(Un)Conventional: Queer vs. Gay/Lesbian Literature: A Brief Introduction

English 391: Studies in Gay and Lesbian Literature
May 2, 2003

I’™ve recently been thinking about how, when discussing the ‘literature’ we’™ve been reading in class, a distinction between ‘gay and lesbian’ and ‘queer’ labels should be made because I think the future of each ‘genre’ is different. Whereas gay and lesbian literature has a pretty straight-forward and mainstream path, I see queer literature as having the freedom to take a bold new approach to the world and do something new and exciting. As the class has also showed me, there is a definite audience for each, and so I now find equal value in both types of literature.

I classify gay and lesbian literature as more mainstream and conventional. Most of what we’™ve read this semester would probably fall in to gay and lesbian literature with Henry Rio’™s novel Rag and Bone being the best example. Gay and lesbian literature (and I mean this term to include other texts such as movies and television shows) is basically anything that includes some sort of queer theme. The process of creating most gay or lesbian texts is nearly identical to conventional texts, but you include a gay character or a gay issue like coming out. Rag and Bone, for example, would have been just another mystery novel if it weren’™t for the various gay relationships. While some people in class seem to have a problem with this’”the labeling of such literature’”I don’™t necessarily think it’™s a problem. The nature of conventional texts is to label and categorize and just because they are gay doesn’™t mean that they break free of those labels.

Gay and lesbian literature would also deal with other queer-variations of traditional novels such as family relationships, marriages, children, and so on. Sometimes the focus will be explicitly on the gay characters, sometimes they will be just supporting roles. For the most part, the authors of these works will always be gay or lesbian, or possibly the brother, sister, mother, father, or friend of someone who might be queer. I think as more and more people know someone who is out, this genre of literature will continue to grow and continue to interest anyone who wants a little more diversity in what they read or watch.

What I classify as ‘queer literature,’ on the other hand, will be drastically different. I think the most obviously ‘queer’ texts we’™ve encountered in our class is Boys Like Her and the experimental films by KJ Mohr. In both cases, the term ‘queer’ takes on two meanings: it refers to both the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (and I intentionally excluded bisexual and trans from the ‘gay and lesbian’ literature above) in addition to the older meaning of the word, which designates something that is ‘differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal’”eccentric, unconventional’ (Merriam-Webster OnLine). Ironically, the very nature of queer literature resists classification. Are the stories in Boys Like Her (self-labeled as ‘transfictions’) ‘true life’ or ‘fictional’ and are they supposed to be funny or sad or inspirational? They cannot be classified, and that makes them queer. Even the label ‘transfiction’ is a play on words, as the ‘trans’ can refer to transgender or transsexual or it plays on the Latin root trans which means across, beyond, or changing. Either way, the stories aren’™t conventional fiction. Similarly, Audre Lorde’™s Zami is a ‘biomythography.’ Is it a biography? Is it a mythography/ology? Or somewhere in between? Or neither? The very process of labeling these queer works makes the problems of labeling exceedingly clear.

Personally, I would like to see more of these queer literatures emerge. I think being queer gives people a unique and wonderful (no matter what, I would never want to be ‘straight’ even if it meant my life would be ‘easier’’”what I personally have gained from my insights as a queer person I wouldn’™t give up for anything), and they need to be harnessed to make progressive, experimental, and challenging work. Just because it is ‘queer,’ however, doesn’™t mean that the ‘authors’ have to be queer either. I think feminist texts often fall into queer literature as well. I am reminded of when I visited Professor Paul Loeb’™s Philosophy and Film class, and Professor Sue Owen, though she called her reading of Fight Club a feminist critique, said that she was reading the film through a queer lens’”a lens which resists the conventional forms of white patriarchy and gives a more critical and complicated view of the world.

Unfortunately, as KJ Mohr said of her films, people aren’™t used to seeing the world that way, and ‘queer literature’ may be hard for people to grasp. Nonetheless, I think there is an audience and, more importantly, I think queer projects are necessary. As media becomes more conglomerated and corporations become larger, alternative views are even more stifled. For every conventional gay text such as Will and Grace or Queer as Folk (which, while conventional, aren’™t necessarily bad and do have a place), there needs to be ten texts to challenge those now traditional and often stereotyped looks at the world. Queer texts can even be brought into the mainstream. A few weeks ago I re-watched ¬X-Men and was reminded at how queer that film was, though not obvious at all. The director, Bryan Singer, who is gay, highlighted the gay themes of comic books while presenting the ideas, masked, of course, to mainstream audiences. He extended homosexuality into a metaphor about difference, and whether audiences realized the parallels or not, it undoubtedly caused them to question their own stereotypes and fear of the Other.

So as the twenty-first century begins, I think there continues to be a need for both gay and lesbian literature. First, people need to be exposed to difference, and those who are ‘different’ need icons with which they can identify. Even if gay people are presented as stereotypes, at least it shows that we’™re out there. Gay and lesbian literature can break down those stereotypes and show that gay people are ‘just like everyone else’ (even if I don’™t necessarily think we are). At the same time, however, queer literature can work to challenge binary definitions (gay/straight, man/woman, male/female, truth/fiction) and labels (gay, lesbian, queer, mystery, fiction, biography, mythology). I, personally, would rather be involved with the queerer side of things, though that is not for everyone.

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