Author: Drew Heckman
This article argues that queer people possess a unique social potential and position that could be leveraged to build empathy and knowledge bridges related to an array of challenges facing the contemporary world. Queer people have a unique relationship to kinship, as they often possess at least one distinct identity from those of their immediate biological family members; as such they have often sought to (or been forced to) form non-biological kinship networks. Queer people also appear randomly in the population. This means that every community contains us; and conversely, every issue impacting a particular community (e.g. racist police practices, abusive immigration policies) also impacts the LGBTQ community. Given our collective proximity to these issues and our societal embeddedness, a movement which instilled a solidaristic ethos among queers could prove transformative. And signals from pop culture, whether it be Netflix series (e.g. Sense8), comics (e.g. X-Men), books-turned-movies (e.g. Divergent), or even video games (e.g. Horizon: Zero Dawn), demonstrate with occasionally subtle but sometimes overtly queer themes that individuals stigmatized by a society can be uniquely positioned to spearhead its salvation.
As far as we know, queer people spring up randomly in the population. This means that nearly every community—whether a geographic locality such as the Nebraskan city where I grew up, or more dispersed racial and ethnic communities—contains queers. Our inherent embeddedness provides unique opportunities for empathy, bridge-building, and leveraging power. U.S. society at large seems to recognize, at least subconsciously, the transformative impact that a fully liberated and politically conscious queer community could have. A world in which LGBTQ people are united by an ethic of queer kinship is a world in which we could rise to the task of confronting the world’s most pressing challenges.
I. Queer Social Location
Scientists cannot explain why homosexuality exists in any species, let alone why queerness—in all its wonderful varieties—flourishes in the human population. Attempts to find a queer gene have all been in vain, though sibling and twin studies suggest that there is at least some biological component. (More on this in Part III(iv) below.)
Yet here we are, and queer we are. According to a 2012 Gallup study, 3.4% of the U.S. population identifies as LGBT. Despite the commonplace wisdom that queer people flee the Deep South and the Midwest for the coast, the state proportion of queer people never deviates more than 2% from the national average—except in D.C., where a whopping 10% of people identified as LGBT. So, we’re geographically dispersed.
So, too, are we dispersed in terms of racial and ethnic groups. In fact, the aforementioned Gallup study’s three non-white racial categories all reported higher rates of LGBT self-identification—4.6% of Black respondents, 4.3% of Asian respondents, and 4.0% of Hispanic respondents, vs. 3.2% of Non-Hispanic White respondents. Though there aren’t solid estimates of the rate of LGBT identification among Native populations (which may be complicated by additional or alternative identifications such as two-spirit), existing research suggests it’s not insubstantial.
Along the Gallup study’s binary gender categories, LGBT people were roughly evenly split: 3.3% of men vs. 3.6% of women. The stark age disparities—with over three times as many young people identifying as LGBT (6.4% of those 18-29 and only 1.9% of those 65+)—indicate that the future will probably be even queerer than it is now.
But institutionally, what is the location of queer people? According to the Williams Institute, we have disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system: lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have an incarceration rate three times that of their heterosexual peers. We also tend to have lower educational attainment and are more likely to live in poverty than cis, heterosexual people. Nearly a million LGBT people in the U.S. are immigrants, and about a third of them are undocumented.
As a class, then, queer people possess a rich diversity of experiences. Our omnipresence means that we are effectively “society in miniature.” The next section argues that this deep embeddedness in American society provides a wealth of social capital and cultural insight that could be leveraged to transform the country for the better.
II. Queer Social Capital
Social capital, now a more commonplace concept, refers to a person’s relationships with others and the “direct and indirect resources that are a by-product of [these] social networks.” Social scientists often describe social capital as a composite of three distinct components: bonding, bridging, and linking social capital.
