Jacqueline Foertsch. Critical Matrix. Volume 15. Summer 2004.
Crossed Lines, Crossed Wires
The influential critical anthology Fear of a Queer Planet belongs to a promising subgenre in the gender studies canon—the “crossover” text looking to establish a dialogue between diverse factions in the field, in this case gay and lesbian theory turning its attention to the heterosexual mainstream. The book refers with its first word to a fear unique to self-identified straights, and attempts to mitigate such debilitating fears through the understanding generated by the writings within. Its chapters are grouped under two subheadings, “Get Over It” and “Get Used to It”—language even more pointedly selected to include this hetero other, as it no longer merely refers to but directly addresses the presumed phobic reader. Yet the writings gathered beneath these headings speak primarily about the straight opposition instead of formulating direct addresses to it. The question remains as to whether the homophobic population discussed in these works includes the straight, leftist academics most likely to encounter this text or only the larger conservative mainstream, which is almost certainly entirely out of earshot.
Of the many otherwise remarkable offerings housed in this collection, Cindy Patton’s “Tremble, Hetero Swine” comes closest to the direct address indicated by the anthology’s main titles. This language is not hers but a quote from an anonymous gay letter-writer, blasting straights in a radical gay magazine. Patton calls this writer’s violent plotting a “gay revenge fantasy,” yet she ultimately insists the diatribe against “hetero swine” is a parody of and response to only the radical right, its fears and hatred of gays and lesbians. An emphasis on the first term—hetero swine—would include all straights (however negatively) in a subset of the porcine population at large; Patton’s shift in emphasis, however, to “hetero swine”—i.e. the swinish element within the generally acceptable hetero population—changes the discussion from a fair and interesting argument between straights and gays to a lopsided and oft-witnessed staring contest between progressives and kooks. Finally Patton addresses not straights but “gay-affirmatives,” introducing fluidity into the gay/straight opposition but leaving otherwise progressive straight readers wondering: is Patton’s critique meant for “us,” or do varieties of homophobia across the political spectrum need a more nuanced diagnostic method?
Such identity crises inhere in multiple attempts to explore a dialogue with subgroups in gender/sexuality studies: gay, lesbian, and straight feminist theorists have all made frustratingly loose references to “feminists” or “women” when the lesbian/straight distinction likely has significant ramifications for the argument in question, and all three groups are equally likely to reference the “gay” perspective when the men and women within this camp surely have diverging, sometimes conflicting points of view. I have already begun to indicate the equally vexing issues surrounding unshaded references to the “straight” opposition. These misidentifications, sometimes inadvertent although sometimes strategically deployed, can exacerbate tensions within the “feminist sisterhood,” between queer “brothers and sisters,” or among all three of these divergent discourses. In many of these instances, the (perhaps inevitable) limitations of “speaking for” (ignoring, overriding, assimilating) the authorially absent group(s) emerge, making “speaking to” seem that much more difficult a proposition. As Kaja Silverman confesses at the beginning of her discussion exploring effeminacy in gay men,
…I have hesitated a long time before beginning this chapter. The question which provokes it…seems politically impossible to ask…not only because I am both heterosexual and a woman but because the question itself appears to solicit a cultural stereotype which many homosexual men have struggled to put behind them. My query, which I dare to pose…
Finally, the space and care required to qualify oneself as a viable crossover commentator, and the likelihood that these efforts will fail to convince a sizeable portion of the potential readership, cause all who attempt such a move to face the task with trepidation.
Because of my own subject position as a straight leftist-feminist indebted to the insights of gay and lesbian studies, I am especially interested to delineate the position of “the straight” or “the feminist” (again, these may be only minimally overlapping categories) in recent gender/sexuality theories. Throughout, I will employ the term “trialogue” to indicate a particular corner of the gay/straight debate: not the queer confrontation with the stereotypical (almost clichéd) raving right-winger but the conversation that might be had between gays, lesbians, and educated (perhaps even well-meaning, gay-affirmative) straights who work and live beside each other yet who likely still have important issues to resolve regarding their divergent outlooks. Investigating writings that attempt but fall short of or actually hinder such three-way exchanges, I mean not at all to “correct” some oversight in the arguments published thus far, or to fill in missing pieces that have been somehow overlooked. On the contrary, this discussion is meant to indicate the difficulty involved in any attempt to bridge the “gay/straight” discursive gap, due to the vicissitudes of language itself, not to mention the elements of homophobia, heterophobia, and misogyny that are unfortunately still very much a part of contemporary critical thought. While it is essential to persist in these conversational efforts for the ever higher levels of understanding attained thereby, the path toward true trialogue is paved with hazards largely unrecognized and under-analyzed thus far.
