Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Unbearable Heaviness of Queerness: When Academic Hipness Drowns in Body Fluids

These days in the  Academy, everything's getting  "queered"----politics, popular culture, artistic movements, technology (my new iPhone is queer!),  and   the  ever so handy,  generic, and  much-beloved abstractions like "space"  (e.g., "queer spaces"), a mot du jour  easily deployed  to spice up a dull moment in a paragraph (as in "We enter the queer space of the movie theater," and everyone gets an intellectual erection).

Even the straightest of all straight Academics  have gone queer, it seems, at least in their writing.  Queer your sentences, queer celebs, queer automobiles, queer Shakespeare, queer der Furher, queer Obama, it's an endless litany of queering  possibilities.  Sedgwick, goddess love her,  sprang open  that intellectual closet door, a veritable Pandora's box of quintessential queer treasure.  It's a romp through the finery of repressed passions, the bedazzling jewels of sexual ambiguity.  Fools rush in where angels (you know, the guys with wings) fear to tread. 

Maybe the race thing  just got old and, besides, it kept avoiding  all those very real, inconvenient, poor, disenfrancised black people out there, whose narrative of oppression implicates us all.   And because all the safe race tropes had been trotted out, maybe it felt like a dead-end. In addition, now whiteness can be "raced" and  there's only so much  "playing in the dark" any  Academic, in particular Academics NOT of color,  can get away with, without having to confront "discrepancies."  Then---abacadabra---we make    our grand entrance into what some now proclaim as "the post-racial era" that supposedly should make us all feel so much better.  (Please see bell hooks'  classic  essay, "postmodern blackness.") Now that "race" has lost its luster---- like the  deteriorating  feather boa that fell off  some old botoxed queen running along  between Dykes on Bikes and PFLAG -----queer is in, sexy and sizzlin' hot, and just a tad daring. It's revived the tired old Academic libido, because  it's kind of about sex (with that "sex-positive" twist), without  anybody ever having to actually deal with  body parts or  have sex (thanks to Lacan, there are no penises, just phalluses, which Academics wield with great bravado). Queerness in the Academy is treated like a  kind of  intellectual tofu---just make it whatever you want! Specially, after feminists took all the fun out of sex (all that earnest critiquing), queerness was summoned  to "sex up" academic "spaces" and afford male academics, in particular, regardless of sexual orientation,  a chance to engage in  some verbal flirting and frottage, most of whom don't have to bear any of  the weight of historical responsibility, i.e.,  anti-sodomy laws, persecution of homosexuals (almost always directed toward men, not women).  Maybe since  Lawrence v. Texas (2003) overturned the ignominous Bower from the 80's, academics have decided the intellectual risk is minimal.  And since queerness is often invisible, unaccompanied by any phenotypic signifiers (unless your gay-dar is nuanced and up-to-date), it's no big deal to let people think what they will, without any real consequences.

Queer used to actually mean something; the reappropriation of this originally derogatory term  was subversive and transgressive,  with  all the sociopolitical implications of a  firm refusal to embrace tidy gender/sexual categories and its normative discourse. It also carried the risk and weight of of its own history---that is, until the Academy got ahold of it, just as they did with race and feminism, and managed to flatline it. Along come Whiteness Studies and Masculine Studies (or Masculinist, the suffix added for intellectual heft),  on the heels of classes and seminars on Queer Theory, and more unaffordable textbooks than one can bear are written on the subject, and before you know it, it's lost all its  sizzle and spark. Now white people can comfortably "do race" through Whiteness Studies, men can critique gender through Masculine Studies, and   anyone can queer anything.

Looking around for the  next taboo in a moment when nonhuman animals function as the latest academic object of curiosity, Academics have begun  "queering" animals and then animal and human bonds (a little bit of bestiality can really make an Academic's day). Scientists (those arbiters of empirical evidence)----gasp!----fed the fury by finally waking up long enough to notice that many, many non-human animals defy hetero categories and engage in same-sex relations.  These days if you can spoon in a little race AND a dash of class AND  a dose of queerness,  man, oh, man, you're cookin'! Queer cats, raced dogs (this doesn't refer to greyhounds), and gendered penguins.  It's a regular smorgasbord.

