Look around you and marvel

In this new wondrous age with Supreme Court decisions affirming gay and lesbian marriages, and gender being redefined as nowhere near as rigid as it has previously been defined, I sometimes wonder if anyone knows what our lives were like at the time when I was a young woman, trying to figure out how to live my life honestly in the face of so much hatred and danger. Who are we if we cannot speak truthfully about our lives? How did we come to this new age in which we can take our lovers home or to church or walk hand in hand down the street without lies or pretense or a carefully crafted fictional stance to protect us?

Speaking truth to power was a tenet of the early women’s movement. We would change the world by the simple act of declaring our truth and refusing to back down or lie no matter how virulent the response.

How virulent was the response? Take a look at the coming-out stories shared in Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South (NewSouth Books). You will see the internal evolution of people who wanted simply to be themselves. It was not easy or simple or even a matter of confronting prejudice. Most of these people’s deepest struggles were with themselves, their families and their faith, their most personal convictions.

Confronting the enforced silence of manners and social expectations, we claimed our lives for ourselves. Was it heroic? Was it audacious, marvelous, scary and day by day painful? Of course. Did we change the world? Look around you and marvel.

Dorothy Allison, Gay and Grateful: On the Crooked Path to the Crooked Letter 

Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”, (p. 9)

Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin comprises six interlinked stories based around the author’s experiences of living in Berlin during the early 1930s.  The book would be worth reading simply as a piece of social history documenting the lives of ordinary people during the last days of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi Party.  But Isherwood is also a superb writer, the kind of writer who makes very finely crafted writing appear effortless.  His prose is such a pleasure to read.

The first story ‘A Berlin Diary’ introduces us to the assorted outsiders and survivors who inhabit the seedy boarding house where the narrator, Christopher, resides at the beginning of his time in Berlin, and which is presided over by his eccentric landlady, Frl. Schroader.  The second story, ‘Sally Bowles’, is probably the most famous, providing most of the source material for the musical Cabaret.  It charts the rise and fall of Christopher’s friendship with Sally, an upper-class English girl whose affected manners mask her desperation. In a different book a character like Sally might appear as just another ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ but when she is represented by a narrator who has no sexual interest in her, the horror and pathos of her situation become apparent. Sally is depicted as a woman who believes that acting in a certain way will get her what she wants, but all it ultimately gets her is being used and discarded by men.  The story ‘On Ruegan Island’ sees Christopher take a trip to the island of the title, where he meets up with a depressed, gay Englishman called Peter Wilkinson and his companion, a teenage hustler called Otto. Officially, Christopher is Peter’s friend, but it’s the lively, amoral Ottto who really holds his and our attention in the story.  When he returns to Berlin in the following story, ‘The Nowaks’, Christopher briefly stays with Otto’s struggling, working-class family.  Otto’s brother is joining the S.A. and his mother has TB.  One of the strangest and most affecting parts of the book is the visit that Christopher and Otto take to see Frau Nowak in the Sanitarium.  Then the chilling penultimate story, ‘The Landauers’, takes us into a very different part of Weimar Society, the wealthy, Jewish family with whom Christopher is acquainted, particularly their passionate daughter, Natalia, and her melancholic cousin, Bernard.  The Landauers are educated, liberal, progressive and clearly doomed under the new order in Germany.

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Poem: A. E. Housman, ‘XXXII’

From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

Now — for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart —
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

From A Shropshire Lad (1896)

I came across this poem in Ursula K Le Guin’s collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, which takes its title from Housman’s verse.  It also resonates with how I’ve been feeling recently.

In Praise of Fright Night (well, sort of)

The forthcoming remake of Fright Night (1985) has spurred me on to write a post about the original film, which was a favourite of mine when I was a teenager.  I’m aware that this post may largely consist of me rationalising my attachment to a homophobic and sexist film, but what can I say? I loved Fright Night when I was a kid and, when I sat down and watched it again recently, I found that I still loved it almost as much.

