On Closets and Straight Gazes – Bill Konigsberg’s [Openly Straight]

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight

Front cover of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (2013)

I was thinking about how snakes shed their skin every year, and how awesome it would be if people did that too. In a lot of ways, that’s what I was trying to do.

As of tomorrow, I was going to have new skin, and that skin could look like anything, would feel different than anything I knew yet. And that made me feel a little bit like I was about to be born. Again.

But hopefully not Born Again.

-Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (p. 4)

Bill Konigsberg’s delightful and heartwarming novel, Openly Straight, pushes readers to question the possibilities that “shedding one’s skin” offers, and the consequences that arise when reinvention threatens our sense of self. The novel is narrated by Seamus Rafael Goldberg (who usually goes by Rafe), a high school student from Colorado who transfers to Natick–an elite, all-boys school in the New England area. Although Rafe is openly gay, he decides to conceal his homosexuality while attending Natick to live a life free of labels, and to explore the possibilities of living a life unhindered by the so-called burdens of queerness.

Rafe, at first, claims that “The closet is when you say you’re not gay” (132). Problematically, he views the closet as a singular and individualistic space created by self-denial–and he fails to recognize that the act of being “out” relies on the obliteration of the many closets that appear and re-appear in our everyday lives. As pointed out by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Rafe’s initial failure stems from his inability to understand that stepping out of the closet is not a one-step process, for it comprises an act of revelation and disclosure each time a new closet is erected in one’s life. I was impressed with how Konigsberg manages to invoke Sedgwick’s ideas of closetedness, especially as they are experienced by contemporary youths. Given that the novel takes place in a time where homosexuality is becoming more and more acceptable by mainstream society, I was delighted that Openly Straight explores the nuances and effects of closetedness in our brave new world. As evidenced by the novel’s protagonist, closetedness can still haunt even those who are out, open, and accepted.

Rafe is born into a family that readily and openly embraces his gay identity. However, Rafe is unable to appreciate his privilege because he deems that his homosexuality eclipses the other identities that he can embody–to the point where all he is able to see when looking in the mirror is the gay subject he is expected to perform, rather than the self:

Where had Rafe gone? Where was I? The image I saw was so two-dimensional that I couldn’t recognize myself in it. I was invisible in the mirror as I was in the headline the Boulder Daily Camera had run a month earlier: Gay High School Student Speaks Out. (3)

Rafe realizes that decision to hide his homosexuality and to pass as straight do come with certain perks. He is quickly accepted by the jocks at his new school, he is able to shower with his soccer team without worrying about the repercussions of the “straight gaze,” and traits other than his queerness are recognized. His ability to keep his self-imposed secret, however, is thwarted as he grows closer to Ben, a fellow jock and philosophy enthusiast who studies at Natick. As Ben begins to show signs of fluid sexuality, and as the two boys grow closer, Rafe reflects on how the perks of his reinvention come with the cost of being able to love truly and openly.

My favorite aspect of the novel is the complex relationship between Rafe and Ben. This relationship makes you feel all the warmth that you expect in young adult novels, yet this warmth is accompanied by realistic depictions of frustration and heartache. This is unsurprising, since Rafe and Ben’s relationship is based on experimentation and sexual confusion, even though one of the two characters definitely isn’t confused. This complex relationship ultimately leads Ben and Rafe to reflect on the nature of love–how it is possible to love people in different ways, and how it is possible for different types of love to overlap. This reflection leads to my favorite passage in the novel, in which Ben contemplates his non-normative affinities with Rafe:

I guess I’d like to think of what we have as agapeA higher love. Something that transcends. Something not about sex or brotherhood but about two people truly connecting. (225)

One another note, Openly Straight, in its essence, is about gazes, and how they control how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Rafe’s decision to go back into the closet is driven by the fact he is tired of being viewed as a queer object by his friends, family, and peers. Rafe’s views are not entirely unfounded–he is constantly asked by friends and teachers to give his input as a queer subject. His attitudes, beliefs, and actions are constantly being traced back to his homosexuality by other characters. Rafe, understandably, feels the weight of queerness on his shoulders–and this weight is unshakable.

Rafe, nevertheless, complains about the gaze that others fixate on him, without coming to grips with the ways he gazes at others. In one of the later chapters of the novel, Rafe finds himself scrutinizing one of his queer peers at a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting–remarking on everything from his peer’s clothes to his haircut. As Rafe’s eyes remain fixated on his peer, he remarks how this other boy could pass for a woman if he wanted to. When Rafe’s peer notices that he is staring, Rafe becomes self-conscious about his gazing. It is at this moment that Rafe realizes that he is guilty of performing the very act of “straight gazing” that drove him back into the closet in the first place:

I was staring at this effeminate kid, and judging my own masculinity, or lack thereof. And was I so different from everyone else? Who was to say that Mr. Meyers in Boulder was thinking about when he looked at me? How come I was assuming that his staring at me had anything to do with me? (306)

Gazing, according to Rafe, is not a fixation based on rejection, pity, or disgust, but rather, it is a discursive relationship between the self and an other. Thus, the gazer reflects on his or her own selfhood as contrasted to another person–which leads Rafe to deduce that he could “spend a little less time worrying about what people thought about [him], since they probably weren’t thinking about him at all” (307). In other words, Rafe realizes that the fault and blame lies in the eyes of the gazer and not on the person being gazed.

I love this novel. I have been reading queer YA fiction for years, and I must say that Openly Straight astounds me on many levels. It is a testament to how much queer YA literature has evolved over time, and it makes me feel very optimistic about the present and future of the genre. I foresee that young readers will be particularly drawn to the humor and cleverness of this work. I also admire the fact that this novel offers readers the opportunity to explore a compelling, funny, and heartfelt narrative that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of contemporary queerness.

Works Cited

Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Konigsberg’s novel by clicking here.

Queer Time in Edmund White’s [A Boy’s Own Story]

Front cover of Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story (1982)

Front cover of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982)

Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a coming-of-age novel centered on the sexual awakening of a queer teenage boy in the Midwest during the 1950s. The novel discusses topics such as the corruption of innocence, the pressures of masculinity in the lives of young boys, the emergence of childhood sexuality, and the exploration of humanity through the lens of homosexuality. The unnamed narrator of the novel quickly addresses the issues that he has in terms of his body and his sense of masculinity. He feels as if his “feminine” qualities–such as his voice, his mannerisms, and his overall attitudes– not only prevent him from bonding with other people, but that they also prevent him from obtaining any of the power that promised to those who embody the masculine myth. The narrator notices that everything from the way he sits to the way he acts marks his body as Other, and he even goes as far as to point out that he often fails small and meaningless quizzes used to assess his masculinity:

A popular quiz for masculinity in those days asked three questions, all of which I flunked: (1) Look at your nails (a girl extends her fingers, a boy cups his in his upturned palm); (2) Look up (a girl lifts her eyes, a boy throws back his whole head); (3) Light a match (a girl strikes away from her body, a boy toward–or perhaps the reverse, I can’t recall). (9)

The structure of this novel can seem slightly confusing, especially since it deviates from the traditional linear narrative that we have come to expect when reading coming-of-age novels. The first chapter, for instance, begins when the narrator is fifteen years-old. In this chapter, he painstakingly describes a relationship that he has with Kevin, the twelve year-old son of a guest that visits his summer home. In this chapter, the narrator describes how he paradoxically wants to be considered heterosexual while still being loved by a man. His relationship with Kevin slowly but surely starts to teach him how sex is not only a physical act, but how it is also a discursive act–leading him to realize that sex is also “a social rite that registered, even brought about shifts in the balance of power, but something that was discussed more than performed” (198). Because of this realization, he notices how performance and discourse shapes and forms his relationships with other men. For instance, he approaches Kevin as the “older” and more “dominant” person in the relationship because he is the more confident person of the two, and because he controls what happens during sexual intercourse:

I was chagrined by [his] clowning because I’d already imagined Kevin as a sort of husband. No matter that he was younger; his cockiness had turned him into the Older One (23).

