Queer Theory

“Blindspots” and Bright Spots

I’m very excited to see Disney’s new Live-Action Beauty and the Beast, and not just because it was my favorite animated Disney movie growing up. Allow me to explain:

***

            The girl who takes my fast-food order has conspicuous miniature band-aids over her dimples, raised away from the skin by the dermal jewelry they cover. Her nose has a hole with no stud. Her cuticles are stained black where the nail-polish remover didn’t penetrate. She smiles brightly, her extended hand holding my change, each finger sporting a ring.

The retail worker who helps answer my questions about pre-order bonuses for Mass Effect Andromeda has long-sleeves on. When he reaches for a top shelf, his right sleeve pulls back. His arm is covered in vivid scales, the sweep of a Koi-fish revealed for just a moment before he tugs the sleeve of his shirt back into place. I’ve seen work like that before, hundreds of dollars and hours spent under the needle. The lanyard that holds his name badge has a pin with koi-fish in swirling water.

My friend meets me for coffee. She’s changed her hair since the last time I saw her. The hot pink streaks in her blonde hair have been covered over with a chocolate brown that matches her roots but make her look pale and tired. The medical monopoly that runs all the hospitals in the area insists that their nurses have “natural” hair colors. Her fingernails where she holds her Cappuccino are bright pink.

***

Particular ways of seeing, or rather, not seeing, manifest themselves with vehemence in Toledo, Ohio. All of these moments, instances that wouldn’t have fazed me before I lived in Syracuse, now strike with precise and disquieting force as I visit my hometown during spring break week. A few hours away, in New York, these bodies are allowed to exist in the public spaces. The waitstaff and retail workers sport tattoos and piercings and bright hair colors. They paint their faces with startling hues and ornament their unique bodies. Non-normative people exist, and insist on their existence in public spaces. I’ve only been gone from Toledo since August, but it was a shock to the system to return.

It is a particular brand of cognitive dissonance that maintains the normative through the repression of non-normative bodies. It maintains equilibrium by enforcing blindspots through the control of Capitalist structures. These young people working in food services and retail, these thirty-somethings serving in the medical field, all need these jobs in order to survive. Yet, these jobs act as a powerful normalizing force against them. Keep your piercings out or you can’t take burger orders. Cover your tattoos or you can’t answers questions about video games. Dye your vibrant hair a “natural” color or you can’t possibly administer life-saving medication and care. Remain “professional.”

The Midwestern “normal” functions through the creation and maintenance of purposeful blindspots that deny the existence of alternative forms of expression. “Blindspots” only remain viable so long as non-normative bodies are forced into invisibility and silence. This silence does not actually remove their existence, but instead denies them space within the discourse of normality. If piercings must be removed, tattoos covered, and hair dyed, then alternative modes of self-expression will continue to be absent from professional settings. These alternative bodies must find voice on the fringes or not be voiced at all, relegated to the silences within discourse that Michel Foucault describes in his History of Sexuality.

***

My reflections on queer existence in our present political moment from my post last week (which you can read here: https://metathesisblog.com/2017/03/10/facebook-and-uncanny-identity/) no doubt primed me for noticing these “blindspots” during my trip home (in fact, the use of body modification by the queer community for self-expression makes this censorship of non-normative bodies all the more relevant for me, see Victoria Pitts’ article “Visibly Queer: Body Technologies and Sexual Policies” in The Sociological Quarterly). It was actually discouraging to see the ways that these non-normative forms of self-expression were being systematically crushed by structures within Capitalism. I recognize that this happens in the back of my mind constantly, but seeing it physically manifested in front of me was difficult.

Cue Disney’s new release of Beauty and the Beast. The Internet has been all atwitter since the announcement a few weeks ago that the character of LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick, will be portrayed as openly gay. First came the initial excitement over representation of an LGBTQIA+ character by a major motion picture. Then came fear about what that representation might look like (yet another queer villain, a gay man who is uncomfortable with his own sexuality, etc.). Regardless of the problems that may arise surrounding this character, it is the first openly gay character that Disney has put in one of their films, a historic moment of representation.

Not long after this announcement, demands for censorship started to roll in, the carefully crafted mode of cognitive dissonance deeply disturbed by representations of a gay man in a film about a love story between a beast-animal creature and a young woman. It is impossible for queer and non-normative bodies to remain invisible and non-existent in the minds of the majority if their entertainment represents these lives. In order to maintain this normative silence, LeFou had to go.

For a moment, my heart sank. After all, this is the same company that changed a male Tibetan character into a white Celtic woman in order to maintain profits for Doctor Strange abroad. The power of Capitalism over the film industry functions powerfully to reinforce hegemonic ideals of the normal within their representations. I thoroughly expected to start reading reports of censorship by Disney of LeFou and the films touted “gay scene” in order to maintain their profits. That was why it was such a joy to see this article (http://www.nbc26.com/news/national/disney-delays-release-of-beauty-and-the-beast-in-malaysia-after-gay-moment-cut-from-film) from NBC, stating that Disney will not remove the scene from the film even if it costs them profits. In fact, the company has chosen to pull the film from Malaysian theatres rather than remove LeFou or his scenes.

