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Number 1: Spring 2008

How Not to be a Happy Homosexual

Peter Nevins

As he was entering a lift in a New York building, Slavoj Žižek1 once commented when he saw that there was no thirteenth floor, ‘you can’t fool god’ (Hanlan 2001: 2). This is a neat example of his version of the Lacanian Big Other at play. Everybody knows there is a thirteenth floor but it is called the fourteenth floor–one of the convenient myths we use to keep things in order, so that we don’t fall apart.

‘A Child is Being Beaten.’ Such a statement sends shivers down my spine and in this day and age has a different kind of meaning than it would have had when Freud wrote the paper of which it is the title. Nonetheless, it is with this paper as a backdrop, that I want to explore what it might mean to be a miserable homosexual.

There are three separate moments that this exploration is based upon. Firstly, I was wondering about this kind of compulsion to be happy which seems to have become more and more pervasive over the past decade or so, what that might mean and what it is covering over. Secondly, I was struck by an article Slavoj Žižek wrote about psychoanalysis in which he argued that, far from psychoanalysis being dead, its time has probably arrived in so far as it seems as if it is the only place where one doesn’t have to pretend to be happy, the only place where you can actually be miserable (Žižek 2006). Thirdly I was given a paper written by Wendy Brown who is a professor of political science at the University of California, entitled, ‘The Desire to Be Punished’ from her 1991 book Politics out of History, which makes a connection between Freud’s paper ‘A Child is Being Beaten’, subject formation and the construction of political identities. It is these three strands that I wish to link together, to explore why it is that a significant number of gay men who pass through my consulting room are thoroughly miserable and unhappy.

According to Wendy Brown:

‘A Child is Being Beaten’ offers one of Freud’s clearest statements of the slippery and perhaps misnamed (as sadism and masochism) configurations of the complex of desire to punish and to be punished, to subordinate and to be subordinated, to deliver and to receive pain. (Brown 2001: 52)


  1. Slavoj Žižek, for those who don’t know, is a Slovenian theorist, philosopher, and cultural critic, who interprets almost everything he sets eyes on through a Lacanian lens.