The first chapter concludes by depicting how the narrator and Kevin part ways, and the second chapter goes back an entire year, allowing the narrator to discuss events that shaped who he is in his present day. Subsequent chapters go back in time even further, depicting events that the narrator encounters when he was twelve and seven years-old. The jumping back and forth between the past and the present not only disrupts the linearity of the coming-of-age narrative, but it also presents, as Elizabeth Freeman would put it, a manifestation of queer time. 

In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman describes queer time as a “hiccup in sequential time” that “has the capacity to connect a group of people beyond monogamous, enduring couplehood” (3). Furthermore, queer time allows queer subjects to envision alternative structures and forms of belonging, precisely because it deviates from the linearity and “productivity” of chrononormativity–in which human bodies arrange their time and bodies towards maximum productivity. In A Boy’s Own Story, queer time manifests through this combination of the past and the present, precisely because the narration deviates from the productive and generative elements that are closely associated with narratives of personal development. White, rather than depicting growth and development as sequential events, the narrator approaches them as fractured and disjointed processes. Rather than offering readers an equation, in which event 1, event 2, and event 3 equal the narrator, White disrupts temporality by beginning with event 3, going back to event 1, and covering the decimal points (small or micro events) that occur between these numbers. I think that this novel embraces queerness through it’s denial of both chronos (sequential time) and kairos (significant time), in favor of small non-sequential and non-significant time. This is particularly clear in the fourth chapter of the novel, in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader:

in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts. One even composes one’s improvisations into a quite new face never glimpsed before, the likeness of an invention. Busoni once said he prizes the most those empty passages composers make up to get from one “good part” to another. He said such womanlike but minor transitions reveal more about a composer–the actual vernacular of his imagination–than the deliberately bravura moments. I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, willing to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, or a life, than the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist again. (84)

I believe that this passage is quite significant, because it highlights the role that queer time plays in the novel’s political agenda. By disrupting linearity and by painstakingly focusing on minor events, the reader must develop patience and spend more time concentrating on the narrator’s words rather than on major events. The narrator affirms that by reading his words, the reader becomes not only more respectful of the narrator’s life, but the reader also brings the narrator back into existence. Therefore, through the act of reading, one gives the narrator a sense of legitimacy that was denied to him during his childhood. This interpretation gains even more validity when taking into account that most of the novel is focused on the narrator’s struggle to survive in his society, and even more so, his struggle to be approached and categorized as a legitimate human being. The narrator, for instance, acknowledged that he has little time to focus on “theory” or “philosophy” because he is too busy focusing on pragmatic aspects of his life such as survival. This notion is evidenced when the narrator compares himself to his jockish friend, Tom, who spends most of his time daydreaming and philosophizing:

Ironic, then, that [Tom] was the one who did all the thinking, who had the taste for philosophy–ironic but predictable, since his sovereignty gave him the ease to wonder about what it all meant, whereas I had to concentrate on means, not meaning. The meaning seemed quite clear: to survive and then to become popular. (113)

Although popularity may at first be approached as a self-centered and selfish goal, it is important to keep in mind that the narrator believes that popularity will give him the recognition and the legitimacy that he has been denied in his life, not only because he is queer, but also because he is unable to situate himself within the frame of traditional masculinity that his father upholds. Popularity would give the narrator the means to become a legitimate person rather than an unreal subject:

Being popular was equivalent to becoming a character, perhaps even a person, since if to be is to be perceived, then to be perceived by many eyes and with envy, interest, respect, or affection is to exist more densely, more articulately, ever last detail minutely observed and thereby richly rendered. (127)

All in all, A Boy’s Own Story is a rich and provocative novel that definitely raises interesting insights in terms of the role that temporality plays within the issues of livability that haunt all queer lives. The narrative is at times convoluted and difficult to follow, but getting lost is definitely an essential component towards grasping the novel’s central themes and agenda.

You can purchase a copy of White’s novel by clicking here.

 

Works Cited

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

White, Edmund. A Boy’s Own Story. New York: Plume, 1982. Print.

 

 

Queer Resistance in Rita Mae Brown’s [Rubyfruit Jungle]

Front cover of Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle

Front cover of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle

If you want to get a sense of the views and attitudes that permeated lesbian life soon after the gay rights movement, this is the book you are searching for. Originally published in 1973, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle is approached by many readers as the quintessential lesbian coming-out and coming-of-age novel. It centers on the growth and development of Molly Bolt, a headstrong and precocious girl who is aware of her queerness from an early age, and who strives to embrace a life of unconventionality in a society geared towards heteronormativity and sameness. Growing up with her somewhat cruel and vindictive adoptive mother, Carrie–Molly learns to lose her fear towards authority and power as she struggles to make a name for herself in a world designed and driven by masculinity and chauvinism. Driven by her hunger for fame and recognition, Molly works hard at school and eventually earns a full scholarship to the University of Florida. Her scholarship is nullified after she is caught having an affair with her wealthy female roommate, so Molly hitchhikes to New York and finds a low-paying job as a waitress. Living in poverty and struggling to finish her degree in film at New York University, the narrative focuses on Molly’s exploration of her sexuality in a more open and free city–while realizing that social mobility and power are not easy to obtain when one belongs to multiple disenfranchised communities/subcultures.

As mentioned above, this novel was groundbreaking due to the fact that it introduced issues of lesbianism and queer culture to mainstream society during the 1970s. The problem when reading this novel today is that its age definitely shows. Although it is perhaps obvious that a lot has changed in terms of the proliferation and acceptance of LGBTQ cultures in American society, this novel creates a snapshot of a time in which patriarchy reigned supreme and in which queer voices were still struggling to be heard (issues that still linger today). The novel was also written and published during the peak of second-wave feminism the radical feminism, in which concepts such as women’s reproductive rights, patriarchy, and motherhood were being actively deliberated and contested. Thus, I can see why the novel’s protagonist may be seen as too radical and extreme to some readers. Rubyfruit Jungle questions, and to some extent, attacks notions such as marriage, motherhood, monogamy, and gender binaries–even at the expense of some of the lesbian characters within the text.

A particular passage that made me very uncomfortable takes place when Molly goes to a lesbian bar during her first night in New York, where a butch lesbian tries to woo her. Molly states the following after rejecting the advances of the butch lesbian:

What’s the point of being a lesbian if a woman is going to look and act like an imitation of a man? Hell, if I want a man, I’ll get  the real thing not one of these chippies. I mean […] the whole point of being gay is because you love women. You don’t like men that look like women, do you? (130)

Now, Molly’s anger and disdain for butch lesbians stems from the fact that she deems that they uphold the very gender binaries that she tries to resist–in which one person in a relationship is designated as the “masculine” figure, whereas the other is designated as the “female” figure. In her questioning of butch lesbianism, she seems to be inquiring why certain people feel the need to rely on heterosexual models of courtship and sexuality rather than following a queer route. While her views may be approached as a desire to deviate from binaristic thinking, one must also admit that her views are insensitive, and they do not do justice to the multitudinous and diverse nature of gender expression. Thus, rather than viewing butch figures as people who thwart or parody gender binaries, she views them as people who embrace the binary altogether.

