Categories
Equality From The Archives From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Stonewall 1979: The Politics of Drag

Most people feel awkward around drags — uneasy, even frightened. So many of our social responses are dictated by our recognition of someone’s gender, which we generally assume coincides with his or her sex. Confronting a man dressed as a woman jams our social signals and frustrates our habitual social responses. If we can be temporarily alarmed by a foreigner who swoops down to kiss our hand or who ceremoniously makes a rude noise to indicate his appreciation of dinner, then small wonder we are even more dismayed by someone whom we don’t know whether to call “he” or “she.”

But mere social discomfort is the least of our problems. Far more significant is the threat posed by the drag queen to our sense of identity. It has become fashionable to say that a man secure in his masculinity will not object to transvestism, but even that hypothetical creature may find drag queens unnerving. The sources of this queasiness, I’d submit, are historical and cognitive. Historically, gay men have been branded as effeminate. Since 1969 and the birth of gay liberation, however, homosexual men have rigorously rejected the effeminate label — and, if seen in the correct light, this redefinition can only be commended. Social labels have a nasty way of defining behavior, and homosexuals, like other minority groups that have had a taste of freedom and self-respect, have rejected the demeaning stereotypes imposed on them. Gay men today are assuming the most blatant badges of manliness, which in America is always associated with the working class.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715273″ /]

The drag queen appears all the more isolated and fragile among so many burly men. I am not referring to heterosexual transvestites, since their fear of being unmasked usually makes them inconspicuous, even invisible. I am speaking of gays, whether they be show drags (those who dress up only to perform in clubs or at contests) or street drags (those who live their whole lives in women’s clothes). The gay drag is also more despised than ever because she reminds the new macho gays of what they once were, or might have been. At the very time when many homosexual men are learning that they can be both gay and butch, along comes this bizarre specter, teetering on spike heels under pounds of lacquered hair, her face painted and powdered above her prominent Adam’s apple, her clothes a fantasy of outdated frills and finery.

Historically, then, the drag queen stands as a unpleasant reminder of discarded effeminacy. But I have also said that she makes us uneasy on a cognitive level. Cognitive psychologists would say that, despite surface variations, there appear to be abiding categories of thought wired into our brains. For instance, there seems to be a basic human urge to analyze experience through pairs of opposites. The exact contents of the categories may differ, but the drive to make such distinctions prevails. Some that spring to mind are pure and defiled, ours and theirs, taboo and permitted. Surely one of the most universal of these dichotomies is male and female — or rather, since we are speaking of gender rather than sex, masculine and feminine. In almost every group of people, a great deal of effort is expended to make these distinctions as sharp as possible — differences in dress, vocabulary, manners, attitudes. Since gender differences are also reinforced by economics — the sexual division of labor — they are all the more difficult to eradicate.

Even when gender is systematically de-emphasized, the separation between masculine and feminine continues: for example, a group of feminist teachers worked with kindergartners in an environment where boys and girls were encouraged to dress, speak, and play alike and where all gender differences were discouraged. Despite such efforts, the children remained acutely aware of gender distinctions and could be overheard saying, “Boys don’t to that,” or “That’s only for girls,” and so on. These mental habits persisted even when the gender-identified behavior was precisely the opposite of what society at large regards as proper masculine and feminine behavior. Thus a boy might be heard saying to a girl, “Don’t touch my doll. Dolls are for boys, not girls.” These ideas are discussed more fully in Psychology of Sex Differences by Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin.

In studying other cultures, anthropologists have found that people tend to be suspicious of anything that falls between two categories. The Hebrew taboo against eating lobsters, for instance, may arise from the fact that they are interstitial animals. Sea-dwelling animals, fish, have flippers and swim; land-dwelling animals have legs and walk. The lobster, however, inhabits the sea but has legs. It falls between two categories and is therefore taboo.

[related_posts post_id_1=”594245″ /]

Not surprisingly, the drag queen, occupying the interstice between masculine and feminine, is troublesome. Interstitial entities are usually handled in one of two ways — they are either despised or revered. Interestingly, there are many cases, especially among black Americans, of drags being revered. When I was in my teens the Prophet Jones in Detroit was the leader of a popular religious cult; he wore make-up, articles of feminine attire and a full ermine coat, presented to him by his devotees. Little Richard, with his lipstick, high heels, satins, and bouffant hairdo was another such shaman. But if a misfit is not revered he is despised, and this is the position of the drag queen in both homosexual and heterosexual white society in America.

