Gay Criticism

netflix1_640x345_acf_cropped.jpgUnlike lesbian criticism, gay criticism doesn’t tend to focus on efforts to define homosexuality. Sexual relations between men, or even just the sexual desire of one man for another, is the generally accepted criterion of gayness in white middle-class America today. Nevertheless, not all cultures share this definition. For example, in Mexican and South American cultures, the mere fact of sexual activity with or desire for another male does not indicate that a man is homosexual. As long as he behaves in a traditionally masculine manner— strong, dominant, decisive—and consistently assumes the male sexual role as penetrator (never allowing himself to be penetrated, orally or anally), a man remains a macho, a “real” man. As a macho, a man can have sex with both men and women and not be considered what North Americans call homosexual. The same definition of homosexuality was used in white American working-class culture around the turn of the twentieth century: only men who allowed themselves to be penetrated by a man during sex and behaved in a traditionally feminine manner—submissive, coy, flirtatious, “soft”—were considered homosexual.

A similar problem for contemporary white middle-class assumptions about homosexuality is offered by ancient Athens, where there was no polar opposition between homosexual and heterosexual behavior. Sexual partners were chosen along caste lines, not according to their biological sex. In Athens, a member of the elite male ruling class could have legitimate sexual relations only with his social inferiors: women of any age and from any class, free-born boys past the age of puberty but not old enough for citizenship, slaves, and foreigners.

In fact, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the notion of homosexual identity and even the word homosexual were adopted in Anglo-European and American culture. Before that time, certain sexual acts—generally speaking, all forms of nonprocreative sex—were forbidden by church or state, but they weren’t viewed as evidence of a specific sexual identity. The idea that one could be a homosexual came along with the idea, promoted by the medical professions, that such an identity was a form of pathology. This is why many gay men today prefer to refer to themselves as gay: the word homosexual is associated, for many, with the belief that homosexuality is a medical or psychological disorder.

Similarly, “the masturbator” also became a pathological sexual identity in the nineteenth century. An act that the medical professions today consider a normal, healthy outlet was considered so dangerous in the nineteenth century that children “suffering” from the “affliction” were tied to their beds at night to prevent their touching themselves, and there are several case histories of doctors’ burning the genitals of little girls in order to “cure” them.

The point here is that attitudes toward homosexuality, like attitudes toward sexuality in general, differ widely from one place to another and from one historical period to another. The intense antigay sentiment that emerged in an especially concentrated and virulent form in America during the early 1950s and that lingers today does not represent some kind of universally held attitude toward, or even definition of, homosexuality.

The kinds of analyses that tend to engage the attention of gay critics often fall under the heading of gay sensibility. How does being gay influence the way one sees the world, sees oneself and others, creates and responds to art and music, creates and interprets literature, or experiences and expresses emotion? In a heterosexist culture such as the twenty-first century America, gay sensibility includes an awareness of being different, at least in certain ways, from the members of the mainstream, dominant culture, and the complex feelings that result from an implicit, ongoing social oppression. In other words, part of seeing the world as a gay man includes the ways in which one deals with being oppressed as a gay man. Among others, three important domains of gay sensibility, all of which involve responses to heterosexist oppression, are drag, camp, and dealing with the issue of AIDS.

Drag is the practice of dressing in women’s clothing. Drag queens are gay men who dress in drag on a regular basis or who do it professionally. However, not all gay people cross-dress, not all cross-dressers are gay, and not all gay people approve of drag. But for some, it’s a source of self-expression and entertainment that can also be a political statement against traditional gender roles. Drag doesn’t necessarily involve (and perhaps never involves) the fantasy that one is a woman. Rather it is a way for a man to express his feminine side or his sense of the outrageous or his nonconformity. For other gay men, drag is a form of political activism used to draw attention to gay issues, criticize homophobic government and religious policies, and raise funds to fight AIDS. Whatever the purpose, drag is a way of refusing to be intimidated by heterosexist gender boundaries and a way of getting all of us to think about our own sexuality by challenging gender roles.

