The Gay and Lesbian Presence in American Literature

by David Bergman,

Towson State University

*****

Unlike African American literature or Asian American literature or even Jewish American literature, the teaching of lesbian and gay literature does not necessarily require opening the canon to new authors. It does require, however, opening our eyes to what is already there. I can’t imagine teaching a course in American literature that entirely eliminated all lesbian and male homosexual writers. How could one get through a course completely silent about Walt Whitman, Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, H.D., Herman Melville, Elizabeth Bishop, James Baldwin, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, Gertrude Stein, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich? I suspect that all teachers of American literature assign at least some of these writers because the story of American literature can’t be told without acknowledging lesbian and gay writers, although it has often been told by ignoring that they were gay and lesbian and by omitting works that speak most clearly about their sexual orientation. The late Thomas Yingling wrote that gay male writers were permitted to speak but not to tell. It is also true of teachers of American literature we speak about these authors, but often we do not tell. Why this silence?

Of course, we know the answer to this question, or rather the answers to this question. Homosexuality is the last great taboo of American society. Soldiers who say they are ready to die for their country refuse to take showers with homosexuals. Those who would defend to the death the right of freedom of speech would rather people kept mum about their homosexuality. In education, parents fear that talk of homosexuality will promote its practice or recruit young people, although I have never met anyone who was recruited into the ranks of the queer; conversely, I've never heard anyone explain why all the talk of heterosexuality hasn’t made everyone straight. Teachers feel uncomfortable discussing sexual preference; students are often uncomfortable when the topic is raised, and administrators feel the legislators, alumni, or the press will object and (dare I use the phrase?) blow the subject out of proportion.

Some of these fears are exaggerated. I have never had a student object to my treating lesbian and homosexual subjects in class, but I have known colleagues who have had students object. Indeed, my students seem particularly interested in the subject, and the topic stirs lively discussions. The love that once dared not speak its name is currently the topic on the lips of every talk show host on daytime television. And one wonders what Geraldo, Sally Jesse, or Phil would do during a tight ratings week without gays and lesbians.

Nevertheless, students are not used to hearing talk of lesbians and gay men in the classroom, and teachers setting out to raise the topic (and I am always the first to broach the subject; don’t expect students to raise it on their own) had better be prepared for the dead silence that awaits them initially. A class that has been listless and inattentive becomes suddenly all ears at the first mention of the word. The women look up suspiciously, the guys defiantly. I’ve had to become accustomed to this silence, this unswerving attention. But after this moment of suspicion and defiance is past, and as soon as the students are sure you’re not speaking about them, they show an avid interest in the topic. Everyone seems to have an opinion and the variety of views and lack of consensus is both marvelous to behold and troublesome to witness. Myth, misinformation, and bigotry stand next to truth and insight, expressed with equal intensity. Somehow the classes go on, generating more light than darkness.

My success in teaching gay and lesbian literature is not because students know I am gay. I’m always surprised that so many of them think I am straight. (I’m, in fact, rather reticent about my personal life because of both temperament and philosphy. I prefer to think I’m in the classroom to teach a course, not to involve the students in my psychodramas.) Whatever success I have is, I think, a result of the way I handle that moment of silence when the whole class is testing to see how I will address the topic. I have learned that I avoid student opposition and generate open discussion if I follow three rules.

First, the discussion must arise from trying to understand the work before us. It cannot be gratuitous. What does Whitman mean by manly love ? To whom are Rich’s Twenty-one Love Poems addressed? Why is the erotic world of Africa so incompatible with Christian ethics in Countee Cullen’s Heritage ? What is the beast in The Beast in the Jungle ? If the subject arises from trying to understand the text, one avoids two problems. First it immediately answers the questions: why does it matter whether the author is lesbian or gay? What relevance does it have to the work? When the topic of homosexuality arises from trying to locate more precisely the meaning of a passage, image, or symbol, it is clear why such considerations are not only relevant but essential to understanding the work as completely as possible. Second, it keeps the work from being read only as an expression of a person’s sexuality.

