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David L.

Clark
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English & Cultural Studies 3AA3: Queer Theory, Queer Lives


(Supplemental lecture by Dr. David L. Clark, McMaster University)

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009)


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Prefatory remarks
Epistemology of the Closet
Queer and Now
Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl
How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys

1. Prefatory remarks:
Emerging in the 1980's, queer theory has substantially reconfigured the ways in which
subjectivity gets discussed in contemporary academic and activist settings, this, by mobilizing a
critique of identity politics and by drawing attention to the productive ways that sex, gender, and
desire communicate in other than heteronormative ways. From its origins in the work of Michel
Foucault and in gay and lesbian studies, queer theory has evolved into a heterogeneous and
unpredictable reflection on the roles that bodies and pleasures play in the psychic and social
life of power. With the exception of Judith Butler, no figure has been more important to the
emergence of queer as a critical concept and as a revisionary principle of self-definition than
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
Sedgwicks Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosexual Desire (1985) and
Epistemology of the Closet (1990) may best be understood as two volumes of a history of
sexuality that made queer theory possible. Although indebted to the genealogical analyses of
power, knowledge, and desire modeled by Foucaults History of Sexuality: An Introduction, these
books also refashion that history in three important senses: first, they contest several of
Foucaults historical generalizations, suggesting earlier and other modes of homosexual
definition; second, they provide a conceptual apparatus for analyzing the coarse dichotomy of
homosexuality and heterosexuality shaping modernity; third, they intervene in the field of
feminist theory by insisting on the differences between gender and sexuality. Reconceiving work
by Ren Girard and Gayle Rubin, Between Men analyzes the triangulation of homosocial desire
in a heterosexual cultural matrix. Through readings of canonical 18th- and 19th-century novels,
Sedgwick shows that the paranoid disavowal of male homosexual possibilities is accomplished
by routing those possibilities through women, whose exchange deflects and preserves the
desirous connections that both bond men and police gender identities. Epistemology intervenes
in gay and lesbian studies by arguing that the field is best served by turning away from the
debate over whether homosexual desire is essential or socially constructed, a debate whose
terms are far two narrowing and too fraught with danger, since each side of the debate can be
put to homophobic use. Sedgwick replaces that binary with another: minoritizing vs.
universalizing understandings of gay and lesbian identities. Sedgwick asks: for whom and in

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what way does the violently exclusive dichotomy organizing subjects into either homosexual or
heterosexual identities matter? For Sedgwick, modernity is characterized by a consequential
torsion: the claim that homo/heterosexual definition is an issue only for a minority of
distinctly lesbian or gay individuals obscures the ways in which that definition is an issue that
cuts across the culture in its entirety, forming and deforming it at every level.
Tendencies (1993) marks the explicit emergence of the concept of queer in Sedgwicks work.
In part, queer names the cultural practices by which identities and desires are constituted,
contested and oppressed within genders as well as between them. The critique of sexual
difference--as the primary means of understanding and experiencing identity--that extends to
Sedgwicks earliest work finds its most powerful expression here. Tendencies explores
alternative means of conceiving identities, and in particular insists on the indissoluble link
between queer and the performative: queer not only is, but also does. True to its thesis,
Tendencies is thus marked by experimental modes of self-perception, self-formation, and
relationality. The volume concludes with an obituary essay whose autobiographical engagement
with the psychic and social consequences of sickness points to A Dialogue on Love (1999), a
pathography or illness narrative that Sedgwick writes in the shadow of her cancer diagnosis. This
book is adamantly not about coming-to-terms-with-mortality, but rather an account of her
therapeutic enterprise to find ways of continuing to live athwart the medicalized identity of the
cancer patient. Like many of the essays of Tendencies, this book experiments radically with
genre by using the first-person voice in ways that are nonconfessional and that pluralize rather
than consolidate the self. Sedgwick describes Dialogue as a texture book, as if to anticipate her
next collection of essays, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003). In this
book, Sedgwick gives full expression to her long-standing interest in the enigma of emotion, and
in living out what she calls non-linear and nondualistic thought. Close attention to affective
and textural life sets Sedgwicks work against the regimes of thought and sight that ordinarily
and perhaps inevitably dominate critical thinking, especially in the academy. Sedgwick argues
via a reconception of the work of the American psychologist, Sylvan Tomkins, that thinking is
paranoid in its relationship to knowledge: suspicious and protective, as well as distancing and
possessive. Sedgwicks work seeks not only to theorize but also to exemplify an alternative way
of being in the world which she calls reparative: reading and writing that embraces the
contingency of truth and authorship, and that values unconventional associations. Reparative
practice is evident in much of the writerliness of Sedgwicks work, but perhaps never more
palpably so in her volume of poetry (Fat Art, Thin Art [1994]), and in her more recent
expeditions into weaving and sculpture. An exhibit in 1999 at Stonybrook involved Sedgwicks
textile work wrapped on suspended headless mannequins modeled on the body of their corpulent,
cancer-ridden creator.
Sedgwicks foray into possibilities of self-presentation and reparative thought following her
cancer diagnosis was modeled, in part, by her on-going commitment to AIDS activism (she has
written extensively on AIDS and its relationship to race see, for example, her afterword to
Gary in Your Pocket: Stories and Notebooks of Gary Fisher [1996])), whose emergence and
history is for Sedgwick precisely contiguous with that of queer theory.

