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The Homophobic Imagination

by Rictor Norton and Louie Crew


The following essay is the editorial written for The Homosexual Imagination, a special issue of College English, the official journal of The National Council of Teachers of English, which was edited by Rictor Norton and Louie Crew in 1974.


Part 1: Introduction

Homosexual literature is written, read, criticized, and taught within a generally hostile environment. Although we may argue about the degrees of such hostility, and although we may debate its precise nature with regard to different kinds of repression, suppression, and oppression, this pervasive hostility is nevertheless an indisputable fact. To recognize this is to appreciate the sociology of literature. In a very real sense the writing, criticism, and teaching of homosexual literature is subordinate to the political state of homosexuals in our society. A celebration and understanding of the homosexual imagination requires an understanding of the homophobic imagination.

Many contemporary manifestations of the homosexual imagination are clearly political in import, as in Jonathan Katz's documentary drama Come Out!, passages of which exhibit the homophobic imagination by way of early American trial judgments wherein homosexuals are condemned to hell as well as to the pillory, prison, or death; and Daniel Curzon's novel Something You Do in the Dark, the title theme being a convincing indictment of modern homophobic society. And even the earlier homosexual imagination contains political reference to the homophobic imagination, however carefully examined, as in Marlowe's Edward II; or however muted, as in Housman's observation that "They're taking him to prison for the nameless and abominable colour of his hair"; or however quiet with the seeds of gay liberation, as in the last lines of Cocteau's Le Livre Blanc: "But I will not agree to be tolerated. This damages my love of love and of liberty."

All of our contributors [to the special issue of College English] have responded to our invitation "to celebrate the homosexual imagination" from "a pro-gay viewpoint," and all of them have recognized the need for some comment upon the homophobic imagination during the course of each discussion. We are quite pleased with the positive thrust of this collection of essays as a whole, and not at all apologetic for the tentativeness of some of the conclusions due to the lack of a traditional groove in which to work, and we are pleased that the overall tone of the collection is more celebrative than angry. However, during the more-than-a-year-long preparation of this collection, we have communicated with several hundred gay academics and writers, from the United States, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, France, the Netherlands, and Japan, and we have come to a greater appreciation of the fact that we have some reasons for grave concern. We do not want this resulting editorial to prejudge the essays that follow. Rather we would like to use this opportunity to explore in some detail the kinds of effects that homophobia may have upon literature, criticism, and teaching.

The homosexual imagination consists, in part, of an immediately felt awareness of the most brutal forms of degradation by which civilizing institutions have sought to suppress that imagination. Within our terms of reference in this particular issue of College English homosexual critics have had their genuine interpretive voices stifled by blindly prejudiced publishers; homosexual authors are currently circulating hundreds of manuscripts which editors are refusing to publish because of the homosexual content; homosexual teachers at this moment are being fired and denied promotions; homosexual students have been convicted of kissing in public, sent to Atascadero State Mental Hospital in California, and there subjected to involuntary electro-convulsive conditioning. It is an old story that love between consenting adult persons of the same gender is illegal in most states and reviled in all, that homosexuals are legally prohibited from employment as teachers in most states, and that faculty advisors in many Colleges of Education are required by law to state which of their student candidates are known to be homosexual and therefore to be denied teacher certification. The oppression of homosexuals is becoming an increasingly familiar story, but one that must be repeated at every opportunity until it becomes so familiar as to bring society to its senses.

Part 2: Literature and Homophobia

Insofar as homosexual authors write for an audience that largely consists of hostile heterosexuals, they must somehow accommodate their work to the expectations of that audience. This is particularly true in the world of real-lettres in which every author desires a publisher and fears a censor. One can, of course, simply refrain from writing on the subject that is nearest one's heart, and continue to accumulate notes for the work-in-progress for when the time is ripe. . . . One can write and then eschew publication, as did E. M. Forster with Maurice. One can arrange for private printings, as did many of the writers from 1890 to 1920. One can reverse the pronouns prior to publication, with the result, for example, that "Once I Pass'd Through a Populous City" is now read as one of Whitman's fine heterosexual love poems in spite of the male pronouns in the original manuscript discovered in 1925. One can call one's lover Narcissus and transform oneself into a simple country swain, with the result that critics find evidence herein of the narcissistic nature of homosexual literature. One can leave pointers via Greek mythology, resulting in a Ganymedic pederastic strain in homosexual poetry. One can talk about aesthetics and spiritual friendship, thereby providing evidence of homosexual effeteness. One can tell a tale of woe and kill off a major character in the last chapter, thereby providing evidence of redeeming social value. One can do just about everything — except utter the truth.

The inability to speak in one's authentic voice is a recurrent theme of homosexual literature — "I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs" (Whitman); "The word unsaid must stay unsaid, though there was much to say" (Housman); "There was just one thing amiss in Billy Budd — an organic hesitancy, in fact more or less of a stutter" (Melville) — a theme that could be profitably examined by heterosexuals in order to appreciate the homosexual's struggle against suffocation, and the nuances of indirection by which we cope with suppression and oppression. This theme contributes to the "shame" motif in homosexual literature (the word "shame" becoming a code word after Alfred Douglas's poem "Two Loves"), but although many homosexuals have indeed been ashamed and guilt-ridden and tormented by doubt, there also resides in this theme a substantial recognition of the hostility of society.

We very much suspect that many homosexuals have internalized the homophobia of society, and their literature can provide evidence not for "homosexual sickness" but for heterosexual sickness. As soon as Freud became popular, the psychiatrist became a fixture in the dramatis personae of every homosexual pulp novel and almost every serious homosexual novel, and a formula was established whereby one chapter was devoted to the hero's memories of how he related to his mother, followed somewhat later by a chapter showing his traumatic encounter with a woman. This process of incorporating a homophobic notion is admirably illustrated by the insertion of a scene showing a humiliating heterosexual failure at a brothel in Visconti's movie version of Mann's Death in Venice. In the days before Freud's psychological refinements, homosexual characters were always discovered to suffer from a physiological disease, usually tuberculosis, though this particular disease was brilliantly transformed into a metaphor for self-discovery in Gide's Immoralist. And in the days when the sin theory was prevalent, homosexual characters were always practicing black magic and reading de Sade, as in Huysmans' La Bas. The further back we go in the years A.D., the closer we come, not to the iniquities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but to Christians having nightmares about Sodom and Gomorrah.