A similar occurrence happens near the end of the novel, when Molly’s mother, Carrie, discusses her father’s infidelity, and how she was unable to bear children because her husband had a case of syphilis. After opening up to her daughter wholeheartedly for the first time in the novel, and after expressing her inability to understand why her husband cheated on her, Molly thinks and says the following about the news and her mother’s misery:

Thirty-one years ago and [my mother’s] life froze that year. She enameled the sharp edge of misery into a pearl of passion. Her life revolved around that emotional peak since the day she discovered it and now she was waiting for me to share it. “I’m sorry, Mom, but, well, it doesn’t make sense to me to stay with only one person either.” (210)

This moment can definitely be approached as an instance of radical queer resistance. If Molly would’ve sympathized with her mother’s woes, it probably would’ve led to a greater connection and bond between the two. However, seeing as monogamy is antithetical to Molly’s being, she tells her mother exactly how she feels to be true to herself–which prompts her mother to speak “with less conviction and emotion since [Molly] wasn’t supporting her” (211). Molly’s quest for embodying non-normativity ultimately prevents her from recognizing her mother’s pain and sorrow as legitimate, mostly because the mother’s pain is ignited and fueled by forces and influences that Molly deems repressive and restrictive. What manifests in this exchange is a blockage of recognition: Carrie’s age and traditional views prevent her from accepting Molly’s lesbianism, and Molly’s rejection of normativity prevents her from recognizing her mother’s pain. This blockage epitomizes the feeling of stagnancy, failure, and immobility that haunts the entire novel.

Molly’s lesbianism and her strides against the status quo often leave her in a position of failure and futility. All of the relationships she has with other women end abruptly, she loses all the friendships she develops with other people, she is unable to find a job as a film maker even though she graduates from NYU with highest honors, and she only begins to mend things with her mother after she finds out that Carrie is about to die. Rather than viewing these failures as consequences reified by her queerness, I would argue that these failures are critiques of the standards and restrictions imposed on Molly by her culture and society. The novel may seem (and at times, is) problematic in terms of its depiction of gender, race, and family–and I can see why some of Molly’s thoughts and actions might leave a poor taste in reader’s mouths. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this novel is symptomatic of attitudes and ideologies that were heavily present during the era in which is was produced. The novel is definitely insensitive according to current knowledge, ideologies, and standards–but at the time, a radical and headstrong approach was needed to begin collapsing the patriarchal forces that have influenced the shaping of our society (these structures still haven’t collapsed in the present; however, feminism is definitely a bigger part of our contemporary political consciousness than it was in the 1970s).

I have mixed feelings with this novel. It is a funny, entertaining, and well-written book that really gave me insight into perceptions of lesbianism, femininity, and masculinity during the rise of second-wave and radical feminism. However, some of the novel’s perspectives are insensitive, dated, and at times irrational. Molly’s courage, outspokenness, drive, and embrace of queerness at all costs is paradoxically what makes her simultaneously attractive and frustrating as a character. I was also taken aback by the exaggeration of Molly’s beauty and her very unrealistic ability to obtain the love and affection of every single man and woman she’s attracted to. Rubyfruit Jungle presents a world in which every person is potentially queer–and apparently, Molly knows the secret to unlocking this potential (what is your secret, Molly?!). However, her ability to entice any and all people she desires helps to propel the novel’s queer and antibinaristic themes and help to emphasize the problem that the novel seeks to challenge: “People have no selves anymore (maybe they never had them in the first place) so their home base is their sex–their genitals, who they fuck” (175). Rubyfruit Jungle, thus, is an account of Molly’s attempt to find a sense of self that goes beyond societal expectations, that goes beyond genitalia, that goes beyond the constrictions of heteronormativity.

As advice to future readers of this book, I would recommend approaching Rubyfruit Jungle as a historical account of lesbianism in the 1970s and as a non-normative manifesto and not as a prime example of contemporary views towards gender, sexuality, and personal development. As I’ve mentioned many times above, the novel does have some problematic aspects–but it also presents us with an opportunity to critically compare and contrast attitudes towards sexuality from the past and the present.

You can purchase a copy of Brown’s novel here.

Work Cited

Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle. Plainfield: Daughters, Inc., 1973. Print.

Conceal, Don’t Feel: A Queer Reading of Disney’s [Frozen]

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know.

– Queen Elsa, “Let It Go” – Disney’s Frozen

Last night I saw Frozen, Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale entitled The Snow Queen. After seeing the film, my friend Katie pointed out that this movie is perhaps signaling another Disney renaissance, a period characterized not only by the adaptation of well-known tales, but also by an increased public interest in Disney films. I couldn’t agree more with Katie’s assessment–Frozen contained a sense of depth and heart that many recent Disney films lack. Something that I immediately thought about when leaving the movie theater was that Frozen is perhaps the queerest animated film ever produced by Disney–queer being a theoretical practice centered on the deconstruction of binaristic thinking (i.e. visualizing gray areas in between the black and the white), a rethinking of what constitutes and upholds normativity (especially in terms of identity), and even more so, and the disruption of unnecessary regulations that prevent people from achieving a livable life. I’m not the only one who approaches this film as queer. Fellow blogger beautifulCHAOS, for instance, has written a delightful and insightful post on Frozen as a gay allegory (click here or here for other blogs that discuss this interpretation). I intend to further add to this conversation by distilling the film through the lens of queer theory.

Queen Elsa is approached by some viewers as a queer or gay character, not only because she doesn’t engage in a romantic relationship in the film, but also because she is forced by her parents to suppress and hide the powers that she is born with.  Although the movie implies that her parents desperately try to conceal Elsa’s powers because of the danger that they impose to herself and to others, this does not justify the degree to which they prevent Elsa from having any human contact whatsoever. Furthermore, the fact that Elsa’s parents view suppression and isolation as solutions further emphasizes notions of the infamous queer closet–rather than assisting Elsa in learning how to hone her powers, they teach her how to “conceal, not feel.” I think it’s also worthy to point out that Elsa’s treatment is also eerily reminiscent of practices that take place during the process of gay conversion therapy, in which subjects are conditioned through meditative and repetitive processes to suppress certain urges and desires that occur naturally.

What do you think about reading Elsa as a queer/gay character? Do you consider this claim to be solid or weak? What happens if we approach queer, in this instance, as "non-normative," stripping away the sexual connotations of the word?

What do you think about reading Elsa as a queer/gay character? Do you consider this claim to be solid or weak? What happens if we approach queer, in this instance, as “non-normative,” stripping away the sexual connotations of the word?

Although at first, a queer reading of Frozen seems slightly far-fetched, there are many events within the film that can be read as such with a little theoretical help. For instance, Judith Halberstam, in her book entitled The Queer Art of Failurefocuses significant attention on CGI animation movies to illustrate how they exemplify topics such as revolution and transformation that deviate from normative expectations of identity and linearity. Halberstam goes as far as to argue that revolutionary CGI animation movies (which she refers to as Pixarvolt films) depict a world where the “little guys” are able to overcome obstacles, and where they are able to revolt against the “business world of the father and the domestic sphere of the mother” (47).

Halberstam’s claims help to shed light on a queer interpretation of Frozen, especially when it comes to the role that failure plays in envisioning alternative modes of living and existing in the world. Although the fact that Elsa is forced to suppress her powers can partly be attributed to the danger that her powers pose on others, it is uncanny that the main enforcers of Elsa’s suppression are her parents–authority figures that try their best to uphold an image of normalcy by shutting Elsa away from the outside world. It is here that the film’s greatest binary manifests: the castle represents the “safe,” domestic, and feminine sphere, whereas the outside world is treacherous, threatening, and masculine. While locked within the confines of the domestic, Elsa is not only prevented from establishing meaningful relationships with other people, but she is also forced to regulate her powers even though she recognizes that this regulation is futile. After Elsa’s parents die, Elsa is expected to take over the crown. Although she tries to conceal her powers during her coronation ceremony–Anna’s provocation leads her to create ice in front of all the guests at the ceremony, inadvertently leading her to “come out” in front of the entire kingdom.

