Saturday, November 7, 2009

I'm Not a Queer, But My Buddy Is

It occurred to me today that in many cases it might be better to substitute the term "common sense" for "essentialism" in many discussions of gender and sexuality. That's partly because I don't much respect common sense, of course, and much of what Everybody Knows about men and women, queers and normal folks, doesn't deserve much respect. It seems to me that if you pay attention you must very soon start to notice all the gaping holes in what Everybody Knows, and I've found that most people, if you get them alone, will admit this. But it's also Common Sense that you don't point out those gaping holes in public. I have to remember what happened to the kid who pointed out that the Emperor didn't really have anything on: she was dragged away by Security, who tortured her for days until she named her communist terrorist accomplices, and then she and her whole family were executed, publicly and slowly.

Common sense is very powerful stuff. The common-sense notion of the Queer as wrongly sexed -- the she-male, the girlyman, the he-she, the diesel dyke -- was taken over by nineteenth-century doctors and christened the Invert, the Third Sex, the Homosexual, and this notion still underlies most "scientific" discourse today. It leads to hopeless contradictions, but these are ignored.

Social construction theories have their own contradictions, but the reason they inspire so much fury among such a wide range of people is that they go against Common Sense. What everyone can plainly see is not always true; often people see plainly what isn't there at all. This bothers those people who, in Clifford Geertz's words, are "afraid reality is going to go away unless we believe really hard in it" -- if I don't believe everything you believe, then obviously I don't believe in anything. That's just common sense.

Anyway. One of the more revelatory examples of the trouble with Common Sense was Brokeback Mountain, whose success inspired a great deal of fussing over the story, Universality, whether the characters were gay, whether the characters were cowboys, and so on. The best writing on I saw on the subject at the time was Larry Gross's piece "Year of the Queer: Hollywood and Homosexuality", especially page 3 and after, though Alan Vanneman's snark-laden piece for Bright Lights Film Journal also sticks in my mind, notably for its takedown of the film's tagline "Love Is a Force of Nature": "We humans stopped doing 'Nature' 50,000 years ago, when we learned to talk good and paint pretty pictures on a wall."

Myself, being an anti-platonist, a social constructionist, a relativist, virtually a nihilist, I saw the movie twice without wondering whether Jack and Ennis were gay. If you'd asked me at the time I'd probably have said it was because I am gay and had no investment in denying that two men who had passionate sex with each other over a twenty-year period were gay; but also that if two men could have passionate sex with each other for twenty-years without being gay, that would be a fine poke in the eye of Common Sense too, so it was a win-win situation.

So imagine my surprise when I found Stephen O. Murray's review of the film at I have a lot of respect for Murray, who's a controversial figure in the field of whatever-you-want-to-call-it: he was working before Queer Theory and kept on going throughout Queer Theory's hegemony; he's as cranky, crusty and curmudgeonly as I aspire to be; he's ferociously learned, with a merciless Bullshit Detector. I've read most of his books, at least those published since 1990 or so. But on Brokeback Mountain he bogged down in the question of whether Jack and Ennis were gay, and (In My Hubristic Opinion) he came down wrong on just about every point. After reading his review I wrote a rejoinder, which I then sat on for a year or so before I got an Epinions account and finally posted it there. I'm now posting it here, with a few very minor changes, as a sort of prologue or overture to the big Social Constructionist question.
Are they gay? Who knows? It's amazing how much doublethink turns up even in gay reviewers, though. Sociologist Stephen O. Murray, for instance, agrees with Heath Ledger that Ennis is "not gay", as if Heath Ledger were an expert in such matters. Ennis says, "I ain't no queer" -- that's a noun, not an adjective -- and Jack says, "Me neither." Murray of all people should know better. He's the guy who's famous for writing that he has "been told by young Latinos with semen inside their rectums that they `never get fucked.'" Denials of this kind are not always false; but they can't be taken as always true either. Why sure, if they say they aren't queers, they must not be! Neither was Rock Hudson, or Kevin Spacey, or Nathan Lane until he changed his mind and said he was! And Richard Nixon wasn't a crook -- he said so!

Ennis refers to "this thing, it grabs hold of us". Does this prove that they have been possessed by a spirit that forces them to have sex together? In other writings Murray jeers at Foucauldians who indulge in what he calls "discourse creationism," but that is what he's doing here. What a (fictional!) character says is always true, to be taken at face value. If you don't say you're gay or think of yourself as gay, you're not -- until you say you are, and then, presto change-O!

Murray overlooks the scene late in the film where Ennis asks Jack if he ever gets the feeling that everybody is looking at him, and they know? Fit that question together with Ennis's childhood memory of being forced by his father (his hand firm on the back of the boy's neck) to look at the mutilated corpse of a queerbashed gay man, and it's significant that the word "fear" or its synonyms never appear in Murray's descriptions of Ennis's feelings. I thought it was obvious, for example, that among the emotions Ennis felt when his ex-wife confronted him about his relationship with Jack, was abject screaming terror. ""Panic" (as in "homosexual panic") also comes to mind. Maybe less obvious, but also explained by the memory, is Ennis's crawling into an alley to weep and retch and punch a wall as their first separation begins.