Jacquelyn N. Zita expands upon the questions left unanswered by Patton, since her entire argument shifts in accordance with varying definitions of her terms. Thus, Zita’s “heterosexual,” at first synonymous with her terms “homophobe” or “heteromasculine hegemony,” either is as narrowly construed as Patton’s “Hetero Swine” or casts a much wider net. In Body Talk, Zita’s focus is on the most intense of homophobic reactions—“ beyond vomit,” as she quotes a relative at one point—and pins these primarily on “the heteromale” whose violent response stems, as other theorists have argued, from self-hatred and self-doubts about his own heterosexuality. Zita argues that “white heterosexual men are more homophobic than white heterosexual women,” and mainly sees “heterowomen” as pawns in the process of “hold[ing] the heterobody of both sexes in place.” With Zita’s word order in the following passage—“I will explore how this masculinity relates to the `otherness’ of queers, heterowomen, transgendered bodies, and racially marked (nonwhite) others”—“we” heterowomen are included (and thus somewhat protected from the charge of homophobia) quite cozily among other victimized groups.
Yet elsewhere in the essay, Zita makes reference to an unsexed “heterosexual hegemony,” and to deny that even gay-affirmative straights like myself have benefited greatly and have oppressed queer counterparts frequently through membership in the heterosexual majority is the height of homophobic hypocrisy. If Zita is indeed referring, at least some of the time, to all straights, her reference to a “female straight repulsion” that is both “visceral” and derived from her own oppressed relationship to heteromales opens onto at least two readings: either we are examining the repulsion of straight females whose level of implication is beyond that generated by their involuntary roles in the heteromasculist system (“true” homophobes), or we are examining the repulsion existing fundamentally in the bodies (the “viscera”) of all straight females, intense and violent as that of heteromales’, only better explained because in part coerced. Certainly I am hoping, in one respect, that Zita has discerned in her travels a straight female population whose reactions toward lesbian and gay sexuality cannot be characterized as repulsion, so that she is talking in the passage above about a particular, homophobic segment of straight female society. Yet in the other, more relevant respect here, I still hope she is talking to gay-affirmative me, about my homophobia and ways I might work past this. However, since no contemporary feminist voice expressing a “beyond-vomit” attitude about gays and lesbians would be deemed credible, it is apparent that once more I am being drawn alongside (as a gay-affirmative supporter) instead of spoken to.
Sisters, Brothers, and “Mom”
If the role played by progressive straights in Patton’s and Zita’s arguments remains in question, other gay and lesbian theories create alliances with this leftist, specifically feminist entity, although in curious ways: perhaps descended from the second-wave lesbian-feminist “sisterhood,” so fixated on the intricacies of gender oppression that questions of sexuality were entirely ignored, the feminist element in these arguments reliably advances an essentially conservative “anti-sex” or “anti-promiscuity” position. Old-school radical feminists such as Marilyn Frye and Sheila Jeffreys invoke this sisterhood, referring to “all women” in their work, to construct an opposition to the sexual habits of gay men. Elsewhere, Tim Edwards seeks, through feminism, to alleviate gay men’s “persistent promiscuity and anti-commitment attitudes or a plain lack of emotional communication and explanation.” He investigates gay theory’s overlap with and debt to feminism, yet his dialogue with this “sister school” is tellingly uneven: in discussions of intergenerational sex (where the “mother’s” voice is strongly present) and “private love” (where Edwards suggests intimacy and commitment as at least serial alternatives to casual or anonymous sex), feminist theories are, not surprisingly, widely evident. The feminist presence is much weaker, however, in his chapter on AIDS and altogether missing in a chapter on sadomasochism and pornography and another on public sex. Evidently, certain topics suggest feminism to Edwards more strongly than others, and his dropping and re-claiming of the feminist figure throughout makes it into something of a maiden aunt, hustled behind a curtain whenever the conversation gets too rough.
