the ultimate other. It is important to note that this does not mean that we must rank oppression. Audre Lorde cautioned us to steer away from such hierarchies, and urged us to recognize the validity and hardship of all. I agree with Lorde, and I draw attention to the queer plight not because of its misère, but because of its potential.
The very definition of queerness means that it is universal. This does not mean that it manifests the same everywhere, or that there is a replication of experiences, but rather a shared sense of being placed outside the system solely based on who you are and who you love. There are two main plans that I imagine can fuel resistance and address the current crises of humanity. The first one is that through the shared connections of queerness we can facilitate dialogue across lines of difference. Through these connections the borders we imagine to be impermeable appear as a false and fleeting fata morgana. The second act of resistance is radical love. By refusing dogmatic paradigms of self-hate and self-destruction, and taking broken bodies and tethered souls into tender hands and admiring their intrinsic value we create an act of resistance. The act of radical love – especially of the ones deemed unlovable – directly challenges the structures that devalue and destruct.
By truly loving the queer individuals that previously have been dehumanized a larger labor towards social justice is necessary. Exactly because queerness is everywhere, all issues of inequality become part of the conversation. Intersectionality becomes the key to materializing any structure that we imagine to replace prior oppressive edifices. Racism, classism, ableism, neo-colonialism, and other methods of suppression are all loci in which queer people live. Queer liberation becomes a larger project of achieving comprehensive social justice. A First Nation two-spirit person is oppressed through colonial mechanisms enabling genocide, and needs much more than marriage equality to experience freedom. A queer Syrian refugee also experiences institutionalized racism and Islamophobia, as well as having to navigate a post-colonial traumatized community. Only through radical love across lines of difference can we raise up our fellow human beings.
Engaging with queerness as a focal point for liberation provides a place of entry for social justice work that engages with short term dire needs and long term transformative change to foster inclusive communities. It is an act of resistance because it effectively tears the power structures Havel talks about apart. It exposes these structures for what they are, cold and dark places that hurt our human community through their existence. Radical love of the other and the self becomes a roadmap with directions to a destination outside of oppression. The current crises in humanity show that change is necessary. Resistance becomes a mandate, and love an action. As millions are waiting at our borders – speaking Spanish, Arabic, Hazaragi – and the people within our borders lose their lives because of the systems we inhabit, it is clear that it is time to come together and realize that the borders that separate us – drawn on maps, etched in scripture, our very skin – are permeable.
About Detmer Yens Kremer
Detmer Kremer studies Anthropology and Religious/Gender Studies at Bates College. He is interested in understanding the human experience in its extreme diversity across cultures.