And all of this can be done safely from the office chair ---do try it on for size at home.  It can make the perfect little accessory for an otherwise pedestrian intellectual outfit. Conveniently,  "Queer" functions as noun, adjective, and verb.  It's a sexy little devil, morphing from  thing, to  description, to an act.   Safe in their "studies," patrician Academics smugly queer (transitive verb) Richard Wright's protagonist Bigger Thomas in the movie theater ("remember that queer space?"), call into question the queer (adj.) dashes  of poet Emily Dickinson, and suggest that literary characters like  Count Dracula, in his lust for a man's blood,  are queers(noun).  As they write away, scribble-scribble-scribble in their studies (that's "study" as a noun, and not a verb for those of you who can't afford to devote a whole room to books), queering everyone from Lena Horne to  John Wayne,  they're making "interventions" and "incursions." They're  "racing" queerness and "queering" race. Now that everything's so queer, can you go a step further and "queer" queer?

Queering  is like safe sex---full of  muscular, masculine fun, with protection----and  there's always  that clever little rhetorical side-step just at the moment of intellectual climax  to  avoid actual penetration of anything beyond the sentence level.

My  apologies to my heros and heroines like Barthes, Foucault, and  Sedgwick, grabbing us all by the hair and saying, look here, this means you! You kids  really knew what you were doing. And, sure,  I know, it's  easy to take pot shots at Academics, as a long list of writers have done, including  everyone from Kingsley Amis to David Lodge to Mary McCarthy to Percival Everett to James Hynes to Jane Smiley to Richard Russo. It's a little like shooting fish in a barrel.  Few writers seem to have escaped the impulse to parody  these odd institutions to which so many of us are attached,  even if gratefully, as in my case, because where else would writers find  jobs for life?

But  the Academy walls, even if not ivy-covered,  are fortress-thick. The  outside world is observed through a glass darkly. A colleague doing queer feminism (or is that feminist queerism?) tells me she has no interest volunteering to teach resume writing at a women's shelter because she "just writes about women" and doesn't want to have to deal with "real women."  Mentally, I concoct the opening sentence of another academic satire:  "One morning R woke up and realized she actually hated women. This was odd because one was sleeping in her bed, and her manuscript was full of vaginas."

So when the sordid details associated with the brutal slaying  of my creative writing colleague and friend Don B.   on December 29, 2009,  found their way to  the front page of our local newspaper almost a year and a half ago, I thought, while dealing with my own shock and horror, here we go----- a real-life  study in race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, dropped at our doorstep like a bomb.  And I expected us all to join together to react to the completely biased reports and  offer smart counter-narratives to the absolutely prelapsarian newspaper accounts. Leave our  manuals behind, and start taking the machine apart.

Many already know the sad facts, but for those of you who don't, here they are.   The  murderer, who had become a friend of Don's, was a 25 year old white ex-Marine  named Michael.  He   stabbed Don 22 times 36 hours after they'd allegedly had a sexual encounter. It was an ugly story, and the seeds of "rape" were  planted, despite there being no evidence.  In addition to many other questionable details published, I thought, well,  here's where those of us in the Academy can actually roll up our sleeves and muster all our forces and land with two collective feet on  the "material ground."

But this was not to be the case.   For starters, the initial and very long silence from the "institution" was deafening.  Pressure on top administrators to make a statement expressing the Academic community's horror and sorrow at losing this amazingly smart and talented assistant professor, hired in Fall of 2008, finally resulted in a lukewarm and carefully worded statement, evacuated of any real emotion or specificity (though I do not blame the signator who certainly had to speak through the well-vetted institutional voice). It was the kind of perfunctory note you write your grandmother with your fingers crossed behind your back.

 Simultaneously, the local  newspaper was in full force excoriating   Don in all his "otherness"-----openly gay man (they repeatedly relied on the quaintness of the word "homosexual"), black (oooh), 53, English professor, writer, and "outsider" (meaning "not from here"---from the East Coast).  By contrast, Michael was 25, white, "heterosexual," and a Bloomington native, with a high school education. I use these descriptors, not because I find them particularly pertinent or illuminating of either man, but because these are the bases for the portrait the media drew----over and over.   "Difference" becomes a flashpoint. Forget all those "diversity" signs dotting Bloomington front yards.  This wasn't the "difference just like us kind of difference," the kind we're always being urged to "tolerate" or sometimes even "celebrate." 