I have found that mentioning a writer’s sexuality at the beginning of a discussion gets in the way. Students who harbor prejudices tend to pigeonhole the work without really reading it, refusing to address its complexities. Homophobic students will simply dismiss the work and you. They will claim that you’re trying to shove queer works in their face. Or the brighter and more accepting ones will accuse you of reading the work through the lens of the author’s sexuality. Also, gay and lesbian students will project their experience on to a text without regard to what the author is actually saying. If students are first engaged in understanding the text, then they are more willing to engage in understanding how sexuality influences the way we read a work and how sexuality affects the way the work is constructed.

Second, I adopt an entirely matter-of-fact tone. I want the students to feel that I see them as adults and, as adults, we can discuss these matters openly, freely, and thoughtfully in the effort to understand. Students look for signs of a teacher’s bias one way or the other. I like to show them that what I expect of them is no more than a mature, frank, and relevant discussion of the topic. Of course, there are times when the students’ ignorance and immaturity show (or the mere weight of traditional thinking). Once, while I taught Audre Lorde’s Walking Out Boundaries, a student made the comment that her love for another woman was unnatural. And the issue of naturalness comes up all the time, even among better-educated audiences. I’ve found several ways to deal with this issue. The first is to ask what the student means by natural. This leads to quite an extended discussion, and I only ask such questions when I have time and a mature-enough class for such a discussion. The other useful strategy the one I use when time is short is to ask: But how does Lorde regard her relationship? How does the garden imagery work in this poem? How is the poem a response to the widely-held belief that lesbian relationships are unnatural? In short, I try to use homophobic comments as a way of voicing the cultural context in which lesbian and gay literature is situated, the background against which it moves. Indeed, recently I have found that my students tend to underestimate the prejudice against gays and lesbians. They are shocked to hear that people have regularly lost their jobs, careers, and livelihoods when their sexuality was exposed.

What I don’t find useful is to lecture students about understanding and consideration for others. Such straightforward tactics lead to charges that the teacher is bullying, and also limit discussion and intellectual exploration. However, I don’t allow students to gush hate without challenging their prejudices.

By linking the discussion to a specific textual issue and by presenting an example of mature frankness to my students, I usually pre-empt the worst expressions of homophobia. Sometimes students use such words as dyke and fag. As a rule, I don’t allow such words to be used in class, but I recall one occasion when I was teaching Hart Crane’s My Grandmother’s Love Letters, a poem that I’m afraid doesn’t appear in the Heath, when I let the word fag pass. In the poem, Crane asserts that his grandmother would be less sympathetic to his love letters than he was to hers, and I asked the students what sorts of things might block maternal sympathy and understanding. There was a long silence, and then from the back of the class a student, a young man who had been at pains to show his machismo all through the semester, began to speak: Was he . . . a fag? he asked. I wouldn’t want my grandmother to know that about me.

And what do you make of the ‘sound of gently pitying laughter’? I asked.

The world is laughing at him for even thinking for a second that she might understand. Exactly. It’s real sad, he said. This is a real sad poem.

In this case the student was struggling to see the world through Crane’s eyes. Perhaps for the first time in his life he began, despite himself, to understand what many gay people go through, and for that far more important lesson, I was willing to put off challenging the use of fag .

The last rule for avoiding resistance to lesbian and gay literature is to prepare for such a discussion by speaking about heterosexuality. I think one of the problems in discussing gay and lesbian issues and why students might complain that gays and lesbians are getting special treatment is that there is a presumption of heterosexuality when teaching other texts. Sexual desire can’t be merely a topic that arises in lesbian and gay literature; we must make it a topic relevant to heterosexual material as well. In fact, students are often less sympathetic to heterosexual depictions of erotic desire than they are to homosexual depictions. How they dislike the Frost of The Subverted Flower or Provide, Provide or the swaggering Williams in Danse Russe, poems I find myself defending against their rather strict notions of propriety. (Students have terrible difficulty finding a way to speak about sexuality that is neither sanctimonious nor ribald. Their minds are either in the clouds or the gutter. A certain lightness of tone in these discussions can do them a world of good. In fact, the most resistance I get is in a British literature survey to the combining of spiritual and erotic love in Donne and Herbert.) If sexuality is an issue that has been discussed, then homosexuality and lesbianism become logical and unavoidable extensions of the topic. This approach will also correct that false impression that gay men and women are sex-obsessed.

