The Homophobic Imagination


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

Part 5: Teaching and Homophobia

The ideal classroom (and critical) situation is a community of all members, but teachers (and critics) tend to create a heterosexual confraternity that excludes homosexuals. The cheap and easy way for a teacher to establish a mild rapport with a class is to stimulate laughter by telling a sexy story — though erotically colored comments are almost invariably invitations to share a heterosexual and sexist merriment (and queer jokes, which are not yet held in disfavor in the faculty lounge, are invitations to share in anti-gay mirth). Virtually all discussions of sexual symbolism in literary works are accompanied by a heterosexually biased innuendo, though a homosexual tends to look with some disdain upon a teacher who experiences uncontrollable giggling at a piece of heteroerotic wit. In virtually all explicit discussions of homosexuality "we" are the heterosexuals and "they" are the homosexuals: the result is that homosexuals are always hearing people talk about "them" as if homosexuals are not present during the discussion. (Heterosexual society is a homosexual back-room joke.) In such discussions, it is insufferably arrogant for a teacher (critic) to say "we" and then to assume that all persons worthy of sharing in that "we" are exclusively heterosexual. (We are the people you warned us against, says a gay lib poster.) This has become such a standard practice that a reversal of the we/they pronouns, as in this issue of College English, is regarded as sufficient evidence to brand such statements as radical. Editors and contributors to learned journals, as well as teachers, continually think of the homosexual members in the audience as a distant hypothesis and the heterosexual members as an immediate reality — a kind of distancing that, however unintentional, reinforces the normal/abnormal obsession.

Teachers whose specialized training has included an intensive study of the English language have been remarkably insensitive to the linguistic manifestations of labelling/taboo/stigma vis-à-vis homosexuality. They have used with impunity all the available shibboleths, however morally hideous and philosophically untenable. English teachers have radically abused the language by adopting the jargon of psychoanalysis ("perversion"), the jargon of sociology ("deviant"), the jargon of religion ("unnatural", a holdover from the Latin contra naturam), the jargon of law (persons are not just said to be homosexual, but "accused/suspected" of being homosexual or "alleged/imputed" to be homosexual). The difference in the choice of qualifiers between the two sentences "Wilde's love for his wife was unmatched by his homosexual love for Bosie" and "Wilde's heterosexual love for his wife was unmatched by his love for Bosie" illustrates the extent to which the term "homosexual" functions in the same way as the word "abnormal." We should like all teachers and critics to henceforth refrain from using the word "love" without a qualifier, for they would then begin to realize that in effect what is talked about as "Love: The Grand Theme of Literature" has been talked about in the narrow terms of exclusive heterosexuality.

In every classroom discussion, critical inquiry, bull session, or daily conversation in which the subject, supposedly, is love, homosexuals have found it necessary to transliterate the terms of reference in order to take it in and weigh it against our true perceptions, and then to re-transpose the terms for an acceptable heterosexual reply. Debates about sex before marriage, for example, still stimulate useful discussions among undergraduates, but the debate, strictly speaking, is as exclusively heterosexual as marriage, and the discussion would be more profitable — even for heterosexuals — were we able to debate the issue of sex before friendship. But instead our contributions to such discussions are usually preceded by a pause during which we note our differences, a kind of reflective conditioning that contributes both to our sense of irony and our lack of spontaneity in many human situations. Happily, the content of this pause is becoming less concerned with "our difference" and more concerned with the fact that heterosexuals are in a narrow groove grown habitual. The severely delimited terms of reference within a heterosexually biased society would be merely laughable were it not for the fact that few homosexuals survive the American school system without the uneasy feeling that we are objects of curiosity, contempt, and ridicule — and, especially, strangers unto ourselves. Society is designed so as to prevent us from getting together to compare notes.

