Boy Wonder- James Robert Baker

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James Robert Baker was a transgressional gay themed fiction writer and filmmaker. He was raised in a conservative family in southern California and explored his sexuality when in high school and realized he was gay. However, he was afraid to come out as his dad was abusive and conservative. He committed suicide at the age of 50. His interactions with his family and society can be seen in most of his novel and film, but most extensively in Boy Wonder, written in 1988. Baker is best known for his novel, “Tim and Pete”, “Adrenaline”- about two gay fugitives’ lovers. Baker has a very strong voice in gay literature both in the mainstream literary culture as well as the gay community itself.

Boy Wonder was set in Orange County, California about a boy, Gale Shark Trager and how he led his life due to his different way of viewing life and feeling confined by the norms and expectations of the society and how he broke free of the confined. Shark’s father Mac Trager, was a racist bully and his mother, Winnie Trager was a hypochondriac. In both cases, Paul and Shark’s father’s had a conservative mindset. He always had a hard time fitting into the society and adjusting to his school peers similar to the writer Baker. He became friends with his gay neighbor, Kenny Roberts and fell in love with a blonde teen, Kathy Petro. Obsessed with Kathy he filmed her masturbating and while he went to develop the film, Kathy’s father pressed charges against him and Mac learns how perverted Shark was. Mac took Shark for a VD “drip check” and Shark accused Mac of being a homosexual. This can be related to “Paul’s Case” by Cather, where Paul had a hard time adjusting to his school where everyone bullied him. Later Shark moved out of his house and moved with his friend. Throughout his life he randomly hooked up with all kinds of people in his life to make movies and moved from place to place and never settled with anyone. Shark threw out Kathy (who was his girlfriend at that time) out of the car after a fight, the cops shot him afterwards. Even though there are queer people throughout the century, very few people have the strength to come out of the closet and most people either commit suicide or do something stupid that end up destroying their career or sometimes their life. Eventually Shark moved to a bigger city in Los Angeles where he attended UCLA, this can be related to Paul’s moving to New York. This represents that bigger cities have more opportunities and are more open towards LGBT people. He never got any support from his family or peers as he never fit in the traditional norms of society. Both the writer and the character, Shark suffered mental disturbance through their life.

Baker’s suicide can be related to Paul’s suicide for being gay. Even though Paul killed himself for being gay and afraid of the society, Baker’s suicide can be related somewhat for the same reason. Baker killed himself because several critics called his novel “Tim and Pete”-“The Last Angry Man”. He faced difficulty maintaining his financial position and publishing his last novel “Right Wing” primarily for its advocacy of political assassination in combating AIDS discrimination after the AIDS pandemic began to take a huge turn in the gay community.

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Stone Butch Blues

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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 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

 

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.

Oscar Wilde: Playwright and Aestheticism Extraordinaire

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“I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

-Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was an Irish writer prominent in the Victorian era who is best known for his critically acclaimed plays, poems, and novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. He is also infamous for his relationship with Lord Alfred Dougles, the son of the powerful Marquess of Queensberry. The relationship ultimately led to his arrest and imprisonment in the l895.

Most notable for being a playwright, Wilde actually spent his early years writing poetry. He released a collection of his work entitled Poems at just 27 years old. The release was a modest critical success. Wilde was devoted fan of American poet Walt Whitman, whom he met during a lecture tour around the United States. Whitman described Wilde in the Philadelphia Press (The Toast).

“He seemed to me like a great big, splendid boy. He is so frank, and outspoken, and manly. I don’t see why such mocking things are written of him,” said Whitman.

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Walt Whitman (left) and Oscar Wilde (right)

Wilde faced heavy criticism for his flamboyant nature. He was a part of Victorian Aesthetic Movement, which rejected the rigid discipline of the Victorian era and emphasized the importance of art in everyday life. Wilde’s highly stylized dress, long hair, and outspoken manner helped increase his notoriety during his late career. He was an avid collector of expensive China, a common practice among those in the aesthetic movement. At one time was caricatured by George Du Maurier and F. C. Barnard after wearing a velvet vest and carrying around a flower (“Biography”).

In 1890, Wilde released his only full-length novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel centers around a young, handsome man named Dorian Gray. After he has his portrait painted he finds he remains forever beautiful, while the painting ages and takes on all his corrosion. The main character becomes obsessed with a “poisonous” yellow book that leads him further down the road of corruption. Many believe this book is actually the French novel Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans. The novel tells the story of a man who rejects society. Following initial release of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the novel was heavily criticized for its homoeroticism, leading Wilde to release an expanded version of the text. The new version excluded passages that portrayed the male characters in a feminine manner (“Biography”).

