Category Archives: LGBT

Orals Diary, 3; or, Reading and Writing Through Current Events

“It’s always open season on gay kids.” So begins Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” published as an article in 1991 and then, three years later, collected in her book of essays Tendencies, which I read yesterday and today in the Upper Reading Room, compulsively toggling back to social media every few pages in order to take in the tragedy that happened early Sunday morning in Orlando. Of those of the over 50 victims who have been identified, over half were under 30. For those of us who teach college—the late and lamented EKS, me, maybe you—many of them were the age of our students. The youngest was 19. Sedgwick writes in the introduction to Tendencies that she had young people, her students, in mind when she was writing. At the time she was writing some of these essays, surely some of her students were dying—certainly, she writes in Tendencies of a very close friend who did—and she was one of many people who put their queer shoulders to the wheel, putting pressure on the US government and the public to do something about a cruel fate that so many young people needn’t have met with.

At the time she was writing the essays in Tendencies, Sedgwick was also living through and with breast cancer, and so the book is very much about death and mortality and suffering, but it is about slow deaths, enervating ones, a drawn-out work of mourning (she writes a eulogy for a dying friend while he is still alive). Not so the young people shot down in cold blood on Sunday morning, whose families (and their chosen families, who, as Claire Potter has pointed out, are still being denied visitation rights, as they were 25 years ago) in some cases are still waiting to learn their fates. But the metaphor of “open season” that Sedgwick invokes (she’s talking about the pathologization of effeminate men) is not inappropriate for our age in which queer people out dancing, or college students, or seven-year-olds, can be shot like so many sitting ducks in places that should have been safe by weapons that those who have shot them in war zones believe should never be allowed in civilian contexts.

I didn’t expect that setting out to chronicle my orals reading would have any relevance to the outside world. Instead, I thought it would keep me going despite the frustration of having to spend so long doing something that doesn’t seem that useful. Evidently, I can be a better historian if I set aside these seven months to absorb lots of information, but in the moment it’s easy to look round at all the other people doing good and become angry at yourself for spending hours in a 400-year-old library reading yet another attempt to explain why X canonical work of 18th- or 19th-century literature is sexually transgressive. I was taught Sedgwick in college, in graduate school, have read her on my own, and have admired her work and, through the testimony of others, who she was as a person for many years—and yet, truth be told, going through her catalogue for orals can make it seem a little formulaic. Some other literary critic produced a reading of a canonical work of 18th- or 19th-century literature—or perhaps another cultural artifact—that was pathologizing, or too crudely-drawn and obvious, and Sedgwick sets out to put them right, with all the tricks available to a talented critic showing the text to have meanings both more and less transgressive, more and less complex, than the first reader could have seen. Several of the essays in Tendencies are like this: the one about Diderot, the one about Wilde, the one about Cather, the one about Austen, even the one about John Waters’ films. They do all relate elegantly back to her central, vital theme: an extension of her argument in Epistemology, which explored the connections and contradictions between homosexuality as a minority identity and as a more public and diffuse signifier; and between homosexuality as a transgression of gender norms and as an institution of gender separatism, but also moving further beyond “gay and lesbian” into this new world of the word “queer.” And so the characters in texts don’t just turn out to be gender-transgressive, or sexually unstable, in Sedgwick’s readings: they disrupt what “family” means (as in The Importance of Being Earnest, where uncles and aunts matter more than mothers and fathers); they refuse to be categorized into the homo/hetero binary (as in Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, for whom Sedgwick makes a case that I do not entirely follow but am happy to respect as having a sexual identity as an “onanist”). The historian, who is perfectly content with the finding that the Jane Austen heroines of this world did not understand sexuality, gender, and love the way we do today and does not seek to upset any further apple carts, sometimes gets a little lost around here. But Sedgwick has more to say when she lays the literature aside, as she does with many of the essays in Tendencies, and puts her critical acumen to work in other fields. She writes critically about her own identity, with wonderfully moving things to say about her identity as a fat woman, her identification with gay men, the love-relationships of her life. Adding the chapters together, it’s possible to see how the literary reading might have helped her to read the text of her own life.

I can’t imagine this was easy. Because it’s a special, emotional, tragic occasion, I’ll tell you why. I had a friend in college who was sometimes very reserved, but put that reservation to good use watching and understanding the lives of the people around her. Once at night when some of us were drinking tea in her room, she suddenly turned to me and said, “Emily, why do you want so much to be a gay man?” I stumbled over an answer, not sure how to provide one while also denying the presence of the question. I recall others in the room remarking that it was a weird, and maybe a rude, thing to say. But it has weighed on me for years, because obviously it spoke something of the truth. As I have gotten to know Sedgwick through her writing, it is a great relief to know that—like countless queer people who found community through literature where they couldn’t among the living—I am not the only woman who has questioned her commitments to her feminist politics because of her deep emotional investment in communities of men, nor the only one who has sought to live out queerness despite what would seem very much to be unavoidable cross-gender erotic and affective commitments. I am grateful to Sedgwick for having such an unconventional critical style, with so much of herself in it, because if it weren’t for her writing I might not have known that it is okay and honest and ethical to have the inclinations that I do, couldn’t have seen someone else state them so matter-of-factly, and then work to create a larger space in which any kind of affective position that doesn’t fit into the categories available to us might be articulated.