It requires a great deal of courage for a homosexual to be homosexual in a non-sexual situation such as an English classroom discussion. But some remarkable things might occur if we were permitted our freedom. The merely academic knowledge that boys played women's roles on Shakespeare's stage could be transformed into a reality if we listened to a ten-minute commentary by a female impersonator in the class. It is well and good for a teacher to allude to her or his experience as a parent in order to elucidate a poem on childhood — however much this allusion is unintentionally pro-heterosexual — but it would be equally well and good for a lesbian mother to be able to discuss the literary theme of parental fear of rejection with reference to the homophobia that her own child may acquire at school. The alienation theme of literature has a special relevance to homosexuals, and we have hundreds of examples of the subtleties of isolation and loneliness by which to illustrate this theme for the rest of the class. We can contribute to a definition of an author's persona, for we know well what a mask is, both its limitations and its capacities. We want to point out for your delectation and enlightenment all of the erotic puns that you've missed. Gay women have some wonderment to express about the literary theme of chastity and fidelity, and gay men have some Renaissance sentiments to express about faithful friendship. We have some disturbing questions to ask about the naturalness of heterosexuality with respect to the comedy of manners. And we have something to teach heterosexuals about the heterogeneity of love.

In due course society needs to be transformed into a community that will grow rich by accommodating sexual pluralism. This is rather a big order for the English Department, but it may be a specific responsibility of the English Department to at least right some wrongs. Although all of the academic disciplines have contributed to the disenfranchisement of gay people from our rightful cultural heritage, and one of the official functions of educational institutions has been to systematically deprive us of our sense of self-worth, English teachers, whose contact with students is so constant during all the years of schooling as to make them the symbol of the teacher, have in particular contributed to the oppression, the degradation, and the self-loathing of homosexuals. In few other areas of teaching are there so many opportunities to contribute to students' self-awareness, self-growth, and self-acceptance, yet in few other areas of teaching have so many such opportunities been lost vis-à-vis homosexuals. We are not suggesting that English teachers must therefore become subservient to a gay liberation policy line, and we recognize that many teachers are not yet ready to fully endorse, for example, the classroom civil rights of their transvestite colleagues, but we do demand that teachers and critics and scholars and writers cease being subservient, however unintentionally, to the homophobia that characterizes our society.

One thing we have to say directly to the gay teachers in our audience is rather painful. Coming out is not strictly a matter of conscience: it is an academic responsibility. None of our contributors have put it so bluntly. Yet gay liberation has taught most of us that the invisibility of homosexuals is much more of a stigma than a saving grace. Gay teachers who come out may very well lose their jobs at the termination of their contracts, may be disowned by their families and spurned by their friends and colleagues, may be forced to flee small urban areas, and may experience greater or lesser degrees of misery according to their circumstances. Yet gay teachers who do not come out will contribute to this cycle of oppression for our gay students, who, without gay role models or support, will very likely experience the kind of self-loathing, ignorance, and fear that no young person should ever be subjected to. However, gay teachers who do come out will experience that kind of joyful rebirth that we talk about when analyzing initiation patterns in the novel. At the least, we can immediately cast off the burden of deceit and hypocrisy and playing the dull game of credibility at the loss of integrity that consumes so much valuable talent, and is especially so intolerable within an educational context, and can redirect our creative energies and our skills towards self-acceptance for ourselves and our sisters and brothers, however much the gay community is still more of an ideal than a reality. Few of us have ever been able to say "I'm homosexual" without a trembling of the voice that betrays an internalized guilt that we may consciously disavow. Now that we have the opportunity to utter the much easier phrase, "I'm gay and glad," we must seize the day. Those of us who have been out long enough to get over the first flush of excitement cannot in all honesty say "Come on in, the water's fine," for the water is still a bit chilly, but we're still alive and well, and we ask you to join us, because we are convinced that as we grow older in our liberation we shall not have the experience of so many other homosexuals of looking back on inconspicuous lives of quiet discretion with deep unhappiness.

Granted, the existence of an openly gay teacher, particularly a male, and particularly in high schools and elementary schools, raises the awful spectre of what educationalists most fear discussing: the teacher as erotic person. Of course it has never been scientifically demonstrated that homosexuals have a particularly noticeable penchant for pubescents, that we have those Pavlovian skills sufficient to teach straights how to be queer, or even that our goal in life is to undermine the sanctity of the family. But we do have that certain nameless color of the hair: bright and gleaming if only the sun would shine. That color of the hair will continue to prompt the most irrational sorts of reactions, and we are not so naive as to believe that dawn has been placed on the school calendar. When that nasty taboo-word HOMOSEXUAL begins to appear in every committee agenda, as it must, and in every school's course catalogue, as it must, we can anticipate a good deal of paranoia, literal paranoia, about the corruption of the youth and proselytizing pederastic pedagogy in meetings of PTAs and state legislatures. We have taken note that the homophobic backlash has already begun in the states of California, New York, Missouri, Florida, and Virginia, and we only hope that the battle lines have not been so severely drawn that we cannot come to terms. Whatever the political strategies that can be adopted to counteract such irrational attitudes (such as an appeal to sentimentality, as in the movie That Certain Summer), our clearest option within an academic forum is to assume that our audience earnestly desires to act according to reason. We rather hope that a substantial number of the readers of this issue of College English wishes us well at least on the grounds of academic freedom and responsibility, and we urge them to positively welcome our full participation in the educational experience.