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2. Epistemology of the Closet
In an earlier work, Sedgwick explores how men seek a certain gender solidarity among
themselves, seek to create a world between men, and how homosociality functions to make that
possible. Real men denounce homosexuals but participate in an array of palpably desirous
homosocial relations, including the traffic in women. But in her 1990 Epistemology of the
Closet, Sedgwick shifts her focus, and engages the robust discussion that was then happening
and surges up every now and again to this dayabout whether sexual identities were to be found
in nature, or whether they were primarily social and cultural constructions. (This is a topic to
which she returns in the concluding pages of How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay.) Although her
sympathies clearly lie, after Foucault, with sexuality having a history, she also clearly warns
against getting trapped in what she argues is the false clarity that this so-called debate has.
Sedgwick argues that the desire to wish queers away is so pervasive and so profound that
dwelling for very long on any single position about the origins of queer life is completely fraught
with danger. For example, she warns gays and lesbians about the problems of appealing to
nature as a rejoinder to those who insist that gays and lesbians have a moral choice about
who they are. To claim that ones sexuality is in ones genes means indemnity against this charge
of having a choice and of making the wrong choice. But we also live in an age of increasing
fantasies about the technological manipulation of genes, and as Sedgwick says, fantasies of gene
screening and gene therapy whose objective is the eradication of gay genes cant be far away
the very spectre of eugenics, the most extreme case of the faith in administering, producing,
and policing human life, with which Foucault concludes History of Sexuality.
So, the move in Epistemology is to shift the focus of the discussion of where it was, trapped in a
debate over the relative merits of constructivist and essentialist accounts, to the power of a quite
different distinction, minoritizing and universalizing ways of considering queer life. This
distinction is not without its own problems and incoherencies, but it gets us to a basic question:
for whom, exactly, is the homo/heterosexual definition a central problem, a central difficulty?
Is the question of defining the homosexual a concern and a problem only for those who are
declared to homosexuals or call themselves such? Or is this definition of significance for the
entire social and cultural body? Sedgwick sympathizes most with the latter view, the
universalizing view, but she never lets out of her sight the complex ways in which the two views
complicate each other, and play themselves out together in modern culture. To recap: Sedgwick
moves the discussion from the question, What is the etiology or origin of queer life? to How
does the invention of a homosexual identity form a centrally significant part of the larger system
of discourses that creates and regulates subjects?
As the very title of her book, Epistemology of the Closet, suggests, the closet remains the focus
of knowledge and power swirling about homosexuals and fully implicating their lives in the lives
of heterosexuals, without which, the very idea of a closet would be impossible. Sedgwick points
out that knowing and not-knowing, knowledge and ignorance, speaking and non-speaking are
hardly opposed in this complex setting, but overlap and inform each other in all sorts of