By no means is this an ultimate victory or a complete solution. Often, these systems are so powerful and deeply entrenched that it doesn’t seem that there will ever be hope for representation for non-normative bodies and identities in our mainstream culture. Yet, this film is a moment of encouragement, a bright spot, further proof that systems can be changed over time. The service industry workers in New York can have further autonomy over their modes of identity constructions. They can have bright green hair, and septum piercings, and chest tattoos, and LeFou can be hot for Gaston.


Hillarie ‘Rhyse’ Curtis is a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University where she studies (and occasionally writes about) queer narratives, masculinity, trauma, war, and fan fiction, among other things. 

Facebook and Uncanny Identity

I’m sitting in a meeting at the LGBT Resource Center. It’s Monday night, a few weeks past now. They have a large comfy couch, free pizza, brightly colored artwork on the walls, posters for other events. It’s only six in the evening, but I’m exhausted. Not the I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep-because-coursework kind of tired, but the soul-weary exhaustion that has been my constant companion since November. I’ve tried to put it into words, what I’m feeling. There’s spoon theory, or empathy overload, but neither of those encompasses what I’m feeling now. I’ve dealt with chronic depression and anxiety my entire adult life, and it’s never been like this before, not to this extent and not for this long. So I’m sitting in a meeting for Queer-folk and allies on campus, hoping that being around some other humans where I don’t have to appear fully competent and on top of things will help.

They ask us to share a rough spot and a bright spot from our week. Rough spot, for the first time in a while, is a quick answer for me. Usually, it’s been a toss-up between any number of novel and horrifying developments, but this week it’s simple: The rough spot was turning on my phone and seeing the repeal of bathroom protection for Transgender students. I cried, staring at my phone, at the headline that one of the default news apps decided to plaster across my unlock screen. I cried for the teenagers who will face even more bullying in their school halls, I cried over the lives that will be lost because it’s not really about bathrooms but about basic humanity and decency, I cried over the level of ignorance and hate that would drive someone to make such a ruling about a group of marginalized young people who we should all be working to protect. When I shared my sadness, the faces in the room mirrored back what I imagine mine looks like now on a daily basis, weary sadness.

Finding a bright spot has become incredibly simple for me over the past few months. Did I get out of bed? Did I make it through the ten minutes of time I allot myself each morning to check out my social media and news apps to see what latest violence has been done against marginalized groups? Did I feed myself? Did I attend or teach class? Those actions are a bright spot each day, moments when I didn’t let despair sit on my chest like too-deep water. These moments of caring for myself, for my queer body in this hostile environment, are small, empowering moments of radical resistance in my day-to-day. I showed up. It’s my bright spot. There are nods and half-smiles in response.

As we circle the room, the concerns change: several foreign students are concerned about the attitudes toward LGBTQIA+ individuals in their home countries. What might it mean for them to be denied a job in the U.S. after completing their degree? Another student is struggling with a family member who purposefully misgenders them and says that they will always be their dead gender (I can’t help but hear the rhetoric surrounding the bathroom bill echoing through my head). Another student is concerned about the example of Gay-ness presented by Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulus, the virulently hateful and, allegedly, pedophilic poster-child for acceptable Alt-Right Queerness. The concerns are different. The exhaustion is the same.

Each person in this room is exhausted, emotionally empty, rattled and just a few moments from tears. But why?

***

I’ve been trying to sort it out since late-December, reading the think-pieces and the status updates from my friends, attending rallies and marches and poster-making sessions. The sadness and tired hangs everywhere, but I still couldn’t figure it out. So I did what so many academics do, I compartmentalized it, allowed that part of my mind to fill up with pertinent data, waited for a late night “Ah-hah” moment when it finally clicked. It didn’t. I moved on, left it to simmer in some back part of my brain, focused on reading theorists, and grading essays, and getting out of bed in the morning. I left the sadness and its answer for a different day.

I started listening to musicals. I’ve been a bit behind the curve, so Hamilton was a new and heart-wrenching beauty in my life. I wept the first time I listened to the soundtrack. It was good to cry.

Next, my brother suggested I listen to the soundtrack for Fun Home. (He blessedly warned me that it might hit close to home in some ways. He was right.) I listened to Alison Bechdel’s coming-out story about her life again, this time accompanied by music instead of the panels of the graphic novel where I first encountered it. I remember watching a video of Bechdel creating one of those panels, taking Polaroid pictures of herself to use as reference. The time and effort that went into each panel was astonishing. The music from the play recreated that experience of her writing and drawing the graphic novel, that astonishment and awe. I was hooked.