What is the point of reading books in a 400-year-old library while the world burns around us? Some, after all, believe that those of us who find ourselves reading books at times like this are unredeemable, and advocate the violent destruction of the institutions in which it is possible for us to read them. They can rest in the comfort of their unbesmirched leftist politics, pure as the driven snow, while it is left for those of us who still read in buildings named after slaveholders to wrestle with our consciences. Wrestle we must, I think: it is dangerous to assume we are right that we are not doing harm to our students by making them confront new ideas they might find troubling; dangerous for us to assume that the world will be all right without us, or with only the odd modest donation to a cause or vote for a Democratic candidate; dangerous if we pass up the opportunity to bend the talents with which advantages and good fortune have bestowed us to some more urgent, and more life-saving, purpose. Yes, teachers do good, but that rings hollow on days when we have to remember that there are not a few teachers in recent years who have done the most good not by words and knowledge but simply by shielding their students from an unstable man wielding an assault rifle.

I think that we can take some comfort from the fact that all through the AIDS crisis, through which tens of thousands of queer and other vulnerable people in my country perished in part due to the government’s slowness to come to the assistance of some of the most marginalized and persecuted members of society, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick kept writing. She kept writing through her own illness, celebrating even when she herself was very ill the lives of her ill gay male friends. And she wasn’t just writing work with an obviously political or emotional purpose: Tendencies allows us to see that even MLA papers with provocative titles about the inner workings of classic novels, or about the minutiae of the methodology of the field of queer studies that she helped to found, add up to a larger picture of a corpus (a body, a body of work) devoted to changing the way people think.

A somewhat fainter, but really quite present, political backdrop to Sedgwick’s writing in this period is the canon wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As LD Burnett has noted, in this respect as well we are living through a remarkable echo of 25 years ago (weirdly, I was born a little more than 25 years ago), as older and more conservative college teachers and members of the public greet with mystery and hostility the wishes of the young to pursue a course of study whose rationale they can comprehend. In the early pages of Tendencies, Sedgwick has the best possible reaction to such views:

In the very first of the big “political correctness” scare pieces in the mainstream press, Newsweek pontificated that under the reign of multiculturalism in colleges, “it would not be enough for a student to refrain from insulting homosexuals…. He or she would be expected to… study their literature and culture alongside that of Plato, Shakespeare, and Locke.” Alongside? Read any Sonnets lately? You dip into the Phaedrus often? (Tendencies, 20)

What we do with canonical texts, we weirdos who work with them to ends other than to appreciate them (or at least, not only to appreciate them), is to show our students how to look at them from perspective after perspective until the student finds just the lens that will give her strength. For one student the Phaedrus is the epitome of classical Greek prose; for another, it is a key to the philosophy of writing and poetics; for another, it proves that another civilization long ago gave public sanction to his desires; for another, it is evidence of a rigidly hierarchical, sexist and class-bound society which modern democracies should have more sense than to revere. Or, I think Sedgwick helps us to understand, all these things can be true at once. And for that reason, turning one’s mind away from Twitter and towards such study is a moral path, perhaps even (not to get too grandiose, but) a salvific one, one that can help us know what to do when we are confronted with pain.

Don’t be stupid or self-absorbed. If you are American, contact your elected representatives and urge them to support universal background checks and an assault rifle ban. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me and for all the other teachers who lose sleep at night wondering if it will be our classrooms next. Do it for the queer Americans who have spent the twentieth and twenty-first centuries dealing with enough shit. And then take up your Plato or your Auden, kneel in prayer or go out dancing, and teach your children (for they’re your children even if you only have them fifty minutes a week in a discussion section) well.

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Orals Diary, 1

Yesterday I arrived in Oxford, on a glorious warm and sunny day in seventh week of Trinity. It is beautiful to be here in term: it’s light till 9.30pm, and last night I walked for an hour along the Thames despite my jetlag and having spent the previous night on an airplane, and milling about in the city centre today I was surrounded by young people (too many of them white, too many of them posh-accented) ruthlessly dissecting their exams, doing the same for parties, or (in one case) vigorously advertising a start-up. I met a friend for lunch in a college garden, and finalists floated by, covered in glitter and silly string. They look younger every day, undergrads: but I was one of them, here, only five years ago.

I came here despite intending not to, and I can’t fully explain why I came. Yes, it’s my home—I felt that for certain as I set eyes upon the river last night, cast a familiar eye over the familiar terraced houses of East Oxford—but like most people I have a conflicted and ambivalent relationship to my home, mine perhaps more so because it’s an adopted home, located in a country of which I am not a citizen, where I have lived for a total of about three out of 26 years, a place so strongly allied with class privilege and imperialism in so many people’s eyes that to have chosen it as one’s home is mildly reprehensible. And yet it is, and here we are.