One gay liberation political viewpoint (borrowed from the field of radical therapy) is that all homosexual negative self-concepts are entirely the result of unjustified guilt that has been internalized by the constant pressures of homophobic society. That this may be true is being increasingly documented by current sociological research. When we extend this to the field of literature, we deprive authors of creative autonomy. We nevertheless believe that it would be profitable to conduct extensive research along the lines of this hypothesis — which means, for example, that in the biographies of homosexual artists it is not so important to discover a Close Binding Intimate (CBI) mother (which is searched for along the lines of the Freudian hypothesis), as to discover a Roman Catholic priest who threatens with damnation a young child caught playing homosexual forbidden games. Such events have been recorded in the journals of modern homosexual authors, including many of those who converted or suffered a religious crisis in the days of Cardinal Newman, and we rather suspect that some sound corollaries can be established between the "tormented" type of homosexual imagination and a homophobic religious background. We would not suggest that such works should be dismissed for not being representative of the true homosexual imagination, but that they should be carefully examined within the context of a hostile reality in order to avoid perpetuating that homophobic reality.

The term "the homosexual imagination" sounds like an erotic philosophy. Sex practices and metaphysical theory make strange bedfellows, and although anthropology demonstrates that they do indeed walk hand in hand, modern commentators and authors have been rather careless in how they align the two, and often do so without careful attention to the findings of the anthropologists (early anthropologists always overlooked the homosexual behavior of primitive people, which is why Gide's Corydon was an important contribution to the celebration of the homosexual imagination in spite of its naivety, but today we know — or should know — that homosexual love, transvestism, and same-sex marriage rites are not so bizarre or anomalous as were once believed). We learn from a marriage manual now current that man/woman face-to-face sex is "a complete unit" whereas man/man front-to-back sex is "an incomplete fragment in a daisy chain". Many people can read that statement straight-faced as if it were a profound truth (perhaps unaware that anal intercourse can be performed face-to-face, thank you). It is on the basis of such a metaphysic that literary themes of "complete" heterosexual love and "incomplete" homosexual love have been created and judged. The same metaphysic has been used, on the other hand, to create and judge literary themes concerning "closed" heterosexuality and "open" homosexuality, stifling monogamy versus democratic promiscuity. There probably is a metaphysic of homosexuality, and it probably has something to do with friendship as the physiological basis of democracy (which is why America is so embarrassed by Whitman), but thus far most critics and authors have busied themselves with an anti-homosexual metaphysic, i.e. homophobia. Sartre, using Genet's Thief's Journal and Our Lady of the Flowers, has constructed the homosexual maturbatory imagination, the emphasis being upon incompleteness and self-centeredness, but if we used Genet's Querelle of Brest we could construct a metaphysic of brother love, using the recurring images of the seaman's rope, chains, rosaries, pieces of clothing, blankets, and a whole series of repeated patterns by which Genet represents the binding together of men. It is amazing that Sartre has failed to see how thoroughly Genet is part of the homosexual humanistic tradition reaching back to Montaigne's Essays.

The heterosexual metaphysic of procreation is a rather hard nut to crack in spite of the obscurities with which it is propounded, both as critical interpretation and artistic creation. Margaret Crosland in Cocteau's World refers to "the realization that homosexual love cannot bring total happiness in ordinary human terms because it cannot perpetuate life." This may be entirely true for a particular character in a particular book by a particular author in a particular milieu, but it is the kind of critical interpretation of the homosexual imagination that does not take into account the fact that no author these days will suggest that any human relationship can bring total happiness in ordinary human terms, and that the common theme in heterosexual literature is not procreation but adultery without offspring. Nevertheless, "this sterile love" is a frequent enough theme in homosexual literature, from Proust's The Cities of the Plain to Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and may remain so until authors begin to appreciate the horrors of overpopulation. The right to the artificial reproduction and adoption of children may be as important to gay liberation as the right to abortion is to women's liberation.

Homosexual literature has not uniformly suffered from the homophobic environment, and this situation probably has contributed to the brio and brilliance of a recognizable homosexual style or manner, whether it be the trashy epithets and outrageous puns of a bitch fight or the unsurpassed wit of Oscar Wilde, and a host of satirical and comic techniques (a good number of us have written Restoration comedies) by which we have learned how to deflect ostracism. Unfortunately ethnic humor tends to turn inward, as illustrated in Charles Dyer's Staircase and, as in black and Jewish ethnic humor, what begins as a shield against oppression ends up merely as a safety valve which releases the pressure which would otherwise turn into anger (we laughed at Amos 'n' Andy for a very long time).

We do not wish to deprive any homosexual literature of its intrinsic worth by making a series of unsupported political hypotheses concerning the relationship of a homosexual author to a homophobic milieu, but we think it is very important to recognize the significance of documents such as the revised versions of Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar and James Barr's Quatrefoil, and to note that homosexual literature B.C. is generally " happier" than homosexual literature A.D., and to note further that homosexual literature post-1969 (the year of the Stonewall Riots and "the birth of gay liberation") is recognizably different from homosexual literature ante-1969.

Part 3: Scholarship and Homophobia

At the outset of the crucially important task of finding scholarly support for any theories about the homosexual imagination vis-à-vis the homophobic imagination, we must recognize how homophobia has had a detrimental effect upon scholarship itself. In this particular issue of College English we have only obliquely exposed the lack of professional standards exhibited by traditional scholarship on homosexual literature, for at the moment we are concerned with the practical possibilities of teaching what has not become lost, strayed, or stolen, but we must begin to appreciate the extent to which academic publishing, research, and library services have contributed to the excommunication of homosexual literary history.