For me, as a teenager, Fright Night appeared extremely queer.  It presented a hero who was more interested in spying on the handsome man next door than in consummating his relationship with his girlfriend.  Meanwhile, the handsome man next door lived with another man who appeared to be devoted to him.   The hero’s best friend, ‘Evil Ed’, could be read as the kind of gay kid who protects himself from attack by becoming the class clown (fun fact: Stephen Geoffreys, the actor who played Ed, stars in gay porn films), as could the washed-up, horror film actor, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), who is represented, at least initially, as the nervous, fussy, effeminate gay male stereotype.

Fright Night reinforces homophobic discourses most strongly in the representation of the vampire, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), as the predatory, older gay or (perhaps more accurately) bisexual man and, in 1985 when so many gay men were dying of AIDS, the homophobic metaphor of infection that he carries as a vampire can’t be ignored.  The film also has little to offer feminism.  Charley’s mother is a silly woman (bad single Mum!) who endangers her son, and Charley’s girlfriend, Amy, who is generally submissive to men, ends up as the object of exchange in a classic homosocial triangle through which Charley and Jerry channel their relationship with each other (another fun fact: Amanda Bearse, the actress who played Amy, is a lesbian).  Also, as soon as she’s vamped Amy manifests the monstrous female sexuality that vampire fiction by male authors has traditionally assumed to lurk in all women, and also treats us to some rather exciting vagina dentata imagery.

So far, so homophobic and sexist, but Fright Night is just so clever, so witty, and winks at its audience so outrageously, that I can’t completely condemn it.  It does something interesting is in its presentation of two gay role models for the boys – “evil” Jerry Dandridge versus “good” Peter Vincent.  It’s very unusual to see the effeminate gay man (as Vincent seems to be portrayed) being represented as heroic at all on film, and rather than simply saying that gayness is bad, the film suggests that there are good and bad ways to be gay.  Poor Ed makes the fatal mistake of identifying with Jerry (but you can understand why he does), while Charley is wise enough to hook up with Peter Vincent instead.  Of course this opposition between “good” and “bad” gayness is in itself homophobic, but it’s a little more interesting than a lot of other horror films.  I also feel that Fright Night is, on another level, sort of about homosexuality and homophobia in horror film, insofar as it acknowledges and plays with the gay subtext that is such a longstanding feature of the genre. In particular, it seems to be saying something about the role that the gothic and horror genres have played in telling coded stories about queerness that have been especially attractive to young people trying to sort out their feelings about sexuality.

At the end of the film, Charley still hasn’t managed to consummate his relationship with Amy and still gets distracted by looking out of the window.  You never know, he might manage it after the credits roll, but you can decide that his options are still open.

Poem: Walt Whitman, ‘Excelsior’

Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther,
And who has been just? for I would be the most just person of the earth,
And who most cautious? for I would be more cautious,
And who has been happiest? O I think it is I – I think no one was ever happier than I,
And who has lavish’d all? for I lavish constantly the best I have,
And who proudest? for I think I have reason to be the proudest son alive-for I am the son of the brawny and tall-topt city,
And who has been bold and true? for I would be the boldest and truest being of the universe,
And who benevolent? for I would show more benevolence than all the rest,
And who has receiv’d the love of the most friends? for I know what it is to receive the passionate love of many friends,
And who possesses a perfect and enamour’d body? for I do not believe any one possesses a more perfect or enamour’d body than mine,
And who thinks the amplest thoughts? for I would surround those thoughts,
And who has made hymns fit for the earth? for I am mad with devouring ecstasy to make joyous hymns for the whole earth.

I’ve had a rough day today and some Walt Whitman was just what I needed to read

(hat tip: great poets lj comm)


This week’s culture round-up

From S.E Smith writing in Bitch Magazine, an interesting post, We’re All Mad Here: Race, Gender and Mental Illness in Pop Culture 

From The Guardian, The Secret Garden’s Hidden DepthsThe Secret Garden was one of my favourite books when I was a kid.

10 Things you Probably didn’t know about Star Trek .  I didn’t know any of these things.

In response to a very disappointing article about gay couples in literature from The Huffington Post, Bonjour Cass presents seven great queer couples in literature 

From Bad Reputation, an unsing heroes post about astronaut Mae Jemison

And, just because it’s awesome, the Top 10 holes in our Earth