You may have noticed that most of my examples have been from American poetry, rather than from American prose. With some exceptions Billy Budd is the most obvious example the fiction and non-fiction selections keep away from the topic, even, I must admit, in The Heath Anthology of American Literature. It seems to me that poets maybe because of the example of Whitman have been and continue to be more up front about sexual issues than prose writers, or at least more able to get their homosexual and lesbian works into anthologies. Part of the reason is the different ways people react to prose and poetry. A friend of mine has for decades written highly confessional poems without objection, but when he came to write a memoir, a chorus of former friends rose up in opposition, and threatened to sue him. In verse, homosexuality can be read as merely metaphor; in prose it appears pornographic. (One sees the same sort of difference between painted and photographed nudes. Eakin’s The Swimming Hole can grace the covers of textbooks, but a Mapplethorpe nude would encounter howls of protest.)

I advise supplementing any anthology with additional reading. Adrienne Rich’s Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience and Audre Lorde’s The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power can fit alongside of a study of their poetry. Indeed Lorde’s essay on The Erotic as Power compliments nicely the poem Power, which is included in The Heath Anthology. Both the Rich and Lorde essays are reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (Routledge, 1993). A colleague of mine has enormous success in her class with a short, powerful excerpt from Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City (Harper, 1980), a letter in which Michael Tolliver, the gay hero of the series, comes out to his parents (159). The passage’s literary quality is, I admit, not the highest, but it expresses feelings that gay and lesbian students understand and with which heterosexual students can sympathize. I can think of two works which will do very well in a large number of American literature classes: James Baldwin’s The Outing, included in Going to Meet the Man (Dial, 1965), is a classic coming-of-age story. Edmund White, the finest gay writer to emerge since Stonewall, has a story An Oracle in the collection The Darker Proof (NAL, 1988), which presents AIDS in light of the transatlantic and transcendental spiritual themes which are often used as threads in American literature courses.

Several years ago there were very few books that instructors could use to help them understand gay and lesbian literature. Today there are monographs and journals that cover the topic. Several general studies are especially helpful: Bonnie Zimmerman’s The Safe Sea of Women (Beacon, 1990), Claude J. Summers’s Gay Fictions: Wilde to Stonewall (Continuum, 1990), Sexual Sameness: Textual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing edited by Joseph Bristow (Routledge, 1992), Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions (New York U P, 1990) edited by Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, and my own book Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature (Wisconsin, 1991). These are starting places.

I began by saying that gay male literature (and to a lesser extent lesbian literature) is already in the canon if we simply look for it. But I think there are lesbian and gay works that have been excluded from the canon not only because they are explicitly homosexual or lesbian, but because they express a sensibility that heterosexual critics have marginalized. The best example of this marginalization comes from British literature in Ronald Firbank, whose seemingly trivial works have been central to many gay and lesbian writers after him. In American literature, I think Jane Bowles is often left out of courses because her works look too marginal. In fact, I don’t think that even gay scholars have a clear idea of what the outlines of gay and lesbian writers’ finest work could be. It seems to me that Alfred Chester, almost completely lost, but now slowly emerging from obscurity, could be a major writer we have overlooked. And James Purdy is an extremely important writer though his work is very hard to evaluate. And there are others. I am not content with the idea that the lesbian and gay writers who have slipped into the canon are really the finest gay and lesbian writers, but rather those who have, in Roger Austen’s chilling phrase, been most successful at playing the game of heterosexual taste. I can imagine the shape of future Heath Anthologies to be rather different once lesbian and gay scholars begin seriously examining their literary heritage, just as feminist and ethnic critics have revamped the anthology we have now.

This page was prepared by Audrey Mickahail at the Center for Electronic Projects in American Culture Studies (CEPACS), housed at Georgetown University, under the direction of Randy Bass, Department of English.


CEPACS