As gory details emerged, with the defendant claiming that he'd been raped, not once, but twice,  by Don, after a Christmas dinner at the defendant's house to which Don had been invited,  the sound of Don's colleagues exiting their carefully appointed  "queer spaces" was like a rush of wind.

Whoooosh.

There was a public memorial, with pressure building from massive numbers of Don's supporters to acknowledge his life and death, and the department performed well and dutifully, with significant speechifying and a range of music, including the requisite Negro spiritual. Many in attendance  included  local people of all stripes, doctors, bookstore and restaurant owners, etc., whom Don had befriended in the year and a half he was here. It meant a lot to a lot of people to engage in ritualized mourning, but for me, much of it rang false, as most public performances of grief do.  I'm not questioning anyone's good intentions or sincerity of sorrow here, because Don's murder was a punch in the gut for everyone. I'm just saying that I, for one,  didn't recognize the Don that many speakers described in such hagiographic terms, as if to suggest anything short of idolatry would be critiqued as racist or homophobic. Don was a real person, flesh and blood, smart as hell, generous and kind with his students, well-read and well-versed on any number of subjects, and funny, to boot. But he could also be a little pill, moody and peevish at times and very self-centered. He was worried about tenure. He was worried about his next book.  In other words, he was fully human.

When the public moment was over, Don's cremated body was taken home to Philadelphia by his stunned brother. Left behind was the darling rented house Don had begun to make his "home" and all of Don's effects to sort through---family memoribilia, Don's notebooks of writings and drawings,. The behind-the-scenes activities like packing Don's boxes, and finding his family a lawyer, and dealing with the unsympathetic and greedy landlord of the home he'd rented, weren't glamorous.  There were also choices to be made about his extensive and eclectic music collection, his  beloved  postcards,  his books.

People went about their daily business. You have to. Life goes on, as they say. There's teaching to be done, and papers and books to be written, and meetings to be attended.  But I began to sense  there was a pulling away of a different order.  When I looked around, people kept their heads down.  As details about the alleged assault continued to be recounted in the local paper with  almost prurient delight, the "ick factor" kicked in.  The curtain went down in the halls of academe through which floated the specters of anal sex, blow jobs, ejaculate, penetration!  Whether any of these acts  actually took place between Michael and Don can neither be proven nor disproven. It doesn't much matter:  the point is, the image of sexual congress between these two men apparently proved too much, even when one of the men lay butchered in a bloody heap on his kitchen floor.

Why was it mainly up to a large faction of Bloomington's "LGBT" community who, whether they knew Don or not,  to come  together to figure out how to counter the rapidly growing  narrative, based solely  on the defendant's statements and speculation by a biased reporter, that Don was a predator, a strange, conflicted, lonely man with few connections, itinerant (he'd taught other places), with "no family ties" (Don has a large family back East and countless friends scattered all over the country, and he has no history of sexual impropriety and was, by his own definition, "very careful" since he was not naive about what it means to be a gay man). Supporters started a website in order to track the details of what would shape up to be pieces consolidated in the arguments of both prosecution and defense in the murder trial of last week. Almost a year and a half after Don's murder,   the jury was selected on  April 11, and the trial was over within 3 days, with the jury deliberating for 12 hours Wednesday night, before returning a verdict of guilty of murder just before midnight.

The question put before the jurors (the triers of fact, who examine the facts and then apply the law, which is what they did): did Michael G. intentionally kill Don B.? Very sadly, the answer is that yes, he did. (See Indiana murder statute. The elements are quite clear and simple.)

