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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 52.4: Kyle Stevens
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Thoughts on Writing "Dying to Love” Then, Now

Kyle Stevens

Looking at "Dying to Love” now, only three weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down section three of the Defense of Marriage Act, I am gobsmacked by the change in the historical context between the article’s writing and its publication. Although most of the writing (i.e., revising) occurred in bits throughout 2010 and 2011, "Dying to Love” began way back in 2009. Then, both Republican and Democratic platforms in the previous year’s elections opposed marriage equality. Now, not only has President Barack Obama endorsed marriage equality, but the Director’s Guild of America elected its first gay—and first African-American—president in Paris Barclay (who, in programs like Glee and In Treatment, directed some of the boldest portraits of queer experience ever seen on U.S. screens). This is not to say that I believe that the changing political climate has rendered my claims suddenly obsolete, quite the contrary, as attention to queer issues and thorny rhetoric about marriage continues to intensify. With regard to marriage, for instance, my argument is both for and against it. That is, I argue for social equality and for thinking seriously about the importance of care, but against the increasingly widespread metonymic chain that conflates marriage with love, sex, happiness, intimacy, and romance. In this space, I want to briefly, casually reflect on the context in which I began writing "Dying to Love.” Doing so will shed light on my aspirations for it, and why I chose to think on questions of gay identity, love, subjectivity, consciousness, selfhood, and couplehood in A Single Man (and on the concomitant versions of these questions regarding spectators).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edie Windsor, whose suit against the U.S. government resulted in the striking down of section three of the Defense of Marriage Act.


By pointing out the shift in attitudes toward LGBT issues, I do not mean to imply that things are peachy keen for queer folks today. The recent DOMA decision is less one in favor of LGBT rights than one not against them (marriage remains unequal in thirty-seven states). Such is the measure of the gay and lesbian experience in the U.S. that we are grateful to remain legally discriminated against. Youth are still killing themselves for their perceived gayness—"gayness” being a charge that often results simply from asserting the freedom to express beyond the constraints of orthodox gender behavior. In most parts of the country, for example, for a male adolescent to pronounce a foreign word correctly in secondary school is tantamount to announcing both homosexual and communist orientations. (And now, when they finally get to college, young men risk accusations of "mansplaining” for trying out, for the first time, their intellectual voices.) Violence and hate crimes are on the rise, even in liberal strongholds like New York City and Boston, perhaps because they are liberal strongholds. (Then again, they may only be reported as hate crimes in liberal strongholds.) Internationally, from Jamaica to Rwanda to Russia, homosexuals are at risk of imprisonment, torture, and execution.

Still, I remember 2009 as a more confusing time for gayness in the national imaginary. Politicians, media pundits, and activists frequently lauded "how far the LGBT cause had come” (which sometimes sounded like a warning, advising it to slow down, a "that’s enough”). At the same time, gay male teenagers were killing themselves at an increased rate: like Brandon Bitner, who walked thirteen miles to a highway to throw himself in front of a semi-trailer truck. They still are. National voices, from Christian mouthpieces to members of Congress to prominent school board members, celebrated these deaths and encouraged more gays to suicide. Still, there was no denying that attitudes towards LGBT folks had changed. Even the opportunity for young queers who took their own lives to self-identify and leave notes outing themselves, and for these deaths to be reported as tragedies, was major progress. On a personal level, my partner and I found we could stop expecting dark looks and tuts when we asked for one check at a restaurant (they still sometimes come, of course). As I point out in the essay, as visibility and vocal acceptance reached new levels, inspiring slogans that "no one really cared” any more whether someone was gay or straight, it was nevertheless the case that citizens could be fired from their jobs for being LGBT in most states, hospitals were denying visitation rights, health plans could not be shared, etc. The gap between social microcosms and political realities felt wide indeed.

