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.”

Saving Souls; or, In Which We Tie Some Threads Together in Attempting a New Justification of the Humanities

From Mary Beard’s blog this week came the disturbing news that Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, is shutting down its Classics and Philosophy department: moving the faculty positions it can’t eliminate to other departments, like History and Politics, and reducing the total number of student places available to study any of these subjects. The news was subsequently confirmed by Brian Leiter, who posted on his blog a further chilling enumeration of the changes underway, along with contact information for the Classics and Philosophy department, who are collecting letters of support to submit to the RH administration. If I have any leverage at all upon my blog audience, I think now is probably a good time to cash it in: I urge you, especially if you are a classicist, a philosopher, or an academic in any field, to write in support of the RH department and of the study of classics and philosophy at the undergraduate and the research levels alike.

But before you rush off to your email account, I want to put forth an idea for how I, who am an undergraduate with little academic credibility, might go about constructing such an argument. I have been talking seriously online and in real life for almost a year now about the need to find new arguments to justify the academic humanities that are neither instrumentalist or utilitarian (e.g. the Martha Nussbaum argument that studying the humanities makes us better citizens) nor are at risk of tautology (studying the humanities is a good in itself. Why? Because it is a good in itself…). But now, confronting the Royal Holloway issue after some time away from the question, I have a new proposition to make, that is particularly relevant to undergraduate-teaching departments and that is perhaps less instrumental than some arguments I’ve heard and made before.

The humanities save lives.

When I was a kid, and particularly when I was a teenager, I often felt that I had no real support outside my home. Yes, it was, and is, fantastic to have parents who have always loved me unconditionally, who have with boundless reserves of patience indulged my eccentricities, who have colluded with me in my geekiness, who I have always striven to please, and who have always been pleased—whether my “obsession” of the moment was the Disney movie Aladdin or the intellectual history of male homosexuality. I know how lucky I am to have had such a supportive family life. But I also know all too well what it is like to feel as if that family life counts for nothing the instant I’d walk out the front door. At school, where I was sometimes bullied and rarely had friends, I felt that no one understood me; I cannot remember a time in my childhood or adolescence in which I did not feel as if being authentically myself did not come with some consequences. Yes, I had some fantastic teachers who saw a kindred spirit—or maybe just a lost soul—and reached out. But I knew what I was doing when I ate lunch every day in their classrooms and lingered to talk with them after school. I knew that it meant I was alone, just as I knew it when I once had a birthday party and not one of my guests came.

Those years of angst could have destroyed me. But they didn’t, because I had the humanities. Through literature and music in particular (I only later learned to care profoundly for visual art), I learned how to think and how to feel. When I was six and played alone on the playground, I talked to the mice from Redwall; when I was eighteen and hid behind the tennis courts or in a teacher’s classroom at lunchtime, I memorized Allen Ginsberg’s poems. When I was playing Tchaikovsky with my orchestra, it didn’t matter that only a couple people out of seventy-five or so would deign to speak to me. While other teenagers went to parties, I stayed up late in a dark bedroom watching French films and making older friends in other countries online who challenged my views about religion, politics, ethics, and the way the world works (thank you, h2g2!). Even before I knew how to read in an academic sense, I found myself in texts, in history, in other worlds. And I survived. Just.

When I came to university three years ago, everything changed. The first thing I was assigned to read in a university class was the first chapter of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. I read it on the train on my first trip to explore New York City, and though I was terrified by it I didn’t let it stop me. I didn’t let overambitious attempts to attend senior-faculty-level conferences in literary theory, or prep-school-educated peers, stop me. I read the great classics of the English literary tradition (and made some cautious forays into the French), the stalwarts of literary and cultural theory, my first primary sources, the great works in my own discipline. I slowly but surely graduated from content assessments and literature reviews to doing research of my own. And on my own time, I visited art galleries and attended concerts, I improved my foreign language skills, I started to teach myself the gay canon, and then years passed and I moved fearlessly across the ocean.

That world (that is, that one outside my home) where reading of all kinds is valued didn’t change everything immediately. But it was one time last October, as I sat in the Princeton history department meeting with the professor who was shortly going to become my advisor, that I suddenly realized there was a deafening silence: the voices in my head that had for as long as I can remember been telling me that I was worthless, that my work was worthless, that I would never be good enough, that I didn’t matter had all stopped. I couldn’t remember when, but in that moment I definitely couldn’t hear them anymore. And since then I have continued to devour books, and thrown myself headlong into this Symonds project. And I’m not just talking to Symonds anymore: I have built up friendships in cities on both sides of the Atlantic, the academic’s social network that keeps me sane even when I’m traveling for months on end, and emailing or texting someone to ask if they want to have coffee is no longer the scariest action I can contemplate. I have friends who I can talk honestly to, who invite me to their birthday parties and will come to mine, who say that they will miss me when I move on to my next posting. I am practiced at the art of packing a suitcase full of casual collared shirts, jeans, and blazers; a gym bag full of books; and a backpack with an Apple computer, and setting off on adventures. And I read Henry James on the train, and when I tell my friends that I am learning ancient Greek, I am told that is a sensible thing to do.