“Bonding social capital refers to relationships amongst members of a network who are similar in some form. Bridging social capital refers to relationships amongst people who are dissimilar in a demonstrable fashion, such as age, socio-economic status, race/ethnicity and education. Linking social capital is the extent to which individuals build relationships with institutions and individuals who have relative power over them (e.g. to provide access to services, jobs or resources).”
Because queer people often live at the intersection of multiple identities and communities, they have a unique position within social networks and thus a unique relationship to bonding, bridging, and linking social capital.
Queer people can simultaneously build bonding capital with not only other people in their non-queer communities (such as families, schools, or faith communities), but with queers who may otherwise occupy a very different social location. Spaces and events centering participants’ LGBTQ identity (whether pride festivals or queer slam poetry shows) facilitate the development of bonding capital by highlighting the identities (and likely the experiences) that these people share. Social network studies seem to support the idea that LGBTQ social networks are more racially diverse than those of their heterosexual peers; it seems plausible to suggest that they should be more diverse on other axes of identity as well.
Having formed a consciousness as queers and relatively intersectional social networks, we have often then developed and deployed bridging and linking capital to address injustices in systems that affect not only us, but society as a whole. Groups like Black and Pink (which advocates for queer and trans prisoners, who are disproportionately people of color), Immigration Equality (which fights for the rights of LGBTQ immigrants and asylum seekers), and Queers for Economic Justice (which challenged the systems that create and sustain poverty) center the needs of the multiply marginalized. Though originally the genesis of these organizations was likely inspired by the identities of their core constituencies (i.e. by bonding capital), they have gained the attention and occasionally the resources of non-incarcerated, non-immigrant cis gay white men with class privilege (like me) and others who otherwise might not have known or cared much about these issues of social justice. Their intersectional strategies and perspectives expose the magnitude and nuances of the harms created by the systems they confront, and they help non-impacted queer people understand that racial, immigrant, economic, and other forms of injustice are queer issues because they affect queer people—often in ways more severe and insidious than non-queer people.
Aside from contact with differently situated social others, our experiences with marginalization in at least one realm often make us sympathetic to causes that may not directly impact us. One study has found that gay white men are more likely than their heterosexual peers to express empathy towards people of color and to hold more positive racial attitudes—especially if they’ve had discrete encounters with heterosexism.
A classic and inspiring example of this principle is the 1984 “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” (LGSM) movement during which queers in the U.K. protested and raised money for striking, non-queer mineworkers; though some of the mineworkers were initially apprehensive or even rejected the assistance, they later had a change of heart and marched in London’s Pride Parade. I watched the 2014 movie about it, called “Pride,” with my straight, businessman father—how’s that for bridging capital?
At the 2013 Creating Change Conference organized by the LGBTQ Task Force, Deepak Bhargava, then the director of the Center for Community Change, argued that queer people’s unique social location and social capital make us massive assets for social change movements. Because of these advantages, he seemed to argue, we should be nurtured and empowered as leaders within all types of movements. At the risk of sounding like a queer supremacist, I agree.
As an illustration of how bridging and bonding social capital can work, I offer an example from my own life. After getting my undergraduate degree at Brown, I moved back to Nebraska, where I had started a statewide LGBTQ youth network; I soon after got hired as the Nebraska Field Organizer for the Human Rights Campaign. As part of this work, I met with as many queer people as I could find. But I also tried to leverage my non-queer connections for the work. My father had been a CEO at a major company in downtown Omaha, so he was a local celebrity in the business community. Because the primary opposition to a statewide employment nondiscrimination bill was from the business and faith communities, one of the initiatives at HRC Nebraska was to collect pledges from businesses supporting the bill. My dad, though initially very discombobulated when I came out 10 years prior (“Are you sure it’s not a phase? Maybe you should talk to a therapist?”), not only agreed to have his company be one of the first to sign the pledge, but also leveraged connections with other major employers in the state and even appeared with me in a televised press conference I organized for HRC Nebraska. He spoke alongside a trans Latina advocate and a formerly incarcerated gay black activist who now runs Black and Pink. I strived (and still do) to use my queerness to connect with other queers (bonding), connect them with one another (bridging), and connect them with non-queer individuals and organizations that can provide resources and opportunities (linking). I know that I am hardly unique in doing so.
