Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Coming Out Of The Mobius Strip

I’ve written here before of the strange attitude many scholars have toward words and concepts, “as though concepts were unproblematically tied to words, and their ramifications were mystically packed into concept and word, so that they need only be unpacked by the intrepid theorist.” It’s so common, in fact, that it might be worth looking at another case.
Historian Michael S. Sherry’s Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007) is a very useful book. With the aid of his research assistants, Sherry has unearthed a mass of information about the American fantasy of a homosexual plot to take over America, especially the vital arts and entertainment sectors. Since this theme is nowadays played most audibly on the religious-identified Right, Sherry has done a valuable service in reminding us that it used to be an obsession of secular liberals as well, from philosopher William Barrett to Kennedy court historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., from novelist Philip Roth to theatre and film critic Stanley Kauffmann. The New Left magazine Ramparts published an article by the deliciously-named Gene Marine:
People, I have had it. I really, honestly, truly don’t care what you do with your spare time, but if you are homosexual will you kindly let somebody else play with a piece of the culture for a while?
As usual with such complaints, Marine’s protestations of disinterest ring false, especially given the innuendo (and surely deliberate double-entendre) in the final clause. “Play with a piece of the culture,” eh? Which, erm, piece did you have in mind, Gene?
Gay Artists in Modern American Culture offers valuable historical perspective and is a trove of dish on our queer fore-uncles; see also the stunning photograph of a shirtless and beautiful Alvin Ailey on page 147. But Sherry gets oddly worked up about the term “the closet” as it refers to GLB people’s degree of openness about their lives.
I think George Chauncey established, in his monumental Gay New York, that “coming out of the closet” is a post-Stonewall term. The problematic part of the phrase is “the closet”: gay men did speak before 1969 of “coming out,” campily invoking the emergence of well-born young women from their families into Society (and the marriage market), but not of hiding in the closet; “wearing a mask” seems to have been a more favored metaphor. However, gay people were well aware of gay people who knew they were gay, but still refused for whatever reason to make their debut in Gay Society; I don't know what they called them, and since 1970 or so the favored term has been "closeted." Chauncey conceded that “The fact that gay people in the past did not speak or conceive of themselves as living in a closet does not preclude us from using the term retrospectively as an analytic category, but it does suggest that we need to use it more cautiously and precisely, and to pay attention to the very different terms people used to describe themselves and their social world” (Gay New York, 6).
Sherry won’t even allow that much, though he relies mainly on Chauncey for his position. He spends a couple of pages denouncing retroactive use of “the closet” to refer to gay secrecy before the 1960s:
When the gay magazine One tackled “Coming Out” and asked “Out from where? Out into what?” in 1962, it mentioned no “closet,” instead identifying “coming out” as “our slang phrase for coming from a majority and going to a minority.” One knew the need for “‘wearing the mask’” in a “hostile world” that taught “the evilness of homosexuality.” But “the absolute necessity for secrecy from the majority” was something “you learned quickly” after coming out – a protective device, not a place of hiding. … Made retroactive, the “closet” becomes today’s place to hide a complex past [96]