I am a happy and a sane and a self-valuing adult. What did it was books, music, and art, good things and beautiful things, and an academic world that values those things. Through my reading and my coursework and my adventures, I have learned not only how to survive, but also how to flourish, how to keep bettering myself, and how to love. This is what the study of the humanities can do for lonely lost children who are certain they are the only ones in the world who feel and perceive the way they do, who are so weighed down by the prospect of getting on in the world that it turns inward into self-loathing that eats away at the soul. And yes, it is true that History and Politics and English Literature and Modern Languages and Art and Music can teach us some of the work of self-bettering. But if I really wanted to know how to do the work of human flourishing, I think I might look to Classics and Philosophy, wouldn’t you? And I don’t mean just for Plato: sometimes, you can only be cured of your self-loathing when you realize that there are whole departments devoted to the study of beautiful languages no one speaks anymore. Getting credit for engaging with esoterica matters.

And so when we think about cost-cutting measures that involve reducing the opportunities for young people to study the humanities in all their facets, we need to think about the implications for those lonely souls looking everywhere for something that they will perceive as giving their lives value—indeed, as making their lives better. (I am reminded of the “It Gets Better” video recently recorded by members of the U.S. Senate, which emphasizes that we all have a duty to help make it better for the young people it is in our power to reach.) I can speak only for myself, but I know that while reading has always helped me to survive, it is the academic humanities that have helped me to flourish—and I don’t know where I would be intellectually or emotionally without the disciplines of classics and philosophy, and my family, friends, and colleagues whose life’s work is in either field.

The conclusion to all this is that today was the first official day of my six-week-long Symonds research trip, and I spent it in the British Library, that glorious temple to knowledge of all kinds, with some notebooks kept by Symonds circa 1870-1876, when he was writing a book about Greek literature and lecturing about it to high-school students and women’s groups, in addition to doing some reviewing/lit crit for the London literary press. Hovering just inarticulated throughout these notes is the pregnant question of homoeroticism, whether in a coy reference to “proportion” and “size” in Praxiteles’ sculpture, in Symonds’ frustrated attempts to properly articulate what it is that draws him to Pindar, or in not-infrequent references to Walt Whitman—all themes that would eventually coalesce into the ideas about homosexual identity that Symonds would slowly start to put forth. Symonds is a man who found himself in reading, in the classics, in a philosophy that called for moderation and self-improvement and belief in Better. So have I found myself in Symonds—and so did I find myself spending much of the day today in the British Library wishing that I knew enough Greek to make sense of his notes on Pindar, which included passage after passage of quotation, too much to contemplate copying down for later struggle. Here is where it suddenly begins to matter urgently to learn a language, to learn a canon, to learn sets of texts and ways of reading and ways of thinking simply because people before us have done so. It matters for scholarship—and it matters, at least for some people, for getting on in the world, for self-discovery, for human flourishing.

And so don’t be the one to deny this to those people who need it, who live by it and for it. And especially not if you are in the business of helping children to become adults. I know that financial times are tough, and that universities have been pushed by necessity into a preoccupation with saving money, but they, and those who live and work in them, must never forget that they also have a vocation to save young people’s hearts, minds, and lives.

“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.”

QOTD (2011-06-15); or, Symonds and Sexual Liberation

Here’s something nice and liberationist for Pride Month: In this footnote from the first edition of Symonds’ and Ellis’s Sexual Inversion (cut from ensuing editions that revised out more obvious Symondsiana), Symonds argues for the legalization of same-sex sexual relations:

In this case the strength of sin is the law. No passion, however natural, which is scouted, despised, tabooed, banned, punished, relegated to holes and corners, execrated as abominable and unmentionable, can be expected to show its good side to the world. The sense of sin and crime and danger, the humiliation and repression and distress to which the unfortunate Pariah of abnormal sexuality are daily and hourly exposed—and nobody but such a Pariah may comprehend what these are—inevitably deterioriate the best and noblest element in their emotion. It has been, I may say, the greatest sorrow of my life to watch the gradual declining and decay of emotions which started so purely and ideally, as well as passionately, for persons of my own sex in boyhood; to watch within myself, I repeat, the slow corrosion and corruption of a sentiment which might have been raised, under happier conditions, to such spiritual heights of love and devotion as chivalry is fabled to have reached—and at the same time to have been continually tormented by desires which no efforts would annihilate, which never slumbered except through during weeks of life-threatening illness, and which, instead of improving in quality with age, have tended to become coarser and more contented with trivial satisfaction. Give abnormal love the same chance as normal love, subject it to the wholesome control of public opinion, allow it to enjoy self-respect, draw it from dark places into the light of day, strike off its chains and make it free—and I am confident that it will develop analogous virtues, to those with which we are familiar in the mutual love of male and female. The slave has of necessity a slavish soul. The only way to elevate is to emancipate him. There is nothing more degrading to humanity in sexual acts between a man and a man than in similar acts between a man and a woman. In a certain sense all sex has an element which stirs our repulsion in our finer nature….

