Stone Butch Blues

Stone_Butch_Blues_cover

In March of 1993, transgender activist Leslie Feinberg published a coming of age novel titled Stone Butch Blues. It is the fictional story of a young woman named Jess Goldberg and the many problems she faces growing up as a butch in the late1960’s.

The entirety of the novel revolves around the butch-femme subculture. In short, butch and femme are terms used to describe individual gender identities within the lesbian, gay, transgender and cross-dressing culture. Butch refers to a woman with very masculine traits and behaviors while femme refers to a person (usually a female) with overly feminine characteristics. It has been argued that this concept is solely a lesbian dyadic system where one cannot exist without the other and ultimately gave lesbians a clear way to identify. In fact, many gay women in the mid- 20th century, identified as butch or femme instead of identifying as gay, or homosexual. This seems to be the case not only in the novel but for the 20th century as well.

Within the lesbian bar culture for the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s butch-femme was the norm while butch-butch and femme-femme relationships were not. This was very true for the novel as well. Jess from the beginning of the novel allows the reader to dive into her relationship issues with femmes and the many mentors she had (usually older butches) to teach her what was and was not acceptable in these relationships. It was also very common back then for lesbians to feel like role distinctions needed to be sharply drawn because not being one or the other meant strong disapproval from both sides. Deviance from these identities were stigmatized.

Today many young people would argue that the classification of butch and femme are inadequate ways of describing an individual. Now a days, gender fluidity has become much more acceptable. In other words, the modern day gay community recognizes that labels, like such, are limiting in themselves. If people do chose to identify as butch or femme they often say the label is more of a representation of their gender identity rather than the role they play in a relationship. This notion has made way for the acceptance of butch-butch and femme-femme relationships. So it is safe to say that these labels and their meanings, as well as restrictions, have evolved over time.

Likewise, the violence towards these people who identify as butch or femme has changed. At its core, Jess’ character is greatly shaped by the experiences of violence hence the term ‘Stone Butch’. Many lesbians in the mid-20th century who identified as butch acquired a personality  that yearned for love but at the same time did not want to be touched. In the novel Jess is raped, beaten up by cops, set up to be injured and spoken to by doctors like she was something other than human.

“About an hour later the cops brought Mona back. My heart broke when I saw her. Two cops were dragging her; she could barely stand. Her hair was wet and stuck to her face. Her makeup was smeared. There was blood running down the back of her seamless stockings. They threw her in the cell next to mine. She stayed where she fell.”

 

As suspicion of communist and queers began to mount, violence was not uncommon during that time. Butch and femmes alike were commonly confronted with a need to defend their space.  Luckily, much of that has changed. With a rise in acceptance of the gay community, the extremely high rate of violence or dehumanization of gays has dropped significantly.

What has not changed over time is the desire. The lesbian community and gay community as a whole have always desired the same thing regardless of time, acceptance.

Like in Erica Jong’s poem Testament (Homage to Walt Whitman), there has been a long history of pain for the gay community.

“& three decades of pain

having cried for those that did not love me

those who loved me- but not enough

& those whom I did not love-“

Stone butches are notoriously known for not permitting themselves to be touched intimately, and consequently are also known for ‘being hard’. While many lesbians may not be that way today, both ways of identifying as a lesbian have yearned to “resolve now for joy.

“If that resolve means I must live alone,

I accept aloneness.”

Despite how much time passes, that is something that will never change. No one in the gay community will gave up a search for joy, happiness and acceptance. In the same manner, no lesbian, whether she be butch, femme or between the two, will stop believing in that notion or lose that hope.

“How to spin joy out of an empty heart?

The joy-egg germinates even in despair.

Orgasms of gloom convulse the world;

and the joy- seekers huddle together.”

 

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The History of Pride Flags

The very first gay pride flag made its first appearance in 1978. The original flag had eight colors. Today’s gay pride flag has only six colors. Each of the colors represent a different aspect of life. The first gay pride flag was created by Gilbert Baker. He is an artist from San Francisco. Among the gay pride flag there is other pride flags that represent different pride groups. Some of these other pride flags are Leather Pride, Bear Pride, Bisexual Pride, Lesbian Pride, Transgender Pride, Asexual Pride, and Feather Pride. These are only a few of the other pride there is many more. The other main one that I want to focus on is the Bear Pride flag, because this was the next pride flag that was created. Craig Byrnes was the designer of the Bear Pride flag. He came up with the official design in 1995 as the bear pride community was growing. Each color represents all the different types of real bears all around the world.

