Sense and Queer Sensibility

“I have a lot of frustration with the insistence on content when people are talking about homosexuality. People define gay cinema solely by content; if there are gay characters in it; it’s a gay film. It fits into the gay sensibility, we got it, it’s gay. It’s such a failure of the imagination, let alone the ability to look beyond content. I think that’s really simplistic. Heterosexuality to me is a structure as much as it is a content. It is an imposted structure that goes along with the patriarchal, dominant structure that constrains and defines society. If homosexuality is the opposite of the counter-sexual activity to that, then when kind of structure would it be?”
               —Todd Haynes interview

It occurs to me that limiting the world of art to a series of “sensibilities” is both too easy and too foolish. I think in the world there is the common belief that there does exist a singular “queer sensibility” in terms of art—and it would probably be as stereotypical as your average episode of Will and Grace: the queer sense would be concerned with aesthetic beauty (either by elevating it or destroying it a lá trash culture); it would put an emphasis on the experience of the physical body, particularly the sexual body; and it would encompass an outsider philosophy or vantage point that is evokative of experienced oppression and prejudice.

We could probably, with comfort, put W. H. Auden, Carl Phillips, Mark Doty on the train to the first camp; D. A. Powell, Tim Dlugos, and Peter Pereira into the second camp; and Cavafy, Stein, and folks like Brian Teare into the third camp.

But putting people into camps, history shows, is generally not the kindest way of understanding them.

The camps won’t account for Doty’s My Alexandria, which is concerned with the body as much as work by the others. Or, the palpable shift in Dlugos’s work from poetry before the rise of AIDS, which are “light” and Frank O’Hara-like in their dailyness and irreverence, to the work he wrote after, which is much darker and physical.

Furthermore, I haven’t heard much about a heterosexual sensibility over the last several decades. What are straight people concerned with? Is there a prevalence of poetry on making babies, on whether or not the toilet seat should be left up or down, on the sanctity of marriage? Well, yes. These poems exist! So tell me, my heterosexual friends: would you support this definition of a “straight sensibility”? And if you do, can you promise to support it forever?

I’m sure we can agree that there are any number of heterosexual sensibilities in the world, just as there are any number of heterosexual identities and experiences taking place at any given moment. Although television shows me that there is an overall commodified structure to the heterosexual identity (career/marriage/kids/retirement/death), no one is really “enforcing” this kind of structure on straight people across the board.

The same is true for queers. While even in our community there is some commodifying of experience, it generally relates to coming out and becoming a sexual being—the two most common roadblocks to our identities. But one thing that’s important for art, I think, as we move into the new century is that we need to stop all the naming. We need to support the multiplicity of identities and concerns expressed in the culture rather than limiting them. Is anyone else at all concerned that Lance Bass’s The Odd Couple remake foolishly superimposes queer identity into an already-heterosexually sanctioned system? Or is it just going to be Will and Grace with Joey Fatone in Debra Messing drag?

When Haynes talks about structure, he’s talking about a lot of different aspects. Naturally, he’s concerned about cultural power—straight people have it, queer folks don’t—and so, in some ways, everything heterosexual people do within the straight norm reinforces the norm, while everything queer folks do outside of what is sanctioned by the straight powers-that-be is an oppositional act. These oppositional acts are constantly changing as more and more people become educated and comfortable with the existences of queer experience.

Even among queer writers and artists, there is concern with whether or not one should or should not be considered (or consider themselves) a “queer writer.” This is a serious and important debate. My personal feeling, echoing Haynes’s quote above, is that anyone with a queer identity is a queer writer. We are entrenched in our identities because the culture forces us to be. (If you are legally married, for example, you probably don’t hesitate to begin a sentence with “My husband,” while a queer person, in mentioning that relationship, has no corresponding term and each explanation or revelation of that relationship is a kind of risk). But one of the reasons queer people can’t come to consensus of whether or not there are “queer writers” is because the term itself cannot be succinctly defined—because people get hung up on content. “I don’t write about queer issues,” might be one argument, while another might say that his or her work doesn’t look or feel different from heterosexual counterparts’ work.

Those are fine statements to make—if we continue to support the notion that queer is in content the same way culture enforces that queer is behavior, not identity.

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