"Ten Ways of Looking at Queer Flourishing" by Christopher Lloyd



Are you thriving? The social pressure to flourish—to be living life to the full, to be happy with life and love and work, to be seizing every moment—seems to get stronger by the day. Perhaps that is just how it feels for someone in their mid-thirties, navigating a career path and relationships, but the expectation that one thrives is ever-present. In your thriving life, are you: eating five (or more) a day, drinking three litres of water, doing yoga and going to the gym, meditating first thing, reading the Booker Prize shortlist, hanging out with old friends and making new ones, doing Wordle every morning, finishing the newest Netflix show, going out on dates every weekend (if you’re single) or being spontaneous and buying sex toys (if you’re in a couple or throuple, or more)? Are you doing all of the things to make sure that you feel as though your life is full and that you are giving yourself permission and space to flourish, to take flight, to live—cringe—your best life?

If you use the Harvard University Flourishing Measure(1), you can find out just how much you are. You provide personal scores to questions like, ‘How satisfied are you with life as a whole these days?’, or ‘In general, how happy or unhappy do you usually feel?’ Then you are asked if you agree with the following: ‘I understand my purpose in life’. I am not sure about you, but these questions freak me out. I do not think I could begin to put a 0-10 number against them. ‘As a whole’ or ‘In general’ feel so vague as to be unhelpful in this context. In general, I am neither fully happy nor unhappy—I am an ongoing cluster of conflicting feelings and emotions. Depends on the day, on the minute, on how many Teams meetings I have been in that morning. To take the broad view demands a kind of reflexivity that I do

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1 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/04/well/mind/languishing-definition-flourishing-quiz.html


not have. Or, perhaps, it takes a kind of self-belief and certainly to say, ‘I know my purpose’ and carry on unimpeded. I also do not have this ability.

I have been thinking about what it means to flourish after recently hearing the word and its synonyms used a few times in quick succession. First, my therapist mentioned it in relation to one of my friends. This person is incredibly close to me, even though they live far away. Perhaps, indeed, it is the distance that enables us to be so connected and (emotionally) proximate. My therapist said, offhandedly, as if this was something I already knew: the reason they are so important is because you enable each other to flourish. This took me aback in the moment, as do most of the things my therapist says. That was not how I had framed this friend in my head. Second, an ex-student of mine said on Twitter—apropos of my travels around Paris in the late autumn sunshine—that I looked as though I was ‘thriving’, even though my image caption was ‘sorry for being obnoxious’. Third, when I noticed that most of my houseplants were crawling with fungus gnats (who knew they existed?) I delved online to find out why my plants were not—and this was the word used frequently—flourishing. Was it over- or under-watering? Too much light, or too much shade? Not enough drainage? Or, worst of all, were gnats breeding beneath the surface of the damp soil, only to emerge in constellations like some alien spawn. My friend told me that the gnats in her plants ended up biting her and her housemate, so I guess I got away lightly when only a few avocado plants withered away.

In a short space of time, I was confronted again and again with the idea that I might or might not be flourishing, in part because of the connections to others, to the spaces that we can move through, or the literal and metaphorical soil in which we take root.


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‘To flourish’ derives, of course, from ‘blossom or grow’ (Old French and Latin), where blooming and flowering morphed from the literal to the figurative: to prosper and thrive. Its transitive meaning—of brandishing a weapon, which is waved about—comes a little later, which in turn gives way to a sense of the ostentatious. Here, the sword also becomes the pen, with embellished handwriting and inky flourishes. And from there, other flourishes—musical, artistic—take hold, so that to flourish is to grow and blossom, but also sometimes in a camp or over-the-top way.

Flourishing moves both up and out, then: as the growth of the flower stem, the opening of its petals, and then the swish of beauty in the bloom. To grow, here, means not simply growth toward upwardness and straightness(2), but also a lush unfurling, a bend towards the light.


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What does it mean to flourish in an anti-queer world when we are told that ‘it gets better’, that equal marriage and adoption laws are passed, and Queer Eye and RuPaul’s Drag Race are watched around the world? What if it does not get better? What if, amidst the growing anti-queer sentiment and anti-queer legislation levelled against all people under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, not least trans people and queer people of colour, things get worse? Or simply feel like they’re getting worse, which is just as painful. I say this not to be negative or pessimistic, nor even realistic, but to state plainly that for some queer people in the world they do not see a way forward where things improve, or that they might, indeed, flourish.