As Murray points out, the idea that he might be killed for loving another man was not at all paranoid or unrealistic. His unwillingness to leave Wyoming for somewhat safer climes -- there is, after all, plenty of horrific antigay violence in cities like New York and San Francisco, it is not limited to rural areas -- is interesting: Ennis is terrified, but (like a horse in a burning barn?) he won't leave. Murray writes, "Ennis believes that men cannot mate for life", but I don't see how the film supports this claim. I think Ennis knows men can mate for life -- the two "old guys" did just that -- but he's obsessed with the fear that their lives will be cut short by violence. His murderous jealousy also is evidence that he knows he is mated to Jack for life.

Murray takes for granted that Jack is the queer one, because he makes "the first (and second and various later) move"; Ennis is a straight guy who happens to fall in love with another man. (Why is "gay" an illicit descriptor, but "straight" isn't?) Yes, Jack makes the first move, but what he offers is not his ass but his cock. Ennis responds by penetrating him. Tradition has it, of course, that Penetrator equals Real Man equals Not Queer. But Ennis apparently didn't need any time to become erect himself; was he lying there hard the whole time? I wouldn't be surprised. In the original story, Proulx endowed Ennis with a mystic knowledge of what to do. Perhaps because he'd been thinking about doing it even before he met Jack? A straight guy isn't supposed to respond to another man's sexual offer by turning him over. Ennis's reluctance to share the tent in the first place is not proof that he hadn't noticed Jack erotically -- rather the opposite. As for the later moves, I'm not sure how Murray is counting them, but it is Ennis who comes to Jack in the tent to initiate their second night together. I think that's crucial, for it shows that Ennis is not just a guy who can't say no.

Murray says that "they are not cowboys. They ride horses in their line of work, but they are responsible for sheep, and anyone who has seen very many westerns knows that the cattle barons and the would-be sheep-raisers are recurrent foes. Jack, for a time, is a 'rodeo cowboy,' riding bulls." After Ennis's summer tending sheep with Jack, he works on ranches with cattle. I think that Murray is defining "cowboy" far too strictly here, and I really don't understand why some people work themselves into such a lather over whether this is a "gay cowboy" movie or not; is it because cowboys aren't universal enough, or their feelings don't matter? Or is it because cowboys are too universal, and they can't be gay or America will fall? I really don't get it.

As Murray also complains, "The word 'gay' is bandied about very loosely in regard to the movie"; but then, "gay" does not have a strict meaning. "Ennis and Jack have homosexual sex, but neither has a self-identification as gay (and, as I have explained at considerable length in American Gay, self-identification, at least intrapsychically, is the criterion of gay)." American Gay is a fine book, but while Murray can define "gay" strictly for his own writing purposes, he can't require other people to hew to his definition, and most don't.

He goes on say that Brokeback is not a "gay movie" because "The story was written by a straight woman, adapted for the screen by a straight couple, directed by a straight man, and stars straight movie stars". So, Of Human Bondage is a homosexual novel because, though it has no gay content, it was written by a homosexual? What constitutes a "gay novel" or "gay play" or "gay movie" has been much debated over the years. Gay playwright Robert Patrick playfully defined a gay play as a play that sleeps with other plays of the same sex. Murray's definition might work for him, but I think that for most people, a movie with central same-sex content is a "gay movie" regardless of the sexual orientation of the writers, directors, or stars, or second assistant grip.

Murray continues:
In rural Wyoming it seems plausible for someone who spends his waking hours outdoors not to know of the emergence of gay communities during the 1970s. It, however, seems more difficult to imagine that by the early 1980s Jack would not have learned that somewhere (in Texas, even) there were gay bars and gay circles and gay neighborhoods. Jack is less isolated (both in general and from media) than Ennis. Instead of crossing the Rio Grande at Ciudad Juarez, he could have tooled over to Houston... but he didn't, and continued to dream of splendid isolation a deux on a ranch with Ennis (who never left Wyoming). I'm definitely not saying that Jack wanted an urban gay lifestyle. What he did want was more conceivable and obtainable after "almost twenty years" (a specification that crops up at one of their brief reunions in the wilds).
That reminds me: how does Ennis know "what they got for boys like you in Mexico", if he's so ignorant and isolated and all? I suspect that Jack's self-limitation is best explained as a result of Proulx's naivete (in interviews she's made much of her personal ignorance, as an old straight woman), and perhaps her own wish to keep her characters uncontaminated by urban gay lifestyles. But I've also known gay men who, even though they lived in cities with gay resources, refused to use them, or even to admit that they were there, while dreaming that Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy would come knocking on their doors one night and take them away from all this. Murray should know that "gay" is still a stigmatized identity, and that closet cases often have intricate strategies to avoid applying it to themselves even "intrapsychically." There's a widespread tendency to treat them as sophisticated thinkers so soaked with integrity that they won't apply a label to themselves unless it truly fits, no matter how much they want to, when it really is the other way around. Think, by analogy, of the difficulty of the strategies people have for identifying themselves as alcoholics. Just because Jack is less paralyzed than Ennis, it doesn't mean he's ready to move to the Montrose in Houston. (Where he might also be queer-bashed.) But then, he was only 39 when he died. Murray must know, as I do, men who came out later in life than that.

Brokeback Mountain, Murray declares ex cathedra, "is a story of the tragic internalization of homo-hatred, not a movie about `gay cowboys.'" False antithesis. The movie is both, and more.