I didn’t even have to come here for work, though I have let a great many people believe I am here for the archives. But no, I am here for the copyright deposit library, for I am spending the summer ramping my frantic reading for my departmental comprehensive exams up to fever pitch. At Columbia, we take our exams (“orals,” for they are) at some point in our third year, and I am slated to do mine in December or January, at some point before the start of the spring semester. I have four fields, for each of which I must read about 50-80 books, on which I will be examined viva voce. The fields are Britain 1688-1832, Britain 1832-present, European social and political thought in the long nineteenth century, and queer theory/history of sexuality. Particularly in the latter two fields, a lot of the books are new to me, and I thought I might do a bit of light writing as I go along about the experience of encountering these new texts—for I think I will be doing a lot of reading, and very little socializing, in the next six or seven months, and I thought it might ease the burden somewhat if I could talk to you. I thought it might ease the burden also of being in Oxford, a painful place where I am not at all sure I want to encounter the people who filled my past lives here, about which I am still not sure how I feel. I may not keep this up, but I will carry on every once in a while as energy and enthusiasm permit.

Today, then, the first day I cracked an orals book open, I started with my queer theory list, and I started slow, with the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, a weighty tome edited in 1993 to bring together what then was the current state of scholarship in what then was called lesbian and gay (rather than LGBT or queer) studies. I read Part I today—not much, 137 pages, but I was jetlagged—and focused particularly on the first two essays, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” and an excerpt from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book-length The Epistemology of the Closet. I hadn’t encountered Rubin’s essay before, and I was shocked by some of the assumptions it could hold in 1984 that we could not countenance today. Rubin writes about the need to develop a radical politics of sexuality that combats “moral panics,” denying (or so it seems to me) that any moral valence should be placed upon sex. Fair enough when she’s talking about the AIDS crisis, which many groups and individuals in her day were leveraging to stigmatize gay men; but this 26-year-old has to wonder whether feminists who worried about sadomasochistic pornography, or people concerned about how children’s sexuality might be exploited by older people, might actually have had a point. In our current atmosphere of renewed concern about child sex abuse (many of which newly-discovered instances occurred in this earlier period of support for children’s sexual freedom that, as we now know, covered up instances of exploitation), it is hard to see how someone could (as Rubin does in this essay) regard NAMBLA as right-thinking or inveigh against the law’s exclusion of minors from sexual expression.

More interesting for my purposes, though, is the way in which Rubin and Sedgwick both make historical arguments. Neither is a historian, but both take seriously the view, shaped by Foucault among others, that sexuality is historically constructed—and that, moreover, our modern paradigms of sexuality were fundamentally shaped in the last decades of the nineteenth century. I think of myself as someone who knows the last decades of the nineteenth century (as far as they pertain to sexuality in Britain, the US, and Germany) very well, and I don’t necessarily think of Foucault as a historian or this moment as the most critical one in which our present-day notions of sexual identity coalesced, although it was certainly a very important time for expert (legal, psychological, scientific) understandings of sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Recourse to this narrative lends itself to a stereotype about “repressed Victorians” that I believe fundamentally to be untrue and unhelpful, as unhelpful as describing premodern people as “gay.” It also makes me wonder about how to relate this past to the authors’ present: that is, the AIDS crisis, a time of great urgency in thinking about sexuality and its relation to society, a time in which everyone’s individual right to sexual self-expression must surely have been cast into doubt (this is testified to by the many primary sources which discuss the divides in the gay community in the very early years of AIDS about whether to adopt safer sex practices). AIDS permeates deeply the entire first part of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, which is about politics, and I am sure it will make its way into the other sections as well. Recently, I reviewed a theory book for EHR which started its narrative earlier than Rubin and Sedgwick do, but which also took AIDS as its present, even though it was published last year. What are the consequences for theorizing about sexuality when it assumes a periodization that begins with the Contagious Diseases Acts, with Oscar Wilde’s trials, or with Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld, and that ends with AIDS? What is left out of this narrative, and what paradigmatic assumptions (Foucault’s?) does it make?

Another thing that surprised me about the Reader so far is that all the writers I read today assumed a constructivist position, i.e. they imagined sexual identity to vary according to time, place, and the cultural factors present therein, and not to be constant across time and place. They all believed, after Foucault, that homosexuality arose in the context of the late nineteenth century West, and did not seek to apply that paradigm to, say, antiquity, or to discuss cultural products from before Proust and Wilde. They extended the constructivist position to apply to other concepts, such as one author, Monique Wittig, who argued that the concept of “woman” is as constructed as the concept of “lesbian.” This shows some of the ideological thrust of the Reader and its editors, perhaps: for it seems evident to me that there were in 1993, in the ’80s, and still today scholars who believe strongly and centrally in transhistorical notions of gender and homosexuality.