Queer flourishing, we might say, is the potential flourishing of queer people, spaces, and desires in an anti-queer world. It is the vitality of queerness, the possibility of thriving,

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2 Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (2009).


even when the deck is stacked against you, and when the world which you inhabit is consciously and unconsciously designed for people other than you. To flourish queerly or to flourish as a queer person—they might not be identical—is, in some ways, to flounder amidst joy; to find momentary bliss or fragmentary breath; to see an open horizon with a gaudy sunset while realising that said horizon is just a photograph with edges and, thus, limitations. To grow and bloom and prosper as a queer person—and here I am not suggesting all queer people are the same or face hardships equally—might mean to flourish away from the sunlight, or only in private and safe spaces, or only after one’s work uniform has come off, or only on a dancefloor where no-one knows your name. Sure, anyone can feel this way, but the experience of queerness as a kind of social negativity, an otherness, an excess that is materially pushed aside, is I think quite singular. Yet even that singularity is differentiated by the intersections of race and gender and class and disability and so on. As a cis white gay with a good job—depending who you ask—I know that my experiences of curtailment are not the same as a trans person’s, or a Black drag king’s, or a young poor lesbian living far from a city. Yet. There is something in our shared or common fate of queerness, outside of the norms, that means when we flourish it might only be in fits and starts.

To think of flourishing outside of heteronormativity and white capitalist heteropatriarchy is almost oxymoronic. How does one get outside of those toxic waters, as many queer critics and critics of colour have argued, when those limiting normative forces are the water and not merely in it?


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The late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz writes about the ‘brown commons’, which is that nebulous non-hierarchical gathering of browned people and places and nonhuman objects. By ‘brown’ and ‘browned’, Muñoz is talking about the processes of racialization, the general ways in which certain populations are rendered brown and other. Brownness, for Muñoz, is partly defined by the way that these subjects and objects ‘suffer and strive together’, the ‘commonality of their ability to flourish under duress and pressure’. Muñoz is talking about the ways that brownness emerges both in its relation to normative society’s devaluation of anything outside of whiteness, but also in its resistance to that devaluation. While brown people and things withstand attempts to ‘degrade their value and diminish their worth’, brownness nonetheless ‘smolder[s] with a life and persistence’. I want to think about this idea in relation to queerness more broadly (though of course Muñoz is writing about brownness as, and with, a kind of queerness).

What might it mean to see queers of all kinds—those outside of heteronormativity—as flourishing under duress? How might we even attend to and celebrate flourishing when it is curtailed so thoroughly and violently? Does degradation (or attempts at it) hinder flourishing from taking place in certain ways?


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Contrary to the maxim ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, the eponymous character in James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room (1956) says ‘maybe everything bad that happens to you makes you weaker, and so you can stand less and less’. Giovanni is slowly losing the meaning that he has had in his life—ushered in primarily through the love and attention of the American, David—and thus frames existence as a slow depletion. In his mind, when bad things happen, they gradually wear us down to the point of no resistance. And that is what happens in the novel. From the very first scene, David is looking back on the past, and on Giovanni’s life, as Giovanni is about to be killed at the guillotine. The spectre of that death lingers over the rest of the novel, especially those heady and tense moments when David and Giovanni first meet and talk into the early hours, and something like love or lust takes hold. We see them flirt and have sex, knowing what horrors are about to snub out their flourishing flame.

In my darker moments, Giovanni’s statement rings vaguely true. I try to resist the feelgood and (oftentimes) religiously inflected notion that we only get what we can stand in life; that everything happens for a reason; that we can never take on too much. I do not necessarily believe that. Sometimes people are worn down—by life, by others, by institutions, by the very command to live life to the full, to pull yourself up—so much so that they cannot stand it. Standing up becomes less and less viable.

What happens when we take Giovanni’s point seriously: that when bad things happen, they can stop us from standing, from withstanding so much? If things do not get better—even if you come out, or meet your ‘person’, or find the job to end all jobs—and in fact sometimes get worse—because your coming out is met with rejection, or your person leaves you, or you do not feel comfortable being ‘out’ in the office—then flourishing is a kind of sick fantasy, an unachievable goal. Again, this is not pessimism or needless negativity, but instead a queer skewer in the side of social injunctions to feel good and thrive. Read this way, we have to look after ourselves and each other in more specific and attentive ways. Not in the framework of the good-life-as-ideal, but in the sense that flourishing can only happen from a position or grounding of honesty and, perhaps, instability. What would happen if we helped each other thrive without the necessity to thrive always, and only in recognisable ways?