Lesbians sometimes cross-dress, too. In fact, there are some drag kings, such as Elvis Herselvis, who satirizes Elvis impersonators and includes in her act a discussion of Elvis’s drug problem and sexual proclivities. However, drag doesn’t seem to be for lesbians the major issue it is for gay men. One reason may be that, at least since the late 1960s, women’s adoption of masculine attire and grooming is not considered outrageous or even unfashionable. Also, in general, the lesbian community’s adoption of male clothing and grooming (for example, butch attire) or of androgenous clothing and grooming (for example, lesbian-feminist attire Lesbian, gay, and queer criticism of the 1970s) has tended to be a matter of personal self-expression and/or quiet political statement that hasn’t had the theatrical quality of gay drag. Therefore, although butch lesbians frequently have been beaten and raped, especially during such repressive periods as the 1950s, their cross-dressing never drew the national attention focused on gay drag.

Camp, of which flamboyant gay drag is an example, is a form of expression characterized by irreverence, artifice, exaggeration, and theatricality. It’s ironic, witty, and humorous and often involves a blurring or crossing of gender lines. It’s subversive in that it mocks authority and traditional standards of behavior by imitating them in outrageous ways, often through the use of exaggerated gestures, postures, and voice. One doesn’t have to be gay to produce camp. Camp is as much, or more, in the eye of the beholder as in the intention of the person who produces it. Thus, the flamboyant theatricality of Judy Garland and of former basketball star Dennis Rodman—and the flamboyant irreverence of Bette Midler or of Madonna (for example, think of the times that Madonna wore her bra on the outside of her clothing)—are appreciated for their camp qualities by many gay fans. Not unlike drag (which, if outrageous or humorous, can be viewed as a subset of camp), camp is a way of affirming one’s difference from heterosexual culture. It’s a way of disarming heterosexism and healing oneself through laughter. And thus it’s a way of transforming victimhood into power.

Of course, living with the reality of AIDS, which includes AIDS-related discrimination, became part of gay sensibility in the late 1980s. It can’t help but affect the way gay men see the world to know that the federal government was reticent to fund AIDS research until the disease became a threat for heterosexual citizens as well, to be aware of the lingering reluctance of some medical professionals to treat AIDS patients or to treat them with respect, to encounter discrimination in the workplace against people who have AIDS or who are HIV positive (who do not have AIDS but who will presumably develop the disease at some future point), and to put forth the daily physical and emotional labor of caring for friends and loved ones dying of AIDS.

Despite their focus on different theoretical issues, there is a good deal of similarity in the way gay and lesbian critics approach literary texts. For example, like lesbian critics, gay critics attempt to determine what might constitute a gay poetics, or a way of writing that is uniquely gay; to establish a gay literary tradition; and to decide what writers and works belong to that tradition. Gay critics also examine how gay sensibility affects literary expression and study the ways in which heterosexual texts can have a homoerotic dimension. They try to rediscover gay writers from the past whose work was underappreciated, distorted, or suppressed, including gay writers who have been presumed heterosexual. They try to determine the sexual politics of specific texts, analyzing, for example, how gay characters or “feminine” men are portrayed in both gay and heterosexual texts. Finally, gay critics identify and correct heterosexist interpretations of literature that fail to recognize or appreciate the gay sensibility informing specific literary works. To get an idea of the kinds of insights into literature these approaches can produce, let’s take a brief look at three specific examples: an analysis of Walt Whitman’s poetic voice, a study of the representation of gay identity in the work of contemporary novelist Edmund White, and a defense of the gay sensibility in Tennessee Williams’s plays.

