Photograph by Marco Verch / CC

We all knew summer would arrive, whether or not we’d be allowed outside to enjoy it. And indeed, here in New York, refrigerated trucks holding dead bodies are gone and long, warm Spring evenings have arrived. We’ve been through hell already. Aren’t we allowed some sunshine?

Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a moment when science isn’t quite enough to say. When will it be safe to re-open? How many tests do we need? Which states are getting the balance between social distancing and people’s mental health right? The only truthful answer, one that has united just about everyone with scientific or medical training, does not calm anyone’s anxieties: We don’t know. The science is necessary, but not sufficient. It doesn’t offer the certainty we seem to need to calm our collective nerves. It’s in moments like this that I turn my training as a scientist off, and let myself be calmed and guided by the queer forebears I imagine myself related to.

José Esteban Muñoz was a Cuban American scholar of queer studies before he died in 2013 at only 46. He mentored a generation of queer scholars, many of them people of color, including two friends of mine whose work I adore. He was still teaching at NYU when he left this world, just as I took a job as a postdoc there. He wrote two books, Cruising Utopia and Disidentifications, the latter of which is read less widely but—in my opinion—just as essential for understanding how we can conceive of identity in late capitalism and use it as an effective tool to fight systems that would kill us.

I often find myself mourning the voices that I wish we still had to write us through a present crisis, and I find myself, now, returning to José’s work. Muñoz wrote that, because queer people may choose not to have biological children, queers are “within the dominant culture, a people without a future.”

I’ve argued for some years that climate change may make us all queer, a worldwide people without a future. For now, though, this is inverted: We are all without a present, living only for a future when things won’t be like this. We’re locked inside with our lives on hold. I stare out the window all day as I work, my only access to the outside world beyond a weekly trip to the grocery store. This, for me, seems akin to queer childhood, growing up in tiny towns just living, just surviving, on the hope of growing old enough to leave.

“The present is provincial,” Muñoz wrote, isolated like a place, far away. Young queer people from the country? Our whole lives were a waiting room. “We can understand queerness,” Muñoz tells us, “as being filled with the intention to be lost.” Queer people have long practiced not-knowing, being unsure, finding ourselves again and again and again.

Like in the HIV/AIDS plague years, the here and now for queer people is insufficient, even deadly. This is true for LGBT (and particularly trans women) all the time. Straight white people with financial means: Welcome.

Today, we see as much news coverage about those of us stuck inside as about those who are on ventilators in the ICU. Muñoz, writing about a similar transition to speaking of the effects of the HIV/AIDS crisis on HIV-negative men in the early 1990s, their worry and lack of anxiety-free about sex, asked, “Can we afford to redirect our critical energies away from bodies that are infected by a physical virus toward uninfected bodies that are caught within a psychological epidemic?”

A psychological epidemic—that’s what’s happening now, what’s infecting us all. Fear and boredom make strange bedfellows, and for months on end are crazy-making. But can we afford to worry more about the healthy people staying home, the jobs lost and the boredom, than on those who are currently ill and still, at this moment, dying?

We all worry about the economic impact of isolation, we all want to go outside. I just want to go outside. But we know what we need to do, what’s been (mostly) successful: massive testing, on the scale of many millions per week, and a country-wide infrastructure (including a massive public health workforce) to help people who test positive to quarantine fully, and to trace-and-test their contacts.

We don’t have those resources yet, but some states are already beginning to unthaw. What’s coming our way? What will happen in New York, in Washington, in Texas or Florida?

Staying inside is painful, it’s mentally exhausting, it… hurts. (“The pleasure and pain of queerness are not a strict binary.”) And yet, if we turn the mix of boredom and terror that is quarantine around, we can understand it as a kind and generous act, one that gives us pride and, through pride, joy. “The queerness of queer futurity, like the blackness of a black radical tradition, is a relational and collective modality of endurance and support.” Being queer, like being black, Muñoz argues, is a legacy and a history of care even in the face of systemic oppression, violence, murder.