The only modification that I would make to Bhargava’s assertion above (which he’d likely endorse) is to recognize that people impacted by multiple, intersecting systems of oppression are most likely our greatest potential leaders. As Tiffany Manuel argues in the context of public policy:
“Public policy scholars cannot offer real policy innovations that improve well-being (particularly of marginalized groups) without first knowing a good deal about the social location of the people they are trying to help, and how their social locations structure their responsiveness to policy change. […] [G]ood public policy takes stock of where people are located, where they want to be (the good life), and how the good society can build bridges to help them get there.”
She further argues that by virtue of their intersectional identities, women of color in policymaking positions in particular are more likely to take nuanced and responsible positions on social legislation because of their social proximity to those who must live with the consequences.
Adding queerness to the calculation serves to further expand leaders’ social reach, extend the limits of their empathetic horizon, and empower them to build bridges and coalitions. Veronica Terriquez’s research of LGBTQ leaders within the undocumented immigrant youth movement demonstrates this principle, finding that their participation led to innovative strategy development (drawn from the LGBTQ movement), more sensitive organizational and programmatic choices, and ultimately greater levels of political success. Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and other leading voices in the BLM movement have also “recognized the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people […] [t]o maximize our movement muscle, and to be intentional about not replicating harmful practices that excluded so many in past movements for liberation.”
The transformative potential of deeply intersectional leadership sits in tension with the reality that so often those at the helm of organizations or movements have been those whose only marginalized identity (whether Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Cesar Chavez) was the one they are seen to represent. As my first footnote reveals, I was no exception when I led HRC Nebraska.
Based on a number of recurring themes in pop culture narratives, I argue that society at large agrees that queers possess transformative and redemptive potential.
III. Queer Saviors in Pop Culture
Many of the stories of altruism, heroism, and salvation in pop culture which demonstrate what a better society could look like prominently feature leading characters who seem to be subconsciously coded as queer. This trend is especially apparent in a number of narratives dealing with marginalized people fighting to avert societal disaster—and even apocalypse. These examples are not representative, just the ones with which I am most familiar (and fond of).
The following sections contain many spoilers. You’ve been warned!
i. Sense8, Netflix original series, 2015-2018
In Sense8, you learn about eight strangers who discover a psychic link which allows them to mentally visit one another and use each other’s’ unique talents—including languages, computer hacking, and martial arts. This becomes very useful because, on account of their inborn differences that activate in their late 20s, these “sensates” are hunted by an evil corporation, forcing them to live mostly on the run and in hiding. Throughout the show, these eight characters—from the United States, Iceland, India, Kenya, South Korea, Germany, and Mexico—learn that despite their cultural differences, they actually share quite a bit in common. Ultimately, despite being hunted by a government-funded organization, they fight to protect not only themselves and other sensates like them, but the non-sensates around them who they love.
I’m hardly the first person to suggest that this is “a show about the power of empathy” or to celebrate its unforgettable moments of queer solidarity between its trans and gay characters. But behind the rainbow dildos and steamy orgy scenes, I think the show’s messages about empathy and queerness have a deeper connection.
As physician and professor James O’Keefe has argued in a moving Ted Talk and subsequent scholarship, queer people generally exhibit higher levels of “emotional connectedness” and empathy as well as “a greater capacity for kindness, cooperativeness, and sensitivity.” He claims that these traits are biologically associated with queerness, and terms the association “genetically programmed altruism.” Under the “kin selection” theory of evolution, queerness and these associated traits exist because they help a queer person’s family members survive and reproduce. According to this theory, we are an evolutionary boon whose biological programming helps us to heal, connect, and support the people around us.