There are no happy endings here, and the law is rarely  about justice.  The law can't bring back Don. And it  gives me no pleasure to see Michael headed off to prison. Ironically, Don, who in his writings critiqued the narrow contours of what defines  "masculinity" and who subscribed to a philosophy of nonviolence, and would additionally never want to see someone go to prison, had been murdered violently by someone confused over what it means to be "masculine" and who will now spend most of the rest of his life in prison. Both men are caught in a web of narratives not of their own making, but narratives with deep roots in the collective psyche of this town and perhaps even our nation:

 Black, gay, older male predator. White, straight, vulnerable, younger ex-Marine. 

It's the stuff of tabloids.

Don was a small man, handsome and well-dressed, but not in particularly good shape (I've seen him huff and puff in yoga class).  He told me on several occasions he felt "safe" in Bloomington, and that he looked forward to buying a house and making this his home.

The defendant stands  over 6 feet tall, muscular, and strong, and was trained as a killer in the Marines.  In fact, he knew exactly  where to stab and how to  twist his "Peacekeeper" knife when he killed Don. Pulmonary artery, liver, etc. Twenty-two times.  Count it . . . 1, 2, 3 . . .

This is a story not just of two men who met in a local store, shared common interests like anti-war views, and developed an attraction. This is also a story of smart, formally educated (privileged)  academics who attend conferences and write books incorporating queer theory who, I suspect, found it utterly distasteful  when the ideas in their heads and words on a page suddenly took on a liquidy life of their own and rendered themselves in a grisly theater of violent bodily fluids----blood, sperm, saliva, tears---a murdered colleague, someone they might have known only in passing, one of only  three black faculty in the department, a friendly man who seemed likable enough, but never  really "one of us." For starters, he  wasn't safely "partnered" as many of the  gay faculty are, in reassuring  relationships that look as comfortably heteronormative as one can imagine. 

Don was also black, which made him a  black gay man in an institution  where many black gay faculty remain self-closeted (that's a whole other ball of wax).   Or should I say Don was "unpartnered"  as we Academics prefer  in our egalitarian way, in order not to mark the privilege of heterosexuality, even as we heave a sigh of relief that we either are or look as if we are. Which means Don, not unlike the single heterosexual woman (that age-old threat to the nuclear family), stood outside the normative paradigm (I really do get to use words like this) of sanctioned coupling, as well as the norm of "whiteness," occupying a destabilizing and shifting screen of "difference" upon which both desire and fear can be projected.  Don was also  a creative writer, not a scholar (though he was a terrific critic and could write  circles around the best). This is significant, too, because writers are, in their own way, marginalized in the Academy because we just write literature, we don't write about it. (BTW, both Don and I love/d criticism and theory and we had long discussions about the importance of theory to a writer.)

The squeamish narrative of the homosexual predator was already in play (despite what statistics tell us),  perpetually ready to set up a tent in the empty camp of silence that surrounded Don's brutal murder.  And it did. And though people wanted to believe that Don was not capable of committing an act of violence like rape, you could see in their faces the shadows of doubt and discomfort where they stumbled over the accusation.  Surely, they wondered.  Was it possible there was some truth?  Even if it wasn't rape, man-on-man intercourse and the idea of a threesome was off-putting. People's  limits were being tested.  What story trumps here?  Into whose story do anxious observers feel most comfortable being read?

The media repeated over and over how  Michael was half Don's age, even though he was 25, a fully-fledged adult who'd trained in the Marines, spent time in Iraq,  and was the  father of a young son. Cross-generational relationships are often tinged with suspicion unless you're a straight man with a younger woman.  But a middle-aged black gay male professor and a young white, straight  ex-Marine?  What could they have in common? How on earth did they meet? These questions  were pounded into our heads as if to demonstrate the impossibility of it all.  Repetition is an effective weapon.  Ambiguity starts to gets clearer.  Half-truths become whole.

Here's Michael----the perfect looking war hero sent up from central casting--handsome, buff, tall, baby-faced. Heer's Don--small, nerdy academic outsider.  But Michael wasn't exactly a "war hero." In fact he informed the courtoom  that he'd  been demoted for a "drinking incident" while in the Marines.  Michael, too, is human.  And it is the humanity of Michael and Don that brought them together---two people who saw something in each other worth pursuing.

