Queer, Gender Blender, Blur: A Meditation on Tongues Untied

*This post is part of our online forum to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Marlon Riggs’s groundbreaking film, Tongues Untied.

Still from Tongues Untied (1989) — Signifyin’ Works and Frameline Distribution

As we mark the thirtieth anniversary of Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied, it seems imperative, at least for me, to not only remunerate homage — as if such payment would ever settle the generous, foundational bill — but to also push Riggs and his film to illuminate what it might offer us in the here and now.

My task in this essay is one that focuses on a brief scene and what I understand as its precipitating moment, limited in the grand scheme of the film’s duration but, I hope, significant enough to warrant an essay all its own. While Tongues as a whole is concerned primarily with breaking silence, having learned well from Audre Lorde’s dictum that one’s silence will not protect them, the aural register will only be briefly touched upon here. Not to the exclusion or reduction in importance of silence, what Riggs calls in the film “the deadliest weapon,” I wish to highlight nonnormative gender.

Early in the film, during a voiceover, viewers hear Riggs remark, “Now that I have shed shades of ni**er, boy, or pigments of faggot, queer, gender bender, blur.” Riggs, and by proxy other gay Black men, comes into an unsilenced existence when shedding the epithetic ways that he has been hailed as a legible subject. He sheds the ni**er — or alternatively, the Uncle Tom, the punk, the “motherf—— coon” — as a vehicle to arrive onto the scene autonomously, self-determinatively. The ni**er, for example, obscures Riggs; he asserts in many ways that the names he has been called do not name him but in fact prohibit his naming.

But curious, too, is the end of his statement. Whereas Riggs by syntactic implication seeks to jettison the shades and pigments of negatively connoted names he has been called, one nevertheless wonders whether all the names (or even any of the names) are in fact epithetic, are in fact terms that must be sloughed. My focus on the concluding terms asks, implicitly, if they are indeed terms to be shed.

There is a generative concatenation occurring in the chain of “… queer, gender blender, blur,” where the terms signify something to be heeded. Black gay men, Tongues shows, incite fear and trouble because of something more than their having sex with other men. Riggs filmically puts forth the gender trouble, to purloin Judith Butler, that Black gay men engender. Queer is a relational subjectivity that undermines, subverts, and subtends normalizing power. Black gay men are queer not (only) because of their nonheterosexuality; they are queer, more substantively, because of how they disturb the terrain that normalizes, orders, and categorizes as a way to maintain power structures. Gender blender, perhaps Riggs’s terminological precursor to trans or genderqueer, inflects the loosening of gender protocols often done by femme Black gay men. Blending genders presumed to be mutually exclusive and discretely unblendable incites a riot at the scene of sociality. And blur. Blurred boundaries that disallow the refined categorical distinctions put in place by normativity. A blurriness that shifts one’s optics and opens up new avenues of sight through what was thought to be un-sight and bad vision.

There is something Riggs tries to get across that can be found in the substance Black gay men bring forth. F*cking other men and the stigmas that attend such sexual acts is surely at the heart of the film, as are the ways in which having and expressing a romantic/sexual attraction for other men prove formative for relating to others even in childhood. (We can note here Riggs’s conveyance of how the boys he grew up with used to pretend to be the mommy and daddy, arguing over who gets to play which role, and the cost that came with Riggs being one who, on his account, “gave it up for free.”) More, however, is there to be said of the para-sexual, as it were, or the stuff that occurs around the orbit of sexual acts — the stereotypic limpness of wrists, the swish in one’s hips while walking, the inflection in voice, the myriad connotations of the snap, the adornments one wears, the queer, gender blender, blur.

It is the proliferative possibility of doing different things with gender that intrigues this essay. We glimpse this not even halfway through Tongues when viewers watch a person in a tight black and white dress, wearing heels, smoking a cigarette, hair occasionally in the person’s face. Interestingly, for a film about breaking silences this scene is silent, no words coming from the person shown. We cannot hastily conclude that the person is a man in drag, nor that this person is a trans woman, or a sex worker strolling the streets as some might also presume. We cannot conclude that this person is a Black gay man. Whatever the “correct” declaration of the person’s gender and/or sexuality, an unknowable declaration that must perennially be deferred, what viewers have is only the queer, gender blender, blur. Gender is blended in this moment; no normative trajectory is available to follow to quickly make a decision. Our vision is blurred here, and we are unable to use the optic criteria we have been given. But rather than lamenting our proverbial blindness, it is in actuality a cause for celebration.

It would behoove us to be thankful in this moment, for our blurred vision precipitated by the queering and blending of gender attunes us to what else we cannot see, though we believed that we saw clearly. Inability to see something invites one to use other sensoria, to learn to see differently, or to think of sight as itself insufficient. The vision we thought we had was predicated on a distance that disallowed intimacy, because when you get close enough to something, close enough to activate other senses more acutely, your vision inevitably blurs. The blurring indicates proximal intimacy and other ways of knowing. Queered and blended gender blurs sight so we can see differently, feeling and tasting and hearing and smelling instead. Tongues, then, presents Black gay men as one referent for setting in motion this blurring. Riggs’s film gifts us with Black gay men so that we can begin to not only break silences and speak, but that, too, we can break sight and feel, hear, and taste. Queer and blur and blend our senses.

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Marquis Bey

Marquis Bey is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English at Northwestern University. Marquis is the author of Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism (2019) and Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism​ (2020). Currently Marquis is working on an academic monograph on Black trans feminism. Find Marquis on Twitter at @marquisdbey.