Observations about LGBT Literary Heritage in 10 Rants
The following is a transcript and video of Jason Schneiderman’s remarks at “Building LGBT Literary Traditions” panel with Julie R. Enszer, Eloise Klein Healy, Tony Valenzuela and Reginald Harris at the 2011 AWP Conference in DC.
Observation 2: I am not entirely sure to what extent being gay has an aesthetic component.
I mean, personally, I’m an old school, Joan-Crawford-and-Betty-Davis-movie-watching queer who wants nothing more than to go the singalong Sound of Music and scream the words to “I am what I am” at the afterparty for a revival of Gypsy. But that’s really a very specific idea of gayness, and while it was the dominant one for a good fifty years or so… we can think broader, right?
But can we handle the multiplicities of LGBTIQ aesthetics? Certainly, if we can handle bears, twinks, clones, daddies, lipsticks, butches, and zombies as clear gay/lesbian identities, (zombies aren’t real… I just wanted to be sure you were paying attention) we can handle that Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsberg, Oscar Wilde, Mark Doty and Kay Ryan are all sort of their own strands of leather in the lanyard one weaves at Queer Writing Summer Camp.
But at the point, are we a big tent or no tent at all? How do we find queer cohesion when I feel a hell of a lot closer to Heather McHugh’s work than I do to a gay vampire novel?
Observation 3: LGBT Writing was always fun for me, especially when LGBT life was not.
When I went to college, I had a very strong social conscience, and I took being gay quite seriously. I went to lectures on the then current topic of gays in the military, and I coordinated the day of silence, and I attended national coming out day roundtables and I was the liason between the student and faculty groups, and it didn’t get me a whole lot. We didn’t get domestic partnership benefits at Maryland, Don’t ask Don’t Tell sucked, and the Day of Silence is kind of stupid. Seriously?
But in retrospect, poetry was one place where being gay was fun. I could write coded poems about sex. And screw the editors of Bullets and Butterflies for leaving me out of their Queer Slam Poetry anthology after they accepted my work but I can’t find the e-mail where Regie said they wanted it—BUT—FOR EXAMPLE, my poem about Santa Clause starting with the line “Chimneys are an exit, not an entrance” was FUN.
So maybe it’s no mistake that writing is what I wanted to be the center of my life. Maybe gay writing has always been fun. Even if the courtroom dramas that gay writings provoke are not fun. Think about Whitman’s response to John Addington Symonds. Right? It was the literature that was fun—the fun part of being gay is in the poems and the stories—whereas the hassle is the talk that exists around that primary core. LGBT Lit is the place were can can enjoy ourselves, even if we have to be quiet about what it is we’re enjoying.
Observation 5: Gays are incredibly well represented in the Western Canon.
To quote Eve Sedgwick: Who was the gay Shakespeare? Who was the gay Proust? Who was the gay Socrates?
Maybe we can convene a panel on finding the heterosexual Shakespeare. Though heterosexual sounds so clinical. I think they like to be called “straight.”
But in pointing out that Shakespeare was the gay Shakespeare, we risk again, losing our center of gravity and dissipating our identity. If we’re at the center of the canon already, what’s to talk about?
Edmund White in his most recent memoir talks about the “Blue Chip” artists of the 1960s who didn’t come out until they were already quite famous, and for them their sexuality just became another angle of interest, rather than a primary designation.
And yet, isn’t the idea of gay aesthetic curiously indebted to non-gays? Madonna, Eve Sedgwick, Bette Davis, Benjamin Disraeli, Gilbert and Sullivan… I mean, hmmm….
Observation 6: LGBT is not a historically stable set of identities, but we do not need LGBT to be an immutable and transhistorical idea in order to think of it as a heritage.
So, I’ve written at length about this elswhere, but I think that notion of LGBT heritage is difficult because it’s hard to really pin down what those letters mean, and how they’ve meant it through time.
To take our most recent letter, T—think about how our notion and idea of trans is dependent on technology and medical intervention. There is something fascinating to me about the fact the cover of Stone Butch Blues declares it to be the novel that first spoke the word “transgender” and yet the word transgender is never in the novel. And the happy ending is NOT when Jess is accepted as a man—though Jess successfully and unhappily passes as a man for part of the book—but rather when Jess is called “Sister” and is embraced as a woman on her own terms.