                        

(the flag on the left is the original 8 color flag and the flag in the middle is the present 6 color flag and the flag on the right is the ear pride flag)

Gay pride and bear pride along with leather pride are the top three pride groups that usually attend pride fests. In class we watched a short clip from “Where the Bears Are”. This is an internet show about the Bear pride community. It is a comedy mystery web series which won the 2012 “Best Gay Web Series”. It has become a big hit ever since it made its debut in 2012 with over 10 million hits. This show represents basically one group of gay men who are very hairy and have a larger masculine body structure. These men also usually have facial hair as well as chest hair. The Bear pride community has many different slang terms to describe what type of bear every man is that’s in the community. Another short web clip we watched in class was “Easy Abby”. This is a web series based on a lesbian who has a lot of girlfriends that she doesn’t remember when she runs into them after not seeing them for a little while after they broke up. Both web series are based on gay people weather they are men or women. Before other pride groups were formed and came up with their own pride flags they all would have originally used the rainbow gay pride flag to support their sexuality. But now each gay group has their own pride flag. there is a pride flag for transgender people, lesbians, straight, asexual, and many more different groups.

       

I chose to do my history archive on the history of the most common gay pride flags because not many people realize that there is more than just the original rainbow (gay) pride flag. Along with the gay pride flag being one of the most popular pride flags, the bear pride flag is also one of the three most popular pride flags as well. Bear pride has been growing more popular since 1995 when the official design of their flag was debuted to the community. No matter how many different gay pride flags there is the original gay pride flag (the rainbow flag) will never fade away because it is what has formed our community and shaped the future for other pride flags to come to gay groups that do not have a special flag of their own. We all share the original pride flag, but like to stand out with our own pride flag that represents who we truly are.

PrideFlags

 

Audre Lorde and a Celebration Through Labels

Audre Lorde, born Audrey Geraldine Lorde, was born on February 18, 1934 in New York City to Caribbean immigrant parents. Her parents came to the United States from the West Indies. As the youngest of three children she was raised in Harlem and was born so tounge tied and nearsighted that she was considered to be legally blind. Growing up Lorde developed a love of poetry early on from her mother teaching her to read and talk around the age of four, and being influenced by her mother’s “special and secret relationship with words’ writing her first poem in the eighth grade. Lorde stated “words had an energy and power and I came to respect that power early. Pronouns, nouns, and verbs were citizens of different countries, who really got together to make a new world”. While in high school she became the literary editor of her schools art magazine and her first poem was published to Seventeen magazine before she graduated high school.

After high school Lorde attended Hunter College from 1954 to 1959 and graduated with a BA studying library science and a spent a year at the National University of Mexico, which Lorde described as a time of affirmation and renewal. She supported herself by working numerous odd jobs as a factory worker, ghost writer, social worker, x-ray technician, medical clerk, and arts and crafts supervisor. After graduating from Hunter College, Lorde went on to get her master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961. In 1962 lord met Edwin Rollins, to which she had two kids, Elizabeth and Johnathan, and the two would later divorce in 1970. Before divorcing her husband, in 1968 she became a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo University. There she met Frances Clayton, who would that became her long term partner.

Lorde self describes herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. Lorde embraces these labels and uses them as a form of expression and almost liberation. She writes in the Cancer Journals “imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness”. Lorde used these labels as inspiration and a platform in her poetry for writing to tell of the injustices against woman, African-Americans, individuals of sexual oppression and many others. She looked at these identities, though seemingly different and incompatible, as working together to form one unique identity that encompasses all of her complexities and fully embraces them. In her poem Martha, she eloquently came out as a lesbian through storytelling:

I need you need me

Je suis Martha I do not speak French kissing

oh Wow. Black and…Black and…beautiful?

Black and becoming

somebody else maybe Erica maybe who sat

in the fourth row behind us in high school

but I never took French with you Martha

and who is this Madame Erudite

who is not me?

And in her poem Coal she openly accepts and embraces her race and say it in a way that can be interpreted as uplifting

“I

Is the total black, being spoken

From the earth’s inside.

There are many kinds of open.

How a diamond comes into a knot of flame

How a sound comes into a word, coloured

By who pays what for speaking….