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam points out how failure is a crucial process when it comes to the existence and survival of queer individuals, mostly because failure pushes people to explore alternatives when it comes to identifying ways to exist in the world. Elsa’s so-called failure to suppress her powers may have been a catalyst for many negative events; however, this failure influences her to escape the confines of the castle to let her non-normative identity thrive. Halberstam argues that breaking away from family and forgetting family lineage becomes a way of starting fresh even though it entails a failure from engaging in the heteronormative enterprise of the nuclear family. Thus, although Elsa’s escape from the castle and her creation of an ice-queendom up in the mountains can be approached as a renunciation of her expectations as a ruler and as an upholder of the domestic sphere, it also becomes an opportunity for Elsa to realize not only who she is, but just how much she is capable of doing and creating.

After Elsa discovers and unleashes her “queer” identity, she is able to collapse the binaries that have regulated and haunted her life. Notice that once she returns to Arendelle after embracing her powers, she declares that the gates of the castle shall stay open to the entire community, thus obliterating the divide that was being upheld between the domesticity of the castle and the queerness of the outside world. Even the castle itself begins to refute binaristic thinking at the end of the film as Elsa decorates the premises with ice-fountains, ice-sculptures, and ice-covered structures. Rather than presenting a world that is either hot or cold, the castle becomes a structure in which the frozen and the non-frozen coexist–ultimately eradicating the difference between the two.

A queer presence is ultimately what facilitates a more open and cooperative living situation to manifest–a living situation that allows all identities to exist without restrictions or unnecessary regulations. This echoes Judith Butler’s views on what she considers to be the goal of queer theory: rather than simply being a practice for obliterating normativity, it is a practice that should be aimed in opposition to “the unwanted legislation of identity” (7). Thus, queer theory does not aim to show non-normativity as a superior choice, but rather, it aims to show how normativity should not restrict what a person can or can’t be.

FrozenBanner

What other characters in Frozen collapse binaristic divides? Nearly every character in this film challenges a dichotomous view or the world, or they deviate immensely from the sterotypical expectations that we have of certain characters. For instance, Olaf the snowman collapses the distinction between the living and the non-living; Prince Hans destroys cultural associations that exist between beauty and goodness; even Kristoff deviates immensely from the expectations that we have of Disney’s male heroes: he is clumsy, smelly, he talks with his reindeer Sven, and he was raised by trolls.

I can go on and on about how this movie invites the viewer to collapse the dichotomous views that are often ingrained within our collective consciousness. Frozen presents a world in which snowmen can exist during the summer, a world that blurs the distinction between living and non-living creatures (snow and rocks become animated characters with personalities), a world where animals are given a voice and where people speak on behalf of the animals, a world in which marriage is not viewed as the highest aspiration that a woman should have, a world in which even gorgeous characters are capable of being evil. If Frozen is pointing us toward a new direction that Disney is steering towards, then I think we will continue to see more brilliant films that are not only entertaining, but that are socially and politically conscientious (without necessarily shoving a message down our throats, as in the case of other animated films like Happy Feet). If Frozen is marking the beginning of a queer future for Disney, then it is a bright future indeed. As Queen Elsa affirms in the song Let It Go: “Let the storm rage on.”

Works Cited and Consulted

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Frozen. Dir. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Perf. Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, and Santino Fontana. Disney, 2013. Film.

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

J.C. Lillis’ [How to Repair a Mechanical Heart]: A Gay YA Novel on Fandom, Religion, and Canonicity

Front cover of J.C. Lillis' How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)

Front cover of J.C. Lillis’ How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)

If there is one thing that gay young adult fiction should be thankful for, that thing would be the internet. Because of the advent of the web, we have witnessed the increase of self-published e-novels distributed through online stores such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Self-publishing, in my opinion, greatly expands the possibilities of gay young adult fiction, not only because authors are free to be more experimental and explicit when it comes to the novel’s content and structure, but also because they do not have to comply with the expectations and demands of a publishing house or an editor. J.C. Lillis’ How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012) is definitely one of the most unique gay YA novels that I have read this year, not only in terms of its content, but also in terms of its narrative techniques and devices. Although, on the surface level, the novel is centered on the blossoming relationship between two teenage boys, How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, offers readers a fresh take on the uneasy tension that exists between religion and homosexuality.

Now, religion is a topic that is found in many YA books dealing with homosexuality. Some of these novels, such as Alex Sanchez’s The God Box, take a more didactic and realistic approach to the issue, going as far as to present characters that discuss homosexuality by directly citing a barrage of Biblical rhetoric. Other novels, such as Timothy Carter’s Evil?, take a more fantastical and satirical (and hilarious) approach to the tension between religion and homosexuality through the incorporation of characters such as demons and fallen angels. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart tackles the issue of religion and homosexuality through a realistic approach, however, the exploration of this issue is framed through an exploration of fandom subculture. Although at first I was skeptical about whether a gay YA novel could pull off discussing tough issues through fan culture (which includes Comic Con-esque events, the reading and creation of fan fiction, and even the critique of television shows via vlogs), by the end, I thought that Lillis managed to pull it off beautifully. This novel turned out to be an entertaining, complex, and funny read in spite of its often heavy-handed themes and events.

The novel focuses on Brandon and Abel, two fans of a science fiction show entitled Castaway Planet. This show centers on the space adventures of two main characters: Cadmus, a hot-headed, impulsive, and unpredictable explorer; and Sim, an android who is intelligent, calculating, and incapable of feeling human emotion. Brandon and Abel are the hosts of a Castaway Planet vlog, where they deconstruct episodes of the television series, and where they offer critiques of Castaway Planet fan fiction that they dislike. The fan fiction that really grind their gears, however, would be those that ship Cadmus and Sim, for they deem that this relationship is absolutely implausible and disjointed from the themes and reality of the show. Their dislike for this type of fan fiction leads them to partake on a road trip across the country with their friend, Bec, in order to interview the show’s actors in hopes of discrediting any fanfic author who ships Cadmus and Sim. Their anger toward this shipping arises from the fact that Brandon and Abel believe that it demonstrates “zero respect for canon or for Cadmus or Sim as characters” (Lillis).

Throughout this road trip, Brandon and Abel not only develop an increasing appreciation towards the shipping of the Castaway Planet characters, but they also discover their true feelings towards each other. However, these feelings are complicated by the fact that Brandon is still unable to let go of the Catholic doctrine that has shaped his views and understanding of amorous relationships. Brandon is ultimately constructed as a dualistic character in that his mind has come to terms with his sexual orientation, but his heart has not. Brandon’s struggles are intensified not only because his childhood priest approaches celibacy as the only viable life choice for a Catholic gay man, but also because Abel previously has had his heart broken by Jonathan, a boy who decided to end their relationship due to the tension that it caused with his religion. Whenever Brandon is engaging in behavior that may be deemed “gay,” Catholic guilt manifests within his consciousness in the form of his childhood priest, who often reprimands him for his poor decisions that supposedly contradict the teachings of the Catholic church.

Lillis’ novel does an excellent job of creating a multi-layered text in which all the layers are not only interconnected but also capable of illuminating important tensions and resolutions in the novel. While at first fandom, fan fiction, Catholism, and homosexuality seem to have little to no relation to one another, Lillis combines them in a unique way that sheds light not only on the construction of identity, but also the personal negotiations that individuals must undergo when facing cultural demands and when fabricating narratives. For instance, discussions of Cadmus and Sim obviously reflect the tensions that exist between Brandon and Abel. Brandon considers that religion has made his heart mechanical in that it runs in an automated fashion that cannot be fixed or controlled. This motif is central in the novel, for religion is approached as the element mechanizes Brandon’s heart and prevents him from fully loving Abel with no regrets or qualms. Abel, on the other hand, resembles Cadmus, for he is approached as an impulsive character who carelessly disregards the difficulties that Brandon faces when trying to repair his mechanical heart.