As in Sense8, then, our empathetic abilities literally keep people alive. A further advantage discovered by researchers is that gay men on average show higher intelligence than their heterosexual peers. Though researchers tend to see this association as indicative of a biological link, the trend of higher average intelligence could be a product of the higher levels of empathy. As in Sense8, there may be practical benefits from the ability to take the perspectives of others as if they were your own. In a similar vein, others argue that comparatively higher emotional and other intelligence arises not from biological differences, but from the regular mental gymnastics required by living in the closet. Regardless of why queer people possess greater empathetic abilities, it seems fair to argue that they are a superpower.
ii. X-Men, comic book series (with later television and movie adaptations), 1963-present
In the X-Men series, a small subpopulation of humans possesses superhuman abilities, ranging from telepathy and teleportation to control of elements like ice, fire, and light. Known as mutants, this subpopulation often faces discrimination from humans who fear that the mutants may one day use their powers to subjugate them. In the movies, there are two factions of mutants: one led by the telepathic Charles Xavier (Professor X) which seeks a peaceful, symbiotic coexistence with humans, and another more militant faction led by Magneto (who can control metal) which responds to the sometimes genocidal impulses of the human race with genocidal impulses of its own. In one of the last movie installments, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” government-created robots called “Sentinels” nearly end life on Earth due to their instructions to eradicate mutants and any humans who seek to aid them. One mutant, Wolverine, must go back in time and convince a young, jaded Professor X to alter the course of history.
In the process, the X-men engage with a device that appears in many of the movies: Cerebro. A computerized helmet in a large, cavernous room, it allows powerful telepaths like Professor X to sense all other living being on the planet. As an older Professor X explains to Logan (Wolverine) in the 2003 movie “X2: X-Men United,” “the brainwaves of mutants are different from average human beings. This device [Cerebro] amplifies my power to allow me to locate mutants across great distances. […] Through Cerebro I’m connected to them, and they to me. You see Logan… we’re not as alone as you think.” It’s like gaydar, but for mutants.
In the 2014 movie “Days of Future Past,” however, we see the time-transported Logan trying to help young Professor Charles Xavier as he struggles to use Cerebro. As Cerebro summons pictures of the mutants, who are being screamed at, abused, or otherwise suffering, Charles becomes overwhelmed, breaks down, and Cerebro short-circuits. As Logan tries to show him visions of the future from Logan’s mind, a sobbing Charles shouts, “I don’t want your suffering! I don’t want your future!” But when Logan convinces him to look through the pain to see his own future, he is able to have a conversation through time with his much older self, who along with the other few remaining mutants, is trapped in a room as the sentinels slowly inch closer to destroying them:
Younger Charles: “So, this is what becomes of us. Eric [Magneto] was right… humanity does this to us.”
Older Charles: “Not if we show them a better path.”
YC: “You still believe?”
OC: “Just because someone stumbles and loses their way… it doesn’t mean they’re lost forever. Sometimes we all need a little help.”
YC: “Well, I’m not the man I was. I open my mind, and it almost overwhelms me.”
OC: “You’re afraid. And Cerebro knows it.”
YC: “All those voices… So much pain…”
OC: “It’s not their pain you’re afraid of. It’s yours, Charles. And as frightening as it might be, their pain will make you stronger… if you allow yourself to feel it. Embrace it. It will make you more powerful than you ever imagined. It’s the greatest gift we have. To bear their pain without breaking. And it’s born from the most human power: hope. Please Charles, we need you to hope again.”
I would argue that one of the barriers to a more interconnected queer community (the topic of the next section) is the potentially overwhelming nature of deep empathy. Like Young Charles, we may see the pain among our fellow queers and want to run from it, disassociate from it, or tell ourselves that their misfortunes couldn’t befall us. If we accept that all issues of social justice are queer issues by virtue of their universal impact on queer people, how couldn’t we feel overwhelmed?