After spending the majority of late-January and February listening to the soundtrack on repeat, a question popped into my head. What was it like for Bechdel to see her own life played out on stage in front of her? Luckily, Alyssa Abbott asked the same thing of Bechdel shortly after the show’s first performance in 2013 in an interview for The Atlantic (which can be found here. Two statements from Bechdel struck me as she described her experience of seeing the show: she described seeing her own life on stage as “very strange and surreal” and also described the experience of seeing the show with her brother’s and aunt—“There were no words. We just let it wash over us.” I couldn’t peg down why those statements struck me as particularly important, but I stored them away in the random bits of knowledge part of my brain that may one day make me a Jeopardy star.

***

Their importance came a week ago, when discussing a project for one of my classes involving the subject of the uncanny. Stephen King describes terror as “when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.” This description has been used by Lucy Hunter, a contributing editor for Critic magazine out of the Otago University Students’ Association, in her article “Journey into “The Uncanny Valley”” (which you can visit here). When discussing experiences of the uncanny, Hunter describes the “Uncanny” as “the sensation of something being both strange and familiar. It helps explain the reason why some things scare us, while others just creep us out. The uncanny is not simply a matter of the mysterious, bizarre, or frightening: it involves a kind of duplicity (both in likeness and deception) within the familiar. A disturbance of the familiar.”

Finally, with this idea of the uncanny bouncing around in my head, it all clicked. Alison Bechdel’s statements about watching the play of her life had hit me because she described it as “very strange and surreal,” and experience that had to “wash over” her and her family. These were moments when the familiar elements of her life has been disturbed, replaced by the interpretation of the playwright and the actors and the musicians, a strong resemblance, but not the same. This was my every day experience looking at the headlines on my phone or the posts on my Facebook wall. The headlines identified me: “Millennials say ‘Not My President’,” “Trump Repeals Obama-Era Transgender Protections,” “Radical Left Professors Poison University Campuses.” These were terms I had used for myself, modes of constructing who I was, but they had replaced me in the narrative. These headlines had walked into my house, taken me out and left a replica in my place, an ill-informed idealist, a supposed predator, a target for hate and ire.

They came so quickly, these stories of horrific ignorance and self-centered greed, invading every moment of my life, from my Facebook wall, to my classroom discussions, to chats with colleagues and mentors in the halls. Me, who I had thought of myself as, was existing out there somewhere, an uncanny version for people to then assign back on to me with the same words I had used as a method of empowerment and self-realization. But these things that they said were not me. I may be an empathic idealist, but I pride myself in remaining informed, I am not a predator, I am kind and compassionate, I am not a rabid automaton of Leftist-rhetoric set on indoctrinating young minds in my classroom, I am a hard-working teacher who values pedagogy and the success and growth of my students. These headlines made a straw man of me, dressed it in my clothes, and trampled it to bits with their rhetoric, and I could not stand as my own witness. I could only offer my testimony in noxious comment sections and wait for the flame-war to ensue.

I was left to feel the weight of these events, so far outside my realm of immediate influence, wash over me with no time to process. Every event comes now in a rapid fire stream, so many executive orders, and bills before Congress, and life-shattering decisions tossed about like pawns in a game of Chess, meant for sacrifice and violence.

***

 The night at the LGBT Resource Center provided some very essential insight for me.

The media available to me for self-expression had been insufficient. Posts about my experiences on social media were met with affirmations from my colleagues and friends, who felt the same way, and virulent declarations of degradation from others; I should “grow up,” my life “sure must have been easy if this Presidential election is enough to break [me],” and “I sure hope you never have to face any real hardship in your life.”

My attempts to witness about the trauma of existing in this moment felt hollow. How do you provide testimony about a violence that exists not in blood spilled but in existence denied? Laverne Cox put it so much more pointedly than I had been able to when speaking about what the bathroom bill meant for transgender people on MSNBC: “When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities — it’s about us existing in public space,” she said. “And those who oppose trans people having access to the facilities consistent with how we identify know that all the things they claim don’t actually happen. It’s really about us not existing — about erasing trans people.”

I felt not only useless to witness for myself, but useless to help those who are without voice in this moment. Not all trauma is equivalent. I am in a place of privilege where my white skin, my social class, my vocation, my regional location, and even my ability to still pass as female in public spaces has granted me protections that are not available to so many others who exist in a far more marginalized space than myself. I want to make space for them, to open the floor and hold the haters at bay and let them scream out their truths about themselves, witnessing to their own trauma and terror in a country that has robbed them of their right to humanity and existence.

In this political moment, there has been both erasure and replacement of me as a non-binary, trans, millennial in the education field. And until that night at the LGBT Resource Center, I had had no way to witness about it in a way that felt real, to talk to others who had the same expressions on their faces that greeted me in the mirror before I plastered a smile on my face each morning. But in that room, it started to come together, the kernel of knowledge in the swirl of emotion and struggling thoughts. In that room, I could hold space for others, I could be the listening ear that is so essential for those testifying about their experiences. In that room, I could witness while others held space for me.

***

So what does it all mean? I’m living in a strange world where my life is related back to me and my value and identity determined by people in rooms hundreds of miles from me, and then blasted out over the media that permeates my life. It’s uncanny, and terrifying, and emotionally exhausting, yes, but I’ve got a framework for it now, a way of understanding where this feeling comes from, for me at least. And for me, as a scholar, having that framework to understand is usually my first step to finding a solution.