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formative and de-formative ways. Not-knowing can sometimes be put in the service of
authority....that is, knowledge does not always equal power; sometimes non-knowledge, and the
deliberate wish not to know, in the primary means by which power works. The example that
fascinates Sedgwick is the open secret of same-sex desire: something is known about an others
desires, for example canonical writers like Shakespeare, but remains unacknowledged, i.e.,
known but in the mode of not-knowing: and that is to lock up an author in the strangest of
places. [Think, for example, of the U.S. militarys policy of Dont ask, dont tell: homosexuals
are allowed to serve as long as they arent queried about their sexuality and dont disclose that
sexuality---meaning you can and cannot be in the military and be gay or lesbian, or rather, you
can be in the military in the mode of not-being who you are. These are the kinds of powerful
shaping incoherencies that Sedgwick argues both form and deform contemporary culture.] As
Sedgwick points out, we live in a culture in which there is a certain compulsion or imperative
not to speak of homophobia: the claim not to know anything about homophobia, or to claim that
it is all a mere matter of personal taste rather than woven into the very fabric of modern culture,
or to claim that your rights and interests as a heterosexual are being trampled by gays and
lesbians and those who speak affirmatively about their own rights and interests, or to claim
that it is all a matter of political correctness, nothing moreand so forth, all these are strategies
by which to enforce a certain silence around homophobia. Silences and not-speaking, in other
words, are also speech-acts, and these silences have a binding force in a culture, just like speechacts that actually involve something being said powerfully and aloud. For Sedgwick,
heteronormative authority or power feeds off of these contradictions and indeterminacies, and is
made all the more powerful for them. Sedgwick spends a great deal of effort in this book
demonstrating that in a heteronormative culture, these kinds of incoherencies and contradictions
energize forms of exclusion.
Sedgwick begins by noting that the the reign of the telling secret remains fully in force (p.67).
Gay liberation, the events of June, 1969, and the whole promise and power of gay selfdisclosure, has not meant the end of the sexual secret, or the end of the authority attached to
ensuring that that secret is revealed, disclosed. If anything, there is even more public fascination
with gay uncovering, an increasingly intense atmosphere of public articulations of and about
the love that is famous for daring not speak its name. That story, that narrative, Sedgwick
argues, remains resilient and productive.
Sedgwick notes that there are remarkably few openly gay people who are not also in the closet
with someone who is personally or economically or institutionally important to them (p.67-8).
And each encounter with a new class of students, or a new boss, landlord, doctor erects new
closets. At the very least, these encounters, which are part of everyday life, exact from gay
people new surveys, new calculations, new...requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. An out gay
person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesnt know whether they know or not.
And it impossible to know if that knowledge would be important or not (p.68). Sedgwick
reminds her readers that a gays or lesbians can and do deliberately choose to remain in or
reenter the closet in some or all segments of their life, whether to seek protection from violence,
therapy, distorting stereotypes, insulting scrutiny, or insults. In other words, for queers, the

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closet remains a irrepressible if complexly shifting feature of social life. There are relatively few
gay people, however courageous or forthright by habit, however fortunate in the support of their
communities, whose lives arent shaped by the closet. But to emphasize the shaping presence of
the closet is not to deny there hasnt been consequential change for gays and lesbians, or for any
other form of dissenting sexuality or identity. So Sedgwick begins noting the risk of devoting
considerable scholarly energies to tracing the history of the closet, especially since this is a
history that lacks a saving vision. This isnt a redemptive history, ending with everyone
having come out, having received universal respect, a brave new world of what Foucault once
called bodies and pleasures. Without a saving vision, without a decisive turn for the better,
the risk will be writing as if the closet were inevitable or somehow valuable in its exactions, its
deformations, its dis-empowerment and sheer pain.
Sedgwick turns to a specific and telling instance of the incoherencies swirling around the closet:
the case an 8th grade science teacher named Acanfora who is fired by a Board of Education in
Maryland when that Board learned that Acanfora was gay. The two relevant court decisions
regarding the case are revealingly illogical, and respond to the distorting force fields around the
question of sexuality and disclosure. One court finds that Acanfora was out too much,
bringing undue attention to himself and his sexuality, and that is what made him unfit to teach.
The other court argues that disclosing his sexuality is protected by the 1st Amendment as free
speech. But the same court also determined that he had not disclosed enough on his original job
application, and so had disqualified himself as an applicant for the teaching position (p.69) from
the start. Here it is not so much the teachers sexuality that is the acceptable grounds for denying
him employment, but the ways in which knowledge about that sexuality is managed. Acanfora
cant win, Sedgwick argues, and so the space he inhabits as a gay person who is a teacher is in
fact bayoneted through and through by imperatives of disclosure that is at once compulsory
and forbidden (p.79). These court decisions (and another, Rowland v. Mad River Local School
District, involving the firing of a bisexual counsellor for coming out to colleagues) are part of a
larger exclusionary cultural matrix that codifies an excruciating system of double binds and
contradictory constraints on gays and lesbians. Perhaps the most powerfully tormenting legal
decision, though, is Bowers v Hardwick, about which the Supreme Court had just ruled when
Sedgwick was writing her essay. (I discuss the details of that judgment later, in my remarks
about Queer and Now.)
In a move that is typical of Sedgwicks work, and that she will discuss in Queer and Now,
Sedgwick turns to literature to find a robust and nuanced language with which to pursue the
question of disclosure, secrecy, knowing, non-knowing, and the closet for fully. She evokes the
work of Jean Racine, the 17th-century French playwright, whose Esther significantly rewrites the
central story of the biblical Book of Esther. Racines Esther is centered on a highly potent scene
of coming out, a scene that is rich with transformative possibilities. Esther is the story of a new
queen who conceals her Judaism from her husband, who is king. In Racine, the Queens
deception is made necessary by existing prejudice that treats her own people as unclean, as an
abomination against nature. And indeed, the King is surrounded by advisors who quite
specifically dream of a planet without the Jews (p.76). This genocidal impulse prompts Esther to