But as the older, wiser Charles counsels in the face of annihilation, we have the power to bear the world’s pain and not break. And we don’t need to look to fantasy to understand what the threat of annihilation looks like. Those who survived the AIDS crisis got a front row seat.
And despite the death that surrounded them, gay and bisexual men during the cris had hope that they could ACT UP and fight aids. They eventually won better access to life-saving AIDS medications and forced the world to listen. They organized their outrage to alter the course of history. And this activist legacy persists today: gays and lesbians (and likely other queers) are more likely to protest than their non-queer counterparts.
In a world of queer kinship, where strong empathetic links made each queer person feel like a member of our family, we might be outraged more easily by the injustices facing communities we don’t ourselves belong to, whether that’s immigrants, people of color, disabled people, or religious minorities. It might motivate us to organize and to activate our superhuman powers in service of a better world.
iii. Divergent, young adult book trilogy (with later movie adaptation), 2011-2016
The Divergent Series takes place in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Society is divided into five factions: Dauntless, known for bravery; Erudite, for intelligence; Amity, for peacefulness; Candor, for honesty; and Abnegation, for selflessness. There is also a subclass of the “Factionless”–consisting of those who failed to test into one of the five factions and live in poverty. Though most people fall squarely into one category, some possess personality traits that make them candidates for multiple factions—these people are known as “Divergent.” The ruling class comes to see the Divergent as a threat to the social order who must be eliminated—by death. With Erudite mind-controlling Dauntless as its personal army, things look grim for the Divergents. The leader of Erudite has confiscated an artifact from Divergent sympathizers which holds a message that can only be unlocked by a Divergent who completes five simulations: one for each faction. When the fully-Divergent heroine, Tris, unlocks the secret message at the end of the second movie, a holographic woman speaks:
“Hello. I come from outside the wall, where we have all but destroyed each other. We designed your city as an experiment. We believe it is the only way to recover the humanity we have lost. We created factions to ensure peace. We believe there will be those among you who transcend these factions. These will be the Divergent. They are the true purpose of this experiment. They are vital to humanity’s survival. If you’re watching this now, then at least one of you is proof that our experiment has succeeded. The time has come for you to emerge from your isolation and rejoin us. We’ve allowed you to believe that you’re the last of us. But you’re not. Mankind waits for you, with hope, beyond the wall.”
The “humanity we have lost,” the story reveals, is a consequence of widespread genetic engineering in the past that created people who were brave but reckless, intelligent but cold, peaceful but subservient—the result of which was civil war. The Divergent heroine, Tris, triumphantly declares at the conclusion of the hologram: “You were wrong about us. We were never the problem. We’re the solution.”
There are many ways to read the thesis of this series, but I prefer to see it as a celebration and vindication of people who challenge the rigid roles society ascribes for them, including queer people generally but specifically those with nonbinary and trans identities. Like the Divergent eventually are, trans and nonbinary people in many cultures throughout history have been revered as special, sacred, and vital to the success of society. Divergence—and human difference—show us that more is possible than we might assume, and that it’s okay to be more than one thing at once, or something else entirely. More than just okay, it might be what saves humanity.
iv. Horizon: Zero Dawn, Playstation 4 game, 2017
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game that takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States. There was a calamity in the past which destroyed the world as we today know it, but traces of it can be seen in the future society, whose inhabitants call these sites “ruins of the Metal World” and forbid their people from entering them. As explained in the opening cinematic sequence, people live in tribal societies in generally peaceful coexistence with animalistic machines that roam the earth, which they hunt for resources. You play as the heroine, Aloy, a young woman forced to grow up as an outcast from her matriarchal tribe because she does not have a mother. As Aloy journeys to find out the circumstances of her birth, she uncovers the lost history of the Metal World and how “The Faithless Old Ones” fell from grace.