Hillarie ‘Rhyse’ Curtis is a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University where she studies (and occasionally writes about) queer narratives, masculinity, trauma, war, and fan fiction, among other things. 

“Are You Gay?”: Public Space, the Closet, and the Exercise of Privilege

For my month of posts for this blog, I want to talk about privilege and the way in which it operates in everyday interactions and spaces. We all hear people talk about privilege–and in particular about how it operates as part of and within systems of oppression–but rarely do we actually think about how it affects and manifests in our everyday lives. I intend these four posts to jumpstart a continuing dialogue about both identifying privilege and using that knowledge to help undo it.

During a recent outing to a local restaurant, a couple of friends and I were seated at our table finishing our drinks before heading home for the night. While we were sitting there, chatting amiably amongst ourselves, a highly intoxicated young woman sprawled across our table to procure the menu, then asked us to read said menu since she was too drunk to do so.

Now, there wasn’t anything particularly unusual about this incident at first blush. People frequently intrude into other people’s space when they have had a bit too much to drink. It wasn’t even than unusual for her to note that I had an unmistakable look of disgust on my face.

What happened next, however was, as we academics like to say, problematic.

This young woman, whom I had never met, abruptly inquired, “Can I ask you a personal question” (always cringe-inducing), and having procured my assent proceeded to ask, “Are you gay?”

Yes. You read that right. She asked me if I am gay.

To be clear, I have no problem telling people in public spaces that I’m gay. I have no investment in “straightness,” and I certainly do not have a (conscious) investment in traditional hegemonic masculinity nor in a performance of it. In fact, I actually take a lot of pleasure in performing my queerness and will, in most cases, tell people I’m gay within a few minutes of meeting them. For me, proclaiming my sexuality on my own terms can be a profoundly liberating and empowering act. However, that is a choice that make. It is not one that is forced upon me by someone else.

While I was not upset on my own behalf, I couldn’t help thinking about all of the other people who might have been in my position. What if I was someone who wasn’t even close to coming out, or someone who was struggling with their sexuality or, heaven forbid, what if I were just a man who doesn’t perform masculinity in the way expected of straight men? Had I been one of those people, this moment would have been even worse.

If ever there was a time when Eve Sedgwick’s epistemology of the closet–the idea that the closet remains a structure with which all queer people must contend, either implicitly or explicitly, in their daily lives–was made material, this was it. As Sedgwick explains: “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.” In other words, every encounter with a new person demands that the queer person decide:  will I tell this person who I truly am? And what will the consequences be? Do I keep this part of my identity secret, or do I live openly?

This exchange also revealed much about the way in which sexuality and gender remain wedded together in the vernacular imagination, since I’m speculating that it was my failure to adequately perform masculinity that prompted her to ask her question. What was it about me, I wonder(ed) that allowed her to read me as gay? Was it my ever-so-slightly “effeminate” affect and behavior? Was it my voice? My mannerisms? Some combination of the above? Some other affect that cannot be quantified but only felt by those that I come into contact with, something that triggers the proverbial “gaydar” in my fellow human beings? I don’t know the answer, and that in itself troubles me.

What’s more, this incident revealed to me, in a shockingly visceral sort of way, how privilege works in everyday life. This person asked me an incredibly invasive question, and without any sort of self-awareness that what she was doing was in any way intrusive. To her, it seemed perfectly natural and acceptable to ask this sort of question, and it probably never even occurred to her, in this Modern Family, post-Obergefell v. Hodges world, that such a question is itself a form of violence. She just assumed that I would be perfectly comfortable answering her question, and that it wasn’t a form of violation to ask me this in a public space (keep in mind that we had never met each other before this evening). To her, it no doubt seems that all gay men (and probably all queer people) feel comfortable confessing their orientations to complete strangers, regardless of the social setting.

Furthermore, it also forced me to consider:  why did I even feel compelled to answer this question? What was it about the power relations that she established with that question that put me in the position where I felt compelled to answer? After all, I could have just told her, in a matter-of-fact way, that it wasn’t any of her business (which it wasn’t). Part of it, of course, stems from my own avowed investment in owning and displaying my queerness, but part of it also stems from the fact that I was expected to be willing to answer that question without feeling put upon or violated. For that matter, so were my friends, who were also asked the same perplexing question, in a similarly nonchalant manner. Her privilege, unassuming as it was, enabled her to ask this question without a trace of chagrin or discomfort.

Some time ago, my brilliant colleague Melissa posted a brilliant piece on this blog about the power of gay male privilege, and what strikes me about my own encounter is how it is the inverse of her experience. Rather than being the recipient of said privilege, I was now being subjected to someone else’s. It was one of those increasingly common moments when I recognized that privilege works in all sorts of ways, not all of them immediately obvious. If we are truly invested in making this world a more just and equitable one for all citizens, we need to start by calling out these moments of privilege for what they are. If I could go back and redo that night, I would have informed her that it was none of her business, reclaiming my agency from her privileged grasp.