Overt censorship of course is a major problem, including the kind of irreparable censorship by which a host of medieval and classical manuscripts have been literally destroyed by medieval scholars fearing the contagion of heresy, leaving us with wide gaps in the tradition that can be filled in only with reference to the homophobic tracts and satirical invective that was allowed to remain beside the now illegible page of manuscript covered with tar-pitch. Scholars of course are not guilty for such equally irreparable losses as the pages torn out of Byron's Missolonghi notebook, the pages that Whitman tore out of his notebooks, the two-year segment torn out of Lord Hervey's Memoirs, the early correspondence of Walter Pater destroyed by his sisters, the historical notes and memoirs that Sir Richard Burton's wife threw into the fireplace page by page. Scholars have been guilty, however, of contributing their share to the homophobic attitudes that both permitted and encouraged such wanton destruction, and scholarly critics were busily engaging in vicious homophobic criticism rather than demurring when thousands of rare books and literary artifacts were seized and destroyed by British and American customs agents during the years between the wars, particularly in the 1930s. Modern scholars have been especially guilty of failing to duly appreciate the kind of evidence that these blank spaces indicate, for instead of finding evidence herein of homophobia, the relative absence of such material is taken as proof of the anomaly of homosexual literature.

Scholars have certainly participated in the suppression of homosexually relevant data, and although (we hope) it is no longer common practice to suppress such material, we are often at the mercy of the suppressions that have already occurred. The deletion of the homosexually-relevant information about Sir Francis Bacon's boyfriend Godrick from James Halliwell's 1845 edition of Sir Simonds D'Ewes Autobiography is of course despicable, but the gap has nevertheless been incorporated into all Bacon studies because there exists no other printed edition of D'Ewes's Autobiography. When we multiply this example a thousandfold (which we can do with relative ease in the field of nineteenth-century scholarship), we can see what an immense task it will be to reclaim homosexual literary reality. But such examples continue to multiply even today, while literary executors and scholars and publishers meet behind closed doors to discuss how much can be revealed and how much can be suppressed (scholars of absolute integrity repeatedly confront an incredible range of editorial deceit and backbiting if they want to write an honest study of a homosexual author), with the result that we are continually building our critical judgments upon "official" (i.e. bowdlerized) biographies until fifty or so years after an author's death.

A number of homosexual authors have heterosexualized or de-homosexualized their works prior to or after the first publication: that is, they have engaged in self-censorship in response to the prejudice anticipated or received from their homophobic audience. Stephen Spender, for example, in one of his poems revised the line "I shall always have a boy" to read "I shall always have an affair" (making it more universal or more vague depending on one's viewpoint), and it can be chronologically documented how Whitman progressively de-homosexualized Leaves of Grass after reading press notices in which he was accused of being obscene and corrupt. Insofar as one of the canons of traditional scholarship is that the last revision published in an author's lifetime is to be regarded as the standard and authoritative text upon which to base interpretations and critical judgment, or issue reprints, this particular kind of authorial accommodation to homophobia will be perpetuated as a matter of professional principle, and because of strictly scholarly editorial standards this sort of harm to the homosexual imagination (we are assuming that to be buried is a positive harm) is henceforth irreparable. Scholars and critics at the advanced level of research will of course use a variorum edition, and may take the earlier versions into critical account, though as yet none have attached due significance to homophobia as the cause for revision. But in the classroom learning situation, in which teachers can hardly be held accountable for being familiar with the original versions of all the selections in their anthologies, the loss to students' understanding of the homosexual imagination will continue in spite of all. This self-suppressed homosexual sensibility gradually becomes part of the popular imagination by way of paperback reprints and Selected Works, which of course never reprint or select the earlier non-heterosexualized versions, and this generally reinforces the notion that the homosexual imagination barely exists. Homophobia is remarkably efficient at perpetuating and expanding its influence.

The major scholarly act of suppression is rather difficult to prove, but we suspect there is a conspiracy of silence. The lack of homosexual research and criticism suggests that the field is being deliberately ignored rather than found unfruitful for exploration. The belief that it is not a fit topic for polite research and criticism prevails long after the Victorian age. Certainly this is the reason why homosexual literature is seldom translated for the enlightenment of a foreign people (have you read an English translation of Goethe's West-Easterly Divan?), and the series of asterisks and Latinizations in works by Theocritus and Lucretius and Martial and Lucian et al. is sufficient evidence of homophobia in scholarship. One would gather by reading the daily press that homosexuals do not exist until we appear in court on a morals charge, and in academic publications homosexuals never appear except in special circumstances such as a study of vice in the decadent underworld. We are considered to be exclusively sexual beings and are denied our casual existence. We exist in Rupert Croft Cooke's Feasting with Panthers; we do not exist in Stanley Weintraub's Whistler: A Biography, even though the very same Pre-Raphaelite personages (Wilde, W. E. Henley, Montesquieu, et al.) appear in both of these works. Weintraub mentions the wives and mistresses of various men, but he never mentions their boyfriends — who as a matter of egalitarian principle should be equally acknowledged — and the closest we come to making an appearance is when he refers vaguely to "the trial of Oscar Wilde." Such omissions are difficult to use as an attack on a scholar's professional integrity, but when Weintraub refers to Simeon Solomon as but "an amiable and gentle young artist" we very much suspect that he is being deliberately oblique rather than merely ignorant. Even the best of scholars continue to tell only the truth and nothing but the truth, omitting the whole truth whenever they can possible evade it.

It is understandable within a homophobic scholarly culture that the scholarship which attempts to expurgate homosexual material is itself as suppressed as the tradition under its investigation. The classic example is Havelock Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Volume Two: Sexual Inversion, the pioneer in the field. It remains an important work, but it has the kind of publishing history that renders it highly suspect in terms of traditional scholarship: Volume Two, oddly enough, appeared before Volume One; it exists in a more detailed German version; the actual author of its historical and literary content was John Addington Symonds, whose name has been omitted from the title page; the work has been so often censored, suppressed, revised, and expurgated that the only first edition available in the United States is now in the Kinsey Collection at the University of Indiana. John Addington Symonds had the courage to publish A Problem in Greek Ethics, still an important study of homosexual themes in Greek literature, in a private edition of ten copies, but a subsequently expanded edition of 100 copies has not made the work generally accessible. Hans Licht's major study Sittengeschichte Griechenlands (1926-8) consists of three volumes of which the last is virtually unobtainable, and the one-volume English "translation" contains but a pittance of his research. J. Z. Eglinton's Greek Love (1971) became a collector's item nearly upon publication, and it may soon be as "rare" as the two issues of The International Journal of Greek Love which he edited. All of these works — and many others — are quite literally contained in the Private Case and the Cupboard of the British Museum Library — that is, they receive the same classification as pornography and treasonable tracts — where they are accessible only to advanced scholars and can be examined only by sitting at one of the four seats in the North Library embarrassingly marked "Reserved for Special Books." A number of reputable scholars have expressed to us the opinion that a substantial number of works in these two special collections have not even been listed in the British Museum Catalogue of Printed Books.