In recent years the drag queen has been attacked by another group — lesbian feminists. Some Lesbians perceive drags as mocking women, all the more so because the drags so often get themselves up in the very guises that liberated women have been at such pains to discard — show girls, sex kittens, fashion models. As far as I can make out, lesbian feminists think that drags (1) mock women by imitating them and (2) doubly insult them by imitating unliberated women.

Not all feminists have subscribed to this view. As long ago as 1970, Kate Millett in Sexual Politics saw the drag as a useful subversion: “…as she minces along a street in the Village, the storm of outrage an insouciant queen drag may call down is due to the fact that she is both masculine and feminine at once — or male, but feminine. She has made gender identity more than frighteningly easy to lose; she has questioned its reality at a time when it has attained the status of a moral absolute and a social imperative. She has defied it and actually suggested its negation. She has dared obloquy, and in doing so has challenged more than the taboo on homosexuality, she has uncovered what the source of this contempt implies — the fact that sex role is sex rank.”

I think the feminists’ discussion of drag has been muddied by a failure to distinguish between the intentions of the queen and the effects of her behavior on others. Many of the drags I have interviewed across the country seem to have rather modest ambitions — to be “glamorous,” to be “stars,” to amuse audiences and to convince unsuspecting straights that they are “real women.” They generally look confused and bewildered when they are accused of mocking women; quite the contrary, many of them wish to be women. The effect of their behavior can be diverse — lesbian feminists consider it offensive; straight audiences at a nightclub find it entertaining; many gay men find it threatening.

Disdain for drag is, I would contend, often concealed snobbism. Most gay transvestites especially street drags, are from the working class and many drags are either black or Puerto Rican. Discrimination against them may be both elitist and racist. The greatest irony, of course, is that the Stonewall Resistance itself and many of the other early gay street actions were led by transvestites.

As for why drag queens have singled out prostitutes and show girls to imitate, the explanation may be at least partially historical. Certainly gay men have seldom impersonated middle-class housewives or aristocratic hostesses. The gay hissing and bitch sessions, the vulgar put-downs and the half-funny, half-serious rivalries parallel the catty remarks of whores and chorus-line gypsies. In Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History one discovers several clues. A cited article published in 1896 about the “faeries” of New York states: “They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian requiring the dressing in female attire, and singing in imitation of a female voice, in which they often excel.” Testimony given to the New York police in 1899 has this to say of male prostitutes: “These men that conduct themselves there — well, they act effeminately; most of them are painted and powdered; they are called Princess this and Lady So and So and the Duchess of Marlboro, and get up and sing as women, and dance; ape the female character; call each other sisters and take people out for immoral purposes.” In 1893 a medical journal published a note about a black drag ball in Washington, D.C.: “In this sable performance of sexual perversion all of these men are lasciviously dressed in womanly attire, short sleeves, low-necked dresses and the usual ballroom decorations and ornaments of women, feathered and ribboned head-dresses, garters, frills, flowers, ruffles, etc., and deport themselves as women.”

Obviously, then, many of the early drag queens actually were prostitutes. Others, such as the black queens in Washington, may have found that the worlds of the theatre and prostitution were the only ones where overt homosexuals were welcome. Most likely is the hypothesis that homosexuality in all its forms was so forbidden that only in the permissive world of prostitution could it be mentioned at all. Closeted homosexuals were speechless; only those who had entered a milieu of prostitution and show biz could discuss their sexuality. As a result, even today a small but essential gay male vocabulary can be traced back to whores’ slang, including trick, box, trade, number, hustle, score, and so on. Modern homosexuality arises with the growth of industry and big cities; once men could become self-sufficient (if alienated) laborers, they could reject family life and live as bachelors. But even so, only the most oppressed outcasts of gay life — the drag queens — dared to speak openly of their sexuality. Contemporary drag is a reminder of our beginnings.