It seems to me that within trans, there are two competing notions of gender: one that rejects the gender binary as oppressive and regards body modifications as all being of a part—so my taking Accutane or having a nose job is not that different from top surgery— and another that embraces the gender binary and insists that surgery is corrective, because one belongs in a different body.
And I’m not suggesting that this contradiction should be decided for one side or another, I’m just saying that even within a single identity there seem to be contradictions that have to be explored and enjoyed—but they complicate the notion of heritage and identity.
So was Gertrude Stein trans? Was Vernon Lee trans? Was Quentin Crisp trans? In part, the point of LGBT or the word “queer” is to delay this sort of pinning down. Clearly, Gertrude Stein was LGBT or queer, but we can leave open the possiblity of how to understand her rather than getting all structuralist on her and demanding that her body and desires yield to categories we can easily name. And yet LGBT or queer are categories we can name—I’m arguing that there is value in the dis-ease of that naming.
And if you consider Foucault as a kind of foundational figure for the kind of discontinuities I’m suggesting we embrace, I was recently reminded by Dennis Altman that Foucault’s thinking was inspired by the anti-essentiallism of the early Gay Lib movement—and in fact, his desire to efface himself from his work backfired—so Foucault never named his intellectual heritage because he was trying to disappear, but the result was that we only saw Foucault and missed his roots, which then erases a body of LGBT activism and thought.
Observation 8: We kind of don’t know what to say about AIDS right now.
My husband and I were listening to a remix of “Sidewalk Talk”— and my husband was like, this is really depressing. And I was like, “because it’s all synthy and layered and felt super sophisticated in the 80’s but now it feels like a two year old could mix this?” and he said, “No, because it takes me back to such an AIDS ravaged time.”
If you look over Poets for Life (Crown)—which is an anthology of poetry about AIDS that Michael Klein edited in the 1990s, you’d be shocked by what’s there. Ed Hirsch, Heather McHugh, Phillis Levin all have very well known poems included, and yet, we don’t think of them as being AIDS poems anymore.
In a certain way, the poems we still know are about AIDS are by Mark Doty and Marie Howe and Tory Dent—the people who had their lives unambiguously altered by the disease and whose work was unmistakably about it. It would be a mistake to think of David Groff’s recent anthology Persistent Voices (Alyson) of poets lost to AIDS as a capstone, and yet it does mark the end of a certain era of devastation.
We still live with AIDS, even if it has changed so much that those dark days of the 1980s seem unrecognizable at least to me. After reading my first book about life with my HIV positive husband people will often come up to me after a reading and ask how he is, to which I always have the slight panicked feeling and say something like “why? Did something happen?”
It’s just that protease inhibitors have changed the face of HIV—which is a crazy stupid phrase that we have to do better than—but the point is HIV/AIDS shaped the gay community in significant ways that we have yet to really understand or build on in a new era.
This is also a very very hard conversation to have without acknowledging the severity of racism in the gay community, and the very distressing ways that conversations about HIV/AIDs often precipitate some pretty heavy earthquakes as the faultlines of race, class, and geography are put under pressure. And I would strongly suggest that Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality (Beacon) be consulted here.
Observation 10: It’s exciting to me that we can sort of enjoy LGBT identities in all their complexities and messiness. I want to acknoweldge our complexity and difficutly so that we can get ourselves together.
In all of this, I’ve forgotten to say that I have felt nutured by queer writing and queer writers—and that I’m incredibly grateful for writers like David Trinidad, Andrew Holleran, and Wayne Koestenbaum because they expanded my idea of what a gay life could be, and what my writing could encompass.
The importance of building the heritage I’ve spent eight minutes complicating is that it allows us to lead more fulfilling lives. At the base of LGBT identity is the belief in the importance of desire and fulfillment. Literature offers us intimacy and a spectrum of similarity and difference that we embrace because it makes us whole—it guides us and goads us and creates new desires and new fulfilments.
That spectrum is severely impoverished when LGBT voices are silenced, misrecognized or discounted. I am grateful that I can think about this body of work in difficult ways because the groundwork has been lain for it to be thought about at all.