In 1895, Wilde’s career came to an end when we was arrested after losing a libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, who claimed he was having a homosexual affair with his son. The court ruled in favor of the Marquess, and Wilde was sentenced to two years imprisonment. Following his release, Wilde was broke and didn’t produce any more major works.

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Wilde and Sir Alfred Douglas

Oscar Wilde plays an interesting part in queer history. Though he never openly admitted to being gay, he actually contested the fact in court, many consider him to be one of the world’s great queer writers. Yet when most hear the name Oscar Wilde, they think of his great plays – The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband. Most don’t consider the potentially large impact his sexuality played in his life and works.

During the Victorian Era, prominent writers like Wilde would have been comparable to our pop culture icons today. They were heavily celebrated and equally scrutinized. Wilde and others who participated in aestheticism were not only breaking the mold of the rigid Victorian era, but shattering it.

“How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being.”

-Oscar Wilde

 

Sources:

“Biography.” Oscar Wilde. European Graduate School, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

“Oscar Wilde.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

“Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman Probably Had Sex Once.” The Toast. N.p., 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

“Boobs”- Ollie Renee Schminkey

“I was not born into the wrong body. I was born into a world that does not know what my body means.”

Ollie Renee Schminkey is a genderqueer poet/activist who directs the Macalester Poetry Slam and is the founder of Well-Placed Commas, a weekly poetry workshop to serve the needs of the Twin Cities area.They have competed on the nationally ranked MacSlams CUPSI team for two years, competed on 2 Twin Cities NPS teams, placed 2nd at the 2013 Great Plains Poetry Pile-Up, and competed twice with the Macalester team at Rustbelt.  They have also performed and published work with 20% Theatre Company’s The Naked I: Insides Out, and they tour locally with this show.  They are the author of one chapbook, The Taste of Iron, and they have work that was published in September 2014 as a part of Write Bloody and Andrea Gibson’s anthology, “We Will Be Shelter.”  They have featured at venues and events such as Rachel McKibben’s Poetry and Pie Night, Slam Free or Die, Port Veritas, Mama’s Crowbar, Zeke Russell’s New Shit Show, OUTspoken!, Intermedia Arts, and Patrick’s Cabaret.

In Schminkey’s poem titled Boobs, they explore the idea of bodies in relation to how transgender people are perceived and how that relates to their self-acceptance.

“But I also know that most gods punish more than they forgive, and my own body feels more like a guillotine than a gift.”  

“Boobs” is a spoken word piece that begins with Schminkey talking about how much they loves that specific part of the female anatomy and that they are one of the seven wonders of the sexual world. The piece then takes a shift as it highlights Schminkey’s uncomfortableness in their own skin as a transgender woman. Society’s ideals of what a female should be and how that gender should be defined has placed a strain on the relationship they have with their own body.

“I say not woman. They say, silly girl, it is not up to you to decide.”

Schminkey is questioned daily by society as to when they decided they were transgender, as are many people in today’ society. Gender is a social construction that is constantly being perpetuated. The idea that a female must be a “housewife, mother, or woman” is taught at an early age in the way that children watch their parents interact or even the way they learn to interact with others.

They reflect on how a friend has tried to convince them that wanting to get surgery to cut off a “perfectly healthy body part” is a bad idea but Schminkey retorts with the idea that living with a piece of you that you do not want is what is unhealthy. We place people into boxes not realizing the effect of living in these boxes really has. Society handcuffs bodies to gender and gender roles. From the moment a child is born, a doctor takes on the almighty power to announce whether the child is female or male, and they are forever linked to those words spoken in the first ten seconds of life.

“My body is not wrong. The way people talk about my body is wrong. But my body is the only thing I can change.”

Schminkey’s idea that they are not trapped in their body is something that I have not heard talked about in the transgender community. It’s a different perspective that many people do not consider on a daily basis. Not all transgender people want to go through dangerous reassignment surgeries or spend loads of money to be comfortable in their own skin. Society does not take the minute to reflect on whether it’s the idea of being trapped in a body of the opposite gender or if it has to do with being comfortable based on the perceptions of those around you. This spoken word piece is very important to the transgender community because it gives them a voice to a perspective people have not consider in the past.

“I am not trapped in my body. I am trapped in other people’s perceptions of my body.”