Surprisingly, fandom and fan fiction were also very useful and illuminating motifs that Lillis incorporates into the novel in order to offer a unique spin on the treatment of homosexuality within the gay YA novel. Fan fiction, most of the times, disregards realism and canonicity in favor of crafting a narrative that goes in accordance with the tastes, expectations, and desires of the fan fiction writer. Fan fiction is a particularly noteworthy genre of writing because it becomes a venue that allows viewers to assume an active role within the fictional universe created by a show, a book, or a movie. Furthermore, fan fiction allows the recipients of a cultural artifact to explore alternative narratives, outcomes, and possibilities that are not restricted to canonical norms. For instance, if I’m upset that Ross and Rachel end up together in the series finale of Friends, I can write a fanfic in which Rachel ends up going to Paris and begins a life without Ross.

The creation of fan fiction can be approached as a very queer process, especially when it comes to its focus on alternative outcomes, non-normativity, and a mode driven purely by individualistic desire. In How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, the act of participating within the fan fiction universe is linked to the process of embracing a gay identity, for it involves a refutation of rules and so-called truths in order to seek life alternatives that invoke comfort and livability. Fan fiction and queerness entail a refusal of a normative entity (the canon or heteronormativity) that seeks to regulate “sub par” existences and fictions. This notion becomes particularly apparent near the novel’s conclusion, when Brandon meets the creator of Castaway Planet. When Brandon seems to approach fan fiction with slight “disgust,” and when he approaches the creator of the show as the sole bearer of the show’s truth, the creator reacts very harshly to Brandon’s assumptions:

“Listen, you runt. I saw that self-righteous eyeroll when you said fanfiction. Let me tell you something: I fucking love fanfiction. Why do you think I made up these characters? So I could play with dolls in public and tell everyone else ‘hands off’? So I could spoon-feed you stories from on high about the mysteries of love and free will and giant alien spiders?” He shows me his palms, then the backs of his hands. “I am one man with a laptop. When I give the world my characters, it’s because I don’t want to keep them for myself. You don’t like what I made them do? Fucking tell me I’m wrong! Rewrite the story. Throw in a new plot twist. Make up your own ending. Castaway Planet is supposed to be a living piece of art! (Lillis, location 3278)

The show’s creator overtly refutes any desire to regulate how his characters are used or appropriated. He expresses how people should feel free to take the “truth” depicted by the canon and transform it in ways that go in accordance with their individual wants and desires. The canon is not mechanical in that it requires preciseness and exactness to function, but rather, it is approached as a living entity capable of transformation. In due course, Brandon begins to approach religion in a similar fashion, realizing that he can grow comfortable with belief in a God if he accepts that certain elements within the doctrine are not only open to interpretation, but can also be rewritten to go in accordance with an alternative truth.

Although How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, at times, seems slightly moralizing and repetitive in its treatment of religion, it presents one of the freshest approaches towards spirituality and belief within the confines of a gay YA novel. I think that this novel is very innovative in terms of framing its central issues through fandom subculture, and I especially enjoyed the novel’s overt and explicit decoupage of narrative conventions. While the structure of this text generally follows the linear conventions found within most gay coming-of-age fiction, it consciously employs the style and conventions of the fan fiction genre to add some much needed flair and whimsy to the often stale and dry treatment of religion and homosexuality in YA fiction. I highly recommend this novel for its likable characters, its queer potentiality, and its unique structure and motifs.

You can purchase a copy of Lillis’ novel here, and you can read more about it by clicking here

Work Cited

Lillis, J.C. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart. Amazon Digital Services, 2012. Kindle text.

On Happy Endings and Gay Fiction: E.M. Forster’s [Maurice]

Front cover of E.M. Forster's Maurice

Front cover of E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1971)

“A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam in the greenwood. […] Happiness is its keynote–which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish.”

(E.M. Forster, Terminal note of Maurice – p. 236)

Maurice, a central text within the gay literary canon, is by far one of the bravest creative works written within the genre of LGBT literature; arguably, it is one of the bravest texts of the early twentieth century. The novel is an essence a Bildungsroman that traces the emotional development of the eponymous hero as he deals with the repercussions of being homosexual in Edwardian England. During his time at college, Maurice Christopher Hall becomes involved in a romantic (yet strictly chaste) relationship with his Cambridge colleague, Clive Durham, until the latter decides to marry a woman–leaving Maurice desolate and heartbroken. Through his attempts to “cure” his homosexuality through hypnosis and other means, Maurice meets Alec, a gatekeeper at the Durham estate. He becomes involved both romantically and sexually with Alec, and decides to start a life with him–all while affirming his “Wildean” identity to Clive as an act of socio-cultural resistance. As Maurice admirably states in his declaration of queer embodiment to Clive:

I was yours once till death if you’d cared to keep me, but I’m someone else’s now–I can’t hang about whining for ever–and he’s mine in a way that shocks you, but why don’t you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness? (230)

Although written by E.M. Forster during 1913-14, he refused to publish the book during his lifetime because of the negative legal and moralistic attitudes toward homosexuality that permeated England during the advent of the century. While bravery isn’t necessarily reflected in Forster’s (perfectly reasonable) decision to withhold publishing the text during his lifetime, it is reflected in the novel’s content: to envision a world, fictional or realistic, in which two men could “fall in love and remain in it” was beyond the scope of most modernist writers. It’s also brave in terms of its optimism, for in a world in which literary merit is driven by pain, suffering, depression, and unhappy endings, writing a novel with a happy ending is indeed a deviation from the grim albeit expected nature of the “literary.”

It is no coincidence, however, that Maurice was written just before World War I. One could only imagine how this optimism would be affected if the novel were written a year or two later. Forster did edit the novel during the 1960s, and it was known for having an epilogue in which Maurice’s younger sister (Kitty) encounters him and Alec working as woodcutters (and the consequent hatred she develops once she puts two and two together). Forster decided to discard this epilogue because the novel’s action is set in 1912, and the epilogue would’ve taken place a few years later in “the transformed England of the First World War (239). Thus, even though the novel is edited decades after it was written, its narrative essence and its optimistic outlook remained unchanged because it is meant to be approached as a snapshot of homosexual love during a period in which issues of class, aristocracy, politeness, and appearance are crucial to character development. This, in conjunction with the fact that the novel was published almost sixty years after it was written, leads it to be approached as a period piece (even though it was not written to be read this way).

Given the fact that the novel was written so early during the twentieth century, it is surprising to see how forward-thinking the novel is in terms of its views on sex, homosexuality, and queerness. Maurice is shown from his early teens to sense some discomfort in terms of heterosexual courtship. This is particularly noticeable when Mr. Ducie is explaining the act of heterosexual intercourse (with diagrams and illustrations traced on sand) to a fourteen year-old Maurice at the beach. The young teen is unable to grasp the adult’s approach to the birds and the bees: “He was attentive, as was natural when he was the only one in the class, and he knew that the subject was serious and related to his own body. But he could not himself relate it; it fell to pieces as soon as Mr. Ducie put it together, like an impossible sum (7, emphasis mine). The design and mechanics of heterosexual intercourse do not mesh with Maurice’s sensibilities, thus linking homosexuality to organic or perhaps even genetic roots. Indeed, this biological perspective goes in accordance with the view of homosexuality as pathological during this period, and the hypnotist that attempts to cure Maurice of his “trouble” in the novel goes as far as to diagnose him with a case of “Congenital homosexuality” (167). This diagnosis may indeed seem problematic, but before jumping to conclusions, I want to focus my attention on an exchange that happens between Maurice and Lasker Jones (the hypnotist/therapist) during the last failed attempt to cure the former of his so-called ailment:

“And what’s to happen to me?” said Maurice, with a sudden drop in his voice. He spoke in despair, but Mr Lasker Jones had an answer to every question. “I’m afraid I can only advise you to live in some country that has adopted the Code Napoleon,” he said.