I am black because I come from the earth’s inside

Take my word for jewel in your open light”

Lorde’s perspectives on labels is quite the opposite to some people’s views of labels today. Over the course of the semester, especially during the history unit when looking at Walt Whitman labels were seen as something that is no longer important or of use. It seems that one of the main consensuses was that people are starting to move away from these labels and push them aside in order to define themselves. There is very much a “you do you” attitude amongst the younger generations. The common belief may be that labels put the individual into a box and restricts them from being the complex being that they are. This rejection or unwillingness to accept a label has been around for years, and a prime example of this lack of labeling is Walt Whitman. Within Whitman’s poetry he commonly alludes to relationships between individuals sometimes without giving them a gender and has described these intimate relationships between men but refers to them as “friend” or “comrade”.  In the Calamus Cluster several of Whitman’s poems describe these intimate relationships between two men. In the poems A Glimpse and This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful, Whitman develops and describes relationships between men that could be interpreted as much more than a simple friendship

“A GLIMPSE through an interstice caught,

Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the 

         stove late of a winter night, and I unremark’d seated in a
corner,

Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching
and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand,

A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drinking
and oath and smutty jest,

There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, 

 perhaps not a word. “

 

“THIS moment yearning and thoughtful sitting alone,

It seems to me there are other men in other lands yearning and
thoughtful,
 

It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany,
Italy, France, Spain,

Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or Japan, talking other
dialects,

And it seems to me if I could know those men I should become
attached to them as I do to men in my own lands,

O I know we should be brethren and lovers,

I know I should be happy with them.”

Even when questioned about his sexuality and his poems, Whitman denies and runs from full disclosure, while Lorde seemingly does the opposite. Lorde can be cited as saying “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”. While possibly in today’s standard these labels may be seen as confining and restricting, and that labels do nothing more than divide us and don’t explain how complex we are, Lorde would challenge otherwise. She wouldn’t look at the labels and think that she is being pushed into a box, she would look at these label and see a celebration and argue that we don’t have to pick just one aspect of ourselves to focus on or pick just one label to define ourselves. We are in control of how we define ourselves and these labels allow us to show our difference while also learning to live in harmony with the complexities within ourselves and other. Labels don’t have to be a source of confinement or a box; they can be whatever we want them to be.

“it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”

If These Walls Could Talk 2

The original If These Walls Could Talk is an HBO film divided into three parts, each with its own cast and time period. The parts are linked by content; each takes place in the same house and each protagonist has an experience with abortion. 2003’s If These Walls Could Talk 2 adopts the same structure but focuses on lesbian couples. The movie sets up each vignette with a year (1961, 1972, and 2000) and a new cast.

For a YouTube link for the full film, click the movie poster:

The 1961 plot features an elderly cohabitating couple, Abby and Edith. They venture out on a date to the theater and are engrossed in The Children’s Hour, but afterwards pretend that it was not in their taste. Upon returning home, Abby checks her birdhouse in the backyard and falls off a ladder. Edith stays in the hospital all night, though she is not allowed to see Abby. A fellow woman in the lobby attempts to comfort her by saying,

“[Never having a husband] is lucky… ’cause you won’t have the heartbreak of losing one.”

Abby passes away, and no one bothers to tell Edith, insisting that any information be given only to family members. Edith phones Abby’s only relative, a nephew, who brings his wife and daughter to the funeral and into the home. In preparation for their visit, Edith removes all photographs of her and Abby and makes it look as though they lived in separate bedrooms. The house is in Abby’s name, so the nephew and his family decide to take the belongings and sell the home, effectively kicking Edith out onto the street.

During all of this, Edith suffers but must maintain composure; to the outside world, Abby was just her “friend.” In one scene, Edith breaks down, crying loudly and clutching Abby’s pajamas in clear agony. She explains to Abby’s nephew and his wife who Abby was, and she remembers more about the one time the nephew came to visit than he did. She explains to the daughter that Abby was a caring, tender person. The anguish and adoration of this “friendship” is reminiscent of Fitz-Greene Halleck’s “On The Death of Joseph Rodman Drake.” When the last shot in this vignette pans out from the site of the ladder accident and into the now empty house that used to be a home, the audience does not know what happens to Edith. Despite another hour in the film, the audience never knows. She disappears, consumed by grief and stripped by a traditional legal system and heteronormative culture of anything she may have been able to cling to for comfort. This poignant message continues to relate to Halleck, whose work dwindled and ceased not long after the death of Drake.


The 1972 plot features the same house, this time occupied by several lesbian college students. They are going through a crisis because despite their devotion to the feminism movement, the student activist group they co-founded at their college is kicking them out. Why? Because the group “support equal rights for men and women,” so naturally, “there’s no room for you [lesbians].” The housemates proceed to get high and go to a lesbian bar, where they make fun of the butch lesbians. One girl from the house, Linda, is attracted to a woman at the bar named Amy.