Prom Nights and Ick Factors
In the arguments of Jefferys, Frye, and Edwards, feminism is both a maternal, mediating presence and a polarizing, tie-breaking force, pulled to the side of the gay or lesbian position to effect a “two-against-one” show of strength. “Straightness” manifests itself elsewhere in the gay/lesbian dialogue, specifically in the elements of misogyny perceived by some lesbian and feminist theorists to undergird certain gay male theories. To counter this, these lesbian respondents may foreground a “feminist” identity, focusing their writing on the “problem” with men and rejoining a (heterosexualized) battle of the sexes they may have thought was won long ago. For example, Sally Munt has argued that “Gay [Male] Studies and Women’s Studies don’t intersect, historically having shown an antipathy towards each other”; her phrasing suggests once more the significant indeterminacy within the terms “gay” and “women.” Munt in fact clarifies her argument to designate “gay” as an overarching rubric for “gay and lesbian,” but I am interested for the moment in the specifically male portion of Gay Studies and its particular history of antipathy toward feminism. When gay male theorists, in agreement with Munt, challenge the tenets of feminism, the question emerges as to exactly who the opposition is: has the lesbian contingent been subsumed (purposefully or inadvertently) within the larger category of women in a simple sex-based opposition? Are lesbians loosely included in this group to defuse a more pointed attack against a specifically homophobic (or a potentially “romantically attached”) straight opposition? Or, by contrast, is opposition to a “homophobic” but otherwise generic “feminism” meant to disguise controversial internecine gay/lesbian skirmishes beneath a more acceptable anti-homophobic (i.e. anti-straight feminist) retort?
Ellis Hanson, for instance, voices a critique of “feminist” theorists in a recent collection of gay (male) film theory. The term is in quotes because this argument ostensibly challenges a (presumably homophobic) feminist approach that in fact obscures the real target of his disdain—a specifically lesbian contingent in queer studies, producing “affirming and crunchy” readings of “correctly” lesbian texts. Hanson criticizes not only the “bland,” “prescriptive,” and “amateurish” example set by Sheila McLaughlin’s film She Must Be Seeing Things, but also, by implication, favorable assessments of this work by lesbian theorists such as Teresa de Lauretis, who treats the film extensively in her influential Practice of Love. Hanson takes issue with de Lauretis elsewhere in his chapter, but refrains from naming her among the politically correct, aesthetically boring theorists he has in mind when attacking the cult status of McLaughlin’s film. Hanson thus hides his critique of lesbian readings behind an assault upon a much more acceptable adversary—(presumably homophobic) feminism, relying on the flexibility of this term to create his desired effect. Elsewhere, Craig Owens, in the early collection Men in Feminism, looks for ways to dissolve “the myth of homosexual gynophobia” yet takes a polarizing tack in his response to writings by feminists Luce Irigaray, Linda Nochlin, and Elaine Showalter. Finally, D.A. Miller’s attack on Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors succeeds best when directed against her admittedly homophobic comments made a decade earlier. Reading the text itself, Miller faults Sontag for discursive gestures hailed in other contexts—dissolving the equation between AIDS and gay men, describing gay men in terms of an ethnic group (see D’Emilio and Seidman), and challenging metaphors of violence as they may incite violence against AIDS patients.
This diffidence toward the feminist/ine “embrace” is echoed in some gay theorists’ rejection of any association with “the effeminate”; Lee Edelman, for instance, argues that “Male homosexuality…must be conceptualized in terms of femaleness” in part “because the governing heterosexual mythology interprets gay men as implicitly wanting to be or be like women…” If gay effeminacy is a “myth” for Edelman, Kaja Silverman regards it as an unfairly imposed “cultural stereotype,” though she goes on to criticize David F. Greenberg, Mario Mieli, and C.A. Tripp for their anti-effeminacy arguments, with Tripp described as “so phobic about femininity that he actually goes so far as to propose that `transvestism and transsexuality seldom involve either homosexual or effeminate men’.” Is the anti-effeminacy position a necessary defense against a sissifying mainstream, a newly opened vein of misogynist sentiment, or a troubling entanglement of both? Equally disturbing is its unwillingness to recognize the presence of actual gay-and-effeminate (gay-yet-effeminate?) real-life men, considered in the co-authored arguments of Michael Moon and Eve Sedgwick and defended in Jamie Gough’s questioning of “the masculinization of the gay man.”