I have tried to touch upon the most confusing and complex issues that swirl around the question of drag. But I would be evading my responsibilities if I did not state that I believe transvestites have been treated very unfairly by lesbians and gay men and that they must be fully accepted into our ranks (scattered and in disarray as those ranks may be). Recently, some gay strategists have taken a stand against all forms of eccentricity in gays, and especially against transvestitism, on the grounds that unusual dress and behavior can only hurt the cause of homosexuals in general. As long as drags, leather men, radicals and “media freaks” are un­muzzled and conspicuous, or so the theory goes, then straight society will continue to frown on all gays and deny us our rights.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715433″ /]

Interestingly, the National Organization of Women was faced with an analogous problem a few years ago — whether to accept or reject its lesbian contingent. Those feminists who opposed the lesbians did so because they feared that if NOW were linked to lesbianism in the public mind, then the entire organization would be branded and dismissed as suspect by non-lesbian women. Those who endorsed the lesbians argued that if lesbians have traditionally been singled out as scapegoats, then they can just as easily serve as leaders and symbols of feminist solidarity. The decision to stand behind lesbians won out.

I think that lesbians and gays should take a similar stand on drags. To accept transvestites is not only humane but also tactically wise. All of the objections that straights and gays might have to drags are merely condensed and heightened objec­tions to male homosexuality. A survey of straights published in the Journal of Homosexuality revealed that most straight people do not object to sex be­tween two adult men. What they dislike is self-definition as homosexual. Coming out of the closet is what riles straight people; you will recall that even Anita Bryant does not object to teachers being gay, she simply does not want them to announce they are gay. Once someone comes out of the closet, once a gay man defines himself socially as gay, then he becomes disturbing. Avowedly gay men, as the survey revealed, are perceived by straight society as women. The anger against gay men (and it is much stronger than that against gay women) arises from the fact that gay men are seen as de­liberately and perversely renouncing their prerogatives as men and accepting the lower status of women. Because gay men are perceived as choosing to be women — that is, inferior — they arouse scorn, fear, and confusion.

These are the same feelings that drags awaken in everyone, of course. Drags have become the new “queers” of gay life. For that reason, our reactions to them are a sure index of our own homophobia. By embracing drags, lesbians, and especially gay men will take a step towards self-­acceptance. By placing drags in a re­spected position within the movement, gays will have elevated and defended what straight society most despises in all homosexuals. ■

Edmund White’s next book will be States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. He has written two novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturne for the King of Naples. He authored The Joy of Gay Sex with Charles Silverstein.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715288″ /]

Categories
Equality NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The New Gay Fiction

At the beginning of the 20th century Rodin said that Americans had just lived through a renaissance and no one in America knew it (he was referring to the advent of painters such as Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Sargent). Something similar could be said about gay fiction right now, which is totally neglected and almost never reviewed by the mainstream press but which has never been more vital. In fact it could be said that gay novels and short stories are among the best being written anywhere now.

Of course there are a few exceptions to the general blackout—the worldwide success of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and the Booker prize–winning novel by Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty. The action of both of these books, to be sure, takes place outside the gay ghetto and includes many important straight characters; both books belong to what is called “post-gay fiction,” a subgenre that David Leavitt may have invented in his first collection of stories, Family Dancing.

The vogue for gay fiction has long since passed after a brief flurry of visibility and celebrity in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The market did not respond. Whereas the literature of other minorities (Asian American, African American, Latin American) presents the straight reader with interesting variations on his or her own life by taking up the themes of parenthood, marriage, divorce, adultery, and the intergenerational conflict, the literature of the gay ghetto seems at times utterly alien.

With the collapse of the gay market—and the closing down of gay literary magazines such as Christopher Street and nearly a hundred gay-themed bookstores across the country—gay fiction became invisible, often to the gay community itself. Gay studies as a subject was drying up in the universities (not that gay scholars had ever devoted much energy to contemporary gay creativity). Even the way gay novels are shelved at a bookstore, in a quarantined section labeled “Gay and Lesbian,” places a wall around these books that few straight women readers—much less straight men—would have the guts to breach.

