Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Too Gay, Not Gay Enough, and Just Right

I'm probably guilty of this myself, but it still bothers me when other people do it. (I like to think that if I caught myself doing it, I'd correct it. But I'd probably argue about it instead.)

Band of Thebes linked to an online conversation between Carol Anshaw and Stephen McCauley, nearly all of whose novels I've read. That's easy to do, since neither of them publishes much: Anshaw's fourth novel in about twenty years, Carry the One, will be published in March; McCauley has published six in about the same period, and his first, The Object of My Affection, is still my favorite. I like them both, but they say some things that throw me a bit. For example:

Steve: ... It's always jarring (and boring, no?) to have gay characters presented as the perfect neighbor and friend whose main function is to fix someone's hair or make a fabulous outfit for them. It seems to me that really expresses a great deal of discomfort around the subject. You have to justify their presence in a work of fiction by having them be supernatural in their goodness. You still see that in the way African-American characters are presented as the all-good supporting cast who help the white folks get in touch with their feelings and solve racism.

Carol: I think of those as "gay" characters. They give absolutely no manifestation of sexuality; they are composed only of their affect. Gayer than springtime hairdressers. Women with tool belts [although, to be honest, I kind of don't mind those]. Probably African-Americans feel the same way about "black" characters.

I think if you're going to attempt to write narratives with gay characters, you have to let go of worrying about homophobic responses. Queer is the place you start from, not a condition you are going to argue on behalf of.

I don't want to harp too much on terminology, but I think what bothers me here is not the "gay" vs. "queer" distinction (empty though it is), but that McCauley and Anshaw are talking about two different kinds of work, not two kinds of characters. The gay characters who "give absolutely no manifestation of sexuality" turn up in work by and, more importantly, for heterosexuals. (Just as the "magic Negro" characters appear in works by and for whites.) As McCauley put it, they're the "supporting cast."

You can call the characters whatever you want -- when I was young, we might have distinguished the two classes as "homosexual" and "gay", with the gay ones being central -- but what counts is their place in the narrative. (Band of Thebes sniped the other day at Mike Mills's film Beginners because the main character's gay father comes out [at 75!], and dies a few years later, the only "two gay storylines" allowed by "mainstream entertainment gatekeepers"; while that's true, strictly speaking, the film 1] was not mainstream 2] and was an autobiographical work by and from the viewpoint of the straight son. Despite this, he gave his father a richer, more honorable treatment than we usually get from heterosexual artists, and much better than the mainstream.) And I can think of a number of novels written by heterosexual or unspecified authors that dealt with the love and sex lives of their gay characters. As long as there are novels and films in which "Queer is the place you start from, not a condition you are going to argue on behalf of", I don't object to those in which we're supporting characters -- though I won't give them many points for inclusiveness either.

McCauley, I think, is too optimistic when he says,
I'm sure you had the experience, as I did, of being in a movie theater and hearing an entire audience freak out when two men kissed on screen or even touched each other in an intimate way. As a young person, it was a pretty jarring, upsetting experience. It made me feel I was in hostile territory. It's hard to imagine that happening now, probably because people have become so desensitized from watching totally mainstream entertainment like "Glee," "Will and Grace," and "Modern Family."
I've had that feeling of being in hostile territory, and I agree that progress has been made, but "desensitized"? Let's see: "Glee" didn't get any male-to-male kissing until the second season, and "Will and Grace" took longer than that. And there was still hostility. For that matter, straight boys are freaking out over frontal male nudity in movies, without any homoerotic stuff on the screen. McCauley himself notes recalls "one reader comment about Alternatives to Sex in which a reader complained that there wasn't enough warning on the cover that it was about a gay man. Like maybe one of those warnings labels on a cigarette pack?" No, we still have a long way to go, and maybe we'll never get there.

Even odder to me is when McCauley says,
As much as I love Paul Rudnick's hilarious pieces in the New Yorker, they sometimes seem to come from a collective "gay attitude" rather than an individual point of view. Although come to think of it, I suppose he's toying with that notion. Some of the humor comes from the way he winks at that. "We know we all think this way, right?"
All I've read of Rudnick's essays are the ones in I Shudder, and Other Reactions to Life, Death, and New Jersey (HarperCollins, 2009), and I don't see a "collective 'gay attitude' in them. For example, from page 239, speaking of the 1993 March on Washington:
There was true, infinite gay diversity, which meant that there were many people to admire, a more select group to ogle, and a copious supply of marchers dressed or undressed in ways that would embarrass the conservative gay politicos who yearned for timid respectability.
I'd bet that what McCauley says about Rudnick is what Rudnick would say about other gay writers.

Both Anshaw and McCauley talk about the mixture of sexualities in their characters -- all of them aren't gay, that is. I'm all in favor of that, though I'm also quite comfortable with fiction that keeps straight characters on the periphery, just because I don't think you can claim that gay people and relationships are fully equal if you need to throw in some straight ones for balance or (gag me) universality. McCauley (hm, he does seem to be the main problem here, doesn't he?) also says,
It's interesting that just as openly gay actors are more accepted playing straight roles, openly gay writers such as Emma Donahue and Colm Toibin are accepted writing books like "Room" and "Brooklyn," neither of which has any gay content. The books are taken on their own merits, even after they've written gay novels. It points toward writers getting less stuck in a particular mold or being limited by a label.
I'm all in favor of writers not being limited, but what McCauley is talking about here is nothing all that new. (Of course it's true that the category of "openly gay writer" is a relatively new one.) Women writers have written about male characters, and there used to be (maybe still) almost a subgenre where a Jewish writer wrote a novel only about gentiles. Black writers, too: Chester Himes's prison novel Yesterday Will Make You Cry, whose protagonist and most other characters are white, or James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. But think too of Armistead Maupin, whose novels have always had a mix of gay and straight characters, or the protean Gore Vidal. But it cuts both ways: for writers like Alma Routsong (better known as Isabel Miller, the author of the lesbian classic Patience and Sarah) it was liberating to be freed from the necessity of writing about heterosexual characters. As Carol Anshaw says,
Like, I know there are gay people for whom being queer is still troublesome, or for whom being out feels exposed. I'm way on the other side of the spectrum. I feel so lucky to be queer. When I was straight, I hated the strictures of marriage, of polite society in general. I hated plugging into the program (which was much more of a program back then, credit in your husband's name, taking his name as yours, etc.). Everything got better when I came out. I'm a natural renegade, and so jumping the fence landed me in an unequivocally better place.
Amen to that. One of the reasons I'm annoyed by the "I was born this way, I can't help myself!" line is that coming out landed me in an unequivocally better place. Coming out freed me to be the person I wanted to be, and while many born-gay people would say the same thing, it's hard to believe them when they talk about their lives as something they would never have chosen if their genes hadn't made them do it. But then, I'm a natural renegade too.

And oops! Anshaw referred to herself as having been straight, in the past tense. I've been meaning to write about the fuss that started when Cynthia Nixon said the same thing -- not only GLBTQ people but "supportive" straights were all over her case. More to come on that.