But I didn’t, precisely because it never occurred to me to do so.

And that truly disturbs me.


T.J. West III is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English. His dissertation, tentatively titled History’s Perilous Pleasures:  Experiencing Antiquity in Post-War Hollywood Film, explores the historico-biblical epic and the ways in which it attempts to mitigate the terrifying nature of modern history through an appeal to the ancient world. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

 

A life is made of critical appreciation

The curious thing about the arts is how they flow across geographical limitations like no other stream of study or career. Art has an organic capability to mold itself in the vision of its audience no matter what its origins were. The story of a French boy who finds an extremely spherical balloon that has a mind of its own (Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon) can create vivid emotions for a college student living in a busy metropolis in India. The painting of a couple embraced in a passionate kiss amidst stark hues of yellow and green, created by an Austrian painter (Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss) could mean very different things for an American artist and a Turkish student. A Sufi song could be interpreted as a prayer to God or an ode to eternal love.

Just like any form of art, good television content flows across borders as well. When I started watching The Good Wife while still in India, I was mesmerized. The last time I was that mesmerized was when I discovered gratuitous nudity and sex on the US version of Queer as Folk. What made The Good Wife good, besides the brilliant cast and their on-point acting skills, were the stories it spoke of—the flawlessness in every episode’s script, every season’s arc and in the series’ overall progression. But I also realized that good television was not just about what the show creators put on our screens. It was also about our critical appreciation of them.

As a teenager, Friends used to be my favorite show. I loved each and every thing about it. I can still repeat most of the dialogues without the slightest hesitation. But as I have grown, something changed. I still love the show and its many situations, but it’s not my favorite anymore. Throughout the series, one joke was constant: being ‘gay’ in any way was laughable and mock-worthy. Chandler had a bad childhood because of his parents and yet, somehow, it is always easier for him to forgive his cisgender straight mother than his father who came out as a transgender woman while he was still a kid, even though he is embarrassed more than once about his mother’s “promiscuous and unruly” persona. Ross has always been less than thrilled about Carol leaving him for a woman and has never hidden his discontent with her “lesbian status”; even after giving her away at her wedding, Ross consistently treats Carol’s wife, Susan, as something less than human.

And yet, Friends is also a champion of myriad social issues of the time. The show broadcast one of television’s very first lesbian weddings that transpired from a long-standing and successful relationship. It wittily showcased the awkwardness of the heteronormative concept of “coming out” when they turned the tables and made Phoebe’s presumed gay, green card husband come out as straight. Phoebe went against all sorts of societal pressures and decided to turn the stigma of surrogate motherhood of the 90s on its head by carrying her brother’s triplets in her womb. Rachel showed the world that it is not easy being a single mother, but it is definitely not impossible; she raised her daughter as a single woman and went on to have a successful career in the fashion industry. Chandler’s father showed the world that there is absolutely nothing wrong or embarrassing in being a transgender woman. You have just got to know how to own it with the right sequins and a hat to match. To tease out this tension is to appreciate, but appreciate critically—to enjoy, but to think.

After accepting her GLAAD Vanguard Award at the GLAAD Media Awards this year, Kerry Washington said, “There is so much power in storytelling, and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling, in inclusive representation.” Compound that with the skill of critical appreciation and a whole new world of perspectives comes alive. For me, graduate school and the different individuals I met on my journey here made all the difference. I mean, for God’s sake, I don’t watch Queer As Folk for the sex anymore.


Image from tv.com

Aishik Barua is a 2nd-year MBA student concentrating on media marketing. He is particularly in love with TV shows (from The Sopranos to The Flash), books (from The Little Prince to the Harry Clifton series) and a myriad number of modern era conspiracy theories. When he is not screwing his eyes at some website’s Google Analytics page, he could be found doodling with his sketch pencils, cooking a new dish or simply engaging in general goofiness.

Coda: Asexual Awareness Week and the Future of Queer Theory

Last week, I completed the Safer People, Safer Spaces training my university offers to learn better ways to be an ally, whether you’re a member or a supporter of the queer community. One of the activities we did involved matching vocabulary words (like lesbian, heteronormativity, drag, M2F) to their definitions and then discussing what we learned and what confused us. One of the words was asexuality, and to my surprise, no one had any questions about it!

In most settings, this is definitely not the norm. Even though, as one blogger pointed out, the US is home to more asexuals (or, as some prefer to be called, aces) than it is to Muslims, breast-cancer survivors, and Yale graduates, asexuality is not on most people’s radars. Even those within the LGBT community are sometimes unaware of asexuality as an orientation — indeed, the “A” in LGBTQIA+ more often stands for “ally” than “ace.” Thus, Asexual Awareness Week (this year, October 26–November 1) occurs at the end of LGBT History Month. Today, I’m going to sketch out the ways the conversations I see happening inside the asexual community might shape the queer theory of the future.

