Author: Stephanie S. Hoechst

Assumed Sexuality

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s Blue Talk and Love provides a melancholy, sober look into Earnestine’s life—while her exploration of her ambiguous sexuality is the center of the story, her desire, like those of most teenagers, are hidden underneath layers of body insecurity, feelings of otherness, discomfort, and envy, and worries about her life at home.  Sullivan’s story exposes how complicated sexuality can be, and how coming to terms with an outside-the-norm sexuality can be difficult when one gets so easily distracted by other insecurities.  Just as the story doesn’t expose Earnestine’s sexuality until its end—and never truly explains it—her feelings for Xiomara are hidden throughout the narration, rather than stated as truth by the narrator, or by Earnestine herself.  Earnestine’s father’s issues and her insecurities about fitting into school dominate the narrative, only leaving her sexual orientation as a small thread that gets explored right at the very end.  This construction reveals that sexuality remains private, predetermined, and unquestioned for most of our lives—Earnestine assumes that she hates Xiomara instead of considering that her feelings for Xiomara might be more complicated than that.

Earnestine’s opinion of Xiomara—one of envy and distaste—is revealed to really be the product of her affection for Xiomara conflicting with the norms constructed by society.  Earnestine assumes that Xiomara enjoys having boys chase after her, and that Earnestine herself should be searching for a boyfriend, too.  While her sexuality is never explicitly stated—the narrator acknowledges that Earnestine desires boys as well as Xiomara, leaving her orientation outside the bounds of a label—Earnestine resents Xiomara for her alluring personality and looks.  Sullivan treads a very fine line between the feeling of jealousy when comparing oneself to a more beautiful, more popular girl, and the feeling of longing to be romantically involved with her, and this ambiguity represents what it feels like for Earnestine to explore her sexuality.

Demanding Change

Roxanne Gay’s “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories” examines the relationship between privacy, social visibility, and the responsibility to promote progress that often falls upon those in the public eye.  Essentially, Gay argues first that society places an unnecessary pressure on celebrities and public figures to disclose aspects of their personal lives, especially then it comes to sexual orientation.  Gay argues that the reasons we give for overstepping these bounds aren’t sufficient—to “reveal hypocrisy” for “the greater good” is not a justifiable reason for “forcibly out[ing]” someone.  She argues that our society, so comfortable with freely sharing personal information, feels entitled to everyone else’s information as well.

I found Gay’s argument linking class to privacy interesting, though I’m not quite sure if I agree. Keizer claims that people in a higher social strata have more access to privacy, using the example that a pregnant woman to show how her “condition” becomes more visible.  I don’t know why a pregnant woman’s visibility would change if she were more privileged, so I found that argument a little confusing.

Keizer then examines celebrities coming out, such as Anderson Cooper.  Her observation of a “right” kind of gay was very powerful, I think—recently, a celebrity coming out is a fashionable public statement where the celebrity asserts him or herself and protests against social stigma.  But Gay is right in that Cooper is in a less risky position to assert his sexual orientation, considering that he is, as Gay describes, “not too flamboyant, not too gay,” and that it’s often a lot more difficult for people to come out that Cooper makes it seem.

I really appreciated that when Gay demanded social change from heterosexuals, she gave specific examples of stopping using “gay” as a slur, stopping supporting artists like Tyler, the Creator, and voting for marriage equality.  I’ve found it really frustrating when authors simply spend their time explaining a problem and then just saying, “this is wrong,” without ever really citing specific examples of how a reader might be able to help the issue, so I found Gay’s outcry more powerful because of her specificity.

Overstepping Bounds

Michael Cobb’s response to Justice Kennedy’s comments about the value of marriage made me realize how backwards it is that the government gets to define what a “legitimate” relationship is. At first, I was a little confused as to why Cobb was taking offense at the Obergefell v. Hodges case—after all, shouldn’t he be pleased that all couples have the constitutional right to marry?  However, after reading it again, I realized his issue with Kennedy’s remarks were deeper than the simple permission granted by the Supreme Court—he was really asking why government should assume the right to define marriage as the supreme goal and declare solitude as an undignified state.

I thought Cobb’s examples of single government officials was very interesting—clearly, Senator Graham’s deflection of questions about his potential lack of a First Lady reveal the government’s trivial obsession with marriage.  His examination of the statistics of unmarried vs. married people in the United States also makes it very clear that the US population does not consider marriage to be the be-all and end-all of life, and suggests that if Justice Kennedy defines marriage as the highest form of dignity, then 124.6 million Americans are therefore undignified.

It’s definitely difficult for the government to treat a topic this sensitive with entirely political correctness, but to me, I agree that Justice Kennedy overstepped in making so many sweeping remarks about the meaning of marriage that, supposedly, the government assumes is true for everyone.  Public statements like Justice Kennedy’s are assumed to reflect the sentiment of the entire Supreme Court, so Justices definitely have to be careful in order to not offend anyone.  Kennedy’s remark, however, certainly reveals how the government feels about marriage—it’s their job to define what marriage legally is, and it appears that Kennedy now believes that the government also has the power to define what it is socially as well.

“Repression” and Modern Discourse

Michel Foucault’s introduction to The History of Sexuality grounds his examination in the repression of sexuality during the Victorian era.  Foucault questions whether we are truly unshackled from these same expectations of discretion and silence regarding the discussion of sexuality, likening us to the “other victorians,” or those individuals like “the prostitute, the client, and the pimp, together with the psychiatrist and the hysteric,” who accepted sex in spaces hidden from society (4).  By titling his essay “We ‘Other Victorians,’” Foucault suggests that we still tend to abide by this concealment of sexuality in the public sphere, yet questions whether we are truly “repressed,” or arbitrarily consider ourselves to be so.  Foucault examines sexuality’s relationship with power, its presence in modern discourse, and our own guilt regarding our previous prohibition of sexuality in the public sphere in order to outline the rest of his book.  He stipulates that he does not wish to base his examination of the history sexuality solely in terms of its repression; rather, he wishes to track how knowledge and discourse about sexuality disseminates and who has control over such information.

Foucault’s article is the introduction to the rest of his book, so some of his arguments are rather general.  Much of the article explains his goals in examining the history of sexuality rather than actually examining them, making his tone appear more ruminative than argumentative.  However, he does make several observations about our modern discussion of sexuality, such as our own fixation on our sexual repression and the effects of the Victorian era’s rejection of sexuality.  I found the article to move in many different directions at times, but overall I would be interested to hear what Foucault has to say in some of his more concrete examinations of the history of sexuality.

A Scientific Approach

I found Laura Kipnis’s “Against Love” to take on an incredibly cynical tone.  Kipnis describes modern love with scientific precision, which I found to be a little too cut-and-dry to really encapsulate the different approaches people take towards long-term companionship.  She essentially reduces the social contract of “mature love” to an established and empirical set of observations that, in her opinion, prove love demands submission.  She even refers to subjects as “mates,” a term that sounds very scientific, as though Kipnis is an outsider looking in, objectively parsing out the intricacies of this social practice from a distance.

In this sense, Kipnis jumps to many conclusions that may or may not necessarily be true—that “opening up” is automatically an “arcane” and “uncomfortable” experience, that an expression of needs necessarily means that a partner has already failed to meet them, and that loss of autonomy is inevitable (which may be true, but may not be an entirely negative experience).  While I enjoyed the article and found its observations on the somewhat inexplicable social expectations of love to be witty and original, I don’t believe that modern love is simply the sum of these expectations—there’s a lot more to it than what Kipnis describes, and I don’t think we can turn against love simply because there are some acts of submission may be necessary to build a relationship.