A century and a half ago or so, John Addington Symonds took his Victorian culture from a point at which same-sex desire was an inconceivable, inchoate longing that could only be expressed in Greek and Latin or with the French phrase l’amour de l’impossible, to a point at which there existed an entire historical, literary, and philosophical tradition that both validated same-sex love and relationships and provided an English-language discourse in which to study and express them. Symonds was an undergraduate in Oxford in the years 1858-1862. He studied Plato with Jowett, and astonished his tutors by not only getting one of the best Firsts of his year, but also winning the Newdigate Poetry Prize and the Chancellor’s Essay Prize. On a chance visit to a friend in Cambridge in 1861, he heard someone read aloud some excerpts from “Calamus.” When Symonds was 21, the seeds were sown for the framework he would build up over the course of the next thirty years through which to describe the way he felt when he went to Bristol Cathedral to listen to, and look at, the choristers.
In 2011, I am 21. In two weeks, I suppose you’ll be able to call me a quondam junior member of Trinity College, Oxford. I won’t have any exam results or university prizes to show for my time here. I do a modern subject. But I have read Plato (in translation), and Whitman. I have made friends here in this world across the Atlantic who did in the 21st century the same course that Symonds did in the 19th. This is the puzzling Oxford palimpsest. This is life in this strange city of dreaming spires, where on Saturdays you can go out to gay bars and dance, and on Sundays you can choose from two dozen different services of choral evensong and follow it up with formal hall. A century and a half or so ago, Oxford undergrads next-door in Balliol would have studied for their Greek prose composition papers and sat up till all hours debating about their Master’s article about Biblical interpretation in Essays and Reviews. Today, they can do these things too. But they can also celebrate Pride.
Oxford’s Pride festival was yesterday. I didn’t go. I worked and I socialized and I paced my room on Broad Street listening to Radio 3 while wondering, as I always do, how well Symonds would recognize this city now. I think I was just as happy for it. Why? Because the repurposing of cultural compasses works all ways, and because I am growing older, and because I believe the best way to rescue the message of Pride from commercialization and “homonationalism”—the best way to give “It Gets Better” and “Born This Way” the benefit of the doubt instead of simply getting angry—is to universalize, and essentially to reclaim, the message.
And so I didn’t go to Pride yesterday. But when a friend emailed me yesterday afternoon with an expression of sadness and uncertainty about hir future, I replied that with the careful practice of coping mechanisms and management of self-expectations and self-doubt, it can “get better.” And when another friend self-deprecatingly called hirself a “freak” for doing hard academic work on a Saturday night, I channeled my inner pop star, and said, “You were born this way, baby.” I said it with a raised eyebrow and a sarcastic tone of voice, the double camp that comes from grad students in jeans and woolly sweaters talking about their work through the language of a wildly successful surrealist diva. But, at the same time, I meant it with all my heart.
Because, you see, if there is anything that the long transhistorical (and ahistorical) narrative of cultural reclamation stretching from Plato to Gaga has taught me, it is that fabulousness comes in many forms, and that we all have a right to pursue it where we see it and use it as a way of enriching our own lives. The things in which we take Pride can be sexual liberation and the thudding bass of a disco beat, but they don’t have to be. I think that they can be anything and anyone we love, any work that we do. So many people deserve the chance to celebrate their survival, their learning of self-reliance, their community spirit, and the ways that they are able to make spaces for themselves in the world. There are many kinds of love that seem impossible, inexpressible.
When I use the Pride metaphor to make sense of my life, it stretches back 21 years through a string of confusions and evolutions of identity: from preschool when I wore frilly party dresses but took the boys’ side in the Boy-Girl War, to kindergarten when I stopped the battle, first grade when I first started to hear that I was going to Hell for being an atheist, fifth grade when I started to refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance, seventh grade when I wore my wool cape to school and ninth grade when I dressed up as Thomas Jefferson, tenth grade when I joined a rock band and the following summer when an orchestra mother walked up to me and said “Stay away from my daughter,” twelfth grade when I fought for the right to wear trousers instead of a dress under my graduation regalia, and the long hard process of adjusting to university and accepting myself and my right to be there. All the way through I had Lewis Carroll and L.M. Montgomery and Brian Jacques and Robert Louis Stevenson and a raft of fantasy and historical fiction books about the girl-warriors who disguised themselves as boys to join the Royal Navy or fight in the American Civil War; all the way through I had dead languages and living ones, Ovid and Shakespeare, the Children’s Bible and D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths. When I use the Pride metaphor, I celebrate that I now live in a world filled with people who dressed weirdly and rebelled esoterically, and who sought in fiction and in history the kindred spirits who would keep them from going mad from loneliness. When I talk about how “it gets better,” or more accurately how we can better ourselves through a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress, I think about how all of us (and I know there must be lots of us) who all too recently experienced the exciting moment when real friends started to replace a social life lived entirely in the imagination owe it to those who haven’t quite got there yet to be there for them; how we all owe each other help at assuaging the feared inevitability of dying alone. And when I talk about being “born this way,” I mean when I started to realize that having friends didn’t mean pretending not to care about school. It makes me remember my third semester of university, when I started to remember that I had never stopped being the constantly-pontificating three-year-old who loved Aladdin and the solar system and tap-dancing and whose party trick was reading the New York Times aloud to her easily-impressed grandmother.
Pride is a time of year when we celebrate the Stonewall drag queens who stood up and fought back. But it is also a time of year when we celebrate difference of all kinds, and particularly, perhaps, the kinds that don’t fit so easily into an identity-politics box. It’s a time when we remember those who died alone, making their spirits less lonely in our memories, and when we try to make sure we are creating a world in which mental survival is not always so very difficult. And yes, I believe that at this time of year, as at all others, it is not quite so important to hold a banner in a parade as it is to be there for a lonely kid who needs her world widened. But if you know a kid, and you think she will be startled into self-acceptance by a chance encounter with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, by all means get on your nearest source of public transportation and high-tail it down to your local Christopher Street Day Parade. Sometimes, what you really do need is a drag act and a disco beat.
Late last night, after my friends and I all went back to our respective homes under the constant drizzle of English June, my downstairs neighbors were having a party, and as I lay in my bed trying to fall asleep all I could hear was loud music, drunken shouting, and a lot of words I don’t like to hear: “bitch,” “twat,” “cunt.” When your personal space is being invaded at two in the morning by the culture of juvenile sexism whence you’ve spent all your life running, it’s awfully hard to marshal the courage to go outside and try to tell a lot of drunk kids that what they’re saying is wrong (though I did eventually ask them to please turn down the music, though fat lot of good it did). But what you can do is you can drown out their shouting with a podcast of RuPaul being fabulous on National Public Radio. It’s all about the coping strategies. It’s all about survival. It’s all about Pride.