Jenna Mahale is Bitch Media’s 2021 Writing Fellow in Technology
“If you or a loved one is a bisexual who can sit in a chair normally, you may be entitled to financial compensation.”
As the annual kink-at-Pride discourse machine whirs to life, we are reminded of the discomfort that many within the LGBTQ community have around expressions of queer sexuality. Pride parades began as explicitly political protests of the legal and social policing of queerness; their history is one that’s deeply and necessarily entwined with transgressive identities. With the mainstreaming of Pride in recent decades, however, has come a yearly bout of handwringing about whether some of those identities—leather daddies, transgender sex workers, submissives wearing ball gags—compromise the comfort and safety of other attendees. Hypothetical children are most often held up as the vulnerable party of choice, subject to unexpectedly harrowing sights like leather harnesses and assless chaps. It’s an argument that stretches the concept of consent ethics to its logical limit; as Bitch contributor Julia Serano recently pointed out, it “potentially dilutes legitimate claims of non-consent in cases of actual sexual violence.” It’s also the very same idea that has been weaponized for decades to condemn as-yet non-normalized gay sexuality, not only by conservatives and homophobes but within the LGBTQ community itself.
A politics of liberation shouldn’t shy away from these expressions or treat their visible existence as a violation of consent. As Chingy L wrote definitively for the publication them in 2019: “BDSM, subversive sexuality, and leather culture have enjoyed a long history within the LGBTQ+ rights movement, and such public displays of sexuality are driven by much more than libido or countercultural impulses—they’re an inherent expression of queer culture and sexuality, and as such, deserve a place at Pride as much as anything.” But respectability politics have long been a point of contention within the movement. For example, there’s the unjustifiably controversial inclusion of trans people, drag queens, and collectives such as Dykes on Bikes within the movement. The quiet part is rarely said out loud, but the throughline in each of these cases is an implied contamination by indirect exposure to deemed degeneracy—even though these very communities have been central to Pride’s existence since the start. Assimilation is an understandable desire for many LGBTQ people, but it cannot come at the expense of those who blazed the parade route that’s now seen less as protest than as public entertainment. As queerness has gained increasing visibility, it has become a more marketable enterprise, with the corporatization of Pride and Pride Month among the more obvious symbols of this emerging cultural order. Companies including Pfizer, AT&T, and Home Depot express support for the community via marketing despite donating upward of $1 million to anti-LGBTQ politicians in the 2016 election cycle; the streaming service Disney Plus chose this June to fly its rainbow flag, just as the Walt Disney Company itself was hit with a sexual orientation–discrimination lawsuit.
Online, these forces have manifested more diffusely. The desire for assimilation—and therefore a distancing from non-normative or radical sexualities—has made way for a particular figure, an amiable, family-friendly character that would never be accused of shoving their sexuality in anyone’s face. They’re the smol-bean queer, characterized and valorized in the way that introverts often are: They would much rather curl up with a mug of tea and a good book than participate in queer spaces that emphasize sex and substance use (yes, queer café discourse is unfortunately relevant here). They love, among many other things, Steven Universe. To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of the cultural markers that make up this character (and Steven Universe is a queer storytelling and animation triumph); it’s just that they happen to tessellate with a version of an LGBTQ person that can make corporate entities a lot of money.
The fact is, queerness has never had more cultural cachet as it does in the present moment; subsequently, it’s more capable of generating revenue than ever before. But mass appeal is vital to this ongoing monetization, and with it a particular brand of online marketing language. Matt Lubchansky, a nonbinary cartoonist and queer internet veteran, refers to it as the “smol bean–industrial complex,” which they describe as “a version of very sanitized queerness that started as harmless internet in-joking.” But, they told Bitch, “because of the nature of how cutesy it is, it’s something that’s very easy for brands to glom on to.” In a tweet that went viral in March 2021, Lubchansky challenged a promotional tweet from Lex, a text-based dating app that grew out of @personals on Instagram. While in large part harmless, the tweet sketched a curiously specific stereotype of a queer person: one who lacks “basic” math skills, does not possess a driver’s license, is lactose intolerant, and is incapable of sitting in a chair “normally.” Lubchansky’s response: “who decided we have to keep saying this shit!!”
The post’s language struck an undeniably familiar chord: It was casually random, a little down on itself but unashamed of its inabilities. This mode of speech isn’t limited to LGBTQ posts: Self-deprecation is one of the internet’s most valuable currencies, particularly when it comes to the performance of authenticity online. And though the knock-on implications are vastly different, individual users are as liable to do this as restaurant chains like Denny’s are to joke about overwhelming existential dread. The language of virality is very often the language of generality, a fact that also helps explain the popularity of posts that employ therapy-speak or psychiatric language to explain behaviors as unremarkable as forgetting to text a friend back.