Only a handful of scholars in the humanities are doing research on asexuality studies.1 Nevertheless, the language of asexuality as it exists in the everyday praxis of aces has been invaluable to helping me reconsider the ways we think about desire and relationships in texts. Because asexuality — that is, the absence of sexual attraction — does not preclude the formation of other attractions, aces have developed a vocabulary set to describe those experiences. They distinguish between sexual, romantic, affective (“friendly”), and aesthetic attraction, and the different conditions under which these occur and the objects that these take. For instance, “homoromantic” describes someone who falls in love with those of their same sex or gender; a “demiromantic” is someone who falls in love only after a long friendship; an “aromantic” doesn’t fall in love, but might desire intense friendship.2

These desires are not new, and certainly aren’t limited to aces: John Henry Newman’s romantic friendships look very much like the intimate relationships of a homoromantic ace, but the chaste “seraphick love” that John Evelyn and Mary Godolphin shared in the seventeenth century could be conceived of as a queerplatonic relationship of two otherwise sexual people. What is new is the way these words examine phenomena whose existence and uniformity have been taken for granted.

Sometimes, the impulse to name certain desires can overwhelm the desires themselves, but what I think these concepts highlight is the plurality of ways in which people form attractions and desires, and that their objects need not be so neatly aligned. For instance, considering the ways in which Doyle’s John Watson might be simultaneously heterosexual (marrying and having a child by Mary Morstan) and homoromantic (in romantic love with Sherlock Holmes) helps us to grasp how a person can desire two objects in different, non-competing ways. In a way, asexuality has done for romance and sexuality what Judith Butler has done for gender and sex, by uncoupling one from the other (pun intended).

But the asexual community, of course, is not without its controversies. Some people don’t think that asexuality should be lumped into the LGBTQ+ “alphabet soup” because it’s technically not a sexual orientation but rather a not-sexual orientation. This, I think, ignores the great potential for intersectional solidarity, as homoromantic and trans* aces face oppressions that are very similar to those faced by their allosexual counterparts, and heteronormativity limits the experiences of sexual nonconformists indiscriminately.

Some have also criticized how white the movement is, with writers of color like Alok Vaid-Menon describing how to claim asexuality as an identity feels like a betrayal of their race. Some identity communities have long been de-sexualized as a means of discipline and disenfranchisement. Thus, self-describing as asexual plays into these enduring stereotypes, which certainly need dismantling. The asexuality leadership has been surprisingly self-reflexive about how race and gender authorizes (or fails to authorize) the perceived legitimacy of certain sexual orientations. At the same time, however, it’s no less important for us to question those structures that make sexuality compulsory, while we remain sex-positive.

I think the definition that we had to match at training put it best: “Each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently.” Just delete “asexual” and you’ll have described everyone. As queer studies develops, we’re thinking more plurally to account for the many and colorful ways that our experiences and identities intersect, shaping our selfhoods and our positions in our communities.


Notes

  1. NWSA’s Asexuality Studies Interest Group and the conference panels it has coordinated has been my primary source for asexuality studies in the humanities.
  2. The Huffington Post put together a handy simplified infographic to depict this.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

 

Queering LGBT History: The Case of Sherlock Holmes Fanfic

This summer, I fell for BBC’s “Sherlock” hard1 — hard enough to drive me back to fanfic. Fanfic has grown up in the past decade: it now has activists, “aca-fans” (academic fans), and copyright lawyers, and a nonprofit defending artists’ rights to disseminate transformative works, including fiction. My casual intention to fill the wait till next season with fanfic rapidly developed into academic fascination, especially because I discovered that its writers are challenging traditional notions of sexuality and narrative in ways that mass media and even academia aren’t.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that some of the problems about LGBT historiography I discussed last week could be mitigated by our adopting a transformative fiction philosophy. Allow me to map the landscape of queer fanfic, using Sherlock as an example, before I argue that point.

Sherlock fans have been writing fanfic ever since Arthur Conan Doyle (or ACD, as fanfic writers call him) was still writing. Anne Jamison, an English and fan-culture scholar, has described the output of the Sherlock fandom over the past century as essentially transformative works. This includes not just unpublished fanfic but also myriad films, novels, and TV programs, because they all transform the canonical ACD stories, in form and content, with a fan’s devotion to “writing that continues, interrupts, reimagines, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written about.”2

The genealogy of fanfic for BBC’s Sherlock is particularly rich for my interest in transformative fiction, because it’s a nesting doll of referentiality. BBC Sherlock fic riffs on Moffat and Gatiss’s twenty-first century reincarnation of Sherlock, which itself riffs on ACD’s Victorian Sherlock and the many twentieth-century reincarnations which the program’s creators have declared canonized.3 Fic writer A.J. Hall, as Jamison points out, can make reference to BBC’s Sherlock, ACD’s Sherlock, and a 1950’s “fan-authored pastiche” Sherlock all in one fic4 — yet no one would mistake that fic for any of its source texts.