The housemates reject Amy completely, saying she’s “worse than a man” and complaining that they “won’t be accepted as feminists with [Linda’s] little boyfriend around.” Linda retorts, “Wanna know why you don’t like Amy? It’s because you’re scared of anybody who’s not just like you.” The vignette ends on a note of self-acceptance for both Amy and Linda.

The overall feel of this vignette is very different from the first in that it portrays activism and angst rather than an internalized struggle. Second-wave feminism has taken root and is a loud and proud voice, despite some excluding drawbacks, which the movie points out clearly. The film has a different director for each vignette, which allows the audience to experience the different time periods in addition to merely viewing them. This part of the film brought a voice to the previously silent lesbian.


The 2000 plot features residents Fran (Sharon Stone) and Kal (Ellen DeGeneres), who are a lesbian couple trying to conceive a child through sperm donors. Kal regrets deeply that she cannot impregnate Fran herself, but they are sure that it will be a child resulting from their love. Ordering sperm online to be delivered is an option, but Kal declares, “I’m gonna pick it up. It’s the least I can do.” The agency the couple uses assures their sperm is “the cream of the crop,” and after months of trying, Fran gets pregnant.

The introduction of comedian Ellen into the film helps give a positive message to the film. In one scene, the couple retreats to the park and watches the children play. A mother notices them and asks if they have kids here. Upon hearing that they do not have children, she recommends that they give it a try. They find out Fran is pregnant in the next scene, which allows this part of the film to show acceptance and ability to the previously disenfranchised lesbians.

Overall, each vignette gets more progressive, and the house has all of their stories. It is an archive in and of itself of, representing multiple eras in United States culture. In each part, the house contains strife when visitors come. In 1961, when the nephew shows up, Edith has to pretend she never shared a room with Abby. In 1972, Amy is invited into the home but is pushed out and made fun of for the way she dresses. In 2000, a gay male couple who offer to donate sperm stop by. Fran and Kal insist that they want the donor to have no involvement in the child’s life, but the offering couple does not agree. The house therefore seems to accept its lesbian occupants and provides for them a place to be themselves; however, it rejects interlopers. It does not have enough power in 1961, and its own resident is uprooted. In 1972, it is split, and Linda and Amy wind up at Amy’s house instead. In 2000, though, Fran and Kal reject the gay males within minutes and get their happy ending in the house. Throughout the house’s journey, the viewer gets to experience snapshots of lesbian liberation in the United States.

Taxi Zum Klo

The film “Taxi Zum Klo” is a semi-autobiographical movie from the year 1980, and is about an elementary school teacher who is forced to live a triple life at work and then at night. It was written and directed by Frank Ripploh who is played by himself in the film. This movie takes place in West Berlin which an island surrounded by East Germany. When this film was released in 1980, West Berlin was a capitalist culture surrounded by communism. The main character Frank Ripploh pretends to be straight during the day and then lives as an open gay man and sometimes a drag queen at night. In order to maintain his occupation and fit in with society, Mr. Ripploh is forced to conceal his urges to be with other men.

The first side of Frank Ripploh’s life that is revealed is his role as an elementary school teacher. It can be assumed by his lack of seriousness and passion for his job, that Ripploh is not feeling fulfilled by his job and he does not like this part of his life. Ripploh only attends school events when they are required, he grades his student’s papers in the bathroom stalls, and he even used a student’s notebook to write down a guy’s number at a gas station. Immediately after teaching his class, Ripploh rushes to the bathroom to cruise with other men to satisfy his needs and urges that must be ignored as a straight schoolteacher. I would argue that Frank Ripploh is very unhappy while at work, even if he does not realize it. Instead of focusing on his duties as a teacher he is fantasizing about what he will do when he goes out at night.Taxi Zum Klo Teacher

Secondly, Frank Ripploh is shown cruising when he is in pursuit of anonymous gay sex. A majority of this cruising took place in the bathrooms, but there were also some scenes in the woods and other random public places. Despite the constant cruising and random hookups, one of his inner conflicts is that he has a current steady boyfriend named Bernd who is expecting a monogamous relationship. However, Ripploh is not satisfied by a relationship only with Bernd. Frank Ripploh needs more sex and titillation in his life, so he turns to cruising to pursue this alternate lifestyle.