Obviously I’m just starting out in the massive knowledge dump that is orals, and my thinking about these questions may well change. But today they made me think about the real intellectual gains of being a historian having designed a theory field that largely asks what use queer theory is to historians (my list is evenly split between classic works of theory and more recent historical monographs which engage with the theoretical paradigms). When I first encountered queer theory it was in college, before I became a historian, and I knew many grad students from other humanities departments who were very au fait with theory and often a bit dismissive about historians, who they saw as rather dull and interested only in facts, not in greater hermeneutic possibilities. Well, that was sometimes true in the history department talks I’d go to in college. But now I have my own frustrations with scholars of sexuality and other subjects who from a literary background pronounce upon the past: for instance, making statements about the invention of sexual identity in my historical period drawn entirely from literary sources or the biographies of canonical writers, or quoting academic historians as the purveyors of facts, upon which the theorist intends to put the interpretive gloss, as if the historian hadn’t already done that herself. When I reviewed that theory book a couple months ago, though, I had serious frustrations with it as a historian, but I came to realize as I read that although the author was writing about historical cultural products (mostly visual art), and sometimes situating them in historical context, he wasn’t trying to make a historical argument. Instead, in this case, it seemed to me that he was being profoundly ahistorical (part of his project was to reinvent the gay cultural canon, and canons are nothing if not in problematic relation to attempts to historicize them) and that was okay. There’s room for many different approaches, many different political and ideological perspectives—though it would be helpful if people who hold different perspectives were able to listen to and discuss them with each other.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Because I am at heart nothing more than a boring liturgically conservative Anglican, I wandered round the corner to evensong today with the expectation of hearing a sermon attempting to describe the nature of the Trinity and hopefully getting to sing “St Patrick’s Breastplate.” Instead, this being St John the Divine, today had been designated “queer evensong,” all male pronouns referring to God had been replaced with female ones, and no reference to the liturgical calendar was made.

During the Magnificat a storm broke out, and the music was almost drowned out by loud thunder. So many idiots over the decades have tried to link extreme weather with their belief in their religious tradition’s condemnation of homosexuality. But I was reuniting with old friends in Princeton yesterday, who some years ago helped me to see love and fellowship in the defiant, catty, camp mockery of that kind of appeal to a higher power.

When I watched Russell Davies’ new TV series Cucumber last week, I remembered that what is so enduringly right about a certain camp gay tradition is the way so much of it is about putting up a bold front against self-hatred, fear, and shame, fiercely asserting one’s right to love and to be loved. Camp is not transhistorical, but the need to love and to be loved is, and it makes a certain amount of sense that the Christian and the gay traditions might have something to say to each other about that.

Bibliography:


Acknowledgements: You know who you are.

Some Brief Thoughts on Love

Between writing the chapter of my thesis on Symonds’ late work, and getting really seriously into E.M. Forster’s novels and essays, and having loads of conversations with my friends who are budding philosophers and psychoanalysts about the meaning of desire and love, I have been thinking a lot about the philosophy and ontology of love, and a lot about the space between loving a person and loving people, and a lot about the space between thinking about love and doing love. I was reminded that love can sometimes be very political—something that, these days, I often forget, despite my thesis topic—when I read a NYT column in which Frank Bruni criticized (as we have done here so many times) the “Born This Way” attitude to gay identity.

Bruni’s column begins with the story of the actress Cynthia Nixon, who has recently caused a storm of controversy by calling her “gayness”—in the form of her decision to, after years of partnership with a man, start a family with a woman—”a choice.” Bruni holds that, rather than thinking that Nixon has hurt the LGBT cause by declining to repeat the “being gay is not a choice” mantra, we ought to see things rather differently:

But while her critics have good reason to worry about how her words will be construed and used, they have no right to demand the kind of silence and conformity from Nixon that gay people have justly rebelled against. She’s entitled to her own truth and manner of expressing it.

Besides which, there are problems with some gay advocates’ insistence that homosexuality be discussed and regarded as something ingrained at the first breath.

By hinging a whole movement on a conclusion that hasn’t been — and perhaps won’t be — scientifically pinpointed and proved beyond all doubt, they hitch it to a moving target. The exact dynamics through which someone winds up gay are “still an open question,” said Clinton Anderson, the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office of the American Psychological Association. “There is substantial evidence of various connections between genes, brain, hormones and sexual identity,” he said. “But those do not amount to a simple picture that A leads to B.”

Bruni goes on to point out that we shouldn’t need to argue that homosexuality is something with which we’re born to argue that it should fall under the rubric of civil liberties. As should come as no surprise, this is nothing new. As I’ve been writing about this week, Symonds knew that trying to probe the medical and psychological reasons why we are the way we are, why we desire what and whom we desire, can be one route to understanding ourselves. That’s why he read widely in the field of sexual science (though wound up dismissing as ill-founded or illogical most of its findings), was interested in the developing field of the study of human consciousness, and collaborated with a doctor, Havelock Ellis, on an academic book about “sexual inversion” that was intended to be equal parts cultural-historical and medical. (Symonds died before the manuscript was completed, and Ellis’ subsequent work shifted it heavily towards the medical side.)

But although Symonds tried to understand sexual science, I don’t think he ever wound up thinking that it had helped him to understand what it is like to love, and especially to love outside the patterns for which one’s particular society has words and rules. Some of the first questions that Symonds asked about desire and love, when he was a teenager, were about how to keep from being controlled by one’s desires, how to translate desire into something good and noble, how to better oneself through loving and being loved. The literature that Symonds used to answer questions like these was catholic, but it was overwhelmingly literary: Plato, Dante, Walt Whitman, and many others. And after a couple years of work on sexual science, he came back to the canon—the last book he ever wrote was a study of Whitman’s poetry.