Aloy wins a contest in her tribe which would allow her to ask the High Matriarchs about her mother, but before she is able to, the tribe is attacked by a rival tribe who slaughter everyone around Aloy (and almost Aloy herself) because of her similarity to another, older woman, who Aloy presumes to be her mother. Through the course of the game, you gradually discover how the Metal World ended and how it relates to Aloy’s origin. All life on earth was extinguished when humans lost control of war machines they created that possessed the ability to self-replicate and consume biomass for fuel. Before life ended, a team of scientists locked away in bunkers essentially planted a seed for life to be reborn after the war machines had consumed all life and fallen dormant—Project Zero Dawn. Aloy and the other humans in the game are a product of this second generation of life. The scientist who led the effort was Elizabet Sobeck, the woman who Aloy resembles; she died thousands of years ago with the rest of life on earth. At the heart of the project was a master artificial intelligence, called GAIA, which oversaw the terraforming of the earth with the animalistic machines; GAIA largely gained consciousness through conversations with her creator, Sobeck. A major reveal comes when Aloy finds a message GAIA left for her before self-destructing in an effort to prevent a virus from again destroying life on Earth. Aloy learns that she has no mother because she is a clone of Sobeck, created by GAIA just before GAIA self-destructed. GAIA knew that only Elizabet/Aloy would be able to enter the Old World’s bunkers (guarded by DNA security measures), and she had faith that Elizabet/Aloy would be able to solve the mysteries, reboot her, and prevent a second mass extinction. GAIA was right.
After you finish the game, there is a final cutscene during which Aloy finds Elisabet’s final resting place. She’s listening to a recently restored audio log from an early conversation between GAIA and the scientist:
GAIA: “You often tell stories of your mother. But you are childless.”
Elisabet: “I never had time. I guess it was for the best.”
GAIA: “If you had had a child, Elisabet, what would you have wished for him or her?”
Elisabet: “I guess I would have wanted… her… to be… curious. And willful, unstoppable even. But with enough compassion to… heal the world. Just a little bit.”
James O’Keefe discusses a personal anecdote in his explanation of one epigenetic pathway by which a child may become queer. When O’Keefe’s wife was in her third trimester with her first child, she found out she had cancer and had to begin radiation treatment. In the end, she and her baby boy were fine, but it was a very stressful time. Their son came out as gay to them in his teens. For every older brother a boy has, his chances of being gay go up by 30%; but their son was the eldest. “Why was he gay?” O’Keefe pondered. Severe maternal stress during pregnancy is associated with having a gay child, it turns out, and O’Keefe interprets this epigenetic phenomenon as: “It’s as if the mom is saying, ‘I’m in trouble here, I need a kind and clever ally to help me hold this family together.’”
Sylens: “What do you mean [you have no mother]? You had two, a dead woman and a machine.”
Aloy: “I’m not a person, I’m an instrument. Manufactured by a machine. Born in destruction… and fire…”
Sylens: “To quench the flames and heal the world. How tragic, to learn you’re a person of towering importance! It seems you have a destiny to fulfill.”
If James O’Keefe is right, then nature—much like GAIA, who herself is presumably named after the Greek goddess of Mother Earth—brings extraordinary people into the world to help those around them, especially when those people are in trouble. If he’s right, then queer people also have a destiny to fulfill—should they choose to accept it—that is not so different from Aloy’s. And like Aloy—it may be our marginalization that uniquely prepares us for the task.
v. And More Anti-Apocalyptic Queers
There are a number of other pop culture narratives that similarly lend themselves to a queer reading. When Aquaman (in his self-titled recent blockbuster) questions his ability to lead Atlantis due to his mixed heritage (half-human, half-Atlantan) and mainland upbringing, Princess Mera tells him: “You think you’re unworthy to lead because you’re of two different worlds… That is exactly why you are worthy.” The letters that children receive at the age of eleven inviting them into a magical secret society in the world of Harry Potter are not unlike the signs that many (but not all) queer people begin to notice around puberty signaling a difference from their peers and membership in a new culture. The child chosen in the novel “The Giver” to inherit the society’s memory—and color—likely grappled with many of the same feelings that young queers might as they begin to more fully recognize the flaws in a world they may have previously taken for granted. As I’ve spoken about the ideas of this piece to friends and acquaintances, they continue to generate more examples. The ones I’ve offered here are just the ones I’m most familiar with, and I’d love to hear from others about more.