Lastly, towards the end of the film Frank Ripploh goes to Berlin’s annual queen ball where he expresses his third lifestyle as a drag queen named Peggy. During this part of Ripploh’s life, he is free to explore sex with other men and other drag queens. There is a scene where Ripploh is dancing with another guy right in front of his boyfriend Bernd, and this upsets Bernd but also turns him on at the same time.Taxi Zum Klo Drag Queen Peggy

Frank Ripploh’s monogamous relationship with Bernd filled some of his needs. Although it left him feeling bored and he wanted the relationship to work, he knew that it was not fulfilling all of his needs. Bernd was a “wallflower” and Frank needed a “wildflower!” His desire to be free and live without rules eventually had a stronger pull on him, and he gave into it. As Ripploh danced with strangers right in front of his boyfriend Bernd, he gave in to the excitement that he craved even though he knew he could be crushing any chance of maintaining a meaningful, committed relationship.

Frank Ripploh’s worlds collide at the very end of the movie when the reality that his life as a drag Queen, his desire to have random sexual partners and his job as a fourth grade teacher can no longer coexist. At the very end we watch Frank Ripploh struggle with a deep inner conflict when he shows up to his job dressed in drag and gives his students the opportunity to play a game with dice where they write down a list of six things they would do if they had no rules. The students became very aggressive, destructive and out of control which was a compelling parallel to Ripploh’s own chaotic and conflicted life. When the students left he rolled his own dice, but only expressed two options of resolution. Suicide was a thought but was quickly dismissed as too dramatic and the other option of settling down with Bernd just did not seem possible either. It seemed this collision of worlds was a sad but true reality check that forced the realization that although he wished to be a monogamous man and get back with Bernd, he knew that was not a life he could live. He had to face the fact that the same issues would just repeat and he found no resolution at all.

I chose this archive because from the description of the film I felt like it had many parallels to this course. “Taxi Zum Klo” and “Cruising” are very similar in that they both took place in 1980, and they both portrayed a strong emphasis on cruising in the gay culture during that time.

There is a very strong parallel between the aggressive, destructive, and out of control students and Ripploh’s chaotic and destructive life. When Ripploh asked the students what they would do if there were no rules, their unruly response was in fact representative of Ripploh’s life. He is basically living life with no rules, because he was engaging in sex with who he wants, whenever he wants, even when he is supposed to be in a monogamous relationship. The students’ behavior became chaotic without their regular structure and rules, like when Ripploh pursues cruising and dressing in drag, the more exciting part of his life that he feverishly desires.

More specifically, there is a parallel between Ripploh’s relationships with the students and Bernd. On a typical school day, the pupils in Ripploh’s class sit quietly obeying the rules, which can be boring and stagnant, much like the relationship between Ripploh and Bernd. While their relationship could at times be boring, it was also steady, but Ripploh struggles with that lack of stimulation. The students following the rules is parallel to Frank being with Bernd, it is not the most exhilarating relationship but for sure it is a more reliable and stable path.

“The Platonic Blow” – A 20th Century Response to Whitman

W.H Auden was one the the greatest and most intelligent writers of the 20th century and one of my favorite poets of all time. Much of Auden’s work is influenced by politics, religion, philosophy, and love. Auden was gay and fairly open about that fact. He often traveled to Berlin before WWII broke out to enjoy the gay scene in the city and to visit his close friend Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood, whom we briefly discussed in class, traveled with Auden to China, Spain, and eventually to America. They collaborated together on books about the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war in Spain.

I will leave it to you to read Auden’s more famous poems (which is something you really should do) and instead focus on a particular poem that is not as well known. Auden wrote this particular poem to his lover Chester Kallman to be playful and never meant it to be published. It is titled “A Platonic Blow” and you can read it here. It’s worth the read.

Not only is the poem about a guy cruising a man, bringing him back to his apartment, blowing him and rimming him, but it is a finely structured poem on top of that. Auden uses internal rhyme, an end rhyme scheme of ABAB, and each line is metered so that there are five stressed syllables. “A Platonic Blow” is unique in Auden’s work because of the explicit and raw eroticism of it.

Auden and Chester Kallman

I chose to look at Auden and this particular poem in contrast to Walt Whitman. We spent a significant amount of time in class talking about Whitman and his poetry. Whitman is in ways regarded as one of the father’s of queer culture and literature, despite the fact words like queer or gay were not labels he applied to himself. It was the 19th century and these terms were not in play yet; however, Whitman still laid the groundwork for the queer literature to come. As you know from Whitman’s poems we read in class, much of his work was centered around the intersection and combination of the American nation and sex.