Elsewhere Edelman seeks to extricate himself from his “prom-night pairing,” with Patricia Yaeger, from seeming compliance with the heterosexualized dynamic of the boy-girl pairings structuring the anthology he is a part of. Yet must “dialogue” between male and female gender theorists, no matter how constructed that dialogue may be, necessarily constitute a date? I am reminded of Eric Rofes’s delineation of the “ick factor” defining some gay men’s response to women’s (especially lesbians’) sexuality which, says Rofes, “may be at the heart of many gay men’s inability to take women seriously, support lesbian concerns, or develop meaningful relationships with women.” In his very questioning of the heterosexist potential of the pairing of himself and Yaeger, Edelman introduces the potential sexism of his own argument, to some degree reinstating the dichotomy between “theory” and “gender” (male and female realms) he so effectively dismantles earlier in his essay.
Multiple queer theorists have pondered an almost “natural” opposition between lesbians and gay men. Vera Whisman, for example, contrasts the lesbian perception of sexual orientation as a conscious, political decision with gay men’s understanding of their orientation as a natural predisposition. While Whisman’s data are ultimately unconvincing—with an overwhelming percentage of women in her “chosen” category not choosing to be lesbians but only choosing to engage in lesbian activity at some point, having always had lesbian feelings—her thesis is corroborated by Steven Seidman. In his impressive overview of gay and lesbian studies, he writes: “Lesbian feminists repudiated the view of lesbianism as a type of sexual desire or orientation. They interpreted lesbianism as a personal, social, and political commitment to bond with women.” By contrast, “gay men represented themselves as an ethnic group oriented toward assimilation…” In separate writings, Marilyn Frye and Sheila Jeffreys champion “political lesbianism,” and critique this gay male “biologist” model for its lack of agency and confrontational politics.
Meanwhile, Diana Fuss reverses the equation when she contends that:
[i]n general current lesbian theory is less willing to question or to part with the idea of a “lesbian essence” and an identity politics based on this shared essence. Gay male theorists, on the other hand, following the lead of Foucault, have been quick to endorse the social constructionist hypothesis and to develop more detailed analyses of the historical construction of sexualities.
Fuss chalks up the difference between a firmly adhered-to “lesbian essence” and a freer-wheeling “construction” of gay sexuality to gay men’s and lesbians’ respective levels of oppression: although victimized by homophobia in countless ways, gay men are still men, and thus enjoy not only more privileges in an androcentric society but also more “air time” in medical, legal, political, and cultural discursive fields. Even the taxonomizing and pathologizing of the gay male “specimen” in earlier centuries, often to the exclusion of his lesbian counterpart, at least fed the ontologic validity of gay men, their “right” to exist at all, and eventually led to the wealth of much more historically and philosophically astute discourse on “the homosexual (man)” that has followed in our own century.
Karla Jay, writing about “friendship between lesbians and gay men,” points out that the affirmation of stereotypically straight characteristics—male self-centeredness and female other-directedness—lies at the heart of the differences between gays and lesbians. She observes that “one common complaint against gay men is that while lesbians have spearheaded drives to raise money for AIDS and cared for men with AIDS, gay men in general have been relatively slow in supporting any issue that seems to involve women, or primarily lesbians, such as breast cancer or child custody.” While heterosexual culture is in so many unacknowledged respects a “lavender world” after all, we must note—and continue to examine and question—its deep-rooted influence on the queerest of male-female relationships.
Certainly straight feminist arguments are as guilty of collapsing identity categories to advance phobic ends as the several theories considered here treating the gay or lesbian perspective. It is certainly the case that gay- or lesbian-based theories include the prospect (or specter) of the straight “other” much more frequently than the reverse situation (see Silverman above and Gubar as exceptions, but that has not prevented the rare straight-informed argument from being any less egregious a contributor to the problem. As with several of the theorists discussed thus far, Daphne Patai confuses lesbian and straight women in her cultural paradigm, casting blame, for baseless sexual harassment charges against straight men, on lesbian women when obviously heterosexual women would be more likely at fault in any such instance. Any reader sensing the speciousness of her (entirely undocumented) claims against such overly-litigious women senses that her “defense” of beleaguered straight men is primarily an excuse to attack gay women, revealing her ironically titled Heterophobia as little more than an exercise in modern-day feminist homophobia.