I have been asked over and over, "Do you think Don would be capable of sexual assault?" Of course I don't.  But more to the point, why even ask?  It's a moot point. Don was not on trial. I repeat, Don was not on trial, and yet it seemed as if he were.  All along the voice in my head has said over and over, "None of this adds up."  It simply doesn't. People want simple stories, easy villains and easy victims. Neither Don nor Michael has provided that.

While the memorial service was mobbed, only a small handful of   faculty from Don's department attended the trial, where body fluids were definitely a huge part of the narrative  (where are Kristeva and Kipnis when you need them?).  The newspaper reports continued like Grand Guignol. Bread and circuses.  Pulp for the masses. Guys writing online comments like "If someone stuck his you-know-what up my a$$, I'd kill him too." This is what things boiled down to.  Gay panic (not a legal defense, but certainly a  dangerous and pervasive narrative of its own)  and PTSD (though never mentioned by name because there was no medical diagnosis to support any such claim) were both  at work in the defense's desperate strategy to redeem their client and re-etablish both his heroism and his heterosexuality. And readers refocusing their attention  on this, instead, of  the brutal and lethal stabs from a 10-inch, double-sided  blade  inflicted on Don's small body as it pitched and fell, began to speculate endlessly on  the alleged sexual assault as claimed by the murderer. 

Ignore the fact that Michael stated he had no recollection of any rape, but that his girflriend had witnessed it and informed him of it, that Michael never reported that alleged  rape to the police,  that upon his arrest he refused a medical exam to verify his claim. The day following the alleged rape in he engaged in 5 different episodes of sexual intercourse with his girlfriend. In addition,  the bedsheets in question had  been washed.

The majority of the Academics I know, both inside and outside the department, did not even speak of these events or refer to the legal proceedings. It's as if everyone just wanted it all to go away.  I want to give credit here---maybe they were honestly grief-stricken. Several people, when asked if they would be attending the trial, stated it was "just too difficult." I wanted to say, "yes, it also must have been very difficult when Don's body felt the agony of 22 stabs from a Peacekeeper knife."   Difficult because it was an untidy, yucky  story that opened up the closet door and made us all take a look inside where dirty clothes lay spread out on the floor,  the hangers bent and twisted, and the shirts not properly pressed? Difficult because it wasn't clear in people's  minds who was the actual victim, and they felt guilty and embarrassed about what they really felt? Difficult because people who should have known better found themselves not just sympathizing with the troubled Michael, but perhaps identifying with him and the horror of male penetration?   (Statistically, the majority of men who sexually attack other men identify as "heterosexual.") Were there those who identified with Michael because he was white?

Bloomington is, coincidentally, the home of Alfred Kinsey who, in 1947, more than 60 years ago, founded the famous Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.  It is here in Bloomington he conducted some of his most well-known research and studies.  The  brick house of the Father of Sexology is less than half a mile from mine, and there isn't a day I pass it that I don't think of the attic where he filmed his controversial sexual acts.  Kinsey didn't just observe and take notes, he participated in all manner of sexual activities, including those which would easily be described as "homosexual."

Decades ago, Kinsey charted the vast spectrum of human sexuality, reporting that sexual desires and behaviors change over time.  While some have referred to him as "bisexual," it's unclear where Kinsey would have placed himself on the famous Kinsey scale (perhaps somewhere between a 2 and a 4?).  And it shouldn't matter. Put another way, Kinsey gave and received blow jobs, and engaged in anal sex, often viewing sex as play, visiting tea houses and bath houses from San Francisco to New York. His goal: to demonstrate that these activities were part of normal sexual experience and practice.

Why, Kinsey's work asked Americans   to consider,  do we have to stake out a fixed identity with the certainty of Aldrin and Armstrong   planting an American flag on the moon?  Kinsey asked, what are the possible gaps between sexual practice and one's identity? Shocking! Compelling! Unsettling! Kinsey, as we know, was a married man, who loved his wife. He also enjoyed sex with men.  And, though he had deep emotional relationships with some of his  male partners, he also demonstrated that sexual practice does not have to be confirmed within the neat discourse of love and marriage.