I think it’s absurd to claim that secrecy was something queers learned only “after coming out” – they’d have learned that from growing up in straight society. In those days, taking off the mask in front of the straight public was almost unthinkable. It was especially unthinkable to straights. Open gayness, as public as heterosexual marriage, requires not only personal decision and courage on the part of those who come out, but a social environment in which the declaration can be heard. It’s often been said that many gay people of a certain age preferred the mask, the “double life,” the feeling of belonging to an elite club with its secret handshakes and passwords. But heterosexuals liked it that way too, and collaborated in keeping the secret – except when they didn’t. It was heterosexual society that decided when homosexuals would wear the mask, and when it would be ripped off. Hence the heterosexual media printed the names, addresses, and often jobs of gay men arrested for “indecency,” which could mean anything from sex in a public toilet to being in a gay bar when the police chose to shake it down. As Sherry points out, the media claimed that queers were “forcing” themselves on the normal public:
Yet the media did most of the “forcing.” Life’s claim was oddly dissonant with how its cameras and reporters pushed into queer settings and peered at what they observed. … It was unclear anyway how people facing intense hostility – stressed and endorsed in most accounts – could do much “forcing,” although queer disguise and conspiracy (“their central office”) were cited. … Much evidence for queer “pressures” was self-referential: observers construed others’ notice of homosexuality as a sign of its swelling presence, and they equated the growth in talk about queers with growth in talk by them. Homosexuality was “more in evidence,” as Time put it, in good part because the media called attention to it – “not to condone it,” Life made clear, “but to cope with it.” If anything, gay activism was as much a response to growing condemnation as its cause [108-9].
The writers mentioned above often felt free to attack homosexual artists by innuendo in reviews of their work, or even by naming names. Philip Roth, for example, ranted in the New York Review of Books about the “ghastly pansy rhetoric” of Edward Albee’s 1964 play Tiny Alice, and snarled, “How long before a play is produced on Broadway in which the homosexual hero is presented as a homosexual, and not disguised as an angst-ridden priest, or an angry Negro, or an aging actress, or worst of all, Everyman?” (Roth, like other writers who complained about gay duplicity, wasn’t interested in seeing a play with an unambiguously gay hero; he just wanted to be able to avoid it in advance.) The convention of the open secret made it possible for Albee’s homosexuality to be well-known in New York theatre circles – he was the partner of the composer William Flanagan -- much as John F. Kennedy’s priapic heterosexuality was known to the Washington press corps at around the same time, while being simultaneously swept under the carpet. “The closet is often seen as a regime of silence,” Sherry complains (107), but so it was in those days -- official public silence, except when it was expedient to sacrifice some hapless queer to scandal.
Of course nowadays “coming out” is confusingly ambiguous, denoting a spectrum from “coming out to oneself” to coming out in a gay social milieu to coming out to straight friends, family, world. Just about all of the celebrity queers – Rock Hudson, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Ian McKellen, Rosie O’Donnell, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres and the rest -- known to the straight public were “out” in gay life before they “came out” in The Advocate or People. Indeed, they depended on the straight media to cover for them. (I think it was DeGeneres who was observed kissing another woman in a lesbian bar while she was still officially “wearing the mask.”)
Sherry says that “queerness involved a sense of being cast out of society, not trapped in something” (97). Granted, the spatial metaphor of the closet has its limitations, but then so does the metaphor of wearing a mask. So does the metaphor "of being cast out of society" -- where did they go, then? A mask that simply covers my face, like the Lone Ranger’s, is meant to hide my identity altogether. (I’ll try to address the complexities of “identity” some other time.) A Nixon mask also hides my identity, but no one is going to think I’m actually Nixon; the falseness of the mask is obvious. Gay people’s forced secrecy – and forced revelations, when it comes to that -- are another matter.
You’d hardly guess from Sherry’s remarks that serious analysis of “the closet” doesn’t necessarily depend on the spatial metaphor. David Halperin’s excellent discussion in Saint Foucault (Oxford University Press, 1995), for example:
[Eve Kosofsky] Sedgwick has shown that the closet is an impossibly contradictory place: you can’t be in it, and you can’t be out of it. You can’t be in it because – so long as you are in the closet – you can never be certain of the extent to which you have actually succeeded in keeping your homosexuality secret; after all, one effect of being in the closet is that you are precluded from knowing whether people are treating you as straight because you have managed to fool them and they do not suspect you of being gay, or whether they are treating you as straight because they are playing along with you and enjoying the epistemological privilege that your ignorance of their knowledge affords them. But if you can never be in the closet, you can’t ever be out of it either, because those who have once enjoyed the epistemological privilege constituted by their knowledge of your ignorance of their knowledge typically refuse to give up that privilege, and insist on constructing your sexuality as a secret to which they have special access, a secret which always gives itself away to their superior and knowing gaze. By that means they contrive to consolidate their claim to a superior knowingness about sexual matters, a knowingness that is not only distinct from knowledge but is actually opposed to it, is actually a form of ignorance, insofar as it conceals from the knowing the political nature of their own considerable stakes in preserving the epistemology of the closet as well as in maintaining the corresponding and exactly opposite epistemological construction of heterosexuality as both an obvious fact that can be universally known without “flaunting itself” and a form of personal life that can remain protectively private without constituting a secret truth [Saint Foucault, 34-5].
Halperin begins by speaking of the closet as a place to be in or out of, but then he moves on to discuss the contradictions of secrecy itself. He could as easily have used the metaphor of the mask; what matters is not the word but the analysis. Sherry’s discussion would have been much richer if he hadn’t taken “the closet” so literally, and had explored with more care the implications of the simultaneous visibility and invisibility of the homosexuality of his gay subjects, as Halperin does here.
Too many scholarly writers I’ve read waste energy and print trying to unpack the literal sense of their concepts, metaphors, and images, defining them with maniacal strictness and then declaring triumphantly that the terms won’t stretch to fit the phenomena. Like, duh! No metaphor – not the closet, not the mask, not the double life – is going to have a perfect one-to-one correspondence with lived experience. It’s especially ironic to see social constructionists – or at least people who officially subscribe to social constructionism – acting as though words had some inner essence that can be revealed if you just peel away the outer layers. But words are like an artichoke: keep peeling away the leaves, and you find there’s nothing left.

P.S. I've been productive the past couple of weeks thanks to semester break. I'm back to the grind starting tomorrow, but I'll try to post at least twice a week, anyway. The ClustrMap showed me I've been getting more visitors than I thought, so I'll try to make it worthwhile to keep coming back for more.