Patai defends the evidently besieged institution of heterosexuality which she claims is being “dismantl[ed]” by insatiable “sex regulators” (xv) and labels as “notorious heterophobes” Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, whose extreme views have drawn negative response from many gender theorists. Yet while most criticize MacKinnon and Dworkin for being radically anti-sex, Patai faults them for being anti-straight; her dividing this issue not between men and women or between factions within feminism but (from out of nowhere) between straights and gays reinforces the anti-lesbianism endemic to her project.
Throughout, she takes a mean-spirited delight in the minority status of gays and lesbians, noting at one point that lesbians are “vastly outnumbered by heterosexual women” and at another that heterosexual intercourse is wished for by the “vast majority of people.” Her clinical and distancing terminology secures for herself the status of authority, where later she all but labels lesbians the “lunatic feminist fringe.” Discussing a feminist anthology, Patai remarks that it was “edited by two lesbian feminists” who present the work of “heterosexual feminists routinely approach[ing] the potential conflict between their feminism and their heterosexuality in an apologetic mode.” She thus implies that these “two lesbians” used their editorial authority to either force their straight contributors to toe the anti-heterosexuality line or only chose contributors who already subscribed to that position. Ultimately Patai allies straight women with straight men—a most curious move for a feminist argument to make—as equally negatively affected by the lunatic lesbian fringe. In her view, straight women are unwitting pawns in the battle between gay women and straight men that has evidently raged throughout history. While she vigorously critiques the radical feminism of Jeffreys and Frye, in fact all three of these “feminist theorists” engage in the sort of board game maneuvering that strikes the “mainstream” reader in gender studies as distinctly unorthodox: where Frye and Jeffreys position straight and lesbian feminists as dual “victims” of gay male sexuality, Patai’s lesbian academic “victimizes” straight women and men alike.
(Women) Between Men
Because it stands as a singularly sustained, influential, and productive example of the crossover texts I examine here, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men deserves separate, detailed attention. Indeed this text crosses over in ways unencountered in this study so far: renowned for its collapse of the cultural opposition between gay and straight men, this collapse was in fact largely discernible only after this text itself crossed over—due to the shifts in Sedgwick’s own theoretical concerns and critical audiences—from “feminist” to “gay” studies. While readers might assess this text as a successful integration of these two critical schools, closer observation reveals it to be in fact remarkably divided between ultimately irreconcilable gay and feminist concerns.
In the wake of her follow-up study, The Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick has become a leading light in gay male theory, whose definitions of “the open secret,” “homosexual panic,” and the “hetero/homo binary” are now standards in the queer lexicon. Most influential of all, however, is the trope of the “homosocial,” often read by gay theorists as either the lavender shadings sustaining and threatening homophobic society or the publically acceptable foreplay to explicitly homosexual relationships. Yet Sedgwick’s own handling of the term connects it much more plainly to the tradition of sexist/homophobic men’s oppression of women and concomitant overzealous regard for each other. I am recalling Sedgwick’s illuminating reference to Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms as the classic homosocial pairing and regard not only the cultural centrality but most especially the emphatic misogyny of these two as establishing incontestably their straight identities.
Yet closer attention to this idea as it forms throughout the text reveals its straight and queer vectors of signification. Sedgwick demonstrates how Reagan and Helms, for example, markedly differ from a loving gay couple yet share many unnerving resemblances as well. Specifically in the introduction she points to the instability of the homosocial-homosexual continuum of men’s relations: in ancient times “men promoting men’s interests” were those same who partook of the culture and activities of “men loving men,” with “man-boy love” being an important means of initiating young men into the upper classes of Greek society. The modern campaign to sharply divide these modes of masculinity intensifies the consequences at every instance when this campaign fails. Even within Sedgwick’s argument, the search for a clarifying opposition between homosexuality and its opposite—heterosexuality? homosociality?—becomes problematic. When she argues, for instance, that “homosexuality can be either supportive of or oppositional to homosocial bonding,” we may turn to the Reagan-Helms example to discern the “oppositional” element, but how does one define homosexuality’s “support” of homosocial bonding: as a collaborator in its own marginalization at the hands of the “homosocial” mainstream, or as a shaping influence on this mainstream phenomenon that transforms it into its opposite—a closeted (or emerging) homosexual mindset?