Case closed. Except for the inconvenient fact that in the last five or six years gay writers have been turning out some of the most exciting fiction being written today, though it is sold in the small numbers more typical of poetry collections. This spring has seen the publication of an extraordinary novel, John Weir’s What I Did Wrong. Weir has written only one other book, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, which was highly acclaimed in 1989 as a stellar first novel. His new book tells the story of Tom, a middle-aged teacher at a university in Queens, who has lost his lover—a foul-mouthed, impossible, endearing novelist—to AIDS. Tom feeds all his need for love into his charged relationships with his best friend from high school, a drifting straight guy, and with one of his students, an oppressed, apologetic, disenfranchised kid who plays in a rock band and worships Sharon Olds’s poetry. This is among other things one of the best books about how ordinary folks live in New York now. His students work at restaurant jobs in Manhasset and blow their salaries at a casino in A.C. They’re almost all heterosexuals and Tom studies them as if they were members of another species. “They’re outsiders, not pariahs. Their irony is different from mine. The defining crisis for them is their disbelief in other people, while mine is disbelief in myself. Straight guys are conspiracy theorists, wrecked by the knowledge that they can’t control the world. Yet I learned early on that I can’t control, well, me. I yearn for guys. I am what I want. Straight people aren’t asked to justify their yearning. They don’t have to boil themselves down to an impulse or an act. Unlike me, they think, ‘I am because I want.’ ”

There are also several recent novels and collections of short stories by younger men that prove the efforts of gay writers to reach out to the world at large. Patrick Ryan’s Send Me is about a modest family in the 1970s living near Cape Canaveral in Florida; two of the sons are gay, the older one closeted and the younger one weirdly free of the constraints of the period. This book is full of careful social observation in the manner of Cheever; one of Ryan’s stories has been selected for The Best Short Stories of 2005. Actually it’s a bit unfair to label it a gay book since so many of the stories are about eccentric if thoroughly heterosexual characters. The first and last chapters in his book, however, are devoted to the younger brother’s struggle with AIDS, a theme that lends great depth to a tale of quirky family life. In much of good gay fiction today AIDS plays a role. In Keith McDermott’s first novel, Acqua Calda, an older actor with AIDS ventures to Sicily, where he is to participate in an avant-garde theatrical event. During his sojourn he becomes extremely ill but the show must go on and his decision to play his role despite backstage envy and condescension lend him a quiet heroism.

Vestal McIntyre’s stories in You Are Not the One are edgy urban tales about young gay men interacting with their straight colleagues at the office or with friends. In one story a young woman decides she needs a gay man in her life (a Will to her Grace, perhaps), but she chooses one who is slippery and ultimately not too friendly. Mack Friedman’s Setting the Lawn on Fire is again linked stories that take a young man through a horny, repressed boyhood, up to a summer of canning fish in Alaska and onto a seriocomic career as a hustler. Such a summary does no justice to the elegance and originality of the writing.

Barry McCrea, a young Irish-born Yale professor, has written a rapturous ode to Dublin in his first novel, The First Verse. A gay student at Trinity is manipulated by a strange cult of heterosexuals who use their erotic power over him to induct him into rites and practices of a satanic intensity. More traditional pleasure is provided by Robert J. Hughes’s closely woven first novel, Late and Soon, about the art auction business in New York today. It is told from the point of view of a woman whose husband has left her for another man. Now, years later, she becomes friendly with her erstwhile rival, who has in turn been abandoned for a hotter, younger fireman. There are Jamesian delights in the beautiful language and ironies and nuanced psychological observations that Hughes has devised.

I think there is a real phenomenon here, the arrival of a whole new generation of gay writers who’ve come along to fill the shoes of their predecessors who died too young in the 1980s and ’90s. These newcomers are unknown even to most gay men, who are too busy going to the gym and cruising on the Net to read. Whereas being cultured was once the entrance fee for being gay, now the gay community has dumbed down like the rest of the population. But just as the underappreciated American poetry scene is the most vigorous in the world and includes a dozen major figures, everyone from C.K. Williams to John Ashbery, from Louise Glück to Yusef Komunyakaa, in the same way the current gay literary moment is quietly, almost invisibly adding brilliant new names to a canon that is unknown except to the happy few.


Edmund White teaches writing at Princeton and is the author of nearly 20 books, including the recent autobiography My Lives.