I come from a Great Books school, and thus have spent a lot of time thinking about canons of writing. Though this is basically a fancy way of saying I’m a huge nerd, it has given me some insight into how these sets of books are put together and why. When you begin to think about books this way, as a conversation that can include people from across the globe, you start to realize that canons of work are put together as insidiously and deliberately as most histories are taught. This makes sense, as literary canons are, in a way, a history of the experiences of any given people.
If a canon is really a history, then what history of queer people do we see if we look at the works by them included in the Western canon of Great Books? These books are not made to be a history, particularly, but they certainly create one. When we look at these texts collected together, it would seem queer people spring up almost unannounced. Except for in the ancient world as something the ancient Greeks and Romans did, and in biblical texts as sinners, they appear to be invented in the mid-1800s. They are flamboyant thumb waggers at normal society, and usually have bad, messy ends. But how is this late, and unbecoming, arrival possible if queer people have existed throughout history, as they must have? Where is the writing done not only by—but also for—queer people throughout the rest of history?
The fact is that the body of Western literature written by, and at times about, queer people has been purposefully eroded and cherry picked in order to create a certain canon of these authors. This canon is put together in order to create a narrative of queer people within history. This is basically how histories in general are created, such as the narrative of Jesus Christ rising from the dead, which was chosen from a few narratives by the Nicene Council, becoming the history of Christ. Whether you believe that Jesus rose from the dead or not, it is indisputable that this was not the only narrative of his life told by his early followers. Many early Christian texts have Jesus either not coming back from the dead, or not dying at all. It was the council who decided on the current biblical canon, and thus created that narrative and history. Likewise, in order to make the queer person into what they wish her to be, creators of the western canon have molded a series of books that create a narrative of queer identity, which then becomes queer history.
Maybe Virginia Wolfe was a great writer, this narrative says, but in the end she was just a big dyke who committed suicide.
This is done by doing one of the following to queer authors: erasing their Queerness; ignoring them even though they are not only important in the history of queer works, but to audiences in general; and finally, by fitting them into the mold usually reserved for the queer person: the sick individual, whether this sickness be social (a disregard for social values or morays that is often read as pathological,) physical, or mental. I call them respectively: the erasure queers, the forgotten queers, and the illness queers.
I know this may sound awfully insidious and, to be quite frank, it is. It is insidious, and created by those who are usually not queer themselves, and so have no vested interest in queer experience, and who do not hold the best interests of queer people in the forefront of their minds. The erasure queer, the writer who is queer and writes about it, has their queerness destroyed and made unimportant in the narrative of their lives and work. They are too important to the mainstream to let queer people have ownership of; they belong to straight, cisgender society and thus are eroded from the history of queer identity in particular. Jack Kerouac is an example of this type of queer, and W. H. Auden’s asexuality is dealt with in the same manner.
The forgotten queers are those who did critically well in their time, but were too focused on their queerness within their writing and could not be sanitized, and thus must be cast aside by the hands of history so they do not become permanent and lasting positive references for queer people. Christopher Isherwood is a hardy example of a forgotten queer, as is Denton Welch. Though important, they are left behind.
Illness queers are probably the most common incarnation of this tactic seen in the mainstream, and also perhaps the most destructive for the psyche of the queer person. The illness queer, like Virginia Wolfe, is held up, as an example of what queerness will create within a person’s life: misery and shame. They are also made into living incarnations of what queerness is considered to be: a sickness. Maybe Virginia Wolfe was a great writer, this narrative says, but in the end she was just a big dyke who committed suicide. Or, less subtly: being a lesbian makes you commit suicide. The illness queers are robbed of their worth by being called insane or invalid, and their works about being queer are often overlooked anyway.
Most importantly, to be represented and be able to find our stories with ease is something queer people are entitled to as living beings.
In the series of essays that are to follow this introduction, I wish to uncover some hidden queer history and personhood by revealing some authors who’s experiences being queer have been communicated in writing, but have been either been rewritten in the narrative as not queer, unimportant, or insane. Not only do I wish to look at queer authors who may not get the attention they deserve, such as Brion Gysin, but also authors who are well known and whose writings about being queer have been hidden away. Tennessee Williams is a popular queer writer, and was “out” when being so was widely not accepted, but his works dealing the most strikingly with being a homosexual are often swept under a rug. He can also not be discussed without mention of his drug addiction and “insanity” as well. With this, I hope to help create a new narrative and canon of queer writers, and hopefully help the effort to create a better and more empowering narrative of queer identity.
What comes with a lack of representation is not only a lack of understanding of your own history, and thus the legacy of that part of your identity, but also a lack of opportunities readily apparent in both manner of acting, and personal destiny to the young queer person, or even the older queer person. When the face of the queer person is molded to cast out people of color, nonbinary people, and transpeople; to exclude good health, both physical and mental; and to warp the life of the queer person into that of tragedy and to be pitied, this is what the queer person becomes. If not to herself, then to those who are apart from her and her community, whether this is nonqueer people, or those who are not yet aware that such a community exists. Most importantly, to be represented and be able to find our stories with ease is something queer people are entitled to as living beings.
For how can queer people really engage with a canon that does not allow them to abide by one of its most closely held tenets: know thyself?
William Hockstein was born in New York City, and now lives in another city, Chicago. If you want him to write you something, send him an email.