The Gay Imposition
Author: Marcie Bianco
April 30, 2013
Two years ago, at the Lambda Literary awards, Edward Albee rankled more than a few attendees when in his acceptance speech for the Pioneer Award he said, “[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…. Any definition which limits us is deplorable.”
My initial reaction was defensive, “What a hypocritical asshole!,” but rather than allow my ego-sensitive gut reaction—that Albee’s comments were a slight against me (me! me! me!)—to dominate my thinking, I began to think about the meaning of, and the motive driving, his words. Because Albee’s point is that humans are more than just identities, and writers are more than just their sexual identity—and they can write about more than just sexuality.
And, as writers, we know this. We loathe being pigeonholed, as Albee told NPR back in June of 2011, “so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers and I find that is such a limitation and such a prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can.” The “gay” modifier here is one of constraint, of limitation, of the false belief that gay writers write, and can only write, gay stuff.
From the other side of textual production, however, as readers we sometimes allow or even enable the sexual identity of the author to dominate our interpretation of the text. The transference from author to text is signified by the inability to read beyond the text’s explicit and implicit homoerotics. Indeed, many of us pick up a text because of the author’s sexuality. And, whether or not this was the primary motivation of selecting a text, it is not improbable that readers transfer what they know about the author’s sexuality—usually their homosexuality (as “heterosexuality” is the invisible neutral)—onto the text. The text’s saturation with sexuality creates a reading that functions, to riff off Lauren Berlant’s brilliant concept, nothing less than as a case of cruel optimism, whereby the knowledge of the author’s sexuality, which may have catalyzed the reader’s initial interest in the text, comes to dominate interpretation of that text, locking the reader into a particular framework of reading.
And, I think, this is where Edward Albee’s concern lies in regard to the readerly or critical reception of the text.
Let me give you an example.
I am a Marlovian Scholar. I wrote my entire PhD dissertation on Christopher Marlowe’s plays. My desire to write a monograph was a necessity of the project (of writing an ethics based on the plays), but it was also in part derived from a desire to return to the criticism of yesteryear. In Marlovian parlance, I’m talking about analyses of Marlowe’s works that have nothing to do with sodomy or queerness—at least not in terms of sexuality—but with morality and religion.
This may strike even the most novice of Marlowe readers as odd. Our contemporary image of Marlowe is of the pre-Wildean dandy in breeches, of Rupert Everett sashaying into a London pub in a fabulous purple cape in Shakespeare in Love. (I swear Michael Cunningham was wearing the same cape at the premiere of Evening in San Marin County, California, back in 2008.) He is the lover “of tobacco and boys” (which some suggest was actually “tobacco and booze”). The atheist. The sodomite. Trade publications relish his scandalous, sodomitical, double-spy living life. Biographies notwithstanding, from historical fictions like Suzanne Harkness’s All Souls trilogy to YA series like James Owens’s Here There Be Dragons, Marlowe is always presented as a devious, evil caricature of his historically-recorded (or historically-conjectured) self. His homosexually essentially seeps out of his skin. For instance, in the opening pages of Harkness’s Shadow of Night Marlowe (aka “Kit Marlowe”) looks at the female protagonist with disdain: “His attention crawled from my toes to the top of my head. The young man’s scorn was evident, his jealousy better hidden. Marlowe was indeed in love with my husband.”
This “pinkcasting” is not confined to trade publications. No, scholarly critics—aka “Marlovians”—for the most part seem incapable of refraining from a similar kind of sexual transference. Even my early work is guilty of this indulgence. Marlowe was an unabashed sodomite! Everything he did was GAY GAY GAY! It’s almost an inescapable fate—it is possible to critically read and write about a text with a famous LGBT writer without mentioning that writer’s sexuality? Can we write about the works of Christopher Marlowe, Gertrude Stein, and Edward Albee without both alluding to said writer’s homosexuality and transferring that sexuality as the poetics or overarching paradigm of interpretation of that text?
What is lost if we refrain from making this connection?
What is gained?
Theridamas my friend, take here my hand,
Which is as much as if I swore by heaven,
And call’d the Gods to witness of my vow,
Thus shall my heart be still combinde with thine,
Untill our bodies turne to Elements:
And both our soules aspire to celestiall thrones. (I, 1.2.232-237)
These are Tamburlaine’s words to Theridamas, an opposing lord sent to disarm Tamburlaine but who, wooed by the Scythian shepherd’s words, is persuaded to join Tamburlaine’s ranks as a commanding officer. In the third chapter of my dissertation, an analysis of the ethics of instrumentality in Marlowe’s two-part heroic tragedy Tamburlaine the Great, I read this scene as moment in martial ethics, manifest onstage through the physical handshake between the two characters. My point was that the alliance of two men confers Theridamas’s military prowess onto Tamburlaine, ultimately making the latter stronger, more noble.
My advisor, on the other hand, persisted in asking me to read this moment “through a homoerotic lens,” rhetorically throwing out the question “this handshake is pretty homoerotic, no?” His critique of my reading was that it wasn’t “deep enough” because I did not develop the homoerotic thread of the martial ethics that he believed was at work in this moment. And I kept repeating, “No. Not every handshake is gay. Not every handshake is laden with homoeroticism.” I didn’t see the homoeroticism in this particular handshake, and felt like my advisor’s reading was a forced one that employed a kind of authorship function over the text: that Marlowe’s renowned “homosexuality” (or sodomitical inclinations) effectively made it a necessity to read all his texts through a homoerotic lens. To me, this assumption smacks of the egregious thinking that marks only LGBT bodies as “sexual” (and “predatory” and “diseased”) bodies, as female bodies as “gendered” bodies—that, again, minoritarian bodies are defined and delimited by their minoritarian identities, and, furthermore, the territory of their discourses are saturated by those identities
Thankfully, after a few rounds in the draft process my advisor, a middle-age, white, heterosexual man, withdrew his reading. Perhaps he thought I was not analyzing the text thoroughly enough because I refused his “gay imposition.” Perhaps he was simply exhausted talking to a wall (which I’m frequently compared to; Italians call it having a testa dura). But I felt like I had won a small victory in dictating the content of my dissertation—because why must everything I write have to be gay?