Nor would it be easy to maintain that the English curate begetting his fourteenth baby on the body of a worn-out wife is a more elevating object of mental contemplation than Harmodius in the embraces of his friend Aristogeiton—that a young man sleeping with a prostitute picked up in the Haymarket is cleaner than his brother sleeping with a soldier picked up in the Park.

Obviously, this was a radical and dangerous sentiment to express in 1897, when English scholars of sexuality (and homosexuals themselves) were still shaken from the Wilde trials. It’s no wonder that Ellis, Horatio Brown, and Catherine Symonds all wanted to see sentiments like this erased from subsequent editions of Sexual Inversion.

Universalizing the Pride Message: A Modest Proposal

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.

QOTD (2011-06-06)

My sister reminded me that the Wilde tragedy narrative may be, to a certain extent, contrived; but it is also beautiful. Here is A.E. Housman, “Oh who is that young sinner”:

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

‘Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time ’twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn’t bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Oh a deal of pains he’s taken and a pretty price he’s paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they’ve pulled the beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they’re hauling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

Now ’tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he had to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.

I don’t think we can underestimate the extent to which the Wilde trials brought a love that was only just becoming able to speak its name crashing into the public eye. This poem unsurprisingly and obviously wasn’t published during Housman’s lifetime, but it’s striking that after the trials he could write this poem, with its elegant nudging metaphor and its (as I read it) barely-suppressed rage. You wouldn’t call Housman a figure of liberation, at all—and yet here you have him articulating a change in the emotional tenor of homosexual identity politics—a change to anger and to outrage.

Doing the History of Sexuality: A Post for Pride Month

When I first became fascinated by Symonds, it was in the context of narratives and teleologies, of arcs of progress, of rights-driven activism at whose center was marriage equality. When I was first moved by Michael Robertson’s account of Symonds’ futile correspondence with Walt Whitman in his book about Whitman’s fans, I was the sort of person who organized protests against Proposition 8 and the National Organization for Marriage, who was there with my reporter’s notebook when Barney Frank introduced the 2009 version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act into the House, who was in the Rayburn Room with my voice recorder to ask Jared Polis what it was like to be the first openly gay member of Congress to have been elected when he was already out, who never missed a Pride parade or a National Coming Out Day. When I first became fascinated by Symonds, it was in the context of a worldview grounded in a rights-based teleology, an understanding of queer history as a concentric layering of closets grounded in the Harvey Milk craze of a few years ago, a particularly identity-political form of convincing by one’s presence. When I decided to be a history major, it was with the assumption that I would do history as if it were politics, telling stories about modern LGBT identity that related closely to the world I was beginning to inhabit as a professional gay.

But as I began to be embedded more deeply in my discipline, things began to change. Learning a bit more about what history is as a discipline caused me to begin to believe that while history may inform and help us to understand the present, it is not the present, nor is it necessarily always a guide to the future. The more I learned about Symonds and his historical context, the more I became aware that the complete foreignness of the way he and others in his time constructed sexual identity was at the root of what I needed to say about him. I was getting suspicious: of historians who say that they are writing “gay” or “LGBT” history when they are talking about the nineteenth century or earlier, before such categories existed; of historians who claim they can “out” figures such as Lincoln, Whitman, or Wilde; of really any form of interpretation that linked the sexual identities of the past too closely to those of the present. I started to conceive of Symonds not so much as a figure of liberation, but rather as a figure who illustrates the distance of nineteenth-century sexual identity from its twenty-first-century counterpart. And I attracted a fair amount of confusion, and at times ire, on the Internet when I stubbornly insisted that Walt Whitman was not a gay poet, that Tchaikovsky was not a gay composer, that thinking of an “uncensored” edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray (based on Wilde’s first draft, without editorial changes) as something that can bring the famous homoerotic novel out of the closet is desperately misguided. And as I did this, I started to get tired of modern LGBT politics, and to unpin my interest in the history of gay culture from marches for marriage equality and Pride parades. I was looking back at some of my old journal entries last night, reliving months of blushing as I read Edmund White on the bus, learning Allen Ginsberg off by heart, and watching my aspirations of professional homosexuality shift from dreaming of having Kerry Eleveld‘s job to understanding myself as someone who steps back and reads, writes, watches, concludes and synthesizes. I proposed and discarded idea after idea for my independent work—and as I look over my journals from that time, a couple years ago, I can see myself becoming less and less certain not only of the veracity of the identity categories I had taken for granted when I was angry about Prop. 8, but also about their importance. In the fall, at Princeton, I became the girl with the dining-hall catchphrase “Remember to always be suspicious of binaries,” and over the course of that semester a couple friends and I painstakingly worked out a theoretical paradigm that allowed us to separate identity politics—and culture—from LGBTQ essentialism, distinguishing sexual orientation and gender identity from culture in a way that allowed us to make sense of politically and culturally conservative gay people, or the straight people in our community who are always welcome at the queer parties. We started to recognize the limits of a construction of identity in which orientation mapped one-to-one onto culture, and in which both putting one’s sexual orientation in a box and seeing it as one of the most integral characteristics of one identity remained central. We started to see that if homosexuality is not a choice, gay culture certainly is. And I started to question my identity as a professional gay in a serious way.