This is the difference between “canon” and what fans call “headcanon.” Canon is the Ur-text, a status to which fan writers make no claim of aspiring. There is a certain playful value attached to incorporating elements from canon (Sherlock’s affinity for bees shows up in many fics, as well as the TV program), but these nods exist within “headcanon” — a fan’s personal parallel world(s). “Headcanon” exists alongside “canon,” depending upon the source for basic inspiration (usually its characters) but freely recreating the source in a conscious departure from it.

Fans use these parallel worlds to explore what could have been or might be, especially as regards sexualities that have not found mainstream representation. There is no conclusive literary evidence that ACD conceived of his Sherlock and John as “homosexual”; their relationship presents as a romantic friendship, although those were going out of fashion when he was writing. Likewise, despite queerbaiting, Moffat insists that his Sherlock is not gay, let alone ace. In fanfic, however, literally any interpretation goes.

Myriad fanfic categorizing tags allow readers to find what version of Sherlock’s sexuality appeals to them: gay “Johnlock” and asexual!Sherlock/bisexual!John cover some of the more popular ones, in addition to “OT3s” (One True Threesomes) and a plethora of kinks (the usual varieties, along with furries, fauns, and male pregnancy). While these labels can flatten the contours of the actual uniquely queer praxis within individual works (in the same way that LGBT labels can elide sexual and gender complexities), word-of-mouth reviews of the ways in which a writer imagines two characters negotiating an unprecedented relationship reminds me to keep an open mind about my expectations when see a fic’s tags.

Although authors and readers both have pet theories about what Sherlock’s sexuality “really” is, the fan writer’s explicit self-distancing from “canon” means that a plurality of “headcanons” co-exist on the periphery of the source text. My friend can ship gay Johnlock, I can ship bisexual!John/straight!Mary/asexual!Sherlock, and fanfic satisfies both our preferences without (much) argument between us.

In this way, we might think of historical LGBT icons as personal role models without needing or intending to make claims about their “canonical” sexuality. In my parallel narrative, Joan of Arc is patron of trans* rights and John Henry Newman is patron of asexuality. Neither of these is true in historical reality, and I would never write an essay to “prove” it, but that’s my “headcanon,” and (if I may abuse a neologism) — I’m shipping it!

Next week: a coda in honor of Asexuality Awareness Week


Notes

  1. Apologies for the Reichenfeels.
  2. Anne Jamison, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (Dallas: BenBella, 2013), 17.
  3. Ibid. 11.
  4. Ibid. 9.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

Overwriting History: “Just Reading” and the Case of John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman has been in my Twitter feed a lot lately. Apparently, when this Victorian cardinal wasn’t writing his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the nineteenth century’s longest and driest autobiography (sorry, Newman), he wrote religious commentary that some people still find instructive. But it wasn’t all that long ago that Newman was in the news for very different reasons.

Just before his beatification in 2010, gay-rights activists protested the Vatican’s exhumation and relocation of Newman’s remains from the grave he shared with his dear friend, Ambrose St. John, to a chapel for public veneration. Claiming Newman as one of their own, protestors pointed his written command that his body join his friend’s in death: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”1  To the protesters, the Vatican’s flouting of  this will was a deliberate erasure of what they perceived to be a same-sex relationship from public memory in order to “sanitize” Newman’s biography before sainthood.2

In response, the Vatican commissioned an article that, in reactionary fashion, proceeded to do just that. Ian Ker, a professor and priest, insisted that Newman and St. John’s relationship was purely platonic; that Newman had fought off heterosexual lust as a youth and remained committed to continent celibacy as a priest; and that had Newman been alive today, he would surely have submitted to the wishes of the Church, even if She wanted him reburied away from his dearest friend.3 Ker also would claim that none of Newman’s human remains had been discovered in the exhumation.4 With these four claims, Ker discredited the possibly homosexual nature of Newman’s relationship with St. John at the same time as he called into doubt the enduring existence of the relationship itself.

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The public debate over Newman’s identity—saint or sinner, homosexual or celibate5—in 2010 echoes the public debate over Newman’s identity nearly 150 years earlier. In 1864 Newman responded to the criticism of Charles Kingsley, a popular author and adherent of “Muscular Christianity” who publicly accused Newman of displaying perversion in his converting from the Church of England to the Church of Rome—which, since the Reformation, had in England been popularly associated with sodomizing popes and the Whore of Babylon. Curiously, this exchange has today led to scholarly and non-scholarly speculation about Newman’s sexuality.

When I researched Newman for a class on Victorian life-writing, I was struck by how Newman constantly battled public misinterpretation of his life choices and writings during his lifetime. Hence, his publication of that autobiography—an attempt to definitively set the record straight on his supposed perversity. The way in which readers still endeavor today to read between the lines of his writing for evidence of sexual preference seems to me to unravel his endless work to prevent others from commandeering his self-narrative.