“I don’t understand.”

“France or Italy, for instance. There homosexuality is no longer criminal.”

“You mean that a Frenchman could share with a friend and yet not go to prison?”

“Share? Do you mean unite? If both are of age and avoid public indecency, certainly.”

“Will the law ever be that in England?”

“I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

Maurice understood. He was an Englishman himself, and only his troubles had kept him awake. He smiled sadly. “It comes to this then: there always have been people like me and always will be, and generally they have been persecuted.”

“That is so, Mr Hall; or, as psychiatry prefers to put it, there has been, is, and always will be every conceivable type of person. And you must remember that your type was once put to death in England.” (Forster 196)

Although homosexuality is approached as pathological in most of the novel, Lasker Jones and Maurice seem to come to the consensus that homosexuality is simply a way of being that has been policed and suppressed in an effort to further wedge the divide between the cultural and the natural. This passage is emancipatory in that it problematizes the view of homosexuals being unable to assimilate to cultural norms through an inversion of agency: the problem is not the homosexual’s inability to mesh with society, but rather, society’s inability to mesh with the homosexual (i.e. people who have existed, exist, and always will exist). This is precisely why a happy ending for the novel, as Forster put it, was imperative.

Forster could have played it safe to assure that Maurice was published during his lifetime: “If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors” (236). But ending this novel in a tragedy would’ve not only followed the formula of countless other novels with gay content published during the time, but it also would go against the possibility of creating an active and effective identity politics. True, tragedy (and backwards feelings), in its own macabre way, has a way of inspiring and igniting a politics of identity; after all, it is pain that establishes the need for a politics of identity in the first place. However, considering all of the pain already portrayed in the novel, would it be necessary for characters to embrace death as a way of demonstrating the unfairness of the status quo? Forster suggests, in due course, that perhaps the shears needed to unravel the knot of (hetero)normativity are not found through death, solitude, and pain, but rather, through life, union, and happiness. Maurice, rather than basking in solitude, finds strength through Alec, and assures him that they “shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished” (225). And although the forever-ness present within the lack of this parting may only be found in fiction, it is a fiction I’m willing to live through vicariously.

You can purchase a copy of Forster’s Maurice here.

Work Cited

Forster, E.M. Maurice. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1971. Print.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s [Epistemology of the Closet] – A Staple of Queer Theory

Front Cover of Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet

Front Cover of Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet is often approached as one of the most groundbreaking discussions within the study of queer theory. Combining philosophical, legal, literary, and historical approaches towards queerness and human sexuality, Sedgwick’s text is focused on the destruction of the dichotomous divides used to discuss and categorize expressions and epistemologies (states of being) pertaining to sexual identity. She goes as far as to posit that a complete and encompassing understanding of Western culture must incorporate a critical analysis of the establishment and advent of the homo/heterosexual definition (1), and posits that issues pertaining to homosexuality and the closet (such as the divides between privacy and exposure, nature and culture, man and child) are central to most of contemporary Western thought. The aim of this post is to distill some of the more challenging and noteworthy claims made by Sedgwick in her discussion.

Sedgwick’s text was overall challenging due to the elusive and difficult nature of her prose and sentence structure. After reading some passages several times, however, I was offered great insights into the positioning of homosexuality within current strands of thought and philosophy. Here discussion opens up with a differentiation between minoritizing views towards homosexuality (in which homosexuality is of importance to a minority of people with specific attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs) and universalizing views (in which homosexuality and queerness are central in some way to all human beings). She also delves into a discussion of the origins of the term homosexual based mostly on Foucault’s pivotal discussion titled The History of Sexuality (Volume I). Surprisingly, not only was the term homosexual coined before the term heterosexual, but the prominence of the term ultimately led people to identify themselves not only according to their gender, but also their sexual orientation (thus illustrating the convergence of language with sexual identity). The homosexual, in this Foucauldian view, thus became a distinct species. The aim of Sedgwick’s discussion, however, is not to offer an explanation for the establishment of sexual categories, but rather, an exploration of their “predictably varied and acute implications and consequences” (9).

Later on in her book, Sedgwick mentions its purpose, which actually was one of the most difficult passages for me to understand and break-down. Epistemology of the Closet intends to:

demonstrate that categories presented in a culture as symmetrical binary oppositions—heterosexual/homosexual, in this case—actually subsist in a more unsettled and dynamic tacit relation according to which, first, term B is not symmetrical with but subordinated to term A; but, second, the ontologically valorized term A actually depends for its meaning on the simultaneous submission and exclusion of term B; hence, third, the question of priority between the supposed central and the supposed marginal category of each dyad is irresolvably unstable, an instability caused by the fact that term B is constituted as at once internal and external to term A.” (10)

As can be seen in the passage above, this purpose is indeed loaded and slightly difficult, but I will try to deconstruct this passage in hopes of providing some illumination as to Epistemology of the Closet‘s purpose. In essence, Sedgwick is arguing that the binary opposition between homosexuality and heterosexuality is futile due to the instability of this divide in the first place:

1) Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not symmetrical or equal terms, and they are not equal halves of a whole. Rather, homosexuality is a secondary or inferior class of term when juxtaposed to heterosexuality. This part is quite obvious and understandable, for homosexuality (as a term or concept) does not possess the power, “prestige,” authority, or valence  that is loaded within heterosexuality (it is ontologically valorized).

2) The meaning attributed to heterosexuality depends on the not only taking valorization away from homosexuality, but also on the exclusion of homosexuality as part of the heterosexual. Keeping in mind that the term heterosexual was coined after the word homosexual, it comes as no wonder that the heterosexual is thus defined as he/she who does not embrace the traits or behaviors of the homosexual (i.e. I am heterosexual because I am not homosexual).

3) When it comes to the issue of whether heterosexuality came before homosexuality, or vice-versa, is a “dilemma” with no solution that is in turn very unstable, precisely because homosexuality is part of heterosexuality while at the same time being excluded from it. In this sense, homosexuality is similar to Kristeva’s notion of the abject in that you recognize that it is part of the whole while at the same time being excluded from it.

Sedgwick posits that the category of the homosexual, despite its status as a subordinate classification, has  in part refused to wither away because individuals who identify themselves as homosexual view the term as one of empowerment and unification. However, the prominence and permanence of the term is attributed to way more than its use as a gay-affirmative term: “Far beyond any cognitively or politically enabling effects on the people whom it claims to describe, moreover, the nominative category of ‘the homosexual’ has robustly failed to disintegrate under the pressure of the decade after decade, battery after battery of deconstructive exposure—evidently not in the first place because of its meaningfulness to those whom it defines but because of its indispensableness to those who define themselves against it” (83). Thus, the term homosexual thrives not because of its positive attributes, but rather, because it allows a so-called status quo to delineate attitudes and behaviors that it rejects.

On Difference and the Nature/Nurture Debate

After her discussion of the futility of the binary divide between homosexuality and heterosexuality, Sedgwick delves into a nuanced treatment of the three points that I explained above, focusing on the subordination of homosexuality within a heteronormative context, and on the development of axioms that help the reader to understand the importance of difference when it comes to the discussion of human sexuality. The subordination of homosexuality is quite obvious and easy to grasp, especially when Sedgwick discusses biases that have existed in the legal treatment of homosexuality within contemporary society, especially after the appearance and spread of AIDS. For instance, she alludes to the use of gay panic defenses within courts as a way of justifying violence done to members of the gay community, and how “The widespread acceptance of this defense really seems to show to the contrary, that hatred of homosexuals is even more public, more typical, hence harder to find any leverage against than hatred of other disadvantaged groups” (19).

