Gay and lesbian criticism (sexualities criticism)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Gay and lesbian criticism (sexualities criticism)

Gay and lesbian criticism (sexualities criticism): Forms of literary criticism focused on textual representations of and readings responsive to issues of homo- (and hetero-) sexuality. Since gay and lesbian criticism both feature sexuality as the issue that troubles gender as a category, the approaches are typically classified more specifically as types of gender criticism, though not all gay and lesbian critics would so categorize their work. Gay and lesbian criticism emerged in the mid-1980s with the publication of Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) by the American scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. In this pioneering work, Sedgwick adapted feminist critical theory to analyze relationships between men; between male characters in literary works; and, most importantly, between gender and sexuality.

Some practitioners of gay and lesbian criticism have extended a debate between feminist and gender critics about whether there is such a thing as “reading like a woman” (or man) by arguing that there are gay and lesbian ways of reading. In On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 19661979 (1979), poet-critic Adrienne Rich read Emily Dickinson’s poetry as a lesbian, thereby revealing a poet quite different from the one heterosexual critics have made familiar. In “Wilde’s Hard Labor and the Birth of Gay Reading” (1990), Wayne Koestenbaum defined the gay reader as one who “reads resistantly for inscriptions of his condition, for texts that will confirm a social and private identity founded on a desire for other men.”

The question of whether distinct gay and lesbian ways of reading exist corresponds with broader debates in feminist, gender, and gay and lesbian criticism over whether gender and sexuality are biologically or socially determined. Essentialists maintain that gender and sexuality are natural or innate, whereas constructionists contend that they are cultural artifacts. Following the lead of French theorist Michel Foucault, constructionist gay and lesbian critics view sexuality not as a fixed set of binary oppositions (heterosexual / homosexual) but as a continuum encompassing a range of behaviors and responses. They emphasize, for instance, that sexuality is not restricted to homosexuality and heterosexuality but also includes practices such as bondage, sadomasochism, and transvestism. They also note that many people have felt attracted to members of both sexes even if they are predominantly hetero- or homosexual.

Lesbian critics have taken some of their feminist counterparts to task on the grounds that the latter proceed from fundamentally heterosexual and even heterosexist assumptions. Particularly offensive to lesbians have been those feminists who, following British writer Doris Lessing, have implied that to affirm a lesbian identity is to act out feminist hostility against men. In an essay entitled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1983), Rich rejected this assertion, noting that women from diverse cultures and historical eras have “undertaken the task of independent, nonheterosexual, women-centered existence” even in the face of economic uncertainty and social disapproval. Rich further suggested that “heterosexuality [is] a beach-head of male dominance,” which, “like motherhood, needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution.”

Lesbian critics have produced a number of controversial reinterpretations of works by authors as diverse as Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison. For example, both Rich and Barbara Smith have claimed that Morrison’s novel Sula (1973) can be read as a lesbian text. In an essay entitled “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1985), Smith pointed to Nel and Sula’s close friendship and what she identified as Morrison’s critique of heterosexual institutions such as marriage to support her claim, even though Morrison previously had rejected similar claims made in Claudia Tate’s Black Women Writers at Work (1983).

Gay male critics have produced a body of readings no less revisionist and controversial, focusing on writers as staidly classic as Henry James and Wallace Stevens. In Hero, Captain, and Stranger (1986), Robert K. Martin suggested that triangles of homosexual desire exist in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Billy Budd (written 1891, published 1924). In Moby-Dick, for instance, the narrator-hero must choose between a captain who represents the “imposition of the male on the female” and a “Dark Stranger” (Queequeg) who represents an “alternate sexuality,” one less grounded in “performance and conquest.” More recently, Richard Bozorth argued in Auden’s Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality (2001) that the poetry of W. H. Auden addresses and reflects the psychology and politics of same-sex desire.

The work of gay and lesbian critics who are more theoretically oriented than text-centered has come to be called queer theory, an approach to literature and culture that assumes sexual identities are flexible, not fixed, and that critiques gender and sexuality as they are commonly conceived in Western culture. Queer theorists, constructionists who view sexuality as performative, a process involving signifying acts rather than a “normative” identity, argue that textual representations have defined the contours of sexual identity in society. They also proudly and defiantly embrace the term queer. As Judith Butler pointed out in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993), queer may be a “discursive rallying point for younger lesbians and gays … and for bisexuals and straights for whom the term expresses an affiliation with antihomophobic politics.” Other notable contributions to the field of queer theory include Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1991) and Tendencies (1993), a special issue on queer theory edited by Teresa de Lauretis and published by the journal differences (1993), and Alan Sinfield’s Cultural Politics — Queer Reading (1994).