Both primary works and scholarly works in this field tend to be privately printed and to be distributed by sub rosa publishing houses, not because we think it is fun to work in secret, but because traditional commercial publishers still fear censorship, and because homosexual books are not best sellers (mainly for reasons of repulsion rather than disinterest). Editors of university presses argue that there is not wide enough appeal, then go ahead to publish books on the development of the umlaut.

This certainly is not the ideal research situation. When scholars feel compelled to adopt pseudonyms (such as "Hans Licht," "Noel I. Garde," "J. Z. Eglinton" — though, surprisingly, Timothy D'Arch Smith is a genuine name), we should appreciate the extent to which the work has been hindered by the work-place, both in the larger political sense of a homophobic social institution (it is not surprising, for example, that Montgomery Hyde, author of The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name, lost his seat as a Member of Parliament, or that Father John McNeil, author of an essay in the National Catholic Observer urging more responsible biblical scholarship vis-à-vis homosexuals, is now the subject of a Vatican Board of Inquiry and faces the possibility of excommunication), and in the narrower sense of homophobic academic circles, where students and professors who engage in such research face the probability not only of being eyed askance and reviled behind their backs, but of being suspended or fired and subtly denied credibility by their more "objective" colleagues. We can say without any qualification that research in this field at the undergraduate level faces insuperable difficulties, and may well be a positive danger: whether one is a new Ph.D. candidate or a full professor, the mere word "homosexual" in a title on a curriculum vitae is a stigma that few careers can withstand.

When we speak of suppression we are speaking also of the broader area of availability, and in this context it is not insignificant that library practice is deliberately and unintentionally homophobic. Cherry cabinets are becoming more a matter of habit than prudery, but there is little serious discussion of what constitutes valid grounds for cages in a library, and even fewer attempts to de-suppress present holdings. High-school libraries, community libraries, and the smaller college and university libraries as a matter of policy refuse to purchase "good gay books," i.e. books with a more objective stance or more informed by the gay liberation movement, and books that are stocked are still finding their way into the categories of Perversion and Pornography. The Task Force on Gay Liberation of the American Library Association provides an invaluable service with its regularly updated "Gay Bibliography," but libraries in practice are woefully slow to acquire even the least expensive items on this relatively short bibliography. By refusing to subscribe to gay newspapers and periodicals, libraries are consigning to oblivion the kind of primary research data, including interviews and memoirs, that scholars of the future will seek in vain in the same way that we presently seek in vain for documentation of homosexual history outside a court setting.

This whole situation is absolutely deplorable, simply insofar as it reveals a pervasive academic dishonesty. But beyond this simple observation, by such attitude and by such means has society lost innumerable kinds of truths and the various kinds of perception by which heterosexuals as well as homosexuals can grow unto themselves. Many traditional scholars will subscribe to the belief that in the past lay our only claim to futurity, and in reference to this some of our contributors have noted that contemporary homosexual literature is often divorced from its tradition: whether we write it or read it or teach it, we will be doing so with the uneasy feeling that it is an anomalous literature, a literature that is somehow bizarre, somehow queer. Homosexual literature is not in the mainstream, not because the mainstream is heterosexual, but because the mainstream is homophobic. This is always the effect of excommunication and taboo, and by such means heterosexual literature and the heterosexual imagination have been peopled by homosexual devils, monsters and nightmares.

Part 4: Criticism and Homophobia

Even at the least unintentional level of homophobia, we can quite easily document how a failure to appreciate the validity of homosexual love can produce critical blindness of the most elementary sort. In one passage of his very scholarly biography of Nicholas Udall, William Edgerton says that Udall could not be homosexual because there is no evidence of this in his works; in a later passage, Edgerton critically appreciates the humor of the scene in Udall's Roister Doister in which Matthew Merrygreeke expresses a desire to be a woman so he can marry Ralph Roister Doister; Edgerton quite simply fails to make a connection between these, and proceeds with the argument that the word "buggery" in the transcript of Udall's trial before the Privy Council is merely a misspelling for "burglary" — whatever the scholarly fine points of this spelling theory may be, we are convinced that it is motivated by an assumption that it is better for an English Worthy to be a thief than to be a homosexual. This kind of failure to duly appreciate the evidence that is staring one in the face abounds in subliminally homophobic literary criticism. It is not that homosexuals have a special gift for detecting such evidence, but that homophobic critics tend to read with the eyes of Queen Victoria, under whose rule female homosexual behavior never became illegal because no one had the audacity to tell her that lesbians existed. The classic example of such blindness is the frequent assertion that the portrayal of the "spiritual comradeship" of Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's Iliad is proof positive that "in the beginning" homosexual love was non-sexual, a view achieved by ignoring the reference to the widespread practice of boy prostitution in Homer's Odyssey.

When the homosexual content of a work becomes so explicit and so frequent that no one can overlook it, critics are so startled that they allow themselves to strain towards some farfetched way of passing negative judgment. In his very scholarly critical biography of Richard Barnfield, Harry Morris expresses humorous surprise at the ironical situation in which a "self-confessed pederast" attempts to educate his beloved in the ways of becoming a Renaissance gentleman, a situation that is not at all strange for those who have read Plato's philosophy of pedagogy, and a situation that is not half as "pederastic" as the heterosexual pedophilia of all the tales of Venus and Adonis. Philip Thody has been respectably startled enough to say that "in spite of Genet's total inability to imagine men who are not homosexual, he does offer variety within his own particular range," though this of course is a "dubiously limited achievement" (Jean Genet, 1968). If we pause for a moment to consider the dubiously limited achievement of those thousands of writers who are totally unable to imagine people who are not heterosexual, we gain some inkling of the particular bias of the metaphysic upon which critical judgments about "incompleteness" are based. In his authoritative biography of Lord Hervey (1972), Robert Halsband says "How fortunate for Hervey that his wife should share, instead of resent, his fondness for Stephen!" — of course it is fortunate, but not so terribly surprising as to merit the full weight of an exclamatory transformation. It would be a useful and amusing dissertation project to document the rhetorical configurations by which critics inadvertently reveal their surprise and wonderment upon discovering the homosexual imagination.