Yesterday, I turned in a junior paper that is as much about what I learned in the archives in the past several months, or in my classes before that, as it is about what I have learned about myself in the past three years of university. My JP makes an argument about Symonds’ intellectual sphere, about his own reading strategies and how his education and cultural milieu prepared him to synthesize material from all kinds of disciplines and outlooks into a cultural discourse within which it was possible to identify as “a homosexual man.” It’s a romp through the Oxford classical curriculum, the Aesthetic movement, Darwinism, scientific sexology and early pre-Freudian psychoanalysis, and the allure of democracy and other questions about the relationship to the individual to society. While I am aware that I am telling a story, like any historian is, I also try to take seriously (as Symonds himself did!) the traditional Rankean exhortation to “discover a sense of the past as it actually was.” I try to consider what it was like to think about homosexuality before you could think about homosexuality, when there literally were not English words to express issues of sexual identity and when, as teleological as nineteenth-century worldviews could be, no one would dream of a grand-scale teleology of “gay liberation” or a small-scale teleology of “coming out” (or, indeed, “it gets better”). And in so doing, I consider the mutability of ways to categorize identity, the importance of culture, the ways in which we can delude ourselves into thinking that a cultural framework signifies something essential when in reality it’s just another narrative we’ve constructed (as Symonds did when he misread Whitman). When I write in my JP that “the time is long past to consider [Symonds] an intellectual just as much as a homosexual,” it is because I have learned in the past three years that there is more than one route to identity politics, and also more than one route to self-bettering; and that to write about homosexuality is not always to adhere to the established expectations of the genre, or to consider one’s sexual orientation the most essential thing about oneself. Sometimes the orientation is the base, and the culture the superstructure. But sometimes—as when Symonds got from ancient Greece and the Renaissance and Whitman to a language of sexual object choice—sometimes it’s the other way round.

But lest I be accused of not being fair to a culture and a community I too claim as my own, or of ignoring what good the coming-out narrative and the essentializing of sexual identity can do for those who are struggling with it, I feel obliged to point out one more thing. As a scholar, a polemicist, and a very astutely introspective person, Symonds was always keen to have everything both ways, to make the impossible possible. Deconstruction hadn’t been invented yet, and rather than having neither one thing or the other, he was keen to have both. It was his relentless faith in dialectic that enabled him to construct an epistemological framework in which “ethical same-sex sexual behavior” was a conceivable idea, and so having it both ways is a strategy that I think is worth trying. If Symonds can be taken as a guide, it is to a strategy that can admit the refashioning of existing cultural elements into new identities—and that’s why I can have the greatest respect for Kerry Eleveld, and for Rachel Maddow, yet no longer want either of their jobs. Instead I am quite content to think that it is my funny old place in the world to read Edmund White on the bus, to memorize Housman like Robbie Ross did for Wilde when he was in Reading Gaol, to listen to the new Lady Gaga album all the way through the day it comes out, to have opinions on Facebook about “It Gets Better,” to go to Paris and make my pilgrimage to Wilde’s grave, to never miss a Pride parade. Symonds repurposed a Platonic understanding of virtue into something which made it possible to assert that, contra his teacher Benjamin Jowett’s belief to the contrary, the love of the Symposium was not “mainly a figure of speech.” I feel that I can repurpose his repurposing not into a coming-out narrative, but into a promise that we can understand our lives and our selves if we read closely enough, that even if we feel right now as if there are no words to describe our innermost longings, if we keep reading widely we will be able to pull some together. I don’t want to erase identity politics—but I want to suggest that, as I myself have discovered, their boundaries may be wider than we might at first imagine.

And so Symonds was an intellectual just as much as a homosexual, and so I do not need to be a professional gay to spend my days in the Bodleian, elbow-deep in the male side of the homoerotic literary tradition. And so it will be June, and like all the Junes since the June before I started university, I will celebrate Pride. But while I have the greatest respect for and sense of comradeship with those who celebrate with the minds on the present or the future, I will celebrate as a historian, with mine on the past: reminding merry-makers that Pride commemorates Stonewall; respecting our elders who were there when AIDS first hit thirty years ago, and remembering those who died in that first horrible wave and since; and asking myself what Symonds would have thought about flatbed trucks covered with the logos of corporations and filled with gyrating young men in very small underwear. Because I am an intellectual far more than I am a homosexual; because when orientation and culture are separate entities, assimilationism and political obligation alike become moot points; and because while the personal may frequently be political, it is often not quite in the ways that you’d expect.