Early in Between Men, the homosocial is explicitly opposed to the homosexual, becoming a term interchangeable with heterosexual “male bonding.” When she describes, for example, “the fate of women who are caught up in male homosocial exchange,” Sedgwick is writing feminist criticism for a feminist and female audience. This use of the term predominates as she lays her theoretical groundwork, and her discussions of Gayle Rubin, radical versus Marxist feminism, and the moneybag hanging between Scarlett O’Hara’s breasts can be categorized as feminist treatments of culture and literature. Late in the introduction, however, Sedgwick shifts almost imperceptibly to a use of “the homosocial” as it is largely defined by gay-theoretical schools today. She informs us that her conclusion, regarding Whitman and his work, will discuss “male homosexuality” directly and at length for the first time in the project, and introduction of this explicitly gay cultural icon seems to trigger the semantic shift; in her next paragraph, “homosociality” is deployed as a term nearly synonymous with homosexuality. She makes the statement, “it will be essential to my argument to claim that the European canon as it exists is already [a male-homosocial] canon, and most so when it is most heterosexual.” Clearly there is no interest, no argumentative payoff, in making a statement like this if the term retains its previous definition as something entirely akin to heterosexuality already. Her comment is only provocative if the term homosocial is now in the service of the homosexual opposition, whose appearance in the heterosexual male literary canon elicits controversy and crisis.
Throughout the text, we glean a sense of this term from others in its vicinity: “transactive homosociality” (emphasis added) signals heterosexual males power-playing over the inert body of a silenced woman; talk of a homosocial “object choice” or, interestingly, of “homophobia” alerts the reader that the term has shifted (sometimes within the course of a single discussion) toward a queerer shading. In a discussion of the rake Horner in Wycherley’s The Country Wife, who at least appears to “love” women when no other male characters do, a phrase like “the heterosexual or the homosocial aim of desire” raises tenacious questions: does “heterosexual” mark a man as a lover of women or hater of them? does “homosocial” mark him as a “lover” of (or for) women or a lover of men? The fence-sitting this term accomplishes here, however, gives way to a frequent and alternating stepping-off into each camp’s yard throughout the remainder of the work.
Sedgwick’s smart focus on the class basis for women’s oppression—women as objects of exchange between men in the Lévi-Straussian worldview—marks her most feminist mode of argument. In these moments, the woman’s body—fixed, silenced, controlled—remains in the foreground, and the relations between the exchanging men (those which other twentieth-century readers of these texts might characterize as queer) are largely ignored. Describing, even in her chapter on Shakespeare’s “fair youth” sonnets, a “desire to consolidate partnership with authoritative males in and through the bodies of females,” Sedgwick’s emphasis on “the bodies” of women, on their roles as chattel or living corpses, draws our attention away from the relations between men unfolding in the background of the scene. Were she to read such oppressive relations as fundamentally homosexual, she would be conducting an anti-gay campaign; of course she is doing no such thing, but is making a valuable feminist comment instead.
Meanwhile, her frequent turn to “the Gothic” in the text marks a shift to the queer elements in her project. Sedgwick warns that the Gothic genre itself provides “obsessional” temptation to “simply drop…the female middle term.” Sedgwick’s then posits that homophobia is directed against gay men and straight men and employed mainly to maintain the “exchange-of-women frame-work”—an observation that connects well with the feminist analysis found elsewhere in the study. Yet here it floats by itself in the sea of queer theory that otherwise constitutes the discussion: a detailed response to Alan Bray’s Homosexuality in Renaissance England, an investigation of the homosexual (“decadent”) elements of some Gothic texts and their possibly or overtly gay authors, and a delineation of types of gayness according to class in 19th-century British society. While Sedgwick does little to contest the findings of an “emergent female authorship and readership” of Gothic novels, the “decadent” homosexuality and “paranoid” homophobia she finds operating therein reach out to instruct and influence those ruled by homophobic constraints (i.e., all men) as well. Although she posits more than once that homophobia directly oppresses women as well, something of an impasse persists: reading even the image of heterosexual rape as “homophobia, in the absence of homosexuality,” Sedgwick’s term does less to include women as victims of homophobia as to uncomfortably shift sympathies from the raped woman to the homosexually panicked rapist himself.