Auden and Isherwood

Auden, too, wrote about the nation and sex, but he chose to keep the two separate. His poem “Spain” is one of his greatest works and deals with the idea of the nation. He wrote it while in Spain with Isherwood, and it describes the country in its past, its present, and in its future. Much like Whitman, he had an idea of what he thought the nation should be, although they were writing about different nations. Whereas Whitman saw love and sexual relations between men as a reconstruction of the nation’s relations, Auden never mentions the two in conjunction. He, who was out in a way Whitman couldn’t be, chose to keep his ideas of the nation separate from his ideas of same-sex relations.

It may have been because Auden lived in a strange period where same-sex relations were not so taboo that he did not feel the connection between the homoerotic and politics that Whitman felt. The Weimar Republic was fading and war was approaching, but there seemed to be this bubble in time that allowed for queer culture to flourish for a few years. “The Platonic Blow” highlights the sexual climate of the time, which was becoming much more open than the the one Whitman knew. The poem is blunt, crass and beautifully written, and it seems to say that sex does not need the nation. It can exist outside the confines of politics and borders. Whitman saw sex and the nation as being intertwined, but Auden saw them as separate entities. “The Platonic Blow” is one step further into the explicit erotic that Whitman couldn’t take, and it show so clearly how Auden chose to keep his sexual feelings separate from his published work.

Here are some great Auden links:

Biography

Auden Reading His Own Poems

My Favorite Auden Poem

 

Celebrity Coming Out: As Told by the Ellens

Coming out is a huge and often difficult part of the lives of any non-straight individual. However, coming out as a public figure takes those anxieties and subjects them to an entire nation of scrutiny. Our current idea of “coming out” is one that developed throughout a complicated LGBT history. October 11th, 1988 marks the first national coming out day, and really signals a switch in our popular discourse on gay and lesbians in society. Celebrities are generally praised for their courage in coming out in such a high profile manner, however it was not always this glamorous. In order to understand the progression of the celebrity coming out process, we will look at the experiences of two American comedians, Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Page.

Ellen DeGeneres starred in an ABC sitcom of the same name, Ellen, which ran from 1994-1998. Ellen’s on screen and off screen love life became a huge topic of conversation as rumors began to circulate around her sexual orientation. DeGeneres decided to tackle these reports head on by coming out in character during a monumental episode titled “The Puppy Episode” which aired April 30, 1997. Oprah Winfrey made an appearance as her psychiatrist, and the dialogue was as follows:

“It’s not like I’m looking for perfection,” DeGeneres’ character said. “I just want to find somebody special, somebody that I click with.”

“Has there ever been anyone you felt you clicked with?” Winfrey’s character asked. “What was his name?” 

“Susan,” she replied. Laughter and applause followed.

ellen d

Ellen and the show received extremely negative reactions shortly after this. The show was canceled the following season. Oprah received aggressive hate mail. Companies including JCPenney, Chrysler, and Wendy’s decided not to advertise during the show’s airtime. ABC put a parental warning on Ellen at the start of every episode.

Ellen’s incredibly bold and unprecedented public coming out shocked the nation in 1997. She was the first gay main character of a mainstream show and provided a totally new idea of queer celebrities. Fast forward to 2014 and we see Ellen Page following a modern approach to her high profile coming out. She chose to share her identity in a serious call-to-action speech that she did for HRFC’s Time to Thrive conference. The two coming out stories of these famous Ellens truly highlight the change through this short history on the expectations of coming out as a public figure. DeGeneres interviewed Page in celebration of Page’s coming out, while reflecting on the process of the whole thing. What is most interesting about the conversation, though, is the understanding that coming out is an unspoken duty of a celebrity, and that idea is something that has changed dramatically since DeGeneres’ 1997 announcement.

History has not always allowed for this high profile coming out. As we discussed Walt Whitman extensively in class, we never came to a conclusion on a proper identity, because Whitman literally did not have the vocabulary to come out himself. But even when his sexual identity was questioned in personal letters, Whitman denied the claims because it was unheard of at the time. When Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, DOMA was enacted a year prior and the public perception of LGBT individuals was less than positive. When Ellen Page came out in 2014, DOMA was struck down the year before and the expectation to represent the LGBT community in a public manner was, and continues to be, extremely important.

