Reflecting on the end of Pride 2021
By Andrew Rimby
In the first part of my Pride month Big Think, I ended with a desire to ponder why Whitman’s “Song of Myself” spoke to my queerness so profoundly, and why it spurred the question “who is picking this text up and finding themselves reflected back?” When I reread Whitman’s “Calamus” cluster (published in 1860 and known as his most homoerotic content), I continue to be surprised by how explicitly passionate desire between men is expressed. It was one of the first times I clearly saw my own homoerotic passions and desires reflected back in literature (hmm…is this why I centered on the Narcissus myth as my way into Whitman’s homoerotic poetics? More on that to come as I continue to write my chapter…my analysis of “Calamus” is soon to come). And, Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love has really been an intriguing book that emphatically refuses to map “homosexuality” (a term that doesn’t get applied to sexual behavior until the late-19th century) onto the passion of Achilles and Patroclus (for example). I continue to enjoy the surprise my students express when they see how homoerotically charged “canonical” literature can be (Whitman, Wilde, Baldwin, Aciman, for example). As I question my pedagogical approach to Whitman’s homoerotic poetics, I have thought about the need to bring in female homoerotic voices (specifically Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” Nella Larsen’s “Passing,” and the 2020 publication of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half).
I’m quite excited to expand on Whitman’s quite white and male-centered homoerotic paradise to include the voices that are left out of this idyllic community (specifically queer voices of color). I’ll continue checking in with the community here to reflect (oh how many reflection imagery puns can be made in my research) on how literature allows for so many keys to be retrieved that (hopefully) unlocks the reader’s authentic voice (definitely a complex journey that I can’t fully articulate yet about myself). And, here’s one such key that I found when I opened up my Spotify account and was recommended the following song by Peter Allen. I’m sure it was part of my Shirley Bassey curated Spotify mix (oh how I love Bassey’s powerful voice). If you haven’t, you need to watch Bassey’s “You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet” music video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8QnR8-IEKY
Now, the essential key that opened up the front door of my house…far far away from the closet.
“Though I may look the same way to you
Underneath there is somebody new
I am not the boy next door
I don’t belong like I did before
Nothin’ ever seems like it used to be
You can have your dreams, but you can’t have me
I can’t go back there anymore
‘Cause I am not the boy next door”
(Peter Allen, “Not the Boy Next Door”)
As I take the pen back up to reflect on the end of Pride month, Peter Allen’s “Not the Boy Next Door” lyrics evocatively repeat in my head, and I keep thinking of how “I can’t go back there anymore” deeply resonates with the theme we started with this month: “I don’t have to wait for you to give me the key.” Now that the entire Ivory Tower Boiler Room team has reflected on, memorialized, and passionately expressed what Pride month means, especially during the pandemic, I’m eager to share what I’ve learned about my own queer male writing identity. This reflection will feature a memorial, a need to critique my own privilege, and what I can do going forward as a queer, white, male educator. I’ll start in the present tense, move backwards a little, and then look to the future.
On June 28th, I opened up my Twitter account to do my usual procrastination method of scrolling through recent tweets before opening up my emails and then writing documents. I saw multiple messages about Lauren Berlant, a prominent queer and gender theorist, and I looked through to see what was being discussed. Sadly, it was about the passing of Berlant, and it registered that no longer would I be able to pick up new works of Berlant’s and head down the queer experimental theoretical rabbithole that they were so good at creating (note: Berlant used they/them pronouns). Each time I picked up a text by Berlant, like “Sex in Public” (written by them and Michael Warner), The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, Cruel Optimism, and so many other texts, I entered (and still do) a new portal that leads to what a queer approach does when applied to American Literature and culture. I’ll always remember the reading experience of Berlant’s cultural analysis of Harriet Jacobs, Frances Harper, and Anita Hill. I learned, in that moment, that literary criticism can look to the past (Jacobs, a 19th-century Black female writer detailing her journey from slavery to freedom) and present (Anita Hill, a contemporary Black female lawyer testifying against Clarence Thomas’ sexual harassment) to understand cultural conditions. In this analysis, Berlant demonstrates the intersection of scholarship and activism. The following quote by Berlant will always resonate with me, and I’m sure so many other queer people who feel the invisibility of their identity or societal pressure to hide their queerness (a pressure to stay in the closet).
For that and so much wisdom, I thank you Lauren Berlant.
(to see a memorial to Berlant please go to: https://news.uchicago.edu/story/lauren-berlant-preeminent-literary-scholar-and-cultural-theorist-1957-2021)
“You can have your dreams, but you can’t have me/I can’t go back there anymore/’Cause I am not the boy next door” (Peter Allen)
Those who know me well always hear me raving about certain musicians who have entered my exercise life (especially during my walks), and a few months ago, I turned to Peter Allen. I’ve always loved Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Allen in the Broadway musical The Boy from Oz, and when I found a Peter Allen at Carnegie Hall live album, I was in a queer male musical paradise. The lyrics above deeply register with how I feel that I’m continuing to leave that closet far behind me. I definitely don’t want to go back to hiding my sexuality, especially the pressure of staying closeted in social spheres where a queer male voice breaks down heteronormative ideas. This is why I’ll always be grateful to have had the opportunity to speak at Port Washington Library last year during Pride month, on the last day of June to be exact. In “Queer Literature: Naming and Identifying,” I reflect on the genealogy of LGBTQ+ Lit. from 2020 to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. If I delivered this talk today, I would definitely add Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Lev Raphael’s “Dancing on Tisha B’Av,” and Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets. So, I decided to update my LGBTQ+ book list that I’m excited to share with you all.
And I was going to release the Queer Lit. talk done at Port Washington Library as a bonus podcast episode, but because the talk relies heavily on visuals (audio, video, slides), I’ve decided to include the YouTube link here for all of you to enjoy (but if you want to follow my regimen, walking while listening to YouTube videos, go ahead and enjoy). You all have my permission to share this with your friends, family, and fellow educators since my intention with this talk is to amplify LGBTQ+ writers of color. As a queer, white, male, cisgender, writer, educator, and activist, I want to make sure that I analyze my own privileges and expand beyond queer, white, male voices. If any of you have suggestions of books that I don’t have on this list, I’d love for you to email The Ivory Tower Boiler Room team so we can add onto this list (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I hope that you all enjoy the following video. I want to end my reflection on Pride month with a poem from the last play that I saw before the pandemic, The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez.
After I saw both parts of Lopez’s play, I purchased the script, and once you open up the book, Constantine Cavafy’s “Hidden Things” (trans., John Chioles) sets the tone:
From all I did and all I said,
let them not seek to find who I was.
It stood an obstacle in my way this, altering
my actions and my way of life.
This stood an obstacle in my way, stopping me
all the times I wanted to speak out.
My most unnoticed actions,
discreet writings, those most disguised—
from these alone they’ll understand me.
But maybe it’s not worth so much care,
all this effort just to know what and who I am.
A long time from now—in a more perfect world—
some other made like me will appear
and, to be sure, he will act freely.
I’m excited to announce a special blurb called Andrew’s Bookshelf where I’ll be reading LGBTQ+ Lit. and featuring a new book each week. Pride month is everyday in Andrew’s head.
My first book that I’ll write about will be Ula Klein’s Sapphic Crossings.
Until then readers…