Richard Tayson’s “Manly Love” [Sept.-Oct. 2005 issue] presents a confused and confusing account of poet Walt Whitman’s sexuality. After favorably citing Robert K. Martin’s claim that “prior to Whitman there were homosexual acts but no homosexuals,” Tayson contradicts Martin, asserting, “There is no question that Whitman defines, and throughout the poem [“Live Oak”] struggles with, his self-identity as a gay man.” Martin is attempting precisely to question efforts like Tayson’s to simplify both Whitman’s work and 19th-century understandings of sexuality and sexual identity. The implication of Martin’s claim is that Whitman could not possibly have struggled with his self-identity as a gay man; the whole point of Michel Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality is precisely to remind us that the category “gay man” did not exist in Whitman’s time—and particularly not as we understand this identity category today.
Symptomatic of Tayson’s attempt to rewrite Whitman as a contemporary gay man is his tacit assumption that by not publishing “Live Oak” in his own lifetime, Whitman was somehow “censoring” his “true” (gay) identity—a claim convincingly dismissed by Robert Scholnick in his excellent article, “The Texts and Contexts of Calamus: Did Whitman Censor Himself in 1860?” published in a 2004 issue of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. Even more troubling is Tayson’s citation of “What think you I have taken my pen to record?” a poem he that implies “wasn’t discovered until the mid-20th century.” This poem is not one of the “Live Oak, With Moss” poems first published in 1955. In fact, it is one of the ten “Calamus” poems set to music in 1930 by presumably “straight” Italian-Jewish composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
Why does all of this matter? A careful look at the historical circumstances surrounding the creation of the Calamus cycle reveals the limitations of identity categories such as
“homosexual” and “heterosexual” and, in this particular context, suggests how they can limit rather than enhance our understanding of a literary work. While the impulse by some lesbian and gay critics to “reclaim” Whitman as gay is understandable, we might wonder if such a strategy does not ultimately do a disservice to the poet’s work by foreclosing interpretations that, while not “gay” in terms of being celebrations of contemporary notions of homosexual identity, might be described as “queer” in their attempts to undo normative understandings of sex and gender identities and the relationships between such identities and the political arena.
At a time when the struggle for sexual liberation has been hijacked by liberals and conservatives alike clamoring for the “right” to marry, serve in the military, and enjoy gay-friendly consumer goodies, Whitman’s startlingly erotic poems keep alive a model of democratic friendship that seeks to bind people with a variety of “perverse” sexualities together in arrangements that exceed the state’s abilities to comprehend, regulate, and sanctify. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that an Italian Jew living under Mussolini’s regime would set to music some of the most highly homoerotic of Whitman’s poems. To assume that these poems—and, by extension, Castel-nuovo-Tedesco’s songs—are primarily about the struggle to come to terms with one’s sexual orientation is to diminish rather than augment our sense of the power of these artists to move us today.
John Champagne, Associate Professor of English, Behrend College, Erie, PA
Who’s Shunning Labels?
To the Editor:
Ritch Savin-Williams, in his article in the November-December 2005 issue, questions the notion that gay youth can be understood as a “class.” This precaution does not stop him, however, from making freewheeling generalizations about “the new gay teenager” in general. He describes their reluctance to call themselves gay lest they be confined to a narrow “identity box.” He speculates that, in a golden age to come, the “social construct” of gay identity will wither away, perhaps joining communism in Ronald Reagan’s “dustbin of history.”
I find it ironic that Professor Savin-Williams writes about the demise of gay identity in the issue of the G&LR in which an article about the ex-gay movement affords some interesting parallels. The Rev. John Smid, executive director of the infamous “Love in Action” ministry in Memphis, makes a point not dissimilar to Savin-Williams’ when he says that “Satan, working behind the scenes, has succeeded in redefining the meaning of key words, and therefore we only reinforce and strengthen a false identity by calling individuals by a name that does not apply.” And in the piece entitled “The ‘Ex-Gay’ Agenda,” the author quotes a Christian counselor that he consulted, ostensibly to receive “reparative therapy,” who sounds much like Professor Savin-Williams’ young subjects when he says “I want to make a distinction between same-sex attraction and being gay. … That is a whole ideology.”
Beware of purported wisdom that tracks the claims being touted by the purveyors of snake oil, especially in the same magazine. Or could it be that Professor Savin-Williams has just rediscovered that the “down low”—discussed by Keith Boykin in this same issue of the G&LR—isn’t only for African-Americans?
Don Gorton, Boston
The Finer Points of Asian Dating
To the Editor:
In his essay, “Gay Asian-American Male Seeks Home” in the September-October 2005 issue, Chong-suk Han erroneously defines a “rice queen” as an exploitive older white male. In reality rice queens are African-Americans, Caucasians, people of mixed races, and Spanish speakers of every race. In addition, rice queens are as likely to be younger as older than their Asian partners. However, most rice queens are in fact about the same age and have a similar educational and economic level as their boyfriends.
Mr. Han implied a vernacular expression in his often confused home-seeking essay, “sticky rice.” It’s usually defined as a gay Asian-American who exclusively prefers the sexual companionship of other gay Asians (it’s not a term of relevance in Asia). Since Asian- Americans make up about five percent of the U.S. population, and gay Asian-Americans maybe ten percent of that number, the demand is higher than the supply to satisfy both sticky rice queens and other rice queens. Consequently, sticky rice queens use invidious epithets such as “banana” or “potato queen” to try to assert power and control away from integration and assimilation, or, as Mr. Han writes, to attempt to unify the gay Asian community. What splinters or often totally thwarts the unity of this community is gay Asian-American disdain for so-called “FOB” (“fresh off the boat”) Asians. To further undermine unity, historically many Asian-American groups do not feel compatible with other Asian groups due to centuries of real or imagined atrocities back in the homeland. Finally and most importantly, sexual desire is a hard thing to regulate, for the sake of unifying a community or anything else. Pardon the cliché, “There is just no accounting for taste.”
By using the terms gay Asian, and gay Asian-American interchangeably, Mr. Han often makes it difficult to understand who he is talking about. Gay Asians in homogeneous Asian countries have different political battles compared to gay Asian-Americans making their way in a heterogeneous U.S. society. On the other hand, invisibility in the identity formation process, the fear of loss of love due to coming out, and the connection between poor self-esteem, drug use, and AIDS, seem to be experienced by homosexual men the whole world over regardless of race or ethnicity. Maybe if we focus on what we have in common instead of our differences, it might be better for all us queens.
Peter A. Melillo, Jackson Heights, NY
Care Due When Citing Clement’s Letter
To the Editor:
Judging from Douglas Sadownick’s review (Nov.-Dec. 05 issue), Will Roscoe’s Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love, draws heavily on Morton Smith’s writings to reconstruct a shamanistic tradition involving esoteric same-sex rituals in the Near East.
Several decades ago, Smith published and analyzed a text purporting to be a letter from Church Father Clement of Alexandria that quotes a secret version of the Gospel of Mark. A forthcoming book by Stephen C. Carlson, Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark (Baylor University Press), argues that Smith forged the letter. We must await an assessment of the new publication from specialists. In the meantime, it may be wise not to rely too heavily on Clement’s purported letter as evidence of sexual practices in the Near East 2,000 years ago. The letter may tell us more about Morton Smith than about Jesus and shamanism.
David F. Greenberg, New York
Due to an editing error in Raymond-Jean Frontain’s article on Tennessee Williams in the Nov.-Dec. 05 issue (“The Tiger Within,” page 41), the first name of Alexandra del Largo in Sweet Bird of Youth was incorrectly identified as Alexis. We regret the error.