Of far greater iniquity and far less humor are the host of critics who have articulately expounded the homophobic world view, expertly using the rhetorical strategies of degradation by which homosexual love, though not at all queer in the fact, is queered in the description. A classic example that contains virtually all of the techniques is Roger Asselineau's Evolution of Walt Whitman (1962). The first important step in homophobic criticism is to anomalize homosexuality: Asselineau achieves this easily at the outset by subtitling "Chapter V. Sex Life" with the quotation "The love that dare not speak its name" — when one opens the book to the Table of Contents, one immediately realizes that this chapter must be significantly different from all the others because it is the only chapter that has been set apart with a subtitle, and such a sinister subtitle at that. (Recorders ages hence: please note that we are weary of cute titles for books and articles and chapters such as L'Amour qui ne dit pas son nom, The Other Love, The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name, The Love That Dares Now Speak Its Name, Sexual Heretics: a spade is a spade, not a violet.)

The corollary step is to reinforce this sense of otherness by frequent use of anomalous terms of reference: Asselineau doesn't beat around the bush with synonyms, and simply repeats the phrase "the anomaly of the poet" at the rate of once every three pages. The next step is to emphasize that this is not a mere anomaly (in theory an anomaly can be extraordinarily fine), but a decidedly bad anomaly: Asselineau thus repeats the term "abnormal" with greater frequency than the word "anomaly," and counter-buttresses this by use of the term "normal" to refer to the heterosexual rutting instinct.

The next step, a very important one, is to place this abnormal anomaly within the context of irrationality: Asselineau catalogues in abundance terms such as "obsession," "preoccupation," "desires," "haunt," "satisfy abnormal instincts," "sensuality," "predilection," "passion," and "lack of control," and he even allows himself an appropriate metaphor such as "he gave free course to his passion and it broke forth with the violence of an explosion." However exuberant Whitman often is, this is not at all an accurate description of the relative placidness of many of his Calamus poems: it is a description of the reaction experienced by a homophobe confronted by homosexual love: Asselineau is the one whose lava runneth over.

The next step, one which is usually suppressed by the time a critic has made the final revision for publication, is to invite the heterosexual reader to share in the critic's experience of disgust and loathing: thus Asselineau shudders over Whitman's "murky and unhealthy part of himself," "the impure elements which were in him," and its "noxiousness" (!). Oftentimes the religious base of homophobia is allowed to show through, as in Asselineau's invocation of concepts such as "impurity" and "temptation."

After establishing these homophobic ground rules, the critic can proceed with impunity to plead his special case, Asselineau's particular argument being that over a period of years Whitman variously "succeeded in regaining control" or "suffered relapses" with respect to his abnormal anomalous murky passions. This is known as the bubbling cauldron theory of the homosexual imagination. Asselineau — and most critics — has entirely missed the two important points: (1) a particular male writer loved men; (2) this particular writer's society hated men who loved men. Insofar as eroticism and mysticism are intimately connected, and insofar as Asselineau has so radically failed to objectively interpret "Chapter V. Sex Life," one suspects that his "mysticism" theory of Whitman's poetry, the theory whose expression was the substantive purpose of his entire two-volume work, the theory that is now current in most classroom discussions of Whitman, is sheer and utter nonsense. The frequency with which "spiritual" and "ideal" and "mystical" themes are attributed to the bulk of literature makes one suspect that critics have radically failed to interpret all literature. The subject for future study is still a balanced appraisal of "Homosexual Themes in Whitman's Poetry," and an equally important study will be "Homophobia in Whitman Criticism" (and "Homophobia in Shakespeare Criticism," and "Homophobia in Emily Dickinson Criticism," and so forth, and a two-volume study of "Homophobia in Western Literary Criticism."

Asselineau, and a great many other critics, teachers, and students, have merely skimmed the surface of psychoanalytical theory in order to acquire a terminology through which they can respectably utter their contempt for homosexuals. Many seldom go beyond the term "perverse," evincing no awareness that in psychoanalytical literature it is merely a synonym for "pregenital," and these critics have no awareness about what "pregenitality" is. The superficial and careless use of psychoanalytical tools has so profoundly discredited psychological literary criticism in all areas that serious Freudian critics are finding it difficult to approach an audience that doesn't smirk and chuckle. Insofar as psychoanalytical theory tends to become immediately popularized, and distorted and institutionalized in the process, we think it is politically wise to simply ignore the psychiatrists when we are not discrediting them. But insofar as there are still critics who believe that psychoanalysis is a useful critical tool, and who believe that it is not inherently homophobic, we would like to make two cautionary remarks.

(1) Because we live in a homophobic society, any critical statement about a particular homosexual character in a particular work will automatically be understood by the readers of such criticism to mean that all homosexuals resemble that character. One can point out an anal fixation in one of Chaucer's fabliaux, and readers will let it go at that because Chaucer is heterosexual; if a critic points out an anal fixation in a homosexual work, however, readers will say that all homosexuals tend to have an anal fixation. One of the effects of society having cast us out has been to cast us into a monolithic mode (all the better to excommunicate you, my dear), and any statement about a single one of us, within a homophobic culture, will be received as a generic truth. Within such a homophobic culture, double-think prevails and few people will bother to notice that homosexual stereotypes are often mutually exclusive: the self-centeredness of our narcissism doesn't go well with the other-centeredness of our pederasty; leather and lace may be two sides of the same coin, but in general our sadomasochism doesn't sit well with our effeminacy; our phallic fixation doesn't sit well with our return to the polymorphous perverse; and no statement about "homosexuality" is meaningful unless it refers to women as well as to men. Responsible psychoanalytical critics must become acutely aware that their criticism will be seized upon in the battle of homophobic politics, and they must take every possible precaution to ensure that they don't utter a single careless remark, that no remark can be lifted out of context without a trailing string of qualifiers, and that they simultaneously contribute something to the discussion that will undercut a homophobic reaction.

