AIDS, Gay Rhetoric, and Resistance: Leo Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?”

Written during the height of the AIDS crisis during the late 1980s and a few years prior to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s groundbreaking Epistemology of the Closet, Leo Bersani’s striking essay titled “Is the Rectum a Grave?” was published in the 43rd volume of AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. The essay begins with a discussion of the violence and anger that the topic of AIDS invokes, especially to people who are not part of the communities that were hit the hardest by the disease. During the drastic outbreak of HIV and AIDS, not only did the US Justice Department issue a legal opinion that enabled employers to fire employees with AIDS if they suspected that the disease could be spread in the work environment (201), but it was also deemed that AIDS was an acceptable motive for exerting violence on People With AIDS (PWAs).

After delving into the legal and social ramifications faced by PWAs, especially gay men during the pinnacle of the AIDS crisis, Bersani makes a bold claim by stating that gay rhetoric has developed a series of lies that have been developed in order to approach gay sex as democratic or compliant with heternormative aims such as monogamy. While Bersani acknowledges the strategic value of these lies, he ultimately believes that “the AIDS crises has rendered [these lies] obsolescent” (206). One of the first “lies” of gay rhetoric that Bersani attacks of Dennis Altman’s suggestion that gay bathhouses are a manifestation of “Whitmanesque democracy” (206) where hierarchies are obliterated, by truthfully describing gay bathhouses for what they truly are: “one of the most ruthlessly ranked, hierarchized, and competitive encounters”  (206).

Screen capture from Season 1, Episode 18 of Queer as Folk (U.S. Version). This scene depicts the "Whitmanesque" version of gay bathhouses according to the views of Dennis Altman. Notice that similar to the fantasy of the bathhouse as a democratic space, the bathhouse in this scene projects an aura of fantasy and the mystical as male bodies mingle indiscriminately with each other.

Screen capture from Season 1, Episode 18 of Queer as Folk (U.S. Version). This scene depicts the “Whitmanesque” version of gay bathhouses according to the views of Dennis Altman. Notice that similar to the fantasy of the bathhouse as a democratic space, the bathhouse in this scene projects an aura of fantasy and the mystical as male bodies mingle indiscriminately with each other.

Another lie of gay rhetoric that Bersani challenges is that which views butch-fem lesbian couples and the gay-macho style as subversive parodies of the behaviors that inspire these styles. The effects of the gay-macho style on the heterosexual world is particularly scrutinized by Bersani, for not only does the straight male with power fail to see any relation between the gay-macho style and their own masculinity, but to some extent, the male with power could recognize that the gay-macho “at least intends to pay worshipful tribute to the style and behavior he defiles” (207). The problem with gay machismo is that it alludes to the possibility that gay men might idealize certain representations of masculinity or feel inferior to these representations, especially when considering that they are already judged according to these standards. With this in mind, Bersani posits that an authentic gay male political identity:

implies a struggle not only against definitions of maleness and of homosexuality as they are reiterated and imposed in a heterosexist social discourse, but also against those very same definitions so seductively and so faithfully reflected by those (in large part culturally invented and elaborated) male bodies that we carry within us as permanently renewable sources of excitement. (209)

Screen capture from Arrested Development showing Tobias and George Michael wearing typical gay-macho attire. Would this be considered a subversion or a perversion to heterosexual man of power? To what extent can the gay-macho be considered a true parody of heteronormativity?

Screen capture from Arrested Development showing Tobias and George Michael wearing what would be approached as gay-macho attire. Would this be considered a subversion or a perversion to heterosexual man of power? To what extent can the gay-macho be considered a true parody of heteronormativity?

In what I consider to be one of the more radical moves in the essay, Bersani argues for an “explosion” of the gay ideological boundary. Instead of gay rhetoric attempting to deny or soften important (although at times politically unpleasant) truths of homosexual desire, Bersani proposes an embrace of truths as acts of resistance. His take is that  even though sexist power might be able to resist social revolutions, it cannot resist gay truths being embraced in a way that they assume or take-on this power (209). Thus, rather than viewing gay identities as a way of parodying male sexist norms, Bersani approaches them as joys derived from transgressing social norms: “it is not because of the parodistic distance that [gay men] take from that identity, but rather because, from within their nearly mad identification with it, they never cease to feel the appeal of its being violated” (209).

It is after this move that Bersani returns to the discussion of AIDS and the violence it induces. He focus on the notion of the media and the government (during the rise of the epidemic), to (erroneously) focus on gay men as agents who deliberately want to see the disease spread: “those being killed are killers” (211). He also begins to focus on how the representation of gay men during the AIDS crisis is remarkably similar to the representation of prostitutes in the 19th century. Prostitutes were not only represented as vessels that carried disease, but they were also characterized as being sexually insatiable (seeing as prostitutes were able to have have multiple orgasms and uninterrupted sex). Bersani then draws a correlation between 19th century views of prostitutes and contemporary views of gay men and anal sex (especially when anal sex is viewed in its “capacity” of being a recipient to uninterrupted penetration, possibly from multiple partners). Thus, both prostitution and gay sex perpetuate the idea of “female” sexuality being “intrinsically diseased,” and where both women and gay men “spread their legs with an unquenchable appetite for destruction” (211).

In the final move made by Bersani, he goes on to contest most (hetero)sexual relationships because they automatically convert the sexual act and sexuality into a struggle of power. He then goes on to discuss how power is generally attributed to the man due to his active role as the penetrator; thus, phallocentrism becomes “not primarily the denial of power to women […] but above all the denial of the value of powerlessness in both men and women” (217). With this in mind, Bersani makes his conclusive claim (which years later will influence Lee Edelman’s views of reproductive futurity), in which gay men, instead of welcoming heternormative models (i.e. monogamy) as a positive outcome of AIDS, should “ceaslessly lament the practical necessity, now, of such relationships, should resist being drawn into mimicking the unrelenting warfare between men and women, which nothing has ever changed” (218).

While I see some value of Bersani’s work in terms of assuring that queerness remains actively positioned against normativity, I am skeptical about the anti-assimilationist views that he pushes in that they undermine the social and personal value of monogamy. By suggesting a resistance to monogamy, isn’t there still an imposition of power and control over sexuality? True, the power will not be phallocentric, but under his views, power is still approached in a hierarchical fashion that prioritizes the rejection rather than the embrace of monogamy ( becoming a power that he deems effective enough to overthrow the binds of heteronormativity).

What are your thoughts and suggestions on Bersani’s views? I’d love to know what you think!

Work Cited:

Bersani, Leo. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism 43 (1987): 197-222. Web.

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