Seeing Yourself: An Old Incident
Before I get into talking about this, let me note that this happened in a class during Fall term of this year – so a while ago. I bring it up for a few reasons: 1. I randomly thought of it today and it still got my blood boiling, 2. There have been a lot of ally-related conversations lately on campus, and this is an example of someone not realizing that they were acting in a distinctly non-ally way, 3. It certainly affected how I viewed myself, at least for a little bit.
Setting: French class, a class called Banned Books. It’s one of the last days, and we’re talking about how to improve the class – which readings we liked and didn’t like. There’s general agreement about most of the books and poems, but the subject of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) comes up. We had read a lot of those poems, and they’re pretty time-consuming. We were discussing which ones should be kept.
One guy in class states (in French, of course), that he thinks we shouldn’t have to read two whole lesbian poems because they’re long and kinda the same. I immediately jump in and talk about how the poems are linked and you can’t read one without the other. If I remember correctly he brushed that off and kinda said that lesbians weren’t controversial or interesting or something like that.
For those of you who don’t know me and don’t know what reaction to expect, if I had known the curse words in French, he would’ve gotten an earful. Instead, I sat there and stewed in my anger for the rest of class, fuming so much that I couldn’t even speak in discussion. Later I would be puzzled as to why this made me so angry. First of all, I had always found him annoying, but more importantly, as I realized today while reflecting on why it still gets my hackles up, he was dismissing the only representation that I saw, pretty much ever, in academia. I’m not a WGST concentrator, and I don’t take a bunch of English or CAMS classes, so my experience with seeing lesbians in my studies is pretty much limited to occasional French books and movies.
He may very well have been saying that the notion of lesbian love being risque and eligible for banning was old-fashioned and no longer relevant, but I saw my one chance to read and analyze lesbian poetry slipping out the window, in favor of the other poems, which were all about heterosexual love, usually about a guy being a jerk about women in some way or other.
In addition, this further cements the notion that heterosexual desire is universal and homosexual desire a realm only for homosexuals. Kind of like female literature – how often do schools teach The Bell Jar vs. Catcher in the Rye, and how often do we hear guys complain about Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice being too “girly”? Even The Scarlet Letter got that treatment and it’s written by a man! Somehow the male experience is considered universal, and the female experience just a side issue, a specialty genre. You have to take a specific class in women’s lit, whereas men’s lit is a given. Women are often chastised for not liking “male” literature as having no taste or not being able to understand, while men are told they are more manly for not liking literature with too many emotions and love and such. This happens to LGBT media in exactly the same way.
Anyway, the poems themselves were certainly aware that they were in uncharted territory – the characters argue about whether being a lesbian is inherently wrong/evil, but it is also an ode to the power of love and desire. They talk about how regardless of whether they toe the line and get married or separate forever, they will still have their love and desire for each other. The desire between these two women would always be stronger than distance, law, or secondary flings. This is a pretty strong vindication! In addition, the poems were written with love and care – a bit explicit, but in a tender way – these poems weren’t just meant to get other guys horny, they were meant to express fiery passion and an undeniable love. Considering the treatment lesbians usually got in the mid-19th century, this was relatively positive. Or at least existent.
Regardless of the poems themselves, there is something inherently comforting in seeing yourself in literature, film, etc. Why was Beauty and the Beast my favorite Disney movie, Billy the Blue Ranger my favorite Power Ranger, and Spiderman my favorite superhero? Because they were intelligent! Nerdy, even! In Belle’s case, an avid reader who also managed to find the love of her life! They reflected ME. Why did I love the L Word, despite its sensationalism, incontinuities, and horrible final season? Because it reflected ME! Why do I watch the generally horrible lesbian movies (D.E.B.S., Imagine Me&You, Saving Face – not actually horrible)? Because they reflect ME! Through experiencing this, I’ve begun to understand why having multiracial Barbies and ethnically diverse tv shows are so important. People need to see themselves. It’s the same with bodies – young people need to see real bodies, and real people – whether gay, straight, black, white, hispanic, smart, fashionable, outdoorsy, musical, whatever.
This is why I reacted so strongly to his statements – he was unintentionally removing my right to see myself in our class readings. If you asked him, he would probably say he’s an ally – not a super-active one, but certainly not homophobic. He probably doesn’t use “gay” as an insult, and probably has gay friends who he respects and treats the same as any of his other friends. However, because he has that privilege of seeing himself in almost everything he reads, watches, and hears, he didn’t realize just how important it is to others of us who aren’t so privileged.