IV. The Missing Ingredient: Queer Kinship
I acknowledge that some people may have stopped reading this piece long ago, annoyed at my use of the pronoun “we” to refer to all non-cisgender, non-heterosexual people. Because despite increasingly glowing references to “the LGBTQ+ community” in mainstream media, many queer people still feel incredibly isolated—not only from cis-heterosexual blood relatives and peers—but also from one another.
As legal rights for LGBTQ persons have marched onward—albeit unevenly throughout the country—some have questioned why greater equality hasn’t brought us closer together, or “why gay rights haven’t cured gay loneliness.” Despite radical advances in technology which allow us to find similar others, many people experience these platforms as traumatic sites that promised a place to belong but provided only an endless, expedited exclusion. Beyond simple exclusion, many people have found LGBTQ (and especially gay-dominated) spaces to be specifically hostile to other parts of their identity, such as race, class, religion, or gender identity.
Some would blame these failings on those in positions of official leadership. The largest LGBTQ advocacy organization in the country has faced persistent claims of exclusionary practices from some of the most vulnerable queer and trans people. The largest annual gathering of those committed to queer justice also receives sometimes withering critiques.
Building a community of people that may, at most, share only one thing in common presents an incredibly difficult challenge. Our random appearance in the population means we are just as diverse along our non-queer axes of identity as the general population. Another possibility for the fractures among queers, if we believe the kin selection thesis of evolution, is that our biological programming presupposes that we will live among predominantly cis-het people in an intolerant society; instead, the modern-day U.S. finds us in uncharted territory, where we may be able to find pockets of predominantly queer people with similar, and now irrelevant, base drives.
The queer population is “society in miniature,” and I use “we” aspirationally in an effort to invoke all of the radical potential that a truly inclusive community would embody, a potential that larger society has so far failed to realize. But by using our superpowers, we may be able to succeed where they have failed.
I argue that queer people are gifted with unique abilities to be peacemakers, organizers, and healers—whether through inborn differences or empathy-building experiences of exclusion, shame, and stigma. I argue that queer people are uniquely positioned to capitalize on these gifts by virtue of their societal embeddedness. I argue that society recognizes our potential to save humanity from itself in the multimedia narratives it produces. And I argue that before we can realize that potential, queers must get our own house in order.
I know that doing so is possible because I started and ran a queer youth network in Nebraska (my home state) for several years. I got to witness as queer young people who had driven for five hours to one of our events met another queer person for the very first time. I watched these young people go on to become close friends, roommates, and yes, occasionally, partners. I and the other young organizers of course made mistakes along the way (we were 19 at the start), but we were always guided by the idea that everyone wants—and deserves—to feel like they belong to something. And we each acutely knew the pain that came from wondering: “Am I the only one?”
There was something beautiful in the Queer Nebraska Youth Network that I haven’t been able to articulate until now, now that I’ve lived in cities and places with much larger and more visible populations of queer people. In Nebraska, these queer youth didn’t take each other for granted. They cherished the opportunity to connect with others who had similar experiences, to feel less alone. To find kinship.
Unlike most other forms of minority identity, queer people can rarely look to immediate family members for information to help them make sense of their experiences of desire and/or gender. And where racial or religious minority children can learn from their parents coping strategies to navigate a sometimes hostile world, queer people are often left to their own devices.
We’ve often been forced to critically examine our conception of family, as blood relatives have often been our earliest, worst, and most traumatic bullies. Especially in times of crisis—whether during the AIDS epidemic, after the killing of yet another black trans woman, or in the aftermath of Pulse—we have banded together to grieve, to heal, to organize, and to change the world around us for the better.