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disclose her Judaism, but knowing the huge risks involved. The plot question in Racine is
whether intimacy, love, and respect will triumph over the destructiveness of holocaustal forms
of exclusion and abjection (p.76). As it happens, the revelation of identity in the space of
intimate love effortlessly overturns an entire public systematics of the natural and the unnatural,
the pure and the impure (p.76). Upon hearing his wifes disclosure, the King abandons his
murderous prejudice. Racines telling of this ancient story is illuminating, for it brings out how
weighty and occupied and consequential the space of the closet is. Queen Esther makes a
point of noting the Kings surprise at her disclosure: shock at his blindness, his unthought
presumptions about his wife, his inability to see, and then to see the genocidal nature of his own
peoples impulses.
Now, as Sedgwick says, its important not to sentimentalize this scene. In the so-called real
world, an individual revelation isnt likely to have nearly the redemptive power that Esthers
does, saving an entire people from extinction. Still, Racine offers Sedgwick a great deal in this
essay. She uses Racines play to bring out other illustrative or illuminating differences between
coming out gay and coming out Jewish (as in Racines play). The object here is that, by routing
the discussion through Racine, she can spell out how extraordinarily complicated and over
determined coming out is and can be, i.e., to underline how gay identity is a convoluted and offcentering possession if it is a possession at all (p.81).
What are these illuminating differences?
1) Jewish identity in the Racine play has a solidity and unequivocalness for both Esther
and her husband. But gay-self-disclosure often precisely involves questions of authority and
evidence. Coming out, a gay person may well face these sorts of queries: How do you know
you are really gay? What about therapy? In Racine, Queen Esther is treated as having
unquestioned authority over her description of herself, whereas queers must constantly face the
authority of the description of others. (I return to this question in my discussion of Queer and
Now._
2) Queen Esther expects her husband to be surprised...and he is. She has a confident
sense of control over other peoples knowledge about her. Compare the radical uncertainty
closeted gay people are likely to feel about who is in control of information about their sexual
identity. Gays can for example face those who think they know something about one that one
may not know oneself, and when they face such people, they often face someone claiming a
certain position of authority over them. This scene of disclosure can be imbued with power, but
it can also unfold in more sunny and apparently simplifying conditions, such as the mother
who says, yup, I sort of knew that about you already. The point is that a gay person cannot
know in advance how the other who says they already knew will treat that knowledge.
3) Queen Esther worries that her revelation might destroy her and her people, but has no
fear that this knowledge might harm her husband. Gay people come out being told that this
knowledge has the potential to injure others. The parent may experience the childs coming out
as killing them. The fear of being killed or being wished dead by (say) ones parents may

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well mean the parents experiencing themselves as killed, or themselves forced into a kind of
closet.
4) The King seems to have no definitional involvement with Esthers identity; he sees
neither himself nor their relationship differently once he sees that she is different from what he
thought she was (p. 80-1). Contrