September 24, 2012

How Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Changed the World

There was one girl who was out as gay in my high school class of 160 kids. I had no idea, because my own drama was far more interesting than other people’s, and I only heard from a classmate many years later that this girl had been out. I marvel now at her bravery and the courage of the boy two grades younger who I’ve heard came out in the years after I left high school. There were no out gay students in high schools twenty years ago, even in liberal, Massachusetts towns such as ours, no gay-straight alliances until that boy I mentioned started one.

In those days, you waited until college to come out, right? That was just when such things were done, if you were lucky. So many of my friends waited until after college. Some were in their mid or late twenties before they finally were able to do what the rest of us had been doing for a decade: walk around without an invisibility cloak draped over a part of who they are.

When friends came out to me, I was happy for them. Overjoyed, in fact, and I remember where I was each time a friend told me, “I’m gay.” Yet, I also understood why some people said, “I’d never want my kid to be gay. I don’t have a problem with it, but life is hard enough without having to fight the world.” I could see wanting to spare a child those years and years of hiding that I had watched my friends go through.

My first semester in graduate school, I took a literary theory class that kicked my ass in just the same way a five-mile run that I only have 45 minutes to complete before picking up Benjamin from dance class kicks my ass (yes, dance class was today, and yes, I’m sore as hell). The professor in this class never told us we were right or wrong, which confused our sorry, overachieving selves. He had us read Foucault and Derrida and Said and Baktin till we were all weeping and begging for something easy like Spivak. At the time, I wavered between wanting to hate him and trying to impress him. I never managed to do either.

For one class, he assigned us Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay.” That essay and the discussion that followed is one of the most memorable parts of my six grueling years of graduate school. It made me realize that the world couldn’t change – wouldn’t change – while we treated being gay or being differently gendered as some sort of liability. Sure, it was “cool” to be a gay adult in certain circles, but that didn’t help matters, either. When I had children, that essay and that conversation stayed with me, and it has informed my parenting.

But here’s the cool part, and here’s what I think people who dump on research in the humanities have missed: that essay sort of changed the world. Theorists like Sedgwick thought through the nuances of the way we approach gender and sexuality in our society. Less brilliant schmucks like me read those essays and it influenced not just our personal lives but the way we write, the way we teach, and the way we bring those ideas out in the world. Sure, most people don’t read literary theory (at least not without a bottle of wine), but the people teaching literature and a fair chunk of the writers about culture sure do. There’s a serious trickle-down effect, and I don’t doubt that a lot of the activism that has changed attitudes has been strongly influenced by the theory that some people like to label as pointless or overly convoluted.

Nowadays, I look at my children and I think, “They’ll come out when they’re in middle school, if they come out at all.” More likely, they’ll just date who they date without even needing labels, which most likely means Benjamin will date everyone. And they can be who they want, wear what they want, and dance their asses off. Is it like that everywhere? Hell, no, as evidenced by my son’s discomfort in New Jersey just because he bent a couple of little gender norms. Or as evidenced by Ben’s attempt to take dance in NJ, which was a very different experience than the class he took today.

But the times, they are a’ changing. Yes, my move to Massachusetts has something to do with this, but remember that I went to high school in Massachusetts, and I was at the meeting where our school principal reminded us that our prom date had to be of the opposite sex. There’s no way that would happen here today.

I like to think that if Sedgwick were here today, she’d be pleased with what she helped to build.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Heather September 27, 2012 at 12:20 am

    I get what you say about the trickle down effect but I wouldn’t equate younger ages of coming out meaning it is easier. My heart goes out to the high school kids I see at gay pride. I’m so glad I didn’t have a clue I was gay in high school.

    Plus, coming out never actually ends. I’ve been ‘out’ for 25 years, partnered for 22 and have 4 kids and almost daily am asked about my husband or something else that requires me to say I am gay or married to a woman or that no, my spouse is not tall but the father of my children is.

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