(2) It is not acceptable to begin a psychoanalytical critique with a brief outline of Freudian theory regarding the causes and nature of homosexuality, and then to proceed merrily with the analysis. The standard Freudian theory of homosexuality has been radically discredited by the American Psychiatric Association's 1974 ruling that homosexuality is not a pathology. Any psychological critic of homosexual literature who does not take cognizance of that ruling and the investigations that prompted it (such as the Hooker Report that concluded that there were no appreciable psychological differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals) will in effect be using a broken tool. Arthur Schlesinger's critique of Tennessee Williams and Leslie Fiedler's critiques of Twain and Melville are no longer (and never were) tenable.

Within strictly objective terms, it will be fairly easy to discredit virtually all traditional criticism by exposing its pro-heterosexual bias as a distorting prejudice. But such is the nature of the taboo that we will be operating within an irrational rather than an objective context, and perhaps our best strategy will be to keep on repeating such exposures until good sense gradually prevails. Hopefully many of us will relentlessly pursue this task of debunking "straight criticism" without succumbing to the typical liberal argument that we are tearing down one thing without building up something to take its place: it is useful and satisfying and critically important to serve in the function of a watchdog, to keep saying "Excuse me, sir, but that's rot" every time a critic who claims to be serious utters a nonsensical remark about either homosexuals or heterosexuals (such as the absurdity that the former are ipso facto adolescent while the latter are ipso fact mature). The important thing is for all of us to open our eyes a bit wider so that a more honest criticism can emerge of its own accord.

Insofar as we the editors and some of our contributors are gay and proud, we confront at the outset traditional critics' homophobic definition of credibility. We suspect that many of our readers irrationally believe that only heterosexuals have the proper credentials for objectively discussing homosexuality. A male critic whose book dealing with a homosexual theme is not dedicated "To My Wife" — a mere formality, but, like the title "Mrs.," a decidedly heterosexual formality — automatically becomes suspect. Reputable scholars have seriously contended that homosexual critics will argue a case, have ulterior motives, and are patriotic, subjective, and propagandistic — though the prima facie logic suggests that the same view should be taken of heterosexual critics of heterosexual literature. The most frequent argument is that homosexuals are eager to get authors into their camp, the classic form of this argument being raised in every discussion of Shakespeare's Sonnets. The fallacy of this argument can be rather easily demonstrated by a survey of Shakespeare criticism and by our taking due notice of the fact that the critics most frequently cited as proponents of the view that Shakespeare was not homosexual are preponderantly bachelors.

We deplore the academy's long-standing dogma concerning objectivity, for as a so-called professional standard it has been the most popular political strategy by which the voices of all minority groups have been effectively silenced. As a professional ideal, objectivity may be worth attaining, though we suspect that it is no more valid than the ideal of Universality that steadfastly excludes homosexuals from the human universe, or theories about Mankind that overlook womankind. In professional practice it is obvious that heterosexuals have no viable claim to such objectivity, for almost without exception they are quite subjectively prejudiced against homosexuality and in favour of heterosexuality, whether consciously or unintentionally. Whatever the far-off ideal may be, at this particular point in history, within a culture one of whose major characteristics is being recognized by sociologists as homophobia, we do not believe that heterosexuals have the best perspective from which to accurately view the gay experience — not because heterosexuals lack homosexual bedroom experience, but because they lack awareness of the non-erotic nuances of the daily, casual life of homosexuals in a hostile society, and have seldom or never been confronted with any challenges to their own heterosexual predilections and presumptions. Scholarly and critical health, wholeness, integrity, and true objectivity in this area can best be approached through an honest, thorough, and compassionate investigation from within the gay experience. The links between critical scholarship and experience are indeed tenuous, but while these links complacently go unquestioned by heterosexual scholars, homosexuals are very much critically aware of these links, and this sensitivity will contribute to a greater degree of insight. In spite of the aura of irrationality that has been falsely cast over homosexuals, we have a remarkably well developed "superego" and self-consciousness — we are nothing if not self-critical and self-evaluative, beginning at an early age when we searched through all the books for an explanation of our differentness. Homosexual bedroom activity is largely occupied by intimate discussions of psychoanalytical theory (Freudian quotation is a staple of our bedroom humour), and even young homosexuals are adept at handling eroto-philosophical premises that leave our heterosexual peers far behind. Vita Sackville-West noted in her diary that she, being homosexual, was more qualified to discuss homosexuality than any expert psychologist, for the empirical data was daily under her scrutiny by necessity, and the measures of the rightness or wrongness of her tentative conclusions were constantly at her side. By this sort of daily critical self-inquiry homosexuals have become the scientists of the self.

Quite frankly, we sometimes would like to urge heterosexuals to hush up and move aside: we do not look forward to a proliferation of gay studies courses taught by "objective" exclusive heterosexuals, and we wince at the prospect of well meaning teachers who may engage in curriculum innovation by hurriedly adding to the syllabus such works as The Catcher in The Rye, End as a Man, Tea and Sympathy, and The Boys in the Band. Of course it would not be proper to suggest that all heterosexual scholars and critics and teachers are incapable of participating in a responsible study of this area, but we believe that the first step towards achieving an objective forum of humanistic discourse will be for heterosexuals to critically appreciate the ways in which they unthinkingly espouse anti-gay/pro-straight cultural prejudice, and we condemn without reservation the kind of attitude that prompts them to consult doctors and churchmen as if they are the authorities, whereas, after all, homosexuals themselves are the experts on homosexuality.

An important specific responsibility for all intelligent members of the academy will be to eliminate the mere word "abnormal" and its synonyms from all critical and rational discourse that is meant to be taken seriously. This will parallel one of the more profound goals of gay liberation to eliminate the very concept of abnormality, and in so doing to eliminate the concept of normality. If this particular aim of a "gay criticism" is pursued with enough vigor, it will strike to the very heart of traditional literary judgment and its foundation in normative aesthetic standards and the comparative method for positing value judgments. Our most positive contribution to culture will always be an affirmation of the essential ambiguity of all human experience, achieved partly through our recognition that character types, stereotypes, behaviour patterns, plot patterns, and all the formulaic normatizations or topoi of literature are superimpositions which stifle the human spirit.

