Are we OK? The performance of emotional labour in queer spaces

Karen Pollock explores who emotional labour is demanded of, and why this should be challenged.


The concept of emotional labour is one which many have found liberating. It can be hard to explain why certain things which do not involve physical exertion are tiring. This is especially true in a society which judges being able to relate to – and with – emotions,  as unimportant. When being emotionless (‘Keep calm and carry on’) is seen as praiseworthy, and repression (the stiff upper lip) is the ideal, little value is placed on being able to work with emotions.

Part of this is most certainly related to our ideas about gender. When one gender is seen as cool-headed and logical, and another as ruled by their emotions, how we consider emotions to be properly used and displayed is not a judgement-free process. From cracks about “time of the month” through to concerns a post-menopausal woman would still somehow suffer from PMT and start a nuclear war, one gender is consistently positioned as overly emotional.

The disconnect from one’s emotional inner world, and the view this is a good thing, means that the reflection and learning emotional processing brings is also lost. One cannot grow and change without doing the emotional work necessary for growth and change to take place. It is very telling that the exhortations to be emotionless, to stay still, stiff, unmoving, unmoved, all contain that idea of remaining where you are. Indeed, part of the gendered charge levelled at those who allow emotions to be seen is that they are flighty, moving, pliable, weak, all words which hint of not remaining static.

This is not the old irresistible force and immovable object, but the idea that one must resist movement, and that part of this resistance is the refusal to engage with emotions – either your own, or those of others. Keep still, keep calm, and carry on; even the carry on suggests there must be no change – remain in the direction you were going without alteration.

One might hope that queer spaces would see how this binary split, built on binary ideas of gender, of the unmoving masculine and too movable feminine, is, like all binaries, false. However, constantly within queer spaces, I see men (and largely cis men) demand emotional labour of those who are in some way associated with the feminine.

Consider the question “Is everything OK between us?,” said by someone who is masculine (and I am using terms like masculine and feminine in a very loose way here) to someone who is not. As a sidenote, part of who has privilege and is heard in our society is how close to, or far from, masculinity they are. The question might make the questioner feel like a good feminist man, or a good ally; they are open, and checking out their behaviour. However, if we consider it deeply, it shows the refusal to reflect, to do the emotional labour. If you ask someone else to explain to you whether things are OK, you have already sensed things are not OK, but are unwilling to do the work involved with finding out why. Instead, you are putting the burden of the labour onto someone else, expecting them to expend the energy, not only in working on their “not okness” but then in reflecting back to you how it is not OK, and usually how it can be fixed.

Over and over again, I see this happen in queer spaces. The formulation of words might be different, but the question, and demand, is always the same. Will you, a non-masculine person (and again, I am using these terms loosely) explain to me, a masculine person, what is happening on an emotional level, and how it can be fixed? Basically, will you do the work for me, so I do not need to?

It is a very hard habit to unlearn, especially since very often, there is praise for even asking the question. Rarely does anyone say, “well if you need to ask the question, clearly something is not OK, so go away and work out why”. Indeed, that kind of request, for reflection before asking another to do the work, is seen as unhelpful, or aggressive. Refusing to do the emotional labour of another is even suggested to be a reason for someones choosing not to be an ally, or feminist, or supportive of your rights.

There is a site called Let Me Google That For You. It used to be quite common for people to post links to it when someone popped up demanding an explanation from a stranger of something 2 seconds on the internet could have resolved. It feels like in many queer spaces, we need a “let me emotionally process that for you” link that we could send to someone expecting us to do the emotional labour again.

I realise some people will feel this is a little harsh, or unfair. It does need to be acknowledged that within our society, many of those who are socialised as male, or who are male, have never been allowed to emotionally relate to themselves and others. From birth, they are told ‘boys don’t cry’, to ‘man up’, to repress, suppress and lock tight any emotions. If you are unused to even feeling emotions, it must be very difficult to take them out into the light of day and examine them. Emotions become the dirty magazine hidden under the bed, something shameful and denied.

At the same time women, and those socialised as female, are told it is their job to be the emotional pack mule for the men and boys in their lives. Even whilst emotional labour is devalued and seen as lesser, it is expected to be performed. It is as if like clean water, it is simply assumed to exist, and not thought about until we turn the tap on, and nothing but sludge comes out.

It may be naive to expect queer spaces to be any different to non-queer ones. However, if queer is to be anything more than a brand for the BBC to hang a radio series on, then surely it should be about challenging gender norms, and binaries? If spaces simply replicate the outside world, with one group constantly demanding another group do all of the emotional work, in what way are they queer? Particularly if the replication means that they become nothing more than Lilliputian copies of society as a whole.

If we are to break down the norms and constraints which lead not only to mental ill-health in LGBTQ+ people, but throughout society, one of the starting points has to be our emotional world. We need to not only stop one gender from believing emotional work is never their responsibility, but we also need to stop demanding another group do the emotional work of the whole of society. The divide may be wide, and it may take a lot of unlearning, but until it is bridged, many people will end up lost in its depths. If queer spaces cannot begin this unlearning, then how can we expect it of wider society?

Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)

One thought on “Are we OK? The performance of emotional labour in queer spaces

  1. Fascinating. I’ve just been talking to my teenage son about all the emotional loading I take on, but now I’m also wondering if I do it with my more masculine-aligned girlfriend as well… I’ll need to ponder this. Thank you 🌈

    Liked by 1 person

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