I was writing a ramble on my life’s trajectory in the past four or five years, and in the context (don’t ask. It’s complicated), a phrase from “Howl” came to mind. That phrase is “the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising,” and it’s rather odd that I thought of it, because the context had nothing to do with nitroglycerin, shrieks, fairies, or advertising. So quite odd.
But, see, the problem is that I was thinking of “fairies” with a totally different connotation than the one that I’m pretty sure Ginsberg intended. In my sex and gender class this week, we learned what “fairy” meant to urban folks in the early 20th century: it connoted a certain homosexual prototype. Before we (as American culture) got used to conceiving of homosexuality as being defined by whom you’re attracted to and have sex with, it was defined according to gender characteristics. Therefore, a man who dressed and behaved in what was considered an effeminate manner was classified as a “fairy,” and was considered to be “other” or “deviant,” though were often tolerated as an amusing novelty in places like New York. On the other hand, the men who picked up and had sex with fairies, because they were assumed to be penetrators as opposed to penetratees, were considered “normal” men—they weren’t stigmatized or considered “other.”
So now that we know what fairies were in the popular culture of Ginsberg’s period (basically think of the most offensive effeminate gay male stereotype you can, then import it to the early 20th century), we’re stuck. What can they possibly have to do with my high-school experience in suburban California, far removed as it is from the Bowery and the Village?
Well see, this is the thing. Because before my history class taught me what it meant to be a “fairy” in 1940s New York, and perhaps before my latest close-reading craze, it would never have occurred to me to get so stuck on the meaning of this word that I couldn’t finish the ramble that brought it to mind. I’m glad that I’m learning to think this way, and accumulating the knowledge that enables me to do so. This is, in part, what college is about—and I love every bit of it.