These suicides also dredged up 1990s feelings of anxiety and paranoia. Those of us who were teenagers during this decade were perhaps especially susceptible to internalizing the messages of fear and hatred that came with the national responses to HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s, the ratification of DOMA (in 1996), and the ur-death of twenty-one years young Matthew Shepard in 1998. Like the reportage of the suicides in 2009 as an effect of homophobic and heteronormative culture, the treatment of Shepard’s death then felt like progress in that a gay murder was considered to be a crime of hate rather than righteousness. It also advised queers not to incorrectly eye someone for fear of being beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die. Even the now-reviled DOMA was something of a compromised step forward. It was President Clinton’s means of staving off a national ban on "same-sex marriage” by prohibiting federal recognition of state-administered same-sex marriages. During the debates about this issue, the phalanx of social conservatives dominated. Televangelist Jerry Falwell and Senator Jesse Helms repeatedly called for gay genocide and envisioned AIDS as proof that the Christian god was finally seeing to the task of exterminating the most perverse group of Americans—and their views were widely shared and rarely called out as insane. Hence, for those of us coming of age in this era, reasoning through the puzzles wrought by homosexual desires and what those desires predestined, particularly in communities that sanctioned Shepard’s treatment, not only did coming to terms with the fact that those desires would likely precipitate death threats in most areas of the country, but also living in an atmosphere steeped in thoughts of death, from homophobes, gays, and one’s self.


 

 

 

 

 

The fence to which Matthew Shepard was tied, beaten, and left to die.



The flood of suicides in 2009 brought back this sense that gayness occasions death, death that somehow follows from the withholding of love—the love of a god or a family or a nation. As I remark in the article, these young queers died not because they felt sex acts would be rare or impossible (the Internet made that all but a non-issue), but because they believed, once they self-identified with such a politically charged identity, that love and validation would be. Their deaths suggested that the academic-theoretical focus on cultural prudishness about sex was in some ways misguided. Homosexual sex acts were always easier to come by in the West than an openly romantic relationship between two male- or female-bodied people. That was the more deviant behavior. Oscar Wilde had good reasons to lament that it was his "love that dare not speak its name.”

Sex columnist Dan Savage attempted to stem the tide of teen suicides by launching the "It Gets Better” YouTube project, which voiced worry, concern, and support—care—for those contemplating self-murder. I watched, appalled, as some high-profile queer academics responded to these tragedies with silence, but inveighed against Savage’s efforts. Jack Halberstam, for instance, decried Savage’s resource as sentimental (quelle horreur!) and as neglecting the financial plight of queer people of color.[1] Beyond the predictable neo-Marxist/postmodernist rejection of feelings other than outrage as bourgeois, there was a more egregious category mistake in the failure to see how the "it” in Savage’s sympathetic phrase could refer to anything except socio-economic status—partly because Savage’s personal story involves "upward” mobility. People are not their bank accounts, nor are their self-images necessarily predicated upon the balances in those accounts. (Stances like Halberstam’s also reflect a lack of knowledge about suicide in the U.S. in general, which is primarily a white, middle and upper class, male phenomenon. In 2010, when Halberstam wrote, more people killed themselves than died in car accidents. Seventy-nine percent of these suicides were committed by men, making it the seventh leading cause of death, and the majority of these by middle-class white men.[2] To my mind, these statistics are an underutilized argument for the value of the humanities today.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This cartoon mocking Savage circulated on social media. It confuses Savage’s anti-suicide platform with one championing socio-economic equality for all. Because of a lack of awareness about the majority of people who commit suicide, it also fails to recognize that, by the logic of politics of representation implied within the cartoon, as an upper-middle class white male, Savage is a perfect spokesperson for suicide prevention.