I think this is because Symonds was above all a humanist, and an ethicist. Though he was curious about how many people in his culture were, like him, homosexual, and about how they got that way, he knew that wouldn’t help him to answer the questions he believed to be most fundamentally human. Knowing definitively whether our desires were determined by our genes or moulded in early childhood or culturally constructed or something we can shape through conscious effort or something else entirely does not help us to understand how to get on in the world once desire and love—for anyone, anything—are things that are part of our life experiences. Having a word like “gay” or “straight” to call ourselves doesn’t really help us to know when it is right to reach out and touch the object of our desires, and when to let well enough alone. Knowing when in our lives we first began to feel the stirrings of desire—and knowing that that slight nausea and tightness in the stomach and quickening of the heart is “desire”—doesn’t help us to translate what we want of others into our willingness to give ourselves to them. And being political about the right to marriage, as noble a cause as that may be, doesn’t help us to be married, or even more generally “companioned” or “partnered”—doesn’t help us to turn our bodily wants into the kind of connection that not only assuages loneliness but leads the soul to sprout wings and take flight.

At the end of his article, Bruni coins a phrase that’s wonderfully admitting of nuance, “moved to love”:

I use the words “moved to love” in an effort to define the significant, important territory between “born this way” and choice. That solid ground covers “built this way,” “oriented this way,” and “evolved this way”; it incorporates the possibility of a potent biological predisposition mingling with other factors beyond anyone’s ready control; and it probably applies to Nixon herself.

We love in the most unpredictable ways. Sometimes we find ourselves loving in ways that our society clearly doesn’t admit, and we write books and wage campaigns to have our love declared an equal inalienable right. But sometimes we merely find ourselves loving in ways that are a little different, or unexpected: the best friends who, without ever having sex, give all of themselves to each other, reminding those of us who study the homoerotic literary tradition that Adhesiveness and “the love of comrades” have always been more than an identity politics; the woman who finds that the shifting genders of her lovers, long past the accepted period of “experimentation,” defies the easy application of a label of sexual orientation; the woman in her early twenties who feels at the same time as if she could be fifteen or thirty-five, and who against all her expectations finds herself on the eve of her last undergraduate term feeling a desire for connection that she never dreamed she’d feel, and who turns to men who write about impossible love for other people in other times and places to explain it.

These are understandings of the muddles and fallibilities of love and the humans who are moved to it that transcend any kind of identity politics or label or taxonomic, empirical explanation. As Symonds knew 120 years ago, human feeling is a many-splendored thing that must be understood as such, not crammed into any kind of rubric. Our only duty is to ensure that this powerful force is to be used responsibly and well, purposed to the highest good of making the world better and brighter, and that the communities we build allow for this to be a central and noble endeavor.

Activism at Princeton

Over on tumblr, Aku writes:

College rankings are an audience-grab and a crapshoot, I know. They’re not scientific. Still, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that Princeton was #7 on Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s list of Top Colleges for Activists. (ETA: Disappointed that we made it so high, that is.) I’ll get into this in a more sustained way later, but I actually think there’s a lot of resistance to activism on campus (particularly with regards to feminism and gender activism, see above), and that in some ways it’s been institutionalized out of existence. I’d rather not congratulate us just yet; there’s lot’s of work to be done.

What do Princeton people think?

I spent the first half of my Princeton career as an activist. I helped to organize two anarchic, eye-catching protests, one against Proposition 8 and one against the National Organization for Marriage; I helped get Princeton its first gender-neutral housing policy; I wrote about left-wingy and gay things for campus and national periodicals; I put eighty kids on a bus and got us all to D.C. to participate in the 2009 National Equality March. The Tory (a campus right-wing magazine) called me a “campus radical” as if it was a slur. Minor national far-right celebrities character-assassinated me. I was all set to become a minor celebrity too, for being loud and in-your-face and An Activist.

Then I stopped—thanks to Princeton. For one thing, as my academic obligations multiplied, I had no time to organize protests or take days off to go to D.C. or write for campus publications. In my junior fall, my JP took up every spare moment, and there has literally not been a day since then that I have done no academic work. Furthermore, Princeton—and its faculty—helped me to see myself as a historian, a scholar, and to see my academic work as something worthwhile. My mentors helped me to begin to shut off the voices in my head that tell me I am a terrible person, and so I threw myself into my academic work as the Thing I Am Going to Do With My Life. In light of that, I saw aggressive political stances as something antithetical to being a good teacher. I took the partisan bumper stickers off my computer and notebooks. As I started to become an expert in the history of sexual identity, I also began to doubt many of the core assumptions about the “LGBT rights movement” that had informed a lot of my previous activism, and to disagree with the goals of many of the activist projects I could have continued to be involved in.

It’s true that there is a culture at Princeton that punishes taking aggressive political stances on anything. One is supposed to be seen as too clever for partisanship, hence the “apathy” that is also said by those outside Princeton—and anyone inside it who has ever tried to get people to show up to a protest or demonstration—to characterize its students. Maybe this culture permeated my unconscious while I was strategizing about how to be taken seriously by my peers and mentors. But I’ve never really toned down my political views—to many readers, my Facebook page remains as “radical” as ever, and I’ve taken to my blog or the pages of the Prince when I’ve really felt as if I have something to say. Instead, I think I stopped organizing protests because I need to focus on my thesis; because I don’t want “campus radical”—or “queer”—to be the only thing people think of when they hear my name; and because Princeton has taught me that a Facebook post, a dining-hall conversation about my Victorian men who found identity in the writing of Plato and Whitman, or coming to class having done the reading and ready to engage with its and my classmates’ ideas are all forms of activism too.