In her readings of Dickens, Sedgwick locates a homophobia that is indeed directed against homosexual (positive, loving, desiring) relations between men. She isolates an “openness” and “tenderness” in the live-in relationship between Eugene and Mortimer in Our Mutual Friend, though critiques its lack of an overt sexual charge. A little “gayer” yet are the male relationships on display in Edwin Drood, which demonstrate a love between men as “the first and most overtly and insistently presented aspect of their relationship.” Her “Coda” on Whitman’s reception by devoted British readers explores homosexual themes in-depth, even though a “discussion of male homosexuality and homophobia as we know them,” she insists, “is not the project of this book.” Nevertheless, Sedgwick never revisits the woman question again, and the text ends in a much different domain than that in which it began. The increasing “gayness” of these interwoven Gothic discussions, coming to full flower in the Coda, causes the text to “unzip” as it goes, exposing more questions than answers in the process; while Sedgwick adroitly intertwines issues of gender and class throughout Between Men, feminist and gay concerns cannot seem to integrate or even share the stage.
Adding a forward in 1992 (two years after the publication of Epistemology) to a new edition of Between Men (originally published in 1985), Sedgwick does not so much acknowledge the multidirectional character of this early work as apologize for not making it even more gay-centered, sensing no doubt that her now-established role as a queer theorist consigns all forthcoming editions of this feminist treatise to the bookshelves of a gay male readership: “There’s a way in which the author of this book seems not quite to have been able to believe in the reality of the gay male communities toward whose readership the book so palpably yearns. The yearning makes the incredulity. It makes, too, however, the force of a bond…” (ix). Mirroring this shift, the back cover of the 1985 edition features blurbs of critical acclaim containing neutral and inclusive references to “gender studies,” “social arrangements in our culture,” and “men…and…women,” while blurbs from the 1992 edition describe the work as a monumental achievement in “gay studies” and offer praise for its “breathtaking insights” and “exemplary politics” from Gay Community News. Sedgwick’s reprint thus begins and concludes further afield in queer studies than even her Whitman “Coda” might indicate, yet the text remains predominately feminist in content, and a source of valuable insight to the feminist field. In a different universe, we might argue then that the odd moments of queer-theorizing disrupt and weaken this feminist project; instead here they have largely redefined it.
Although the dialogue she attempts is less than conclusive, Lisa M. Tillmann-Healy takes a step in the right direction with the “narrative ethnography” of her interactions with a gay softball team. Originally joined by her husband Doug, the team is approached by Tillmann-Healy as a fieldwork “site” for her dissertation. She is open at the outset, to the team and in her book, about her and her husband’s sheltered roots, and their growing awareness and acceptance of gay male lifestyles is the focus of this story, much more than the gay men themselves. In this heavily dramatized recreation of the author’s growth and development (including “thick scenic description, reconstructed dialogue, dramatic tension, foreshadowing, and temporal shifts,” Tillmann-Healy raises questions important to fuller understanding of friendships between gay and straight people: what can gay-affirmative straights from the hinterlands do to raise consciousness in their phobic families and home communities? What is the cultural significance of “flirtations” between gay men and straight women? How do self-identified straights maintain their straight status when their gay friends (or friends of their gay friends) presume clostedness instead, and do such friendships perforce indicate a willingness (on behalf of both parties) to “experiment,” at least psychologically, with alternative sexual behaviors? What finally are the connections between the closet and friendship in gay/straight relationships? Even Tillmann-Healy’s title, Between Gay and Straight, plays with the hinge-like dilemmas attached to these questions, since “between” suggests simultaneously a shared space that unites its occupants and various cultural and psychosexual obstacles coming between the involved parties. Significantly, a straight person (a woman and perhaps a feminist) is posing questions about gay men in this text, indicating the need for a gay respondent to take up the same or similar queries, though also perhaps indicating critical indifference toward such questions from gay theorists thus far.