Culture Shock, Class Consciousness, and the Weather Girls

The week after I arrived in Oxford, months ago now (gosh, that’s strange to say!) I attended the first formal dinner of this whole strange experience, and a couple weeks afterward I found myself writing a long post that attempted to puzzle through and come to terms with the culture shock that dinner occasioned. As your average American academic brat, I grew up attending dinner parties and reading the kinds of books and watching the kinds of movies where the etiquettes of attire, successive courses, and too many forks are deployed. When I came to Princeton, I attended the odd awards dinner or some such thing where I put what I’d learned into practice, making small talk, using my forks and knives correctly, and agonizing too much over the ambiguities of gender-specific dress codes. But as much as I thought I knew how to navigate academic dinners, I found myself stupefied by the performance of pretentious formality that gets carried out every Friday night in Trinity’s dining hall, by sparkly dresses and port and being waited on at table by young women my own age who I felt certain loathed the posh-accented people getting drunk around them. As I processed the experience of that first “Guest Night,” as this production is known, I felt ashamed, ashamed of the fact that I had been complicit in the perpetration of the remnants of the English class system.

Time went on—a term passed—and I got to know more people in Trinity who felt the way I did, left-wingers who greeted these productions with an embarrassed ironic distance and yet managed to take them for what they were and have a good time. I went to another formal dinner, for all the history students hosted by the college history fellows; and when my father came to visit I took him to my second Guest Night. I paced myself, feat-of-endurance-like, through four-course meals; I learned to do the same for massive, by my standards, quantities of red and white and port and sherry. And I went several times a week to normal formal halls, wearing my gown and standing for the Latin grace and turning the alienating thing into something I could value, something that put me closer to understanding Symonds’ Oxford and something that got me out of the library and talking to the people sitting near me for at least an hour a day. I’d look at the portrait of John Henry Newman in Trinity hall and think about another time, another Oxford, and wonder where I as a woman academic stand in relation to it—like Guest Night itself, wanting to understand and yet feeling an irreconcilable distance all the same.

Last week, my friend told me she had an extra ticket for the MCR Gala, Trinity’s annual black-tie banquet for the graduate student body, and would I like to go? I leapt at the chance, and in the days leading up to the event, which was yesterday, I could hardly contain my excitement. I’ve been working hard; I was longing for a celebration; and parties with good friends are always fun. I went out and bought a dress, the first dress I have bought since my high-school prom—ready to play the black-tie game properly, to act the role (with appropriate sense of irony, of course) of one of those Bright Young Things in the costume dramas I’ve always salivated over. I bought my “Big Issue” magazine from the homeless man in front of Blackwell’s on Friday afternoon, and on Friday evening I dressed for dinner. The epithet “champagne socialist” couldn’t possibly have been more apt, I realized, as I started the evening by drinking a glass of champagne and spent the third course bonding with my friend over the large-looming role of the socialist musical and cultural tradition in our upbringings. We talked about how it had made us feel a bit nostalgic, a bit homesick, to see a little May Day trade-unions rally in front of the Bodleian last weekend, and we shared in a sense of outrage about how much sexism there still is in academia. But the ugly juxtaposition of this political sentiment with what we were doing while we said it didn’t really strike home until the President of our college made a rambling after-dinner speech that made several bad jokes at the grad students’ expense, but no reference to the idea that what they do is intellectually important and worth doing; and which in an instance of tastelessness that frankly fills me with disgust and I think is absolutely inexcusable in a retired senior British diplomat, made not only a joke about the death of Osama bin Laden, but a joke whose apparent humor rested on said retired senior British diplomat “accidentally” confusing the names “Obama” and “Osama.” I gaped, speechless and outraged, at my friends while the room erupted into laughter around us. A few minutes later, when someone in the room was, honest to God, “sconced” for supposed “offenses” including speaking in a foreign language, the compartments I’d built in my mind to rationalize my enjoyment of the idea of a black-tie dinner came crashing down. I could see, clearly, why events like these are a big part of the access and equality problems Oxford and Cambridge continue to have. I was embarrassed at myself for being complicit in this sort of nonsense, and embarrassed on behalf of a college and to some extent (though less so) a university that should really, in this day and age, know better.

Like so many things I have been part of since coming to Oxford, all this is not really unique to Oxford, Oxbridge, or England. Elite universities are elite universities wherever you go, and there are unquestionably people in Princeton who behave the way some of the people in Trinity did last night. I have often said that it may be better to be served at table rather than having the kitchen staff hidden away behind servery counters and kitchen walls as they are in the halls at Princeton, just as it may be better to have your bins emptied by someone who comes into your room, whom every morning you need to have a conversation with and whose name you need to know—in Princeton, where the bins are emptied at six in the morning, I have never been awake to ask the name of the person who empties mine. And just because at Trinity displays of wealth and privilege are events that anyone can attend does not mean that the ones that occur at Princeton behind the walls of eating clubs or in the rooms of fraternity, sorority, and certain student organization members are any less insidious. I have been fortunate in finding friends at Princeton who don’t buy into this nonsense, just as I have at Trinity, but the absurdities of last night’s dinner, and the culture shock of my first Guest Night, take me back to the inferiority I felt in my first semester at Princeton, when I was acutely aware that I was not as suave or as smooth-talking as my fellow members of certain student organizations who came from money and had been to prep school. Elite universities are elite universities wherever you go, and if on the one hand that means that once you’ve learned the rules of academia you’re set, it also means that you will find these ugly underbellies wherever you go too. The best thing I can say for the rest of the halls of privilege is that I have never in my life heard anyone who holds academic power say anything as tasteless while speaking in an official capacity as what the President of Trinity said last night, nor do I come from a university culture where faculty and administrators are so obviously complicit in and present at their students’ excesses.