Queer kinship is the aspiration that we harness this sense of connection and cooperation not only when we are in crisis, but at all times. That we recognize our profound connection not only to each other, but to all people. That we own our destiny as a powerful family with hearts built to heal the world.
Humans are destroying the planet and have developed increasingly sophisticated and devastating ways to destroy one another. By some accounts, the real world is on track for apocalypse, a preoccupation that likely inspires the growing genre of post-apocalyptic futures. I have a cosmic suspicion that queer people are nature’s intervention, a plea for humanity to save itself from itself. And I believe that they are well-positioned and well-equipped to do so. By lifting up our fellow queers, especially those that are fighting against multiple forms of oppression simultaneously, we may discover that we are the rising tide which lifts all boats. Consider this your crash course in Cerebro. Your letter inviting you to Hogwarts. A dying plea from GAIA. Consider yourself family.
Drew Heckman is a joint degree student between Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he is pursuing both a J.D. and a Master in Public Policy. Drew’s work before coming to graduate school centered upon the needs of the LGBTQ community: he founded the Queer Nebraska Youth Network and served as the Nebraska Field Organizer for the Human Rights Campaign in his home state, and later worked with governmental and nonprofit LGBTQ initiatives in Spain. In graduate school, he’s focusing on expanding his knowledge around immigrants’ rights and racial justice, issues that affect countless members of the LGBTQ community. Through work with the Black Policy Conference at HKS, Boston City Council President Michelle Wu, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, he’s gaining a greater appreciation of the complex web of laws and policies that determine the daily lived experiences of people of color, immigrants, and the deeply intersectional LGBTQ population. He hopes to translate this learning into action after graduation through some combination of legal, policy, and organizing work. (He’s open to suggestions.)
Photo taken from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5G-kkMFU1qM#t=03m46s.
 I use “queer” to encompass anyone with a non-normative gender identity (i.e. a non-cisgender identity), and/or same-gender desires or sexual/romantic identities, including but not limited to gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, transgender, intersex, agender, nonbinary, and two-spirit. In the spirit of full disclosure, I identify as a cisgender, queer white man with the class privilege that accompanies the dual pursuit of a Master in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School and J.D. from Harvard Law School. My perspective is of course limited by my social location, and I invite queers with divergent perspectives to disagree with, complicate, or complement this account.
 Such research has also spurred entertaining findings, such as the fact that apparently lesbians and gay men are disproportionately likely to be left-handed. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200011/sexuality-hand
 I do get frustrated with well-meaning people who encourage non-queer movements to adopt the strategies that the LGBTQ movement has used to achieve legal rights in a seemingly accelerated fashion. What these suggestions miss is the inherent advantage that queer people have by virtue of being socially proximate to nearly everyone—most crucially, those in positions of influence—largely unaffected by the residential, linguistic, cultural, and economic segregation facing other groups.
 The everyday social support networks of queer people involve more contact with LGB others than with heterosexual others or family members; further, gay and bisexual white, black, and Latino men, as well as gay and bisexual Latina women, report levels of support from different-race LGB others that are comparable to or greater than their levels of support from their biological family. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4878705/
 Terriquez, Veronica. Intersectional Mobilization, Social Movement Spillover, and Queer Youth Leadership in the Immigrant Rights Movement. Social Problems, 2015, 62, 343-362. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=4f7b5d10-aa0a-40ab-aa2e-08f290fedc17%40sessionmgr4007
 As he acknowledges, most of the research he reviews studied only gay men, but he believes the results are likely similar for other sexual minorities.
 Channeling the linguistic innovations of the feminist movement, my vote is to call this heroic, gender-inclusive association “the X-Myn.”
 And as my friend Ashton Strait recently remarked, “Having a biological child is really just going halfsies on a clone with someone.”
 Thanks to my friend Mia Gettenburg for making this point.
 Thanks to my friend Evan O’Donnell for making this point.