This potential for misinterpretation is a problem with declaring historical figures to be “lesbian/gay/bi/trans*.” To call George Washington Carver simply “gay” erases the whole history of slave castration in the American South. To call Joan of Arc simply “trans*” ignores the complexity of early notions of sartorial gender transmutability. Likewise, searching for Newman’s active (homo?)sexuality overwrites not only his stated longtime personal preference for celibacy but also the value of romantic friendship as a relationship that doesn’t have to be hetero–, homo–, or any kind of– sexual.7

To counter this tendency, queer-studies scholar Sharon Marcus advocates a reading process she terms “just reading” as a means of avoiding falling into the trap of “symptomatic reading”—that is, reading our modern versions of sexualities into earlier texts. For her, “‘just reading’ … attends to what texts make manifest on their surface.”8 The symptomatic readings of Newman’s supporters in 2010 looked for “symptoms” of homo– or heterosexuality in Newman’s life. A just reading would take Newman’s text at its word, perhaps with an eye to understanding what it meant for him, as a Catholic priest in nineteenth-century England, to be a celibate man in a romantic friendship. For this reason, “just reading” helps to do justice to the text, its author, and the full spectrum of queer possibilities across the centuries.

Next week: Queering LGBT history


Notes

    1. Ian Ker, “Oxford and Rome Again,” in John Henry Newman: A Biography, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 698.
    2. Robert Verkaik, “Plan to Exhume Cardinal is ‘Homophobic’,” Independent (London), August 25, 2008.
    1. Ian Ker, “Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Exhumation Objectors,” L’Osservatore Romano, September 3, 2008, weekly edition in English.
    1. Ibid., afterword to John Henry Newman: A Biography, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 747.
    2. This is their strange set of false dichotomies, not mine.
    1. John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua & Six Sermons, ed. Frank M. Turner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 137.
    1. Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 3.

Images of John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John’s grave marker found here: http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2010/09/pope_to_beatify_cardinal_newma.html


Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

A History of LGBT History

 

October is a beautiful month. My favorite bike trail smells like toast, crumbly apple crisp becomes a perfect midterm snack, and the trees are a rainbow of fire. When I walk past the striated maple on my way from class, I secretly like to think that maybe this is why October is LGBT history month.

I know the real history of LGBT history month, of course. First observed in 1994, these thirty-one days of celebration, reflection, and activism grew out of National Coming Out Day, which takes place every year on October 11. October 11 is itself the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. LGBT history month itself, then, has an illustrious history.

Appropriately, one of the demands of the later 1993 March on Washington was for LGBT visibility in school curricula — a sort of collective “coming out” for LGBT history. To this end, a Missouri teacher named Rodney Wilson conceived of LGBT history month as a way to learn about gay and lesbian figures from our recent and distant past. Since then, schools and communities have expanded the scope of the month to include more gender and sexual minorities and more events like lectures, talent shows, and safer-spaces workshops. At its core, however, LGBT history month remains invested in its name: recovering and creating a history authored by and for sexual minorities.

In many ways, this is still important work for our present. In even recent history, sexual minorities had to live off the radar of mainstream, heteronormative society. This resulted in an occlusion of the rich history of sexual nonconformity, which its detractors took advantage of. As queer-studies scholar Elizabeth Freeman describes it, “since sexual identity emerged as a concept, gays and lesbians have been figured as having no past: no childhood, no origin or precedent in nature, no family traditions or legends, and, crucially, no history as a distinct people.”1 Erasure has been one of the key weapons that dominating forces has historically wielded against minorities of all kinds. This is one reason why the incorporation of LGBT history into school curricula remains controversial. Thus, rediscovering LGBT history — filling in the blanks that heteronormativity has generated by writing sexual minorities out of the general history — is an act of resistance and a reassertion of value.

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But there is reason for skepticism about LGBT history from within the queer community, too. The idea that we can have an LGBT “history,” in which we can trace queer “ancestors,” buys into a heteronormative concept of time — that is, linear, reproductive time. There is also the problem of identifying figures from centuries past as “gay” or “lesbian”: not only does doing so efface one’s right to self-determination and self-identification, but it also erases the variety of erotic desires that exist outside the LGBT acronym — modes of desire which pre-date the concept of homosexuality, and sexual identity itself.

Over the next few weeks, I will look at how we “do” LGBT and queer histories (and what’s the difference) from a literary perspective: in particular, what it means to (re)construct a queer history, and the advantages and pitfalls of identifying queer figures in literary history. My examples will come especially from English literary history, since that is where my doctoral research is focused, but I hope that this discussion will illuminate conversations in other literary and non-literary fields. I’ll also consider the ways in which we can locate queer histories within the past while remaining responsible to individual actors in that history.

By way of analogy, I know that my reading of LGBT history in the trees on campus is factually incorrect, not unlike calling Shakespeare’s rival Christopher Marlowe “gay” is factually incorrect — if only because to Marlowe “gay” described color, dress, joy, pleasure, and not homosexuality. But I wonder if there’s something in the seemingly queer aesthetic of certain literary texts — like my rainbow trees — that can help us appreciate the beautiful depths of LGBT history.

Next week: Recuperation as resistance


Notes

  1. Elizabeth Freeman, introduction to GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies13 (2-3) (2007): 162.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”