Renée Vivien 19th Century Poet

Renée Vivien was born in 1877 in England and shortly after moved to Paris where she and her sister attended school. When Renée was nine her father died and she was forced to move back to England until 1898 when she became of age and could return to Paris on her own. Renée published her first two books under a masculine pseudonym in 1901 and 1902 then published her third book, Evocations, under her own name in 1903. In all her writing Renée wrote unabashedly about being a lesbian. Many of her poems where about Natalie Barney a wealthy American who she had an on again off again relationship with. Another significant relationship was with Baroness Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt, whom Renée spent several years with until she got back together with Natalie Barney. Renée wrote many poems and stories over her lifetime, most revolving around her romances with other women and others featuring tragic heroines fighting against nature and oppressive men. Because of the homoerotic nature of her work it was unsellable in England and the United States and as such none of her poetry was translated in to English until the 1970s. To read more about Renée Vivien click here.

Roses Rising

My brunette with the golden eyes, your ivory body, your amber
Has left bright reflections in the room
Above the garden.

The clear midnight sky, under my closed lids,
Still shines….I am drunk from so many roses
Redder than wine.

Leaving their garden, the roses have followed me….
I drink their brief breath, I breathe their life.
All of them are here.

It’s a miracle….The stars have risen,
Hastily, across the wide windows
Where the melted gold pours.

Now, among the roses and the stars,
You, here in my room, loosening your robe,
And your nakedness glistens

Your unspeakable gaze rests on my eyes….
Without stars and without flowers, I dream the impossible
In the cold night.

Renée writes Roses Rising using nature and flower to represent the beauty of women. She starts out describing a particular women and then moves in to describing roses. Which I think represent all the women she has been with. She describes being drunk from many roses and how the roses follow her. She states, “I drink their brief breath, I breathe their life.” The rose is a common symbol for love, and in this poem Renée uses them to symbolize her past lovers, which is why she drinks their breath and breathes their life. All of her past lovers are in the garden of roses and that’s the miracle. The next few lines come back to the original girl and their interactions. The last line speaks to how Renée would feel without all her roses.
The Touch

The trees have kept some lingering sun in their branches,
Veiled like a woman, evoking another time,
The twilight passes, weeping. My fingers climb,
Trembling, provocative, the line of your haunches.

My ingenious fingers wait when they have found
The petal flesh beneath the robe they part.
How curious, complex, the touch, this subtle art–
As the dream of fragrance, the miracle of sound.

I follow slowly the graceful contours of your hips,
The curves of your shoulders, your neck, your upappeased breasts.
In your white voluptuousness my desire rests,
Swooning, refusing itself the kisses of your lips.

The Touch is a poem by Renée that is full of homoerotic text. The poem starts out with a tree and how it looks like a vailed women. Like her other poem Roses Rising the poem brings in nature to her description of an intimate relationship. Renée moves in to describing sex with her lover using the common symbol of petals to describe female anatomy. In the last part she describes the rest of her lover’s body.

Renée Vivien uses nature to help her describe the beauty of the female form much like Whitmen did to describe the beauty of the every human body. Vivien also compares to Whitmen in her use of the pronoun you to describe her lovers. Yes in Vivien’s poems she is unabashed about her lover’s sex and often puts in description indicators to show that she is talking about a women and not a man. She is also openly homosexual unlike Whitmen whose sexuality is still debated. In addition Vivien predates Whitmen and her poems are written in an even earlier style then what was popular in her time.

Read more of Renée Vivien here.

Coming Out Under Fire

9200000033173818When thinking about the current stance of the LGBTQ community serving in the United States armed forces we think of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). DADT was the official United States policy on service by gays and lesbians in the military instituted by the Clinton Administration on February 28, 1994 which was repealed by President Obama on September 20, 2011. Although these events seemed recent, gays have always been in the military, it was just never discussed publicly until Allan Berube wrote the book “Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men And Women in World War II”. Berube spent ten years interviewing gay and lesbian veterans, dug up hundreds of wartime letters between gay GIs, and obtained thousands of pages of newly declassified government documents. He discovered while some gay and lesbian soldiers collapsed under the fear of being arrested, interrogated, discharged, and publicly humiliated, many drew strength from deep wartime friendships. They survived on their own secret culture of slang, body language, and “camp” to find each other and build spontaneous communities. Allan published his book in 1990.

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Four years later filmmaker Arthur Dong turned Berube’s book into a documentary. The documentary features nine gay and lesbian soldiers who fought in WWII. They tell their stories of their daily routine, the ways the community found each other and how gays were treated in the military when out. Those who were out as gay faced humiliating treatment that included dehumanizing interrogations, medical examinations, and incarceration in “queer stockades” and hospitals for the criminally insane. Those discovered were punished with dishonorable discharges that stigmatized them in civilian life and denied them veteran benefits regardless of length or quality of duty served. Footage in this documentary also includes the 1993 Senate hearings on gays in the military and DADT.