There's no doubt that rape  is a very different matter from consensual sex, a horrible, violent  crime, an utter violation of another human being, often committed out of anger or dominance and rarely  out of sexual desire.  An accusation of rape, even if proven false, still carries with it a stigma that the accused probably can never shake.  And, honestly, even though it really isn't, it's still  about "sex."  In addition,  men who are raped by men are, in that still-taboo moment, "feminized," and therefore even further stigmatized. While a woman who is raped does not lose her "womanhood," men who are raped claim to lose their "manhood." In many cultures that turn a blind eye to sex between two men, the man who does the penetrating  still retains his privilege as heterosexual. 

Imposed over the trial for murder was this complicated, secondary narrative, one which began to dominate----Don as male homosexual predator, innocent Michael as his unsuspecting victim.  

In the murder trial of Michael G., not a shred of  evidence was ever produced that there was any sexual encounter between Michael and Don, and certainly none that Don raped anyone.  If in fact, Don had  committed such a reprehensible and illegal act, Michael should have immediately called 911 to report  the crime.In addition, if an unwanted sexual advance occurred, he was bigger and stronger than Don  and could easily have pushed him away and sent him packing.  Instead, the next morning, Michael made breakfast for Don and his girlfriend drove Don home. 

And then Michael waited 36 hours to drive to Don's house, taking along his knives and a change of clothes, parked his truck two blocks away (even though there was room to park in Don's drive),  and brutally stabbed Don 22 times. Afterwards,  he ran errands and returned videos.  We have only Michael's word that rape was the motive for his confrontation of Don about the incident, further troubled by his claim that he doesn't  actually remember any of it. Likewise, he has no memory of  murdering Don. And though I suspect Michael knows much more than he was permitted to say on the stand, he seemed  genuninely confused and uncertain, as well as remorseful. Stricken.  A man so terrified that his masculinity was in question, he decided to take the law into his own hands, hoping perhaps no one would ever know.

As the trial unfolded here in Kinsey's home town in 2011 (that is, the the 21st century), and witnesses were quaintly asked on the stand if we knew that Don was gay (the word "homosexual" also was used), and the sexual lives of the accused and his girlfriend were exposed and details of "group sex" were narrated as "experimental,"  and words like "bi-sexual" tossed around,  I had to wonder.   Have we really changed so little, that many of us still believe sex between men to be abnormal, that group sex still is considered immoral, that sex without the scaffolding of love and marriage, or at least a committed partnership is still condemned?  That Academics can play queer on the page and in our heads, but keep our bodies out of it?  Silence can mean so many things. Speak, I begged them all. Please speak.

 Kinsey once famously observed, "Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheeps and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white."  In 2011, I expect these words to feel trite, like the words on a Hallmark card. Indisputable, and already assumed. But not so.

When I was asked on the stand if Don hadn't hit on me because I wasn't his "sexual preference," I replied, "I can't assume that."  When the defense attorney, taken aback,  asked me why, I tried to say something about the fluidity of human sexuality and the impossibility of pigeon-holing desire and, by implication, including  the murderer and his girlfriend. But that's armchair crap. 

What I really wanted to do is quote Kinsey: "The only unnatural sex act is that which you can't perform." I wanted to say, "Is it possible Michael's on trial to reaffirm his heterosexuality and his masculinity? Is it possible the murder victim Don is on trial for disrupting that preferred narrative? Is it possible that in 2011  we still divide the world into two choices, one that's normal and one that's not?"

Under  the law and according to the facts applied by a thoughtful jury in what must have been a difficult and painful decision, the verdict of murder was correct. But the real fact is,  "sexual orientation and masculinity were  also on trial.  "Sex," too. Not good old missionary, straight,  maybe even procreative sex, but the kind of sex that lies outside those comfortable, narrow confines.   The sexual orientations and practices of  Michael, his girlfriend, and Don were on display for evaluation and judgment,  and functioned as  the shadow narratives, the ones shimmering just on the edges of the moving spotlight, where  the distracting signifiers glowed and flashed.   Ultimately, this became, in many ways,   the  narrative of real, material "queerness" unfolding  in all its glutinous opacity,  the one that kept many shifting uncomfortably in their armchairs.  

But queerness without flesh and body fluids---now that'll work!

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