Friday, October 28, 2011

Archaeology of the Sissy (ASA 2011)

American Studies Association, 20 October 2011. Harry Thomas's talk on a panel entitled "Violent Transformations: Imagining the Gendered Body."

Harry Thomas began his talk, “Amplifying the Paradox: Effeminacy in the Age of AIDS,” with a discussion of how the sissy has been alternately a figure of fascination and horror in our culture. The creation of the Boy Scouts was motivated by sissiphobia, as was the 2008 Lawrence King murder; on the other hand, Liberace was the most successful entertainer of the 1960s, and he’s had many effeminate superstar successors. Now, the term for hybrid bodies that both horrify and fascinate is, of course, “the grotesque.” And the paper will address both the threatening grotesque and the fascinating grotesque.

The sissy as threatening grotesque is featured in Randy Shilts’s nonfiction novel And the Band Played On, in the form of one Gatean Dugas, the alleged “AIDS Patient Zero” who, we are told, deliberately went about spreading HIV in various cities in the Seventies and early Eighties, about whom Shilts makes monstrous claims that invoke misogynist stereotypes. While Douglas Crimp and others have debunked the Dugas myth and discredited the very idea of an AIDS Patient Zero, celebration of Shilts persists. Shilts’s portrait of Dugas incorporates class and gender stereotypes, depicting a bitchy swell from the lower orders (even sissy memoirs are upward-mobility tales) with vindictive/emulative urges toward his betters and a monstrous vanity. In Shilts’s melodrama, Dugas is the victim of bullying whose suffering leads to a need for recognition. Shilts must continually emphasize Dugas’s effeminacy, lest his promiscuity look like a studly virtue. Although Shilts’s book is anti-homophobic, it tends toward the femmephobic and sex-negative. The confrontation outside the American Boy store between Dugas and a butch gay man who tells him to leave and stop infecting people suggests that healthy, all-American masculine gay men can restore the community.

Now, the polarities are reversed in Angels in America: the tough pro-American macho gay is Roy Cohn (and to some extent Joe, who is conspicuously absent from the community — “the liberal Edenic America” — that forms at the end of the play). Kushner’s femmes, far from being villainous, have special and sometimes superhuman abilities. Belize says of Roy Cohn, “A queen can forgive her vanquished foe” and is given the moral triumph of persuading Louis to say Kaddish for the villain: his compassion stands out in the Reagan-era U.S. And of course, Prior’s heroism takes place on an even grander scale. Kushner’s queens are heroes and prophets, the bandagers of wounds and the redeemers of the American Dream. Belize says to Roy Cohn, “I’m your negation.” So effeminate men in Angels in America are not fully-realized characters either. Must effeminate men be superhuman in order to be sympathetic? Thomas ended his talk with an illustrative quote from Sarah Schulman’s Rat Bohemia:

I read in Herve Guilbert's book that Foucault died, not knowing exactly what had hit him. His lover found his handcuffs and whips and couches full of leftover manuscripts on such trifles as the history of socialism. Charles Ludlum was the most profound loss. America doesn't even know what she's missing . . . But what do we do with all the mediocrities who never created anything worth remembering and never would have even if they had lived to be eighty-five? It drives me crazy how quickly the great ones get canonized. Blah-blah-blah is such a terrible loss. Does that mean that the death of one mediocre slob is not as terrible? Do fags have to be geniuses to justify living?

I was struck by how Thomas’s description of Dugas’s character resembled Tom Ripley and how Shilts’s invention of Dugas resembled the fictional character of “Michel Foucault” that James Miller presented in The Passion of Michel Foucault, and how both recalled earlier fantasies of effeminate purveyors of infection, such as Jews. Also I noted that Belize is a bit too much of a Magical Negro. In the Q&A, I asked for a genealogy of American sissiphobia — did it start around Teddy Roosevelt? Thomas was sympathetic to Michael Kimmel’s claim that we have to go back at least to Andrew Jackson’s reinvention of elite American Manhood. But the age of TR and the Boy Scouts was certainly a high water mark for these kinds of anxieties.

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