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What shocked me throughout the entire film was the pride that each man and woman being interviewed had so much pride for their country. Although they were drafted they were all excited to fight for their country as if it was every young person’s duty at that time was to serve their country. Half of the interviewees had found romance and community in the forces but had to lie about who they really were in order to stay in the service. Soldiers had to be psychologically tested for mental illness, homosexuality being listed as a mental illness at the time. If you were caught for being a homosexual you were dishonorable discharged and sent to prison for a minimum of five years. Fear was a common factor in soldiers lives. In this case these gay soldiers weren’t in fear of dying while fighting, but fear of being caught for being who they are. One interviewee commented on the government in regards of how they were treated in the military,

“The United States government wants their citizens to be liars and to be unaccepting of themselves rather than say gay or homosexual… be invisible or shut up.”

 

Luckily times have changed and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is just a text in a history book. Before learning about this culture I would have never thought that there was a homosexual culture in the military during World War II or in any era before the Iraq war. I could never imagine living in a time where hiding yourself was a norm. It is a shame that these soldiers were giving up their lives for the United States while the government was ready to ruin their lives.

 

Albee and Whitman with the Woolfs

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Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf

When the morning comes….

Edward Albee’s 1962 play’s title Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf comes from a play on words of the 1933 Disney song, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Already mixing dark comedy and literature with the very title, Albee’s play is a hallmark of absurdist theatre. The drama describes the emotional and psychological instability of a couple’s wasting marriage. Hailed as a revolution for drama at the time, it won two awards within the first five years of production. Some critics then say it polarized audiences; some lauded its themes and creative use of tension, while others found it perverse through its sexual and explicit content. And this theme of polarization is what I find key to describing Edward Albee.

Albee is an out proud gay man, known as an accomplished playwright even before WAoVW, but he is most remembered for it due to its raw details. And it is these raw details, written with the intensity of a melodrama that put Albee into question. The campiness of the play and the writer’s sexuality led some critics to read the characters as stand-ins for gay relationships. The play as a metaphor for the ‘absurd’ trials and tribulations homosexual couple’s face and create themselves. At first, I was just going to archive that- the play as a thought that queer agency was created on stage before it was condoned, even if it was obscured. But through more research I discovered Albee’s total refusal to classify Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as queer literature. His stance is even more controversial considering his advocacy for civil rights and LGTBA understanding, but he deems his art to not be affected or analyzed by his sexuality. As Albee accepted his award at the 23rd annual Lambda Literary Awards, he is quoted in his speech saying “a writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer, I am a writer who happens to be gay.” This remark was met with disgruntlement or abject fury by the audience, his words seen as a dismissal of self and the gay identity. I kind of agree with Albee though in the same vein of the argument Hogan and Caskie make about Sam Smith.

It is the new wave quiet activism, how ‘gay’ can be a part of your reality but not the whole of it. Albee is later quoted commenting to NPR about the negative reactions as “so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers and I find that is such a limitation and prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can.” His remarks remind me about our class debate on whether or not Whitman was gay. Albee is most assuredly, but that sexuality-identity connection to art is still questioned the same across generations. Does it affect Whitman’s poetry if he was gay? It affects the way we view him now, the way we have archived him in the queer history, but we argued about whether or not he would accept such a classification. Albee, unlike Whitman, is aware of the connotations of the word ‘gay’ but still contests such a distinction to be necessary. I am aware I am archiving Albee the same way history has archived Whitman, but we all should note that neither has agreed to it. Albee can be in queer history because he is a gay man making art, but his work should not critiqued only through that lens. As with Sam Smith, the man is not the art and the stories are not the same. ‘The body is political’ is denied by these artists, for the sake of their works meaning not be marginalized or pigeon-holed into outdated stereo-types of queer art. There is current Queer art, the same way there is Black art and Women’s Art; its existence cannot be denied or forgotten, but it is not all-inclusive and it is not all-political. It can be remembered, as I am making this so archiving it, but it must be remembered with all its origins and all its meanings intact.

 

Sarah Caskie, “Sam Smith: Musician on the Rise,” Contemporary Queer Culture hosted by Sites@PSU, last modified April 2, 2015, http://sites.psu.edu/245spring2015/2015/04/02/sam-smith-musician-on-the-rise/.