Sometimes I feel like a ghost. A distorted, wavery, pellucid figure, one of the many in an endless sea of other ghosts. It’s not always so bad to be a ghost, to go unnoticed, to remain concealed in the corners of a haunted planet. But when I decide to announce my presence – “Here I am!” – people frighten off and turn their heads. Even when you want to move out of the shadows, others prefer you to stay right where you are. They will make you live in darkness.
Sometimes I feel like I’m on a stage – a bright uncomfortable spotlight transfixed on me, following my movements, thousands of penetrating eyes boring me into the ground. The stage turns into a pillory, my hands and neck locked into its framework. You know, the ones they used to punish people who ‘disturbed the peace’ in the middle ages. A crowd gathers around me, slurs fill the air, spit and food flying everywhere.
Is it better to be invisible or to be visible? While initially we are inclined to choose the latter, being visible is not always better. Especially when you belong to a group of people who stand accused of disrupting ‘peace’ in a world heavily governed by heteronormativity: when you are queer. Even though recent years have seen a rise in queer representation in media, to be seen does not entail to be accepted.
I acknowledge signs of progress: queers are increasingly less often made to live in the shadows, and even being awarded center stage positions within the contemporary media landscape. But really, a rainbow flag attached to a hook is also the best bait for any tv-series or film, people who have been under-represented easily bite. Plus, they can always kill off the queer character later anyways, right? As a counter-reaction, petitions also crowd the internet, seeking to protect children from the 20 second appearance of a lesbian character in a Disney film. (If you really want to get riled up check out onemillionmoms.com, a website which petitions against “questionable material in media”.)
Maybe we should also appreciate the thousands of company logos turning rainbow during Pride Month. One might say: “Look at all that representation!”. But what have these companies done for queer communities, or rather what have they, in some cases, done against them? Walmart and American Air also participated in the rainbow washing trend this year, each with their own pretty rainbow icon. Notwithstanding the fact that both companies donated money to politician Mitch McConnell, who insists that he: “always felt that marriage is between one man and one woman […] That’s the law of the land”, and vigorously blocked the Equality Act in congress.
You see, while queers become more visible, they also become much more vulnerable to backlash and oppression. The problem is that because of these outwardly ‘signs of progress and acceptance’, people sometimes forget that homophobia and heteronormative oppression still persists in other forms – that while we are now increasingly offered a position on stage, it is one, as I proposed earlier, which still has us shackled to a pillory. In order to achieve progress then, more than the mere vizualization of queer subjects is needed, invisibilized norms and oppression must be materialized and exposed for the monsters they are.
Traditionally, the figures of monsters and ghosts are perceived as figures of queerness, sites of otherness, uncanny, illicit or ‘unnatural’ desire: marginalized figures. Oftentimes such figures are made out to be monsters and forced into seclusion by societal norms. To be different, to look or act different, is not collectively welcomed in society. Just think of the creature of Frankenstein, unable to procreate, love and essentially exist. Sound familiar?
However, ghosts are also perceived as powerful figures with the ability to haunt people. This, I would argue, is not a manifestation of the queer ghost, instead it represents oppressive forces. This is especially relevant since queers no longer accept to live as ghosts, becoming more and more visible and openly living out their lives, refusing to be characterized as ‘monsters’. While queers become more visible, homophobia and heteronormative oppression must take on other forms as well. Now they become the ghostly figures, but not the ones shunned into darkness, or the ones who were done wrong – they are the monstrous haunting and powerful force which follows queers everywhere they go. They are the unquestioned and thus invisibilized force of heteronormativity ideologies.
Heteronormativity is something which only really manifests as monstrous to those who oppose its rules. If you abide by its framework, the chances of being haunted by it are slim. This idea is metaphorically represented in the 2020 Netflix show The Haunting of Bly Manor. The series does not only offer positive queer representation but simultaneously exposes heteronormativity as monstrous by materializing them as visible ghost figures, and acknowledging the suffering which is still associated with queer life and death.
I want to use the series as an example of how we can approach the constant friction between visibility and invisibility here. In The Haunting of Bly Manor, the main character Dani is haunted by three ghost figures, the first being her ex-fiancé, the second a heterosexual man who imposes his sexuality upon her and lastly the ghostly figure of a monstrous mother. All three of these ghosts have one thing in common: they each seek to correct, tame and control female sexuality. In this particular case, more specifically and importantly, they seek to force queer sexuality into the shadows. However, the series takes an unexpected twist into a positive queer representation.
I have a lot to say about these series and have, in fact, written my Master’s thesis about this particular object and subject, but do not wish to spoil the whole show for you. When I was watching the series for the first time, I noticed it felt different from other types of queer representation. I wondered why and realized that at no particular moment does the queer become a monster in the series and that, subverting this whole conservative idea, heterosexual and heteronormative ghosts were instead portrayed to be the monsters through ghost figures.
The series’ choice to illustrate heteronormative oppression as such, offers a valuable metaphor for us. Even when not everyone is able to physically perceive forms of (queer) oppression, this does not mean that they are not happening. Instead they adopt ghostly approaches, hidden under a cloak of acceptance they continue to oppress and correct. The fact that there is so much queer representation nowadays then does not necessarily indicate acceptance. Shows like Bly Manor thus reveal how we must expose and expel such manifestations of oppression in order to fight them.
Personally, I often find myself catapulted from the stage to the haunted mansion and back again. I identify as bisexual, an identity which is often the subject of invisibilization. When a bisexual person is in a relationship with someone of the same sex, they are regarded to be gay – When a bisexual person is dating a member of the opposite sex, they are straight, and just want to be interesting. To walk in the spotlight and openly carry my sexual identity often results in sexualization of my relationship. Because apparently to be bisexual equals wanting sex with everyone at once. Keeping quiet means the other half of my identity is erased. Both visibility and invisibility thus risk erasure. You see, I think the real problem here is how easily and undetected insidious systems of oppression function. We should question their (in)visibility and put a spotlight on them in order to reveal their monstrosity.
So yes: we should become visible, but so should insidious frameworks that continue to oppress queers and force them into exile. Because while we are fighting to become more visible and accepted, they are fighting to turn us back into ghosts and monsters.