The Assumption of Shame in Studying Gay and Bisexual Authors

Olive Franklin is second year English Literature student with a passion for poetry, politics and pale ale’s, she can often be found holed up next to a pile of books that almost-definitely aren’t on her course-list. She is currently Theatre Editor for STRAND magazine.

[Featured Image: A stack of thirteen books in rainbow order, from red on the bottom to violet on the top against a mustard yellow background.]

In living memory academia has gone from treating homosexuality as a mental illness or moral degeneracy to a pro-LGBT stance with research showing that LGBT people being disproportionally overrepresented among academics. However, a hangover of traditional homophobia still lingers in today’s criticism. (And whilst this article is explicitly addressing sexuality similar arguments could be made for the treatment of trans and gender non conforming writers.) Literary academia today often projects its own view of what it means to be same sex attracted onto gay and bisexual figures. It implies attraction to the same sex is inherently ‘transgressive,’ inherently ‘unnatural,’ inherently something people must be ashamed of. This assertion is made again in academic thought on figures from Oscar Wilde to Tennessee Williams to Virginia Woolf. This standard theory that views gay and bi writers as necessarily ashamed of their sexuality is popped over writers’ lives with little consideration of its actual truth.

This thinking is lazy. Gay and bi people are not inherently ashamed of their identities any more than straight people are. Some straight writers have hang ups about sex, or bodies, or intimacy, but academics can understand these things to be afflictions forced on the individual writer by their upbringing, or society, or religion whereas too often academia assumes shame to be the natural state of same sex attracted writers. This assumption finds its basis in a homophobic attitude and does not acknowledge the fact gay and bi people only feel ‘transgressive’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘unnatural’ when thrown against the harsh realities of a heteronormative world. It’s not written into our DNA.

A woman in my seminar this term suggested the broken, bent, disjointed nature of the poem Paris was a reference to Mirrlees’ ‘queerness’. This kind of statement is standard in academic discourse today, despite being unfounded unless we believe that same-sex relationships are inherently in some way ‘broken’ or ‘bent’ or ‘disjointed.’ I don’t blame the woman who suggested this. When we look at the language surrounding the academic study of ‘queerness’ these ideas are ubiquitous.

Why this constant conflating of same-sex relationships and gay spaces with darkness and decay? Why is a student’s first thought not suggest the hopefulness of Paris, the joyful passages of “I wade knee-deep in dreams—//Heavy sweet going” are a reference to Mirrlees female lover? Instead of suggesting the gay relationship is a ‘dark’ foil to the ‘natural,’ ‘light’ world of a society that rejected her sexuality. Why not instead put forward the argument that her relationship is a “dream” that is “sweet” even when it is “heavy” due to the dismal realities of discrimination? The idea that most gay and bi people experience gay spaces and relationships as ‘seedy,’ ‘transgressive’ foils to the of ‘everyday’ heteronormative society, particularly when that society rejects same-sex relationships, is completely baseless.

Consider Alice Walker’s ‘The Colour Purple’ a book in which the horrific condition of Celie’s life in a straight relationship is contrasted with the joy she finds in a same sex relationship. This relationship is not portrayed as a ‘dark’ foil to Celie’s otherwise socially acceptable life but rather a joyful exploration. As Celie describes, by the time she and Shug, her female lover, have finished designing their dream home it “look like it can swim or fly,” hardly a negative image.

What do critics even mean by this lexicon of ‘transgression?’ According to the OED the word transgression means “transgressing or passing beyond the bounds of legality or right; a violation of law, duty, or command; disobedience, trespass, sin.” Some synonyms suggested are “wrong,” “misdoing” and “offensive.” To transgress is to “trespass.” 

I was listening to an interview with the historian Hugh Ryan who suggested we should use the word “queer” to “references any person who’s sexual identity or gender identity is non-normative for their time” and this was a good definition as it meant it was “always connected to an experience of marginalisation.” This assumes same sex attracted identities carry inherent ‘marginalisation.’ As far as this language is concerned being gay or bi will always be subversive, “non-normative,”. It will always be outside of the realm of social acceptability and will always be something that instills shame in its participants. This is not radical. It’s not even true.

I understand the argument that same-sex relationships have historically been seen as a violation of law or duty. However, I think the assumption that writers must take the same view as their historic context is incongruous with our reality. The view that historical gay writers must have seen their relationships as ‘transgressive’ as the general consensus of the time would have viewed them is making a massive leap in logic. Why would you assume anyone would view a relationship that fulfilled their natural desire for sex, for love, for companionship as dirty or unnatural? These fallible logical jumps still rest on the idea that to engage in same-sex relationships is inherently shameful.

In ‘Maurice’ E.M. Forster portrays gay love as an antidote for society, whilst Maurice and Alec are ailed from society at the end of the book, this exile is portrayed positively. They exist in the “greenwood” and are “in love and remain in it forever and ever” in an “exile they gladly embrace.” This return to an idealised nature in a post industrialised Britain shows the alternative space of same sex relationships not as ‘transgressive’ but romanticised and innocent. Forster suggests that gay love is a force that could overcome the strict class divides of English society and perhaps create social cohesion. Whilst I would say this approach is possibly a little rose tinted, I think it perfectly demonstrates how a gay writer viewed his sexuality not as a negative or transgression (with all the connotations I have previously described) but a positive, transformative experience.

As Audre Lorde says in her essay ‘The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle The Masters House’ “when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy” then “only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.” Assumptions of transgression and shame are the ‘masters tools’ in the study of gay and bisexual authors, and they will only ever give back what they assume. I have never found the gay community, relationships or attraction to be a ‘dark’ foil to the ‘bright light’ of a ‘normal’ society. The most normality, comfort, and light I have found is in accepting spaces, histories and people. I don’t see why this should not be true of historical gay figures as well.

I have heard plenty of academics explicitly warn against interpreting LGBT texts through the lens of shame. However, I have also read many academic papers that allow traditional homophobic views to cloud their better judgement and in doing so are present an inaccurate, un-nuanced and damaging view of gay and bisexual people in history and today. 

This article isn’t an accusation it is simply a suggestion. A suggestion that the language we use to describe gay and bisexual people and same-sex relationships is damaging and promotes the idea that shame is inherent to these identities. A suggestion that we misinterpret many texts throughout history through interpreting them through this lens. In the end, the story that this language tells about being gay or bi sucks. It’s not a story that we wrote. And it’s not a story we should allow to be told about us.

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