The Cursed Privilege of the Tenderqueer
And Why You Should Cultivate Some Resilience in Order to Avoid Becoming One
I don’t remember the first time I heard the word “tenderqueer” but as soon as I did, I knew who they were, and I knew that I wasn’t one. In fact, I’m pretty certain that it would be just about impossible for a Black woman to get away with tenderqueer behavior at all.
In tenderqueer discourse, much is often made of their sartorial choices—overalls, cozy sweaters, primary colors, bowl cuts… jokes are made about their craft fairs, daytime dance parties, and birdwatching clubs, but I believe it’s important to state that the tenderqueer can present themself in many forms.
As far as I can tell, the hallmark of a true tenderqueer is an unwavering avoidance of responsibility or culpability at all costs, paired with the use of social justice and personal advocacy language to ensure that lack of accountability.
I cannot tell you how many tenderqueers (Californius, Oaklandium— believed by some to be the original species of tenderqueer, though other experts argue that the Oregonius, Portlandium predates them) I have talked to after a day when we we had plans to hang out and they flaked, and when I express to them my displeasure at their lack of followthrough, I’ve been told something like “my hostile energy is really aggressive” or they “aren’t available to process [my] disappointment with [me].”
When I express that I feel disrespected when plans (even tentatively made ones) aren’t kept or even acknowledged, I am told that I am “controlling” and I “need to respect the personal agency of others.”
To be clear, when I say tenderqueer, who I’m not talking about are neurodivergent folks, doing their best to take care of their shit, but more often than they’d like, coming up a little short. They don’t make excuses for it and they don’t seek to use their neurodivergence as a shield for personal responsibility. That’s not a tenderqueer. That’s just somebody who’s struggling and doing their best and I have nothing but love for y’all (us).
No, no, the tenderqueer is far more sinister than someone who is honestly trying and having a tough time.
What is so insidious about the tenderqueer, is that the first time you’re presented with their bullshit, it’s really easy to fall for it. You hear what sounds like someone setting a boundary, and so you, being a person who tries to respect boundaries, do your best to comply.
But then it happens again, and you realize, the new babe Willow that you’ve been hanging out with isn’t setting boundaries around when she’s available to process potentially contentious topics (like standing you up when you had dinner plans and not getting in touch until the morning after because “her boss was super oppressive that day and it triggered her issues with controlling men so she had to just shut down.”), she’s just avoiding a difficult conversation about flaking on your date and making excuses.
This is why I personally find tenderqueers so particularly infuriating, they co-opt the language of the oppressed and use it as a hall pass to treat people like garbage.
I also find it particularly interesting who has the right to indulge in this behavior. I know I can’t get away with it, I’m pretty sure if you asked some other people of different colors than me, they would feel the same way.
As a Black woman I am expected to be dependable, strong, and a source of comfort. Everyone’s Mammy, with plenty of pillowy bosom to go around.
If I don’t come through for you in the way that I have previously committed myself to, I cannot give the excuse that I needed a self-care day, nobody’s trying to hear that. Black people who don’t show up are branded as “unreliable” not “good self-advocates.”
I don’t know how many times I have posted about how white people should refrain from dumping their guilty, regretful, and confused feelings about anti-Blackness into the inboxes of Black people, and yet every month since May of this year someone has unburnened their milky soul in my DMs. And I am supposed to “hold space” for all of them because at least they’re “doing the work” of unpacking their personal relationship with anti-Blackness right? If I don’t, nobody is going to commend me for “setting good boundaries” and “taking care of myself,” no, I’ll be labeled as “difficult” and “combative” if I chastise people for unloading their white-guilt on me.
I have Borderline Personality Disorder and PTSD, both of which cause me to struggle with anger. No one is going to excuse my temper because of them when I pop off, but a tenderqueer sure will seek to blame their “social awkwardness” for behavior that basically boils down to just being rude or ill-mannered.
To be clear, I don’t think the answer to any of this is to give everyone the space to act like a tenderqueer, that shit would drive me back to the straights! What I would like, is for people to cop to their bad behavior. What I would like, is for folks to learn to take an L, own up to their misstep, make a plan to correct this behavior in the future, and then follow through on that.
I know that’s like, actual work, but, I don’t care? This is actually what “doing the work” is. Examining how your behavior impacts the other people in your life is good for you. Questioning how the privilege you hold allows you to avoid being held responsible for the impact of your behavior is how you decolonize yourself.
It’s not just about going to BLM protests in your coveralls, sharing nap ministry posts, and making sure to say “believe survivors,” “listen to Black women,” and “trans rights are human rights” at the right times. You have to check your shit all the time. What are the power dynamics in your interpersonal relationships? Who do you flake on consistently? How do you react if people confront you about your behavior?
We all have the right to boundaries about how and when we engage with people, but when someone needs to tell you about a hurt you’ve created, your boundaries are no longer the priority. Especially not when the person you’ve hurt holds less privilege than you do.
So it’s in moments like these, I ask my tenderqueer sibs to tighten up their Oshkosh straps, eat a handful of raw almonds, and tap into some resiliency.
There are so many of us who have no choice but to drag around a bottomless well of resilience in order to simply survive being in the world. If I retreated every time someone told me they thought I was doing something wrong (because as we know, policing the behavior of Black people is the favorite activity of both the collective and individual white), I would never get a single thing done.
Conflict is not abuse, you will survive it, and you’ll come out better on the other end. We all benefit from feedback about how the way we move through the world impacts the people we come into contact with, just because you bruise easy, it doesn’t mean you get to sit this one out.
Learn the difference between taking care of yourself and taking leave of responsibility for your actions— I promise you can accomplish the former, without indulging in the latter.