Part 5: Teaching and Homophobia

The ideal classroom (and critical) situation is a community of all members, but teachers (and critics) tend to create a heterosexual confraternity that excludes homosexuals. The cheap and easy way for a teacher to establish a mild rapport with a class is to stimulate laughter by telling a sexy story — though erotically colored comments are almost invariably invitations to share a heterosexual and sexist merriment (and queer jokes, which are not yet held in disfavor in the faculty lounge, are invitations to share in anti-gay mirth). Virtually all discussions of sexual symbolism in literary works are accompanied by a heterosexually biased innuendo, though a homosexual tends to look with some disdain upon a teacher who experiences uncontrollable giggling at a piece of heteroerotic wit. In virtually all explicit discussions of homosexuality "we" are the heterosexuals and "they" are the homosexuals: the result is that homosexuals are always hearing people talk about "them" as if homosexuals are not present during the discussion. (Heterosexual society is a homosexual back-room joke.) In such discussions, it is insufferably arrogant for a teacher (critic) to say "we" and then to assume that all persons worthy of sharing in that "we" are exclusively heterosexual. (We are the people you warned us against, says a gay lib poster.) This has become such a standard practice that a reversal of the we/they pronouns, as in this issue of College English, is regarded as sufficient evidence to brand such statements as radical. Editors and contributors to learned journals, as well as teachers, continually think of the homosexual members in the audience as a distant hypothesis and the heterosexual members as an immediate reality — a kind of distancing that, however unintentional, reinforces the normal/abnormal obsession.

Teachers whose specialized training has included an intensive study of the English language have been remarkably insensitive to the linguistic manifestations of labelling/taboo/stigma vis-à-vis homosexuality. They have used with impunity all the available shibboleths, however morally hideous and philosophically untenable. English teachers have radically abused the language by adopting the jargon of psychoanalysis ("perversion"), the jargon of sociology ("deviant"), the jargon of religion ("unnatural", a holdover from the Latin contra naturam), the jargon of law (persons are not just said to be homosexual, but "accused/suspected" of being homosexual or "alleged/imputed" to be homosexual). The difference in the choice of qualifiers between the two sentences "Wilde's love for his wife was unmatched by his homosexual love for Bosie" and "Wilde's heterosexual love for his wife was unmatched by his love for Bosie" illustrates the extent to which the term "homosexual" functions in the same way as the word "abnormal." We should like all teachers and critics to henceforth refrain from using the word "love" without a qualifier, for they would then begin to realize that in effect what is talked about as "Love: The Grand Theme of Literature" has been talked about in the narrow terms of exclusive heterosexuality.

In every classroom discussion, critical inquiry, bull session, or daily conversation in which the subject, supposedly, is love, homosexuals have found it necessary to transliterate the terms of reference in order to take it in and weigh it against our true perceptions, and then to re-transpose the terms for an acceptable heterosexual reply. Debates about sex before marriage, for example, still stimulate useful discussions among undergraduates, but the debate, strictly speaking, is as exclusively heterosexual as marriage, and the discussion would be more profitable — even for heterosexuals — were we able to debate the issue of sex before friendship. But instead our contributions to such discussions are usually preceded by a pause during which we note our differences, a kind of reflective conditioning that contributes both to our sense of irony and our lack of spontaneity in many human situations. Happily, the content of this pause is becoming less concerned with "our difference" and more concerned with the fact that heterosexuals are in a narrow groove grown habitual. The severely delimited terms of reference within a heterosexually biased society would be merely laughable were it not for the fact that few homosexuals survive the American school system without the uneasy feeling that we are objects of curiosity, contempt, and ridicule — and, especially, strangers unto ourselves. Society is designed so as to prevent us from getting together to compare notes.

It requires a great deal of courage for a homosexual to be homosexual in a non-sexual situation such as an English classroom discussion. But some remarkable things might occur if we were permitted our freedom. The merely academic knowledge that boys played women's roles on Shakespeare's stage could be transformed into a reality if we listened to a ten-minute commentary by a female impersonator in the class. It is well and good for a teacher to allude to her or his experience as a parent in order to elucidate a poem on childhood — however much this allusion is unintentionally pro-heterosexual — but it would be equally well and good for a lesbian mother to be able to discuss the literary theme of parental fear of rejection with reference to the homophobia that her own child may acquire at school. The alienation theme of literature has a special relevance to homosexuals, and we have hundreds of examples of the subtleties of isolation and loneliness by which to illustrate this theme for the rest of the class. We can contribute to a definition of an author's persona, for we know well what a mask is, both its limitations and its capacities. We want to point out for your delectation and enlightenment all of the erotic puns that you've missed. Gay women have some wonderment to express about the literary theme of chastity and fidelity, and gay men have some Renaissance sentiments to express about faithful friendship. We have some disturbing questions to ask about the naturalness of heterosexuality with respect to the comedy of manners. And we have something to teach heterosexuals about the heterogeneity of love.

In due course society needs to be transformed into a community that will grow rich by accommodating sexual pluralism. This is rather a big order for the English Department, but it may be a specific responsibility of the English Department to at least right some wrongs. Although all of the academic disciplines have contributed to the disenfranchisement of gay people from our rightful cultural heritage, and one of the official functions of educational institutions has been to systematically deprive us of our sense of self-worth, English teachers, whose contact with students is so constant during all the years of schooling as to make them the symbol of the teacher, have in particular contributed to the oppression, the degradation, and the self-loathing of homosexuals. In few other areas of teaching are there so many opportunities to contribute to students' self-awareness, self-growth, and self-acceptance, yet in few other areas of teaching have so many such opportunities been lost vis-à-vis homosexuals. We are not suggesting that English teachers must therefore become subservient to a gay liberation policy line, and we recognize that many teachers are not yet ready to fully endorse, for example, the classroom civil rights of their transvestite colleagues, but we do demand that teachers and critics and scholars and writers cease being subservient, however unintentionally, to the homophobia that characterizes our society.

