LGBT WRITING AND THE 21ST CENTURY
by Chase Dimock and Amy King
On Sunday, June 12th, 2016, the most fatal mass shooting in American history took the lives of 49 LGBT people and allies. Up to this point, there had been a culturally pervasive sense that the upward trajectory in the cause of LGBT rights meant that LGBT people were becoming less susceptible to bigotry and violence as signaled by the passing of legislation on marriage equality. This sense of tolerance led many to believe that LGBT culture was becoming obsolete. The thought was that becoming accepted into the mainstream meant that an alternative culture of LGBT outcasts was no longer necessary. This viewpoint sees LGBT culture as an ersatz imitation of a community pieced together out of the remnants of society. Now welcomed into society, it was time for LGBT people to cast aside the juvenalia of the queer world: the sexual exploration, the gender ambiguity, and the political dissidence, and embrace the politics of respectability. We’re here, We’re queer had its moment when we had to burst from the closet and fight for our lives during the AIDS epidemic and the rise of the Moral Majority, but just like the feminists and people of color have been told earlier, the passing of a few laws and the corporate adoption of some diversity initiatives meant that the goal of acceptance has been accomplished and it was time to pack up and step down.
What the viewpoint above does not understand is that while fighting for civil rights has always been a priority of LGBT culture, it has never been its end point. LGBT cultures have always been about living and thinking queerly. A queer culture is a non-normative culture; it resists and challenges assumptions and fixedness. Queer culture is in a constant state of flux; it evolves without a predetermined destination. Historically, queer writers have used their marginalized positions in society as an opportunity to critique normative culture from the outside and to investigate and cherish the repressed and devalued parts of human existence. As long as there is a norm, there will be a queer, and thus there will always be a space in the margins in which a universe of experience will be discovered.
In the process of traversing queerness, many of queer culture’s innovations have found their way into the mainstream of politics, social and natural sciences, and the arts. This is because LGBT concerns are human concerns. LGBT writing is not a genre; it is a multiplicity of perspectives. LGBT writers do not only write for an LGBT audience, but we instead write on human experience from an LGBT vantage point. The understanding of gender and sexuality gained from LGBT perspectives transcends an LGBT audience because, gay or straight, all people must navigate the queerness of their desires. The queerness of sexuality and gender is universal. Due to the history of persecution of their gender and sexual nonconformity, LGBT writers have learned from experience how sexuality and gender intersect with other social issues like race, class, nationality and mental health. In literature, Gertrude Stein’s narration of lesbian experience brought us a new way of depicting human thought via stream of consciousness. James Baldwin’s exile from racial and sexual persecution brought us vital critiques of American bigotry.
While Stein and Baldwin would be amazed at the visibility of LGBT people in mainstream society in the 21st century, they would not rest their pens. They would be suspicious of vague claims about equality and critical of the price of acceptance into the mainstream. They would wonder about the new populations of outsiders in the 21st century and what their experiences tell us about society as a whole. Transgender is a term that neither would have been familiar with in their time, yet it now describes an entire community of writers and thinkers who share space in the LGBT canon. This is where 21st century LGBT writers--the inheritors of the legacies of Stein, Baldwin, Lorde, Isherwood, Colette, and Mishima among thousands of others come in. Although our identity categories of L,G,B, and T are becoming increasingly integrated into the mainstream, queer writers will always have a fresh source of innovation in queerness.
Queer producers are labeled for control: “bent,” “odd,” “strange,” so that normalcy is comforted. Normalcy posts a bounty for the hunter to destroy the anxiety we inspire. But a third, lesser said response turns towards new pursuit: our work issues a hope that tickles and tempts beyond the barricades of the tyranny of the norm, instills a misunderstood aching for that which is feared: the drive to speak aloud what is unthought, unimagined, and hence, dangerous. From that fear, the “normal” seek to name and discuss the only mainstream palpable way through which they think they can control us bent producers: via the merits of gay marriage. For we are within the culture, perceived as pervasive because we are, after all, no longer hushed and invisible; hence the search and focus on scenarios in which we are perceived as a concrete threat to the established order, then rejected as the Other perverse—all efforts to stop the slipping of that order and ignore its own transience.
All great and important developments begin in the margins as strange, indescribable phenomena. Freud said “poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious.” Writers describe the slippery and illusive, yet palpably present parts of experience that evade full understanding and transparency. Queer writers invent language and forms to describe and express emerging social phenomena. Terms like “lesbian,” a word adapted from the poet Sappho of Lesbos, have not always existed to describe the same-sex attraction. They grew out of the innovation of writers seeking to describe and speak their desire. As new letters join the LGBT umbrella, these identities and desires are given dimensionality by the language of poetry and prose.
Being LGBT is to write and to be written about; it is to speak and to be spoken about. As new cultures and identities emerge, and their attendant social, political, and individual struggles come to head against a repressive and normative society, LGBT writing continues to be vital to putting language to the new cultural geographies to be explored. LGBT writing is necessary to position the queer self within a violently normative society. LGBT writing continues to find ways to articulate experiences strange to the mainstream culture, born from and hewn by a history of rejection and ejection by a society that doesn’t quite know what to do with that which queers it. LGBT words make visible what some would prefer not to know, mourn or celebrate with us, hence this issue.
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