Sedgwick posits a handful of axioms that are necessary not only to fully comprehend the epistemology of the closet and the nuances of sexuality, but also to deconstruct the binaries that enforce ideological views of the world. The first axiom, which at first may seem to be the most obvious, is that people are different from each other. I believe this is something that most people would agree with, but it’s also a very difficult concept to come to grips with. We have plenty of identity markers used to classify, categorize, and understand the people around us, but even then, we only have a very limited understanding of the person as a whole. Sedgwick posits that the most universal markers of identification that exist today are those of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, among others, but even then, this information only enables us to understand people in very broad ways, preventing a more nuanced or true differentiation from taking place. Sedgwick argues that people, especially those who have suffered oppression or subordination, have had to develop systematic ways of classifying and knowing people in order to determine “the possibilities, dangers, and stimulations of their human social landscape” (23). Learning more about the types of people that exist in the world is not only necessary to avoid stereotyping, but Sedgwick ultimately argues that knowledge about the different people in the world is crucial for survival:

I take the precious, devalued arts of gossip, immemorially associated in European thought with servants, with effeminate and gay men, with all women, to have to do not even so much with the transmission of necessary news as with the refinement of necessary skills for making, testing, and using unrationalized and provisional hypotheses about what kinds of people there are to be found in one’s world. (23)

In axiom 4, Sedgwick aims to deviate from the nature/nature debates that hinge on discussions of homosexuality, preferring to discuss homosexuality in terms of universalizing or minoritizing views because it forces us to ask the question: “In whose lives is homo/heterosexual definition an issue of continuing centrality and difficulty?’ rather than either of the questions that seem to have gotten conflated in the constructivist/essentialist debate” (40). Sedgwick seems to imply that there is perhaps the possibility of a eugenic agenda that might surface if a constructivist view on homosexuality is ever determined to be causal. She argues that gay-affirmative work complies with its aims when it steers away from discussions on the origins of sexual orientation and identity, and focuses more on activist and contemporary concerns. By engaging in a debate on the origins of sexual orientation, one risks participating in a tradition that views culture as something that is malleable and nature as a static phenomenon. If homosexuality were to be viewed as a product of culture, there is the risk of viewing it as something that can be altered or suppressed.

On the Nature of the Closet

The closet, as Sedgwick points out, is complicated because although it is presumably used to conceal a facet of one’s identity, this sense of concealment is not always complete or total. The act of coming out the closet is not a one step process because there is always more than one closet in the life of the homosexual. Coming out is a process that must constantly be dealt with when encountering a new person. One may consider themselves to be out, but there is always someone out there who is not aware of one’s sexuality due to its presumably unmarked nature, and there are times when remaining in the closet seems to be a more feasible, and at times safer, option:

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Especially today, the closet is closely tied to notions of knowledge, concealment, and truth. The term “coming out” has even been applied to notions that deviate from the disclosure of one’s sexual identity, such as to “come out” as a democrat, or to “come out” as an atheist. It can be said that the notion of coming out has been broadened to such a degree that it is no longer central to notions or matters of sexuality, but Sedgwick argues that in true universalizing fashion, this broadening demonstrates how pivotal queer and homosexual matters are for Western thought, and how integral they are to everyday actions and beliefs (72).

I think that the first couple of chapters within Sedgwick’s discussion really provide a solid platform that enables a discussion of homosexuality, the closet, and their pervasive influence in contemporary thought. The book is particularly useful because it demonstrates not only the futility of binaries as proper mechanisms of definition, but also the issues that surface when determining the relationship that exists between language and sexuality. Homosexuality as such was a category that was devised as a pathological classification of individuals who engaged in same-sex behavior, and the emergence of this category pretty much radicalized the way we approach knowledge and people. This is a text that I must revisit soon in order to fully comprehend all of the arguments and notions that Sedgwick presents in her attempt to reconfigure epistemological and ontological approaches to homosexuality and the closet in a postmodern world.

Primary Work

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.

A Note on the “Death of the Author”: A Discussion of the Viral Letter from a Dad to his Gay Son

Letter

Yesterday, a letter from a father to his gay son went viral on the internet. The image above was posted on the Facebook page of FCKH8, and as of now, this post has garnered over 80,000 likes. Here’s a transcript of the letter if you’re unable to read it in the image above:

Nate,

I overheard your phone conversation with Mike last night about your plans to come out to me. The only thing I need you to plan is to bring home OJ and bread after class. We are out, like you now. I’ve known you were gay since you were six, I’ve loved you since you were born.

– Dad

P.S. Your mom and I think you and Mike make a cute couple

Naturally, I began to read some of the comments people have written on this post, and of course, there are many who claim that the letter isn’t authentic, and that virtually anyone could write this letter and post it online. I conducted some online research for a couple of minutes, but I was unable to find this letter’s original source, and I was unable to identify who “Nate” and “Dad” are. True, anyone can be Nate, and anyone can be dad. I can grab a piece of paper, write this exact same message, and share it online for the world to see. Thus, it is unsurprising to see how many people are calling the letter a fake. Not only are they questioning its authenticity, but they are also demanding to know who originally wrote this letter.

My question is, does it really matter whether this letter is authentic or not? Does the message behind the letter lose any rhetorical power or agency if we determine that it is indeed a fake? Are the words in this letter unable to stand on their own without an author? Perhaps not.

Fiction, whether it be in the form of a novel, a letter, a short story, or even a poem, has always been deemed to exhibit emancipatory and inspirational potential. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance, is deemed to be one of the many literary texts that were capable of promoting social change. There’s even a story (or perhaps better said, a myth) in which Abraham Lincoln himself supposedly exclaimed “So this is the little lady who started this great war” when he met Stowe for the first time. Regardless of whether or not this statement was actually uttered by Lincoln, it still says a lot about the common belief of words possessing the power to change.

The viral letter under scrutiny has invoked a lot of positive response from the media and from people around the web. Many consider the letter to be heart-warming,  a clear indicator that times are changing. Others view the letter as a symbol of social progress, and that the act of “coming-out” is becoming less of an issue in our present day and age (I also discuss this notion of the issue of “coming-out”  and gay visibility here and here). Others were angry at the letter, claiming that it is fake, and that it is simply part of the media’s attempt to depict our society as more progressive and liberal than it actually is. What is definitely apparent is that the letter, regardless of its lack of background and context, still has the capacity to mean something to an interpreter. This notion reflects the ideas once posited by French literary theorist Roland Barthes in his 1977 essay titled Death of the Author (you can access the full-text essay here).

According to Barthes, readers generally tend to “glorify” the author, as if he or she is the absolute authority (pardon the pun) over what the text does or does not mean. Thus, the author tends to be approached as “the voice of a single person, […] ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes), although when realistically speaking, once something is unleashed into the world or published, its meaning is no longer fixed nor stable.

True, a text or a product will always have a creator, but the creator is no longer the guardian of the semantic and cultural meanings that the product possesses. Popular internet memes succumb to this “death.” Indeed, many popular internet memes, such as Me Gusta and the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy have a point of origin and a creator, but these creators no longer control the meaning of these memes, or the eventual evolution of these meanings (for instance, note how “Me Gusta” eventually developed derivatives such as “No Me Gusta” and “Me Gusta Mucho).

What Barthes means by the “death” of the author, is that meaning should not centered on authorial intent, but rather, on the interpretative abilities of the reader. This, in due course, is because meaning itself is unfixed and unstable–what “happiness” and “pleasure” means for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean for me. As Barthes himself puts it:

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. (Barthes)

The reader is therefore the nexus of all the culture, the history, and the psychology needed to understand and interpret words, whether they be on paper, on a screen, or even if they’re transmitted orally. There is no possible way for you to read orhear a set of words and understand exactly what an author meant. Thus, when it comes to the viral letter from a dad to his gay son, authorial intent does not necessarily matter, and to some extent, it is not absolutely necessary for us to know exactly who created this letter in the first place. What matters is that the words written on that sheet of paper are capable of meaning something valuable to someone. Even if the letter isn’t exactly an authentic indicator that times are changing, it is capable of transmitting an the idea that the idea of change is tangible, palpable, and desired.