We are facing death now, too, both at the hands of a virus and the systemic racism and homophobia the virus has laid bare. Black and lantinx people are the most likely to die here in NYC, a fact so violently mundane it fails to shock. It should shock. Perhaps those of us who’ve lived through so many visible, cultural, but also embodied deaths – from Trayvon Martin to the Pulse nightclub shooting – have survival strategies that can lead culture forward.

At the least, we’ve practiced caring for one another in the face of mass death and an uncertain future. And we know that going back to “normal” should not, must not, be our end goal here.

We don’t know what will happen next, we can’t, but I can walk us through some possibilities. Let me put my scientist hat back on, hang the PhD in Molecular Microbiology back on the wall of my 3-by-4 home office.

We know what works, and we know what doesn’t. What’s less clear is where exactly the line between working and not-working lies. How much testing do we need? We know we’re not there yet, but we don’t know exactly where there is. Can office workers go back to their offices? This has happened in many places in China without a huge spike, a second wave, a return of the virus. That spike may yet come. But also, it might not.

Muñoz calls gay sex in the HIV years “negotiated risk,” and that term certainly applies to any physical touching these days. It applies to going to the god damned grocery store. Today we’re dealing with risk not only at a personal level, but a societal level: Will we open schools? Shopping malls? Will we find the will to scale up testing, to undergo voluntary quarantine if we test positive? Who knows? The United States is embracing federalism, it seems. The guidance from the Trump administration is basically non-existent.

There is scientific consensus that we shouldn’t open at all without sufficient testing. There is scientific consensus that the US isn’t testing enough yet. But states are opening anyway.

We’re running an experiment in real time, one that will be analyzed by a generation of epidemiologists for decades to come. The most likely scenario for states and cities that open too soon is a rebound of exponential growth in the cases of COVID-19 and the reemergent possibility that hospital capacity is reached and surpassed. Again, places in this country could see mass graves dug into spring earth.

Some cities and states will move too fast and likely rebound. Some will be conservative, keeping folks inside at levels that will probably contain the worst of viral spread. Of course, even in those places, people will continue to get sick, and they will likely continue to die. COVID-19 will stay with us at some level until there’s a vaccine or preventative treatment, that much is sure.

Some cities and states might get it just right, even in the absence of massive testing: letting folks go back to work at just the right levels, not seeing peaks in flu-like illnesses in the hospitals, everything sort of moving along at a new-normal steady-state. It’s possible.

Yes, summer may help. We know seasonal flus and colds are less transmissible in warmer months. But this virus is brand new in the human population and we don’t have any immunity for anything like it; maybe summer won’t help that much at all.

Once again: We just don’t know.

Even if summer does help, we could all end up back inside if this virus peaks again in late fall, like the 1918 flu did. Even with enough testing, some models predict waves of COVID-19 infections re-emerging (that the testing will catch) followed by renewed quarantine orders, on a cycle for over a year.

These are debates being had by the most expert virologists and statisticians, the most capable human minds we have.This is the nature of our present. We’re stuck inside and don’t know when we’ll be able to leave. We don’t know if a vaccine will be ready in January 2021, December 2021, or, frankly, ever. We don’t know if remdesivir will prove an effective treatment or even a prophylaxis.

We don’t know, we’re stuck inside, we don’t know, we don’t know. We know less now, it seems, than ever. “Straight time,” according to Muñoz, “tells us that there is no future but the here and now of our everyday life.” One of my best friends, an ICU nurse, texted me the other day, “I’m living in hell.”

We’re all, in one way or another, living in hell right now. Even straight people are confined by straight time now that we’re all stuck inside.

One of Muñoz’s recurrent images is the queer striving for utopia. From the hell of queerness in a heteronormative world, a future could be born. It may feel strange to speak of utopia at this moment, but looking back helps us look forward. “[Utopia] permits us to conceptualize new worlds and realities that are not irrevocably constrained by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and institutionalized state homophobia.” The same applies to COVID-19, and institutionalized state and interpersonal racism and homophobia. In this moment, utopia may help us survive the here and now of quarantine, to imagine a return not to normal, but a world that has not yet existed.

