For queer authors, separating fact from fiction is a uniquely difficult task.
When I came out in my senior year of high school, I was eager to leave behind the false identity I had developed during my adolescence. This identity was that of a straight boy, who hung out with guys, flirted with girls, and was totally comfortable in the boys locker room. But even after coming out, the true identity I expected to find failed to materialize. The performance I had channeled so much of my energy into maintaining had worked, and the persona I created had become a part of me. I tried to separate the artificial from the genuine, but what I made myself in my adolescence stayed a part of me into adulthood. The legacy of my concealment lives with me, and defines me, even as I struggle to shape my identity.
Concealment is a defining aspect of every queer person’s identity. Some fight it, some linger with it, and some are enveloped by it. It is no surprise that each author I read in my queer literature course conceals or alters their identity in some way, whether they claim to be writing fiction or memoir. Even for the Quentin Crisps of the world whose openness was always innate, the atmosphere which Heterosoc promotes forces them to address the concealment many queer people are pressured into. James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood, Derek Jarman, and Jeanette Winterson all explore concealment in different ways, playing with notions of identity and memoir, fact and fiction. But for queer people, separating fact from fiction is a uniquely difficult task.
For Christopher Isherwood and James Baldwin, concealing their identities was both an instinct and a necessity. Both authors addressed sensitive topics, but hid integral facets of themselves in the process. Of course, neither Goodbye to Berlin nor Giovanni’s Room are non-fiction, so the identities of the protagonists have no obligation to portray any living person. However, both authors admit that their characters are largely reflections of themselves, and their unwillingness to fully explore their own identity was both a cultural relic of a conservative past and a personal relic of a partially concealed life.
37 years after the publishing of Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood confessed that “although his own life as a homosexual was lived fairly openly, he feared [by featuring an openly gay protagonist and therefore publicly outing himself, he would] create a scandal”. (190) Obviously, this fear was warranted. The world had yet to accept gay people as anything less than mental irregularities, and the only institute taking homosexuals seriously had been looted and burned by nazis six years earlier. However, in Isherwood’s effort to be “unobtrusive”, and to allow the reader to “identify with him in all his reactions” (191), he came off as someone who had come out of one closet, and entered a new one.
His uncomfortableness with “relaxing sexually with a member of his own class or nation” (3) was, at its core, an uncomfortableness with himself: he could not accept his identity as an Oxford-educated homosexual. Throughout his own life, he attempted to deny this class identity by slumming it in Berlin and travelling Europe in order to avoid returning to London. On a literary scale, this translated into presenting his memories from the perspective of a sexually ambiguous, financially strapped ex-pat, asserting that if his story were to be heard, it could not be heard from him. But by denying his identity to himself and his readers, his story would remain incomplete.
While Baldwin showed he could come to terms with himself by delving into the intricacies of gay relationships, when asked why he decided to make his entire cast of characters white, he replied “I certainly could not possibly have — not at that point in my life — handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’…I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it” (Elgrably) . Writing from the perspective of a gay white man, Baldwin showed the extent to which black homosexuals were aware of the emotions and struggles of white homosexuals — but not vice versa.
Baldwin’s method of concealment was more elegant than Isherwood’s. While Isherwood completely obliterated a key element of his personality to create a relatable character, Baldwin carefully separated two integral pieces of his identity in order to delve deeper into each. His first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, explored life as a black man in America, and Giovanni’s Room, his second, explored his homosexual side. He acknowledged his identity by compartmentalizing it, but concealed the delicate intersection between his homosexuality and his race. By leaving out this connection, he failed to explore what could have been an engaging story of his two most public identities, two identities which are often historically opposed.
Like a boy quitting drama club so he could be friends with the football players, both Isherwood and Baldwin rejected their chance to reach out to people who shared their identities, instead aiming for the broad relatability of a wider audience. Perhaps today, in a world of successful niche markets and ultra-narrow Netflix genres, their literary visions could have been as specific as their identities. Baldwin could have made a successful book about a short gay black man in Paris, and Isherwood could have written Christopher and His Kind a bit earlier. Unfortunately, with hyper-curated news feeds and narrow Fox News-esque journalism, word of their novels may never have reached the wide audience they needed to convince. The next two authors tested this theory, creating unashamedly personal narratives in order to broaden the idea of what literature could reveal, and fully shed the concealment they were born into.
After being forced to conceal their identities in their youth, Derek Jarman and Jeanette Winterson reacted with roaring rebellion. Their novels couldn’t be more different: Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, a fantastical story of the motherly relationship between a passionate beast of a woman and her genderfluid adoptive son in the midst of the Puritan takeover, is about as far as one could imagine from At Your Own Risk, a memoir of gay filmmaker living through gay liberation and the AIDs crisis. Yet for both authors, the legacy of their concealed life shows through in the characters they create.
Although Jarman’s “Testament” is the most frank and honest book read in our class, to call it completely autobiographical would be disingenuous. Jarman carefully features the juiciest and boldest moments of his life, including the “very sexy guy” who “came over [his gay] magazines” (62), his outspoken nature about HIV “in a situation where very few speak up” (124), and his persistence in sexual virility even in the face of his fatal diagnosis: “That’s the best thing that’s happened to me for such a long time!” (127). In highlighting the exciting, not the boring, the resilient, not the passive, and the passionate, not the compromising, he reverses the concealment he once begrudgingly took part in, revealing what he had hidden and not lingering on his time spent in secret. He creates his persona which embraces his truest self, by concealing what was concealed.
Winterson’s Dog Woman is certainly not “herself” in the same sense that Derek Jarman’s protagonist is who he claims to be. Winterson, valuing the power of fiction, dismisses the personal nature of her central character, shrugging that “I suppose the Dog Woman is Ms. Winterson…but so what?” At the same time, the Dog Woman shares the convictions and viewpoints as the “bare-knuckled fighter” who wrote her. She clamors for justice, cracks down on hypocrisy, and shrugs off those who judge her by her appearance alone. For Winterson, the Dog Woman serves as her ultimate self, a concentration of all the passion, anger and honor that she wishes she could always possess.
By creating such passionate characters, fearless in their status as outsiders, as “Other”, Winterson and Jarman combat the parts of them that remain concealed. Winterson, whose mother was a religious fundamentalist, had to leave her home in high school in order to find others like her, and freely embrace her sexual orientation. Jarman, who attended an oppressive London boarding school, did not touch another person for thirteen years after he was caught in bed with a boy at nine. He laments the lack of guidance he had growing into his identity, and regrets concealing anything, being “corrupted into heterosexuality” by the environment of Heterosoc (35). Jarman and Winterson both alter the identities of their protagonists to create the role models they weren’t lucky enough to have growing up. By concealing their weaknesses, they hope to create a new generation of queers who won’t be pressured to conceal their true identities.
Reading these books together was the ultimate lesson in concealed identities. Through reading Isherwood and Baldwin, I was able to see the vulnerable, hidden lives that queer people must undergo in order to be accepted by society. I understood the tragic end that tended to befall gay characters in the past, and noticed the elimination of such characters to avoid the same fate. And when reading Winterson and Jarman, I understood the power that queer people possess, as the hidden self was unconcealed its blazing colors. Each author hides what they must to present their primary point, whether it be the fall of Berlin, a doomed gay relationship, resilience in oppression, or the subjectivity of all things. That point has changed over the years, and I will be waiting to see what queer authors decide to conceal in the future.