We’ve generally accepted the idea that fiction–including novels, stories, television, and movies–is capable of changing us and influencing us (for better or worse). Why does it matter then whether this letter is fictional or not? Regardless of what many think, the idea of the social and cultural emancipation of gender–to the point where coming-out is presented as a non-issue–is a fiction that I’m willing to embrace.

P.S. I think the postscript on the letter under scrutiny is absolutely adorable.

The “Privacy” of the Closet: From Jodie Foster to Manti Te’o

With Jodie Foster’s delivery of her so-called heartwarming yet “rambling” speech, the notions of honesty, disclosure, and privacy became the hot topics of the week. Rumors of Jodie Foster’s homosexuality had been looming in the media for years, and prominent magazines such as OUT even went as far as to posit that Foster inhabited a glass closet–meaning that many were aware that she was “out” even though she had never publicly acknowledged her sexuality. Although I’ll be the first to admit that Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe acceptance speech was somewhat disconnected and incoherent, it was definitely embedded with nuggets of brilliance and sheer emotion. Among these nuggets, there was one in particular that stood out from the rest:

“But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”

I for one can’t even begin to remotely imagine how intoxicating and suffocating Foster’s lack of privacy feels. True, to some extent, nobody living in the 21st century has  an idea of what true privacy feels like. Cell phones make it easier than ever for people to reach us at all moments. We constantly use Twitter and Facebook to let the world know where we’re at and what we’re doing. Even with the creation of websites and blogs, such as the one you’re reading right now, there is a certain degree of exposure that would’ve been virtually impossible a few decades ago. With every word that I publish in this blog, another chunk of my privacy is sacrificed. It’s now possible to Google my name, and immerse yourself deeply in my ideas and my work. I’m well aware of this.

But I’m not Jodie Foster, and I never will be. My ideas are out there for the world to see, but I really doubt that anyone would bother to know every minimal detail of my life, where I’m eating, what brand of clothes I’m wearing, who I’m dating… even if I publicly display this information on a social network. And I think that’s the major difference between Jodie Foster and the non-celebrity: while the average person has some degree of power in terms of what is or is not disclosed to others in terms of their personal lives, Jodie Foster lost that power years ago.

With that in mind, I can see why Foster desperately withheld any information in terms of her sexuality. Realistically speaking, it was one of the few private elements in her life that she was actually able to control.  Sure, people speculated. Other people definitely knew. But without her acknowledgement, the “public eye” was always blinded and unsure to some degree. And despite the so-called hypocrisy invoked with this blindness, I can’t help but envision how Foster found it comforting.

However, Foster was not the only person this week that has had to endure the slings and arrows that the lack of privacy hurls. When teaching my course on Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric today, we discussed the notions of ethics, honesty, and the virtues of rhetorical discourse. Unsurprisingly, the subject of Manti Te’o’s girlfriend hoax became the topic that these notions hinged onto. This hoax has been discussed in length by other venues, so I won’t delve deeply into what happened, but I will say this: my class and I generally agreed that there were too many discrepancies and gaps in the matter in order to make sense of it. I had skimmed through the original article on the hoax published by Deadspin, but I initially didn’t read it carefully enough to notice some of the more nuanced implications of what was discussed.

Manti

This afternoon, while discussing the Manti debacle with a friend while sipping on some coffee, she addressed the rampant rumors that the beloved football player deliberately devised the story in order to cover up a same-sex relationship that he is/was possibly involved in. This, of course, is due not only due to the lack of details and the inconsistencies in the story, but it is also due to several reasons that are pointed out in a blog post published by Andy Towle titled Gay Rumor Mill Ramping Up Over Manti Te’o ‘Dead Girlfriend’ Hoax.

I’m not here to discuss whether Manti Te’o is  or is not gay, because frankly, it is none of my concern. Sure, there are many gaps in terms of the information that has been disclosed to the general public, and there indeed is suggestive evidence that adds fuel to the rumors on Manti’s sexuality. However, what truly disturbs me is the fact that if Manti happens to be gay, he was outed in one of the most unfortunate ways possible. He was stripped of his own right to choose where, when, and who to share this information with. Rather than being offered the opportunity to step out of the closet on his own terms, the door to this closet was obliterated and he was yanked right out of it.

Let’s be very honest here: Manti is not only young, but he is also a prominent football player studying at the flagship of Catholic universities in the United States of America. Now, it is a widespread idea that Notre Dame is one of the most homophobic universities in the country, but I can honestly attest to the fact that this notion is blown out of proportion. Don’t get me wrong, there indeed needs to be progress in terms of how the university approaches some LGBTQ issues, but overall, I’ve noticed that the students, professors, and administrators at Notre Dame are nowhere near as close-minded as people deem them to be. But regardless of this fact, it wouldn’t make it any easier for Manti to come out even if he happens to be gay.

Unlike most of the student population at Notre Dame, Manti is a celebrity. People look up to him, people want to know his every thought and follow his every move. And when taking into consideration the fact that he’s Mormon, well, let’s just say that if I were in his shoes and I also happened to be gay, fabricating an imaginary girlfriend would probably seem to be a more feasible alternative than admitting the truth. True, perhaps this says a lot about the homophobic nature of many religions and of the realm of sports. But even more so, it says a lot about the notion of privacy.When it comes down to it, we have a degree of privacy that Manti will never have. This is very sad, and very true… but it is also quite expected.

Returning back to the notion of Jodie Foster, privacy, and the closet, Patrick Strudwick, a writer for The Guardian, expresses how he was slightly bothered by her Golden Globe speech because she chose her career over coming out years ago, an act that would’ve made it easier for future generations to come to grip with their sexual identity:

It is every gay public figure’s social responsibility to be out, to make life better for those without publicists and pilates teachers. Those who cry, “It’s none of your business! Who cares who I sleep with?!” shirk their public duty, and deny the shame that keeps the closet door shut. Do straight people consider their orientation private? You cannot skip the tough part of a human rights struggle. I long for being gay to be nobody’s business, to not matter, but we’re a long way off. You either do your bit, and in the case of an A-list actor, that means blazing a trail for other performers, or you remain concealed, bleating about privacy.

On one hand, I understand where Strudwick is coming from. After all, if high profile celebrities and figures don’t come out and remain within he confines of the closet, who else will set an example for people struggling with their own sexual identity? How can any change be achieved if prominent gay individuasl refuse to be examples? On the other hand, not every gay celebrity is Elton John, Ellen Degeneres, or Neil Patrick Harris. The journey out of the closet is a very subjective and idiosyncratic experience, reliant on forces that are many times out of the individual’s control. Sure, there is a price to be paid with fame, but does that necessarily imply that gay celebrities are obliged to disclose their entire lives, including their sexual identity? Does staying within the closet necessarily entail a degree of shame?

I believe Ricky Martin said it best when it comes to the notion of coming out: “When someone isn’t ready we must not try to force them out.” This notion applies to every gay person, whether it be a student, a worker, a Latino pop sensation, a star football player, or even an award-winning actress. Coming out is very much a private matter. For some people, it doesn’t get easier to come out. For some people, every person they come out to is a milestone.

Hopefully, there will come a time in which coming out won’t be necessary at all, but now is not that time. And while to some degree, we do need high profile individuals to be brave and set an example, we also have to recall that not everyone is a pioneer–and similar to the issue of privacy, this is something that should ultimately be respected.