Those of us who have participated in the gay liberation movement wish to contribute to education theory our beliefs in the value of alternativeness, openness/ambiguity, and varietism/diversification. We wish to strip the facade from the leadership model of education to reveal its core of male supremacy and its obsession with forcing people into line. We shall contribute to the movement away from the bureaucratic model of education (characterized by hierarchy, uniformity, routine, rules, and authority) and towards the professional model of education (characterized by client-centeredness, flexibility, teachers as facilitators and resources rather than disseminators, discovery-learning, collegial colloboration, and interdisciplinarity). We hope to ensure that university community outreach programs will not attempt to reach around the gay community, and if there is a movement toward the public curriculum, we intend to vocally and visibly demonstrate that gays are a part of the public whose needs must be responsibly met.

Standard reform procedures are slow and laborious, but necessary: the appointment of working commissions, with homosexual representation, to prepare reports and recommend action, at the level of statewide teachers' organizations, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Modern Language Association, the American Association of University Professors, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the beginnings of discussions concerning minimum standards of non-homophobic education and research at the international level, resulting at least, and with all due speed, in official resolutions condemning homophobia in teaching, scholarship, criticism, research, and publishing. Departments of English can arrange symposiums, invite speakers from gay organizations, revaluate the textbooks currently in use, including books for young readers, revaluate employment practices, encourage undergraduate and graduate research through expanded use of interlibrary loan facilities, participate in interdisciplinary gay studies courses, and discuss this issue of College English at a meeting of the full faculty. Individual teachers can morally support gay students unions, can financially contribute to homosexual organizations engaging in the preparation and distribution of teaching kits, can talk about the subject at every opportunity, can get to know their gay students by going to a gay community center and there learn more in a few hours about the varieties of the homosexual imagination than we can possibly demonstrate in this entire issue, and can revaluate their unintentional pro-heterosexual bias, by imaginatively projecting an ever-present homosexual perceptor (at least one of us will be in every class having more than fifteen students) wearing a gay lib button saying, in purple and yellow, "How dare you presume I'm heterosexual!" All of us must begin to teach, criticize, and pursue research in a spirit that recognizes homosexuals as fully the equal of heterosexuals.

In every area in which the profession carries out its most professional duties, a major duty has been the suppression of the homosexual sensibility. Heterosexuals have been debating the homosexual question exclusively amongst themselves for an untoward number of decades, and the prohibition of homosexual contributions to that debate, including the absence of a debate on the heterosexual problem of homophobia, is a serious indictment of the academy. Scholarship has abjectly served what Christopher Isherwood calls "the heterosexual dictatorship." Homosexuals learned nothing new when we read Orwell; it has always been 1984, as near as we can recollect. For an intolerably long time, the academy has refused to admit that homosexual love is a subject worthy of appreciation for its contributions to literature, to criticism, to teaching, to culture — even though a substantial number of authors, critics, teachers, and students are homosexual, including authors on the List of Great Masters, teachers commended for meritorious service, students on the honor rolls. Too often have we sat by while the contributions and insights of homosexuals have been suppressed, misappropriated, and otherwise abused by heterosexual prejudice, and too long have we been forced to assume heterosexual masks for the dubious benefits of passing unnoticed in an academy which is, after all, as much "ours" as "theirs." Gays have uniquely valuable contributions to make to the dialogues shaping our collective culture, and from now on we intend to do so openly, with dignity and pride. The appearance of gay space in this issue of College English is more than a refreshingly novel turning of the tables: it is a step towards human liberation.

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SOURCE: Rictor Norton and Louie Crew, "The Homophobic Imagination: An Editorial", in Rictor Norton and Louie Crew (eds), The Homosexual Imagination, College English, Vol. 36, No. 3 (November 1974), pp. 272-90; copyright 1974 by The National Council of Teachers of English.

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