But where does that leave us? Well, it leaves me having to make the awful confession that for all this, I still get a kick out of dressing up like a woman and drinking champagne, and that I would do it again, especially if it were in an environment where I could more readily forget about the ugliness of the display of wealth and privilege. And it also leaves me thinking back to a late, humid New Jersey night a year ago, at the end of the weekend of Reunions that is Princeton’s most grandiose display of money and privilege, when I sated the nausea produced by the parade of alumni classes and their mass consumption of the second-largest annual alcohol order in America by dancing to Madonna in a dark basement with my friends. After Reunions, I got my Princeton back by going to the LGBT alumni’s party, the last event of the weekend. And it wasn’t so much that it was teh gayz, as it was people I knew and loved, and songs that a cultural tradition I adore and respect has adopted as anthems of not-belonging, of survival, and of pride. I will never forget the glowing realization on the face of one of my friends, newly come out, as he realized that he was in a room full of people who, like him, knew all the words to “Like a Prayer”—that, for reasons greater than this, he wasn’t alone. Whether I myself ever participate in Reunions as an alumna, the Princeton that can do that is the Princeton I want to remember.

And so it was late last night, after the MCR gala, when my friends and I with a sense of escape betook ourselves to a gay bar and danced until after 3 in the morning. The air humid after the first rainfall in weeks, all of us dancing as if for our lives in a dimly-lit room permeated by flashing colored lights, gave me back my university experience, my sense of what it means to be a young person, my self-constructed, adopted cultural compass. The DJ played “It’s Raining Men” that night, a song that recalls for me the youthful glee of dance-party protests against the National Organization for Marriage, of road trips up and down I-95, of seeing Martha Wash perform it at Pride that fateful summer in Washington, DC. There are no gay bars in Princeton. There is no reason I would ever have to wear black tie there. But turning my face to the ceiling and laughing aloud while shouting the words to my favorite gay anthem, still in my ankle-length dress and my jewelry and my high-heeled pumps, I felt a powerful sense of continuity. We make our own worlds, our own communities, our own senses of ownership and control. We adopt our own anthems—whether the solidarity stems from the sentiments of the Internationale or those of “I Will Survive.” Like drag queens, like the great Harlem ball culture, we can, if we wish, all make opulence and glamor into something we can understand, own, and be part of.

And really, I suppose that’s the point: there is nothing evil in wearing a dress, in having a fancy meal, in playing game-like by the rules of a kind of class culture that shouldn’t properly have a place in modern-day Britain (or America). Because simply by doing and living we can all invert, subvert, and parody these conventions until they are something which we find ourselves capable of delighting and glorying in. I had my stereotypically Oxonian debauched formal evening. I played the game. But it is the sight of half a dozen of my friends, faces glowing, bowties undone and dresses askew, all of them shouting “Hallelujah, it’s raining men!”, that I hope to remember for years to come.

On “It Gets Better,” Briefly

Yesterday came the news that Dharun Ravi, the roommate who videotaped Rutgers student Tyler Clementi’s hookup last fall immediately before Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge, is being charged with a hate crime. Those who grope, when a suicide happens, for someone to blame it on will I suppose have their closure, though as my friend Katherine wrote when I posted the news story on Facebook, “Nobody wins.” Clementi is still dead, and Ravi’s life is probably not going to go too well from now on. For this teenager, unlike (we might assume) the many LGBT teenagers who have been targeted by Dan Savage’s viral campaign in the wake of Clementi’s suicide, it will not “get better.”

Though a woefully poignant note, this seems an appropriate one on which to take a moment to reflect on what “It Gets Better” means. The immense popularity of the campaign, in which thousands of people all over the world—from these sweet older men to President Obama—have posted videos on YouTube, has led to the elevation of teen suicide as one of the causes les plus célèbres of the LGBT rights movement. It is a cause which has demanded the attention of not only the representatives of several departments of the U.S. government and the employees of several major international corporations, but also of pop stars such as Lady Gaga, whose “Born This Way” was written to be marketed as a gay anthem, and to encourage the positive-thinking, neatly-packaged Pride attitude that seems to have worked so well for the “It Gets Better” stories. When the Fox TV show Glee, which has also focused a lot of attention on what it is like to be a white gay male teenager in a school environment, premieres a 90-minute special episode written around “Born This Way” next week, it will become the latest addition to this mega-narrative promising salvation to LGBT teenagers that has responded with such commercial—as well as heartfelt—force to Tyler Clementi’s, and other young people’s, suicides.