In Walt Whitman Camping, Karl Keller extends our understanding of Whitman’s poetic project through his interesting analysis of the ways in which Whitman’s poetic self-presentation is a form of camp. “We see this,” Keller argues, “in the flamboyant gestures, the exaggerated tone, the operatic voice, the inflated role-playing, the dilation of language” (115) that frequently characterize Whitman’s speaker, for example, the speaker in “Song of Myself” (1855). Keller says, “Those who have bemoaned the contradiction between Whitman’s claim that his poetry . . . revealed his personality well and the paucity of autobiographical detail in the poems have only failed to look . . . at the workings of Whitman’svoice” (115). “The poet is performing” (115), Keller asserts, and the camp quality of his performance reveals the seductive “come-on” (116) in his voice and in his pose that humorously sexualizes his transcendentalist ideals of bonding with nature and with other human beings. Whitman “is not making fun of the things he talks about but making fun out of them,” Keller observes, in order to “intensif[y] his enjoyment of the world around him” (118). Referring to the poet as “the Mae West of American literature,” Keller argues that Whitman reveals  himself to the reader, not by “flashing his entire person at us,” but by “showing the range of possibilities of his personality” (115).

Another representative example of gay literary criticism is Nicholas F. Radel’s thoughtful essay Self as Other: The Politics of Identity in the Works of Edmund White. “Gay identity,” Radel observes, “is the explicit subject of many of White’s works,” and many of his gay characters “fail to achieve a coherent sense of self,” a failure that “can be attributed to the politics of sexual and gender difference” (175). In other words, White examines the damaging effects of homophobic American culture on the gay men and boys who grow up within it, and its most damaging effect is the internalized homophobia, the learned self-hatred, of his gay characters. Indeed, Radel points out that White’s gay characters experience a distinct split within themselves between what they consider their “essential selves” and “a homosexual self as Other that they themselves conceive as being separate” (176) from them. This experience of being alienated from oneself undermines both gay identity and gay community. How can a man feel he belongs to a gay community if he is alienated from his own gayness? Furthermore, Radel argues, self-alienation in White’s work is not due to individual psychological problems but is the direct result of the politics of heterosexist oppression. Therefore, “we might view White’s novels as part of the historical apparatus for revealing a gay subject [selfhood] as it responds to political pressure from the culture at large” (176).

Finally, in Camp and the Gay Sensibility, Jack Babuscio argues that gay sensibility has something to offer everyone: the relevance of its insights is not limited, as some critics believe, to the gay community. As a case in point, Babuscio observes that critics have failed to fully appreciate the insights into human life offered by Tennessee Williams’s heroines—the most famous of whom is probably Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)— ecause these characters represent Williams’s own emotions as a gay man. In other words, Williams’sheroines are Williams himself in drag, so to speak, expressing his own anxieties about being gay: for example, his battle between the demands of the flesh and those of the spirit, his desire to be promiscuous and yet still keep his pride, and his fear of aging in a youth-oriented, homosexual subculture. Critics have concluded therefore, Babuscio notes, that Williams’s work is not relevant to mainstream heterosexual culture. In short, they believe that gay sensibility speaks only to gay men.

In contrast, Babuscio asserts that Williams’s experience on the margins of mainstream America, as an object of “fear, suspicion, and, even, hatred” (34), gave him a privileged position from which to understand the conflicts of human life—the same privileged position occupied, for example, by members of racial minorities— because he had to deal with those conflicts in a particularly intense form. Furthermore, Babuscio notes, the act of literary creation involves, for all good  writers, the transformation of their own experience into literary form. So when Maxine Faulk, in The Night of the Iguana (1962), says that we all reach a point in our lives, sooner or later, where we must settle for something that works for us, she is speaking not just to the gay community but to the entire human community.

Contemporary gay writers include, among others, David Feinberg, Tony Kushner, David Leavitt, Edmund White, Armistead Maupin, Paul Monette, Mark Doty, Randy Shilts, Dennis Cooper, Neil Bartlett, Allan Gurganus, Andrew Holleran, Samuel R. Delany, Dale Peck, John Rechy, Paul Russell, Matthew Stadler, and Peter Weltner.

Source: Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, Loistyson Second Edition, Routledge.

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