Hence, I was moved to write about the cultural moment and issues swirling around gay identity with the matter of the self in mind, of self-care, and of leading one’s life. With so many scholars assuming that the self, if it exists at all, is not worth thinking about these days, I wanted to bear in mind that, as John Rawls put it in his famous A Theory of Justice, "self-respect and a sure confidence in the sense of one’s worth is perhaps the most important primary good.”[3] I found in A Single Man a simpatico text that would allow me to do just that. I was surprised by the film’s reception, which struck me as indicative of the context killing young gays and the apprehension about gays and lesbians marrying. A Single Man, and its reception, also demonstrated the need to think about these issues in relation to the constraints on expressivity enforced as masculinity, how the expression of love (of self or other, as in marriage) is related to anxiety over male expression of feeling. The film also, it seemed to me, rightly connected all this to a prominent idea of gayness as entailing a gender performance centered on a fastidious interest in surface appearances—which sometimes masquerades as aesthetics. I wanted to suggest that this superficializing of gays is not at all an accident, but a way of distancing a group of people who have had to grapple with difficult questions of the self and belonging to the social world, of the meaning of sexuality in and to that world, of individual and group, of emotion and expression, and of the consolations of beauty. I won’t rehash my arguments here, but making the case for the film allowed me to resuscitate thinking about the self, about the relation of gay identity and death, and about a more valuable idea of aesthetics than the one that has become practically synonymous with gay identity in U.S. mass culture.

Were I writing the essay from scratch today, I might include more films, which is a heartening possibility. I would discuss the astonishing Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011), the major successor to A Single Man, as well as cite the sweet The Wise Kids (Stephen Cone, 2011), the plodding Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs, 2012), and the moving Any Day Now (Travis Fine, 2012). I might also find space to address the scores of independent films that admonish their protagonist-Adonises for enjoying sex and require them to settle down with "the one.” The majority of these films police gender expression (of gayness and straightness) by inviting viewers to like their heroes in gendered terms, usually because their leads are "straight-acting,” and, at the same time, not fastidious aesthetes. (We might suppose that these texts imagine their queer audiences may derive some pleasure or sense of belonging from participating in the regulation of gender, which has obviously long been the privilege of the heterosexual mainstream.) Unlike A Single Man, which distinguishes love from sexual desire without being squeamish about sex, these films comport with the tendency to identify love as the desire for monogamous sexual relations. One of the more dangerous consequences of defining love as this specific sexual schema is that "the family”—that bastion of values at the root of everything claimed to be conservative by conservatives today—is reified as the source or location of "real” loving bonds. Increasingly in mainstream narratives, romantic love is cast as dubitable, while biological parent-child love is assumed, perhaps even taken to be the ultimate form of love (think Harry Potter).

As I imagine this fantasy version where length is not an issue, there are three major directions in which I would travel further. Firstly, I would expand on how my analyses of Ford’s techniques allow us to experience mise-en-scène as the presentation of a world, only to suddenly—and without editing—re-see it through the subjectivity of a character. This is not quite the Deleuzian point that the shot itself does this. In Ford’s film, as in much of U.S. cinema, the shot cannot do it alone; we spectators must consciously register this shift, a responsibility on our part that Stanley Cavell’s theory of viewing the world is better equipped to handle. Secondly, I would expand on the reasons subtending my choice to use U.S. philosophers like Harry Frankfurt and Elaine Scarry, rather than the more predictable Continental European writers, like Emmanuel Levinas. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, I would expand on the relevance of my argument to queer theory, not just my subject’s relation to work on "negative” queer affects and experiences (such as shame and melancholy) and A Single Man’s picture of gay couplehood as a "closed circle” to work like Lee Edelman’s No Futurity, but how caring about caring may be a welcome alternative to dwelling on Foucauldian accounts of pleasure and psychoanalytic accounts of desire (and even how Freudian pictures presume loving familial relations as their ground, which may not pertain to queer youth). Love can even be a way of connecting sexual identities and politics. Homosexual sex acts can be performed in private, as conservative politicians love to unsuccessfully demonstrate, but to identify oneself as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer involves caring about one’s self, and about how others see you, and about those others. It may even involve caring about one’s relationship enough to move it into the public realm, to argue for its existence in the world.



[1] http://www.socialtextjournal.org/periscope/2010/11/it-gets-worse.php

[2] http://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/facts-and-figures and http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/health/suicide-rate-rises-sharply-in-us.html

[3] Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1971. pp. 396.

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