Ostensibly, it is a narrative which offers so much hope and promise—stay alive; everything’s gonna be okay—but as the months have ticked by, my feelings about it have gotten ever more complex. My acceptance of it as something which I can both relate to and believe in has faded since I wrote my first response to Clementi’s death, and since I contributed to Princeton’s “It Gets Better” video. As I go to Holy Week services this week and get hung up on the degree to which the words, and the acts of devotion they demand, make no sense since I was raised without a promise of salvation as part of my worldview, so do I hesitate more and more to hurtle headlong for “It Gets Better.” Justification by faith is no more sensible to me whether we’re talking about how God sent his Son to die for us or whether we’re talking about a telos in which anonymous gay (yes, usually gay) kid from flyover country realizes he (yes, usually he) was “Born This Way,” and therefore has the impetus to move to a city and go to Pride and dance to Gaga at the clubs and eventually get gay-married and live happily ever after. I speak facetiously, of course, but this is not to elide the comparison between religious faith and “It Gets Better” faith. I’m getting a sense now that this is what’s been lying behind my hesitation to embrace the IGB narrative over the course of the past several months. I think I’m just not a person who has faith.

But I am not without belief, and not without causes, and not without spirituality, of a certain sort. If I am anything, I am a believer in good works, and in the quasi-Transcendentalist belief in God-as-metaphor, as a divine presence in all things that are good and virtuous that we can experience at the best of times as a shiver of pleasure. And it’s these things I think of when I think of getting better: of developing oneself to be more virtuous, and to be able to feel that shiver when confronted with beauty. My God is not externalized, in the promise of salvation nor the promise of Pride, but is something I may perceive in swift glimpses if I play my cards right, if I do my reading and practice my vocation of being a teacher. And this is something that does not happen without good works—without those of oneself and one’s daily self-fashioning, and most critically without those of the bettering influences around one, the dearest friends and most caring mentors, the families biological and adopted, and even the anonymous donor who means you get paid for doing what you love for the first time. For me, coming into this world without faith, it does nothing to believe that “it gets better” first, and then proceed from there. It is only through the daily Pilgrim’s Progress of psychological labor that I have even so much as come to appreciate the goodness of my life, how fortunate I am, how much better my life is now than it was just three years ago, and how much I now have to give that it is my duty to pass on to those whom I believe need to be told not “It Gets Better,” but how to help themselves—just as my teachers, slowly but surely, brought home to me.

Late last night, a bout of insomnia had me reflecting on what it is to be a 21-year-old Canadian-American academic brat living alone on another continent (or, well, an island in the North Sea), for whom going to work every day means going to the Bodleian Library to write about John Addington Symonds, which work is (or will be, this summer) subsidized in part by a grant because some members of her department thought what this 21-year-old Canadian-American academic brat does with her life is worth paying her for. Three years ago, when I was an 18-year-old gazing rapt at the light at the end of the long, dark, horrible tunnel of high school, and looking ahead to a summer working at the local cinema and who-knows-what to follow in September at a university I was convinced I hadn’t deserved to get into, I could never have imagined living in a room in Broad Street, writing original scholarship by sunlight in the Upper Reading Room. I could never have imagined being the one to discover Symonds’ letters to Roden Noel in the Bodleian’s English literary manuscript collections, or the one to cut the pages on nineteenth-century books no one has ever opened for a hundred years. I could never have imagined having mentees of my own. I could never have imagined having a pint at the pub with friends, or using Facebook to keep in touch with other friends on the continent I came from. I could never have imagined living in a world in which what I do, and what I value, is valued. I no longer hate myself. And if there is any evidence of bettering, surely this is it.

But I did not come to realize that my life is better because someone in a YouTube video told me; I came to realize it through dint of purpose and the gentle guidance of teachers who taught me how to read and how to write, how to love, how to teach; who took seriously what I said to them and responded in kind; and, whether eminent chaired professors or my parents, have given me guidance when I needed it. My teachers have taught me not that I will be their colleague someday, but that I am worth working towards that goal, and moreover that such a specific goal (rather like that of the gay-married coastal-city-living IGB gay, I suppose) need not define who one is or what one can contribute. My teachers have taught me that even if it doesn’t get better, we shouldn’t stop trying. And for me it’s that purpose, not the faith, that is so much worth living for.

One last thing: if things have gotten better for me, and if I remain resolved to continue my Pilgrim’s Progress, it has nothing to do with moving to a city (after all, I have nearly always lived in or near cities) or knowing the words to every song Lady Gaga has ever released (which I probably do). For me, there is no gay marriage on the horizon. And while this is in part because this narrative does not even begin to map onto my life, and its whitewashing of the queer experience strikes me as incredibly problematic, it is also because sexual orientation is not at the center of my struggle, and because my self-loathing of past years was far displaced from a closet. Gaga notwithstanding, I live in a Victorian world, before a certain Symonds set the word “homosexual” to paper, and the competing discourses with which people of all kinds struggled to express inchoate desires didn’t always cohere around sexual object choice and the mechanics of what someone then might have called “voluptuousness.” My discourse is one in which the language of passion speaks as much, if not more, to the cults of truth, of good, and of beauty as it does to the cult of the body.