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As a young person entering adolescence, I did not see many versions of flourishing for gay or other queer people. There were moments of happiness when a gay couple kissed on Eastenders or Corrie but it never felt fully liberatory. Plus, there was always someone in the background looking on with disdain, or, indeed, members of the public writing in to Points of View to complain about the liberals ‘shoving sexuality down their throats’ (people who, in using that phrase, highlighted their own sexual frustrations).

There was Queer as Folk, for sure, but I did not get to see that show until way later. It was near-impossible to find moments to watch TV like that at home. Something like Will and Grace—tame, problematic, and often not very queer at all—did show the difficulties of flourishing but I was not allowed to watch it as my mother found it off-putting (she’s different now). A show like that, which I could occasionally grab moments of when my parents were out, offered a view of thriving and curtailed gayness—just look at Jack, who is carefree, sexually confident, and living his best life; and Will, forever frustrated by his dependency on Grace, his best friend.

On Sunday nights on BBC Radio 1, though, the show Sunday Surgery aired, where young people wrote or called in with their emotional and sexual problems. The two hosts—in between the latest hits—would offer advice and solutions to these dilemmas. It was the first time, I think, that I heard queer people like me (i.e., young people, not necessarily living in London) speak aloud out their fears and anxieties. They talked about dating and kissing and sex and STIs and fitting in. It was on so late that I could not listen to it live—for fear of waking my parents—so I recorded it onto my Minidisk player (dated reference) and listened the next day as I walked to school or did my paper-round.

This show was a rare moment that I glimpsed something like a flourishing queer life that might, at some point, be available to me. The people calling in asked how they might lead a life that was authentic, or, if not in those words, a life that would not be stalked by sadness and bullying and that gut-level fear of standing out. I still have that fear sometimes. To flourish, we are told, is to let go of those fears and be you, live your life. But what if, as a queer person, your ‘life’ is scripted ahead of time, by people who do not recognise your life as one worthy of living?


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He grabbed my hand this one time and would not let go until we reached the train station, even when groups of men, who would otherwise have caused me panic, by virtue of their massing, walked past. I do not even remember if people clocked that we were two men holding hands, or if they cared, because I did not care in that moment, and that was such a new experience for me. For sure, I was thinking about the fact that we were holding hands and marching down the street drunk on wine and horniness, but the experience of touching his cold fingers and showing the world that I was locked in step with him (queer? happy? flourishing?) was transformative.

I do not mean that flippantly. It was not something I had done with men before this, because of fear, because of shame, because of an inability perhaps to see beyond the limitations placed upon my identity. Handholding was the thing that other people did: straight people, people in love, people who did not mind PDAs, people who wanted to flaunt what they had. But in this moment, on a cold winter night in London, as we swayed (gayly) down Tottenham Court Road, not knowing what was ahead of us—in all the senses—I felt like I was temporarily flourishing. I would not have called it that in the moment, but that was the feeling: of blooming, awkwardly, in the knowledge that someone could throw insults or bottles at us at any moment and that I did not really care.


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We might think that flourishing happens when we have what we want—a stable job, a friendship circle—and we then use that platform to lift off and bloom, to mix metaphors. Of all the critical discourses, psychoanalysis has helped us most to ask better questions about who we are, where we came from, who we might want to be, and, indeed, what we want. As Freud and many writers after him have suggested, we might not know what we want in life, even if we think we do(3). That is the first thing: acknowledging that what we think we want might not be what we really want (whatever ‘really’ means here). Or, noticing that we might not know what we want altogether. But the second problem, if it is a problem, is that our desires outstrip our objects. In other words, what we want always exceeds the possibility of getting it—our wants and our wanted objects are not fully compatible. The things that we desire (people, objects, fantasies) cannot completely satisfy us, not only because they might not be the thing we truly desire, but also because even if they were what we desired, our desires would always overshoot those things. Psychoanalysis, put another way, tells us that flourishing might be possible if only we gave up on the idea of tying that flourishing to particular states of being, or people, or ideas of living.