Even more necessary, however, is a queer-inflected critique of Tillmann-Healy’s well-intentioned but still largely questionable subject position. Her training in the most recent methods of cultural anthropology has evidently instilled some critical awareness of the fraught position of the great white researcher toiling in the “field,” yet the basic premises of her scientific method go unquestioned. The assumptions involved, for instance, in reading a likely disparate group of gay team members, who may have little or no contact with each other off the diamond, as a “community” to be “approached,” studied and interpreted like a tribe of “undiscovered….primitives” objectifies these men in objectionable ways. Tillmann-Healy enlarges the effect by referring frequently to her project as a “journey” undertaken by herself and her husband—toward greater gay-affirmativity, yes, but the metaphor further reduces these human subjects to a mere “site” for her research and a “destination” of total gay acceptance for her to eventually reach. Finally, of course, the “journey” suggests a dangerous trek through a forest of lions, tigers, bears, and copulating men, though the persona adopted by the researcher is less Dorothy than Eve, hand-in-hand with her Adam (Doug) and wide-eyed with wonder as they exit the garden of midwestern heteronormativity. The image exudes the naiveté whose working past is the primary subject of her study but whose residual effects are plainly evident in Tillmann-Healy’s word choice and research methods. Most striking of all, perhaps, are the steps this author takes to position herself as “safely” married and straight, innocently flirtatious with various team-members to whom she becomes attracted throughout the course of her research: what might have been added to the value of Tillmann-Healy’s fieldwork had she risked involving herself with a women’s softball team instead?
More successful yet are important writings by Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant and by Douglas Crimp, which exemplify the direct address to the straight feminist counterpart by theorizing strains of homophobia so deeply ingrained in the straight mind that the most well-meaning of straights are implicated. While only partially the focus of their respective projects, these writers challenge the territoriality of straights in distinctly urban environments (specifically New York), where one might expect to find the most gay-affirmative, sexually liberated, intellectually progressive population of all. What these theorists bring specifically to our attention, however, is the tendency to “background” gay and lesbian sexuality so automatically that examples of these in “broad daylight”—a lesbian bar in a “quiet” neighborhood, a same-sex kiss on the subway—create scandal, discomfort, or at the very least, “surprise”: the epistemological crisis represented by a fleeting but foundational rearrangement of the heterosexist worldview whenever such a “sighting” is made.
Crimp describes the territorializing of public space that is committed in the very presumption of a homogeneously heterosexual space. He considers his hesitation to direct cabs to gay neighborhoods, and his is the example of the kiss on the subway. The specifically urban environment from which these anecdotes are drawn further justifies his complaint: the more populous the street corner or subway one finds oneself upon, the less likely that everyone in this crowd will share one’s own mindset and sensibility, and thus the more problematic the presumption of sameness on behalf of even well-meaning gay-affirmatives. Crimp notes how this territoriality creates the closet of gay existence: in spite of gays’ and lesbians’ best efforts to be out in every aspect of their lives, heterosexist misperceptions return them to straightness again and again, so that “the closet is not a function of homosexuality in our culture, but of compulsory and presumptive heterosexuality.” I appreciate Mark Wigley’s related observation that “Space is itself closeted,” while Bell and Valentine add something of a counterstatement: “the straightness of our streets is an artifact, not a natural fact.” They invoke Butler’s “subversive bodily acts” in their analysis of “subversive spatial acts,” as a strategy for continuing the radical remapping of the heterosexist cityscape. These several vital gestures toward this new dialogue are limited only by their brevity: in fact Warner and Berlant target the more typical cultural conservative by defining “public sex” so tamely (i.e., so “privately”)—lap dancing, gay and lesbian bars, phone sex—that few gay-affirmative feminists would ever stand guilty of opposing it; Crimp moves almost immediately from his universally “disturbing” example of the subway kiss to narrower critiques of classic homophobes including “Jesse Helms or Cardinal O’Connor or Patrick Buchanan.” Bell and Valentine’s analysis of gay cityscapes is the most sustained, and the intersection of queer theory and urban studies shows itself here as an especially effective site for trialoguing amongst gay, lesbian, and feminist perspectives.
We must note the relative rarity of texts such as these, which even purport to develop a discussion between differing gender/sexuality groups. The lion’s share in the gender studies canon refrain from “speaking for” more than one of these interested parties, rightly sensing the dangerous possibility of diminishing or silencing the described and interpreted but absent other, and choosing instead to confine remarks and readings to territory intimately and incontestably one’s own. I have pointed to the ways that queer urban studies is already beginning to open productive trialogues, though other analytic contexts—the academic setting, HIV/AIDS care and prevention—would surely reward exploration. Ultimately I seek here to chip away at the “political impossibility” of the prospect of “speaking for” (or, much more importantly, “speaking to”) other discussants in the gender/sexuality debate by calling for more carefully defined terms—“gay,” “women,” “feminist,” and “straight”—and for more nuanced discussion of the phobias and misunderstandings creating conflict among us.