The present is not enough for any of us. Muñoz wrote, “Capitalism, for instance, would have us think that it is a natural order, an inevitability, the way things would be.” Well, this moment can show us the ways in which capitalism has failed us. There should be no going back to a failed state, a living nightmare.

“Concrete utopias are the realm of educated hope,” Muñoz tells us; they are “a backward glance that enacts a future vision.” Utopia is not Trump’s manipulative optimism, but rather a knowledge that, whatever the future, we will care for one another through it all. Educated hope means not turning away from evidence, as Trump consistently does, but using evidence to guide us toward the best path forward – out of the past, through this present, and on to a better, more just world.

When Jacques Derrida was asked, near his death, what he meant when he called his work a “writing of survival,” he answered, “If I had invented my writing, I would have done so as a perpetual revolution.” Muñoz’s queerness is just this, a perpetual striving toward something that doesn’t yet exist in the world, but that we can feel, in our guts and bodies, is necessary. Queer people in a straight world are always pinched, unable to be fully or freely ourselves.

Straight people, I invite you to live queerly. To accept that we cannot know, not now, not yet. To live in the here-and-now knowing that it won’t be forever. To care for others by minimizing your time outside, your personal risk that is our collective risk, too. To know that going back to the world as it was before isn’t an option. To think of a utopia, another world, that doesn’t yet exist, but that we can build along the way. To take moments of small and transcendent intimacies—a touch, a phone call, sex with a loved one, your first drink of coffee in the morning, the House Party app, a sip of wine at night—as a medicine to survive these times, which, however desparate, won’t last forever.

One of my small joys: the afternoon sunlight at my writing desk. Another: waking up next to my partner, pulling him close, finding sleep again, just a touch warmer. One more: The snack I just ate, some Bulgarian feta from Whole Foods (the cheap stuff), halved cherry tomatoes, a sprinkle of kosher salt, and a bubbly half-glass of a cheap-but-good French sparkling white. It’s not champagne, it’s sparkling joy.

Muñoz wrote, “The here and now is simply not enough.” José, yes, and especially not now. “Queerness should and could be about a desire for another way of being in both the world and in time, a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough.”

We won’t accept this world as it is now, or the one that was before. We embrace, but do not accept, our chosen self-confinement. We do this because we know it will save lives, and lives are worth saving, even if it hurts.

Be queer. Build non-nuclear families of mutual support and care. Be together in person if you live together or near. Drop off food. Skype. Sext. Send food. Send nudes.

God, grant me the serenity.

Live queerly. Embrace the small pleasures of the here and now, this moment of forced isolation, and build a future more aware of the isolations and injustices it was too easy to ignore in the past. In the past, 44 million Americans didn’t have health insurance, and our planet was sliding toward climate catastrophe. From this past, may it never return, a world worthy of us, and us worthy of this world.

Joseph Osmundson

Joseph Osmundson is a scientist and writer. He has a PhD in Molecular Biophysics from The Rockefeller University and is a professor at NYU. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other places, and his book Inside/Out came out in 2018. He's a member of the COVID-19 Working Group – NY and a Scientific Advisor to TAG on issues of SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics and treatment. His work has been supported by The American Cancer Society, The Fulbright Foundation, The New York Foundation for the Arts, and The Lambda Literary Foundation. He's the second least funny voice on the queer literary podcast Food 4 Thot.

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2 Comments on “The Future in Catastrophic Times

  1. Thank you so much for this: “To live in the here-and-now knowing that it won’t be forever. To care for others by minimizing your time outside, your personal risk that is our collective risk, too. To know that going back to the world as it was before isn’t an option. To think of a utopia, another world, that doesn’t yet exist, but that we can build along the way.”

  2. Maybe you need to be homosexual to understand and/or appreciate this article. I decided to read it because the title sounded promising, however at the end I couldn’t see how it had enlightened me or made some contribution to my person.

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