For example, whatever our visions of ‘the good life’ are, i.e., whether those involve kids or family or life in the suburbs or weekends of hedonism, there is something about the idea of the good life which will always slip from our grasp. Think about Olivia Pope in Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal (if that’s not too dated a reference): Olivia’s vision of the good life shifts often in this series, even within an episode, so that in one moment she wants to make jam with Fitz in Vermont, and in the next she wants to ‘stand in the sun’ with Jake on a desert island. (To even backtrack and explain these scenes of the good life would take many

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3 Adam Phillips, On Getting Better (2021).


thousands of words). Though, all the while, we know that her other version of the good life is one in which she dons the ‘white hat’ of moral clarity and helps others, because that’s who Olivia Pope is and that is what she does best. Providing a service to help others get out of trouble, or secure justice, or just to get back that which was taken from them—that is Olivia’s real good life, but she does not always want to confront it because that version of life is one in which she is alone, not tied to a tall white hunk, and thrives merely through her job/role and co-workers. It is the good life curtailed.

To flourish might be to give up on certain ideas about ourselves and others altogether.


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‘A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing’. That is the opening line of cultural critic Lauren Berlant’s 2011 book Cruel Optimism. Berlant, in one swift sentence, destroys our conventional ideas of optimism—as happily wedded to good objects—by suggesting that these relations can go awry. Whether the thing you desire is ‘food, or a kind of love’, or ‘a fantasy of the good life, or a political project’, the relation becomes cruel when ‘the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially’. In Olivia Pope’s case, the men who sustain her desires and the fantasies of living that accompany them (jam, the sun) are simultaneously those unavailable objects that actually impede her flourishing. How can she flourish with men who are not viable love interests? The fantasies and stories about the future, about love, are just that—stories. But they also sustain Olivia’s desires even though she knows that such optimism might be her undoing.

In Cruel Optimism, Berlant is thinking not simply about the objects we become attached to—people, political projects, fantasies of living—but also the ‘conditions under which certain attachments to what counts as life come to make sense or no longer make sense, yet remain powerful as they work against the flourishing of particular and collective beings’. The relation of cruel optimism exists in context; we desire the fantasies of the good life, of properly flourishing, in light of the dominant fantasies of our age and culture. Ideas of the good life today are not the same as those of our grandparents or their grandparents, of course, though sometimes we might pretend that they are. Put differently, what if the fantasies of flourishing that sustained previous generations are cruelly optimistic because they no longer function in our contemporary world? What if, too, these fantasies are cruel because they are heteronormative? What if, after all, to flourish is the domain of only certain people who are able to traverse social scenes in particular ways?

An obstacle to our flourishing: a description of queerness curtailed.


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Are you thriving? Do you have a sense of what it might mean to thrive? As a queer person, I cannot have faith that the society in which I move is also signed up for my flourishing, whatever that could look like. When homosexuality is criminalised in over 70 countries, and Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill is signed into law, and anti-trans laws around the United States proliferate, and LGBTQ+ hate crimes have tripled in the UK since 2015, and ‘gender critical’ ideology is working to undo equality law—how are we meant to go on, other than haltingly, or in fear? To flourish under duress is still flourishing, but nonetheless amidst confinement and curtailment. To flourish as someone attempts to degrade you (directly or indirectly) is to flourish with the mark of negativity. These are not bad things. This is not a critique. Queer folks have always flourished in dire circumstances; they, we, continue.

Flourishing, to take the flower metaphor further, is not a single state or even simply a progressive one. A flower grows, sure, but it also dies off and comes back another year; it opens and closes depending on sunlight; it arches its stem as light moves across its field of vision; it helps with pollination and allows bees to flourish, but the pollen also gets in my eyes and nose and stops me in my tracks.

Flourishing queerly, amidst violence and trauma and history and shame and subjection and subjugation and slurs and nonnormativity, is perhaps a set of positions, a non-linear process, rather than some fixed trajectory. But really, I guess, what else is there?



Christopher Lloyd (he/him) is a writer and academic, teaching in the UK. He is the author of two books, a micro-chap, as well as poems and stories that have appeared in Fruit Journal, Queerlings, The Cardiff Review, and elsewhere.