In a piece for Business Insider this week, P.E. Moskowitz considered the lack of serendipity around these commercial choices: “There’s an entire field of advertising called ‘emotional marketing’ dedicated to helping brands establish personal bonds with consumers. Ads with ‘emotional pull’ are more likely to create loyalty among consumers, and encourage them to buy more.” It certainly tracks, she writes, that as rates of anxiety and depression steadily march upward, “companies and other powerful institutions would attempt to capture our minds and dollars not through vague concepts of freedom or empowerment, but through the idea of life feeling survivable.” But particularly for younger queers, this type of expression continues to be vital in shaping queer identity, especially as it happens online. Assigning somewhat arbitrary but safely popular personality traits to queerness can make identification with the LGBTQ community feel more accessible to those who might be reluctant to associate or interact with it. A dislike of math and an inability to drive are far from unpopular stances; it’s estimated that around 70 percent of the world’s adult population is lactose intolerant. And who’s to say what the objectively correct way to sit on a chair is?
“There is, when you come out, a sort of second childhood a lot of people experience. In a lot of trans people’s cases, it’s a literal second puberty,” Lubchansky notes. “If you come out when you’re an adult, you reorient your entire adult life around a new paradigm when it comes to your gender and your sexual orientation. So I understand the impulse. There’s something about being very responsible that feels like the “straight” world, in some way.”
The desire for assimilation has made way for a particular figure, an amiable, family-friendly character that would never be accused of shoving their sexuality in anyone’s face.
Just as an embrace of the “queer” label (as opposed to “gay,” “lesbian,” etc.) is a phenomenon primarily associated with youth, the trappings of smol-bean queerness may well have emerged from a feeling that we simply don’t have much in common with older generations of LGBTQ folks. No, not every nonbinary person loves frogs, but some do; and for the questioning, frog-loving individual, this may just be the thing that connects the dots for their gender identity. Nonsexual representations of queerness (in particular, queer memes) are vital to younger members of the LGBTQ community in much the same way that displays of sexual queerness are for earlier generations. “I think we just run into a lot of problems because we all have to share the same internet,” Lubchansky says. “We have very different experiences and thoughts. And they’re both right for where we’re at in our [respective] lives.” But it becomes difficult to ignore the respectability politics visible in a queerness that feels so abstracted—so much more like a personality than a sexuality—when it’s co-opted for online marketing. As Andrew Hyun-Woo Lee, a PhD candidate in consumer behavior at the University of Manitoba, writes in a recent Substack post:
“By insulating queerness to a digital existence there lies the problem of not fully engaging or understanding what goes in with queerness outside, in addition to creating a disconnect between them and queer history in relation to public and private space. Anecdotally, I cannot count the amount of times I have had to explain, for example, cruising and public sex to a gay person near my age or a few years younger (who typically have only been out for a few years) because the types of gay/queer spaces online have changed dramatically.”
A queerness that excludes all representations of sexuality will always benefit those who have a vested interest—and often a financial one—in affirming conservative ideals. There’s perhaps no greater encapsulation of the disconnect Lee describes as, well, the fate of Tumblr. While the microblogging platform can indeed be credited with providing an essential digital home for LGBTQ individuals, discussion, and fandom in the early 2010s, the site infamously banned all adult content in 2018. The overbroad measure was ostensibly put in place to appease Apple, which had removed Tumblr from its App Store for being an unwitting host to child sexual abuse imagery. But the reality of the new regulations meant the annihilation of a relatively safe digital space for queer users, which now condemned any images and artwork featuring “female-presenting nipples” as readily as those promoting pedophilia.
So Tumblr’s attempted rebranding in May 2021 as “one of the queerest places on the internet” is a near-perfect example of an absurd attempt to jump on the queer bandwagon. The company sent out a press release announcing that market research found “folks on Tumblr are 193 percent more likely to identify as LGBTQ than on any other social media platform,” updated the platform’s social-media bios and display pictures accordingly, and set its signature white ‘t’ icon against a multicolored gradient background. The tweets promoting the factoid were, of course, ratioed almost immediately. Such is the life cycle of rainbow capitalism online. The smol bean–industrial complex is just one idiosyncratic part of a larger machine, one working tirelessly to assimilate the language of community and care; to distract from the reality that the entities making use of this language are in large part responsible for the isolation and emotional conflict that necessitates it.
The characterization of queerness as edgeless, sexless, and wholesome may suit the preferences of certain LGBTQ individuals—and for good reason—but it’s important to remember that respectability will not save us. Smol-bean queerness is undeniably a form of generational individuation, which is to say that it’s a generally unremarkable process where a newer generation of a community or movement distances itself from previous ones in both aesthetic and ideological ways. It will inevitably grate on those who cannot relate to its quirks, but are nevertheless present in the same online spaces; it can be as inclusive and welcoming for some as it can feel diminishing or alienating to others, and there’s an admittedly low-stakes validity to either interpretation. What complicates this process now is the ease with which capital-driven social media can co-opt these aesthetics out of proportion to their substance, and use them (directly or indirectly) to inflict harm upon those who do not comply with this vision.