One thing we have to say directly to the gay teachers in our audience is rather painful. Coming out is not strictly a matter of conscience: it is an academic responsibility. None of our contributors have put it so bluntly. Yet gay liberation has taught most of us that the invisibility of homosexuals is much more of a stigma than a saving grace. Gay teachers who come out may very well lose their jobs at the termination of their contracts, may be disowned by their families and spurned by their friends and colleagues, may be forced to flee small urban areas, and may experience greater or lesser degrees of misery according to their circumstances. Yet gay teachers who do not come out will contribute to this cycle of oppression for our gay students, who, without gay role models or support, will very likely experience the kind of self-loathing, ignorance, and fear that no young person should ever be subjected to. However, gay teachers who do come out will experience that kind of joyful rebirth that we talk about when analyzing initiation patterns in the novel. At the least, we can immediately cast off the burden of deceit and hypocrisy and playing the dull game of credibility at the loss of integrity that consumes so much valuable talent, and is especially so intolerable within an educational context, and can redirect our creative energies and our skills towards self-acceptance for ourselves and our sisters and brothers, however much the gay community is still more of an ideal than a reality. Few of us have ever been able to say "I'm homosexual" without a trembling of the voice that betrays an internalized guilt that we may consciously disavow. Now that we have the opportunity to utter the much easier phrase, "I'm gay and glad," we must seize the day. Those of us who have been out long enough to get over the first flush of excitement cannot in all honesty say "Come on in, the water's fine," for the water is still a bit chilly, but we're still alive and well, and we ask you to join us, because we are convinced that as we grow older in our liberation we shall not have the experience of so many other homosexuals of looking back on inconspicuous lives of quiet discretion with deep unhappiness.

Granted, the existence of an openly gay teacher, particularly a male, and particularly in high schools and elementary schools, raises the awful spectre of what educationalists most fear discussing: the teacher as erotic person. Of course it has never been scientifically demonstrated that homosexuals have a particularly noticeable penchant for pubescents, that we have those Pavlovian skills sufficient to teach straights how to be queer, or even that our goal in life is to undermine the sanctity of the family. But we do have that certain nameless color of the hair: bright and gleaming if only the sun would shine. That color of the hair will continue to prompt the most irrational sorts of reactions, and we are not so naive as to believe that dawn has been placed on the school calendar. When that nasty taboo-word HOMOSEXUAL begins to appear in every committee agenda, as it must, and in every school's course catalogue, as it must, we can anticipate a good deal of paranoia, literal paranoia, about the corruption of the youth and proselytizing pederastic pedagogy in meetings of PTAs and state legislatures. We have taken note that the homophobic backlash has already begun in the states of California, New York, Missouri, Florida, and Virginia, and we only hope that the battle lines have not been so severely drawn that we cannot come to terms. Whatever the political strategies that can be adopted to counteract such irrational attitudes (such as an appeal to sentimentality, as in the movie That Certain Summer), our clearest option within an academic forum is to assume that our audience earnestly desires to act according to reason. We rather hope that a substantial number of the readers of this issue of College English wishes us well at least on the grounds of academic freedom and responsibility, and we urge them to positively welcome our full participation in the educational experience.

Those of us who have participated in the gay liberation movement wish to contribute to education theory our beliefs in the value of alternativeness, openness/ambiguity, and varietism/diversification. We wish to strip the facade from the leadership model of education to reveal its core of male supremacy and its obsession with forcing people into line. We shall contribute to the movement away from the bureaucratic model of education (characterized by hierarchy, uniformity, routine, rules, and authority) and towards the professional model of education (characterized by client-centeredness, flexibility, teachers as facilitators and resources rather than disseminators, discovery-learning, collegial colloboration, and interdisciplinarity). We hope to ensure that university community outreach programs will not attempt to reach around the gay community, and if there is a movement toward the public curriculum, we intend to vocally and visibly demonstrate that gays are a part of the public whose needs must be responsibly met.

Standard reform procedures are slow and laborious, but necessary: the appointment of working commissions, with homosexual representation, to prepare reports and recommend action, at the level of statewide teachers' organizations, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Modern Language Association, the American Association of University Professors, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the beginnings of discussions concerning minimum standards of non-homophobic education and research at the international level, resulting at least, and with all due speed, in official resolutions condemning homophobia in teaching, scholarship, criticism, research, and publishing. Departments of English can arrange symposiums, invite speakers from gay organizations, revaluate the textbooks currently in use, including books for young readers, revaluate employment practices, encourage undergraduate and graduate research through expanded use of interlibrary loan facilities, participate in interdisciplinary gay studies courses, and discuss this issue of College English at a meeting of the full faculty. Individual teachers can morally support gay students unions, can financially contribute to homosexual organizations engaging in the preparation and distribution of teaching kits, can talk about the subject at every opportunity, can get to know their gay students by going to a gay community center and there learn more in a few hours about the varieties of the homosexual imagination than we can possibly demonstrate in this entire issue, and can revaluate their unintentional pro-heterosexual bias, by imaginatively projecting an ever-present homosexual perceptor (at least one of us will be in every class having more than fifteen students) wearing a gay lib button saying, in purple and yellow, "How dare you presume I'm heterosexual!" All of us must begin to teach, criticize, and pursue research in a spirit that recognizes homosexuals as fully the equal of heterosexuals.

In every area in which the profession carries out its most professional duties, a major duty has been the suppression of the homosexual sensibility. Heterosexuals have been debating the homosexual question exclusively amongst themselves for an untoward number of decades, and the prohibition of homosexual contributions to that debate, including the absence of a debate on the heterosexual problem of homophobia, is a serious indictment of the academy. Scholarship has abjectly served what Christopher Isherwood calls "the heterosexual dictatorship." Homosexuals learned nothing new when we read Orwell; it has always been 1984, as near as we can recollect. For an intolerably long time, the academy has refused to admit that homosexual love is a subject worthy of appreciation for its contributions to literature, to criticism, to teaching, to culture — even though a substantial number of authors, critics, teachers, and students are homosexual, including authors on the List of Great Masters, teachers commended for meritorious service, students on the honor rolls. Too often have we sat by while the contributions and insights of homosexuals have been suppressed, misappropriated, and otherwise abused by heterosexual prejudice, and too long have we been forced to assume heterosexual masks for the dubious benefits of passing unnoticed in an academy which is, after all, as much "ours" as "theirs." Gays have uniquely valuable contributions to make to the dialogues shaping our collective culture, and from now on we intend to do so openly, with dignity and pride. The appearance of gay space in this issue of College English is more than a refreshingly novel turning of the tables: it is a step towards human liberation.


SOURCE: Rictor Norton and Louie Crew, "The Homophobic Imagination: An Editorial", in Rictor Norton and Louie Crew (eds), The Homosexual Imagination, College English, Vol. 36, No. 3 (November 1974), pp. 272-90; copyright 1974 by The National Council of Teachers of English.


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