And so I ask that anyone who speaks a language in common with mine feel free to reclaim the words “it gets better” from the neatly-packaged narrative that those words have been sold as. And as we labor onwards, suspecting that the Celestial City is nowhere to be found, but that we ought to keep on towards it anyway, let us please make sure that we say an atheist’s prayer for the poor lost souls of all those people who take an action like jumping off the George Washington Bridge—regardless of whether their torment was the homophobic taunts of a schoolyard bully.

… to my knowledge, nobody professes to doubt that, so far forth as we possess a power of bettering things, it is our paramount duty to use it and to train all our intellect and energy to this supreme service of our kind. Hence the pressing interest of the question, to what extent modern progress in natural knowledge… is competent to help us in the great work of helping one another?”
—T.H. Huxley

I Don’t Usually Do This Kind of Post, But; or, Problems in IvyGate’s Knowledge of Late-Victorian Intellectual History

There’s been a bit of buzz on the internet (or, well, okay, fine, the Ivy League internet; yes, I know I’m an elitist bastard) recently about an 1899 Harvard admissions exam that the NY Times posted on its website, seemingly largely consisting of dismay at how difficult it must have been to get into Harvard or a school like it in 1899. Here’s IvyGate, whose post caused me to become very irritable:

If you thought getting accepted to an Ivy League school was tough today, you should count your blessings that you weren’t born in the 1880s. In addition to having diphtheria and bad teeth and a pompadour like a mangy cat, you’d also be forced to take a comically rigid entrance exam and speak ancient Greek.

The New York Times recently unearthed a Harvard entrance exam from 1899, and man, is it ugly. The text spans three major disciplines–classical languages, history and math–and requires its victims to jump through flaming hoops in topics like Greek Composition, Random-Ass Geography, and Hard Numbers.

In their usual pained attempts to be sarcastic, IvyGate seem to have forgotten the first rule of history, which I hope they learned before taking their AP U.S. History test to get into their own fancy schools: change over time. No, of course secondary-school students aren’t taught the same things now that they were in 1899. Classical studies are (sadly, some might argue) out of fashion in favor of modern subjects; since we all have TI-83s now, it’s no longer as much a mark of mathematical competency to do complicated arithmetic as it is to differentiate and integrate single-variable equations. And, in reference to the Columbia entrance exam the post also references, obviously before 20th-century literature came along, people read different things—and yet I’ll wager most of us who go to Ivy League schools read at least some of those works of literature in high school, such as Macbeth, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and House of the Seven Gables, and have covered more of them (such as Milton) since entering college.

As to the Latin and Greek—well, it’s a question of fads, not so much a question of competency. Most people applying to university in America take a modern language; if you go to a fancy school in America today, you might still do Latin, and possibly even Greek (though it’s not particularly likely). I did Latin on my own for three years, and while I couldn’t do well on the Harvard exam if I sat it today, I would certainly have been able to answer all those questions after three years with the language. This is very similar to the sort of stuff I was asked to do as a Latin student, particularly the English-to-Latin translations where they give you a lot of clues as to which words they’d like you to use. I’m sure if those questions were in French or Spanish, most people would be able to conjugate some verbs and do a little translation and composition in the language. It’s not clear to me that this is any more difficult than taking an AP language test—and in fact, it was probably easier. Why, you ask? Well, because the boys who applied to Harvard in 1899 were probably groomed to it in a way few students are today. They attended a much smaller array of elite east-coast schools, which knew what to teach in order to get their students into the universities. Anyone with their sights on Harvard in the late 19th century would probably have been heavily coached to be good at their Greek verse and to know fun facts like the dates of the battles of Philippi and Actium, just as a lot of people applying to university today do SAT prep classes. University students in 19th-century Britain and America were rewarded for pretty foreign-sounding things by our standards (on the other side of the Atlantic, both Symonds and Wilde won prizes at Oxford for their Latin verse stylings!) but hey, we now award prizes for community service and school spirit. Go figure.

Bottom line, it was probably much easier to get into Harvard in 1899, because the number of people who could even enter the admissions pool was so limited. You obviously had to be a white man, and more than that to even have a shot you had to go to a fancy high school, probably in the northeast and even more probably in Massachusetts, where you would be taught ancient subjects ad nauseam. If you even had the opportunity to sit this exam in the first place, you’d probably do well.

As for us, in our age of uber-competitive, 6-8% admission rates for these schools, the insane regimes of prep classes and extracurricular activities to which prospective applicants feel pressured to subject themselves, and the widespread disappointment that spreads across the New York Times readership every year at this time as people realize that 21st-century college admissions isn’t a meritocracy, it’s a madhouse? Yeah, I’d take declining a few Greek nouns, describing the differences between Athens and Sparta, and using a slide rule any day.

But oh wait: it’s a moot point—I’m a woman. No Harvard Greek for me in 1899—and there’s the rub, really.