Gay Greats: Questions of Canonicity; or, In Which I Am a Fuddy-Duddy

As an undergraduate in the heady atmosphere of mid-19th-century Oxford, John Addington Symonds studied something called “Literae humaniores,” or “Greats.” It was a curriculum of what we might today call western civ (indeed, Columbia still calls its western civ core curriculum “Lit. Hum.”): mostly classics, Greek and Latin literature and history, with some modern philosophy and ethics thrown in. It was the first secular course introduced to Oxford, a curriculum that, especially in Benjamin Jowett’s Balliol, hoped to prepare successful graduates to govern the empire. It prepared Symonds, recipient of one of the highest Firsts in his year and a variety of very prestigious university prizes, to write a sweepingly comprehensive cultural history of the Italian Renaissance, and then to formulate what I argue was the first academic theory of homosexual identity. It was a rigorous curriculum, and a curriculum that defined the education of individuals from Symonds (and Pater, Swinburne, Wilde, etc.) right down to some of my friends in Oxford today. Greats has changed from its 19th-century incarnation: a lot of knowledge has been added to classics and philosophy in the past 150 years; Oxford no longer (universally) wants its graduates to govern the empire or enter the clergy; and its students are no longer (universally) public-schoolboys who have been drilled relentlessly in Greek and Latin grammar from the age of seven onwards. But one of the facts that bowled me over when I was at Oxford—and that did much to sum up what was strange and otherworldly about that city of dreaming spires—is that I actually hung out with people who studied the same stuff Symonds did. Time moves slowly in Oxford. It’s conservative. It cares about canon.

Anyone with an inkling of a 21st-century liberal-arts education will have been trained to read that preceding paragraph for all the old-boyism, all the white male upper-class privilege, Greats enshrines. It’s the old wrinkled center of what Oxford is: academic conservatism all the way down. And yet, puzzlingly, I was well and truly seduced by that strange fairy city. Like Sue says in Jude the Obscure, Jude, and indeed, I, think “it is a great centre of high and fearless thought, instead of what it is, a nest of commonplace schoolmasters whose characteristic is timid obsequiousness to tradition.” And thus I sit here in my annual August exile far away in rural British Columbia: organizing my Symonds research, listening to my Oxford playlist, and throbbing with a dull ache of love for a city that is about nothing so much as it is about canon, about doing things because that is the way they have always been done.

The thing is, I grew up with canon. I was raised in the western humanist tradition, with Great Books and dead languages. I come from a family who decided it would be a fun bonding activity one Thanksgiving to read Paradise Lost out loud together, and my parents feared for my safety when I climbed on top of the toy car to recite monologues from Macbeth. Growing up, my favorite page in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language was the one that illustrated the Indo-European language family by listing the Lord’s Prayer in a variety of Indo-European languages. Growing up, I had a favorite page in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. I read Victorian novels because as a Victorianist, it’s my job, but also because, if you were raised in the western humanist tradition, that’s what you do. I was raised to think—despite everything that I know about the privilege the western civ narrative enjoys, and how problematic that is—that someone needs to study these books, to remember them, to cherish them (I keep telling people I’m really quite conservative, and no one believes me… well, guys, here’s the proof). And I was raised to follow my intellectual passions, so I have guiltily burrowed my way deep inside some American child’s version of Arnoldian Culture, and wormed my way out the other end only to find myself an adult writing a thesis about John Addington Symonds.

What I’m doing with Symonds doesn’t necessarily bespeak “Greats” on the face of it. I’m writing about the construction of male homosexuality, engaged enough with the world of queer theory to know that I am making an intercession into the scholarly literature by challenging the Foucauldian presumption that only regulating entities were interested in defining homosexuality, rather than just going with the flow. I know that this is something professional historians are interested in these days. I’m happy to get bogged down in deconstructive wordplay as much as the next person with a smattering of lit-crit background. But at the same time, this isn’t a project in gender studies or queer theory, as much as I respect those fields and the people who work in them. It’s a project for which I’ve started to learn Greek and dusted off my Latin. It’s a project that’s involved teaching myself Greek literature, Renaissance art, Victorian politics and culture, Anglo-American utopian socialist literature, and generally trying to get inside the mind of an Oxford-educated Victorian man of letters and to see the world through his eyes. I am trying to figure out why Symonds was as a young man unable to find words to express “l’amour de l’impossible,” and why later in his life he found those words and set out on a crusade to spread them, by understanding what he thought was important—and why his narrative of what homosexual identity is encompassed Plato and Michelangelo and Walt Whitman.

I’m doing this in part because I was already at least halfway there myself. I work easily within this kind of cultural narrative. Recently, I realized that although in my academic work I try to be distanced and critical and deconstruct my own narratives, what I call “the homoerotic literary tradition” is really just “gay Greats.” This idea that stretches throughout the late 19th, 20th, and now the 21st centuries of privileged white gay men finding out who they are through reading is nothing more than a recasting of the western canon, looking at the same core curriculum through, er, lavender-colored glasses. And if you like, the Wizard of Oz allusion there is even deliberate: now the gay canon extends on its own path from the gay liberation era onwards, encompassing modern literary figures reclaimed and the new phenomenon of cultural figures who are openly gay from the start of their careers; a musical narrative in which Lady Gaga is the heir to ’70s disco; gay places and gay spaces; and increased points of contact between the stereotypical gay male culture and the other multivalent queer cultures that now challenge and undermine its hegemony.

I have been wondering more or less since I became involved in queer politics, culture, and history about issues of canon and hegemonic cultural narratives: does it matter that many young queer people have never heard of or read anything by Oscar Wilde? do gay people have to support same-sex marriage? are allies allowed into gay parties? to what extent is Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” a problematic song? Making the queer-theoretical move of disengaging a homosexual sexual orientation that is in some sense intrinsic to one’s biology and/or psychology from a gay culture that treats these very specific cultural flashpoints as shibboleths solves some of the problems but not all of them. For me, my recourse to the gay canon as a woman—even as a woman scholar—is a fraught issue; that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of identity-politics questions about who has access to this narrative and whom it speaks to.

But I think it can help us if we treat this canon like we do the old Greats curriculum, or American western civ à la the Columbia or Chicago core curricula. Greats is one path of study among many at Oxford; Columbia and Chicago are two universities among many with different approaches to the idea of liberal-arts education. (C.f. Princeton, which offers an optional rigorous first-year western civ sequence, an option availed of by only a few freshmen exceptionally passionate about the concept.) And so is gay Greats only one route among many to a sense of self-worth and self-understanding. We all make our own cultural compasses.

But as something of an expert about this canon, I do have a couple caveats. At risk of sounding like the conservative elite that I am, I think we should respect this tradition, even if at a distance, for the breathtaking goodness it has done for those to whom it speaks. We need to destabilize its hegemony, yes, but that doesn’t mean disavowing the fact that a litany of lives have been saved by Plato’s Symposium. (And people repurpose the canon in unconventional ways: the avant-garde musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, whose protagonist exhibits an ambivalent and complicated relationship to gender and to privilege, borrows the creation myth that Aristophanes relates in the Symposium, of two-person people cut in half by Zeus, as the show’s central motif.) I also think that the need to respect this tradition for what it is means that if you are going to do it, you should do it right. You don’t have to speak about Oscar Wilde as one of your heroes to be a member of the club. But if you are going to plant your lipsticked lips on his tomb in Père Lachaise, you should learn a little about his life and read Dorian Gray and some of his plays and essays. If you are going to play gay anthems in your bar, you should know what the lyrics are, and what meanings lie behind the messages-of-self-empowerment-set-to-disco-beats of the moment (or of yesteryear). We are fortunate today that there are many ways to be queer, and that many people don’t even feel the need to label their sexual identities at all. But while getting a degree in non-western area studies and shaking free of the expectation to care about dead white men is totally awesome, that doesn’t mean it’s right to actually misquote Shakespeare.

Canons are constructs. Symonds, who didn’t think his feelings for men were precisely sexual until he was in middle age, and who struggled in his later work theorizing about homosexual identities and communities to pinpoint a difference between “congenital” and “acquired sexual inversion,” could certainly have told you that “Born This Way” we aren’t. But I, for one, am still in guilty shamefaced love with Oxford, “timid obsequiousness to tradition” and all. After all (and here’s where the conservatism comes in again) you know what doesn’t crumble into dust at the slight prod of a deconstructive finger? “The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular, to you; and here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met—maybe even someone long-dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

“Identity Politics for the Twenty-first Century”; or, More on Pride Month, The Mutable Feast

One of the very few things that this blog has in common with the New York Times Magazine (actually, I think it’s probably the only thing this blog has in common with the NYT Magazine) is that both have in recent years been very good about covering issues related to the state of LGBT/queer history, politics, and identity come June. This week’s Magazine included just such an array of articles, foremost among them the cover story, “Living the Good Lie,” which a friend passed on to me with the words, “Identity politics of the 21st century.”

Truer words were ne’er spoken. The URL of the story, implying the description “Therapists Who Help People Stay in the Closet,” is misleading. The article is in fact about therapists who are—like we have been discussing on this blog and on Facebook for the past several months—destabilizing the coming-out narrative—and the metaphor of the closet—as a psychological panacea. In particular, it follows one therapist, Denis Flanigan, who though is himself gay and has had a long career working with patients with sexual-identity issues, has come to the conclusion that encouraging patients to come out, to assume a normative gay identity, no matter what, isn’t necessarily the best solution for patients who, for example, need to choose between their sexual orientation and their conservative evangelical church. Instead, Flanigan believes in helping people to cope, to get along in their lives, to escape from denial but not necessarily to move to the West Village and make a life on the bar scene, or even to aspire to a white-picket-fence gay-married existence. He helps some of his patients to make peace with celibacy, or with lives married to opposite-sex partners. (Though it should be noted that the article doesn’t address something I think is very important, which is the position of the opposite-sex partners in all this. History tells us that Symonds and Wilde thought of themselves as family men who loved their wives and children even as they carried on dalliances with men, but that unbeknownst to Symonds his wife was miserable and the byproduct of Wilde’s trials is that his wife’s and children’s lives were ruined.) His method is rooted in acknowledging that while sexual orientation is the core of some people’s identities/self-conceptions, it is not at the core of everyone’s. For some people, a different identifying factor, like religion, may be far more central, everything else just superstructure; for some people, religion has the same immutable sense of Truth and born-this-way-ness that sexual orientation has for those who assume a more traditional LGBT identity.

The article does a great job of contextualizing Flanigan’s and other like-minded psychologists’ ideas within the framework of the modern LGBT rights movement and queer theory, sensitive to the fact that “identity” does not always mean “gay identity,” and that even what “gay identity” (or “queer identity,” though most of Flanigan’s patients seem to be same-sex-attracted men) means has changed significantly since the 1960s and before. This is, of course, no surprise to those who study the history of sexuality and who, like certain authors of this blog, spend a lot of time insisting quite vociferously on the point that sexual orientation did not form the fundamental aspect of a person’s self-consciousness a hundred years ago that it does today. But I think even those of us used to looking backward (and it must be said that there are certain parallels to be drawn between the ideas discussed in this article and those of some of the most progressive turn-of-the-century sexologists, like Havelock Ellis) are less inclined to look forward. As a politically-engaged queer-identified person, I often find myself asking where the LGBT rights movement will be in twenty, fifty, or one hundred years. But it is only recently that I have started to find myself asking where nonnormative sexual identities will be in twenty, fifty, or one hundred years. And when I do that, I think I do find myself noting that the metaphor of the closet is becoming less and less useful, especially for those young people my age and particularly half a generation younger than me who more and more grow up out to themselves, if not always out to others or eager to translate their own self-conscious sexual identity into something appropriate for public consumption. Many young people (and the NYT Magazine I think covered this last Pride Month!) are taking an approach of rejecting labels, especially if, like “LGBT,” they carry a political connotation; many more, even if they do identify as something easy like “gay,” don’t really get on board with the come-out-come-out-wherever-you-are, silence-equals-death approach that got their elders through some really hard times. And as this blog evidences, I have found myself doing the same: emphasizing intellectual and cultural much more than immutable biological or psychological factors as a way of understanding sexual identity, and insisting that gay-identity-politics messages—whether they are “Born This Way” or “Silence = Death”—can mean something even to people whose lives, for whatever reason, do not include a closet, or at least include a more complicated, less identifiable one.

Maybe this is just me getting older, becoming more of a historian, seeing more complications everywhere, and getting a little distance from that moment of identity-politics-infused discovery of the queer world that I think a lot of young queer people go through. I was looking through some of my ephemera from three years ago the other day, and came across some notes from a talk I gave at the first iteration of a conference called KinkForAll about why “coming out” gets figured as a political act and some ethical issues surrounding that. But never once in that presentation did I question the idea of “coming out” at all, or the notion that sexual identity would be so obviously important to someone’s being that it would trump all other concerns. Those notes were definitely a time capsule, because for a lot of reasons both personal and academic I would not now think of “coming out” or “sexual identity” as concepts reduced to their simplest form. I made a lot of assumptions about how people fit sexuality into their senses of selves as whole people that I would not make anymore—though this is not to say that the set of assumptions I have replaced them with are any better. At times, I now have a tendency to venture too far into deconstruction for anyone’s good. And the question is, of course, how to move forward from there, how to still be able to have useful conversations about sexual identity, how it works, and its role in public and private life.

Well, I think part of it is saying that, while the queer cultural canon remains the queer cultural canon (and the same goes for my academic field, the gay male cultural canon), those who do not identify as queer (or gay men) still have a right to access and to gain inspiration, solace, and energy from the art that canon has produced and the lessons it can teach. I think part of it is saying that while you can be “born this way,” you can also be born many other ways as well, sometimes all of them at the same time, and sometimes all of them self-contradicting, taking immense amounts of will—and sometimes professional help—to muddle through.

I am not a gay man, but that culture’s canon is one of the things that gives both my personal and my scholarly lives meaning. Similarly self-contradictorily, I am not by any stretch of the imagination a Christian, and yet in the past six months of Oxford Sundays I have become a regular college-chapelgoer. Yesterday in chapel we had a leavers’ service, I suppose not dissimilar to the tradition of the graduation baccalaureate service at many American universities, though more patently Christian than those services are at Princeton. When the chaplain prayed for, among other collegiate things, the many who have sat in this chapel before us, I couldn’t help but think of Symonds’ letters to his sister from his first year at Oxford, telling her which colleges’ Evensong services he thought were the best. I couldn’t help but think of Symonds the undergraduate, Symonds the 21-year-old winner of poetry prizes and essay prizes, Symonds walking down Broad Street, Symonds in his subfusc, Symonds kneeling in a college chapel with his head full of Greek and of German philosophy, knowing that in some inchoate way Plato and Whitman fit together with the vision of the choristers but not quite certain of how to say it—and indeed knowing that, at least right then in 1861, the English words weren’t there.

Identity is a tricky thing, and a dynamic thing, and a thing as palimpsestic as Oxford itself. And, as Symonds knew by the time he was a little older than I am now, working through the muddles our identity problems place us in means resolving some improbable contradictions. Sometimes, like Symonds, we do it through dialectic; sometimes, as I have a tendency to do, we resort to deconstruction, and try not to get lost in it. Sometimes, we find ourselves sitting in therapists’ offices, struggling to describe why the world doesn’t have boxes big enough for us to fit ourselves in. And sometimes—particularly during Pride Month—we find ourselves taking refuge within the identity-political canon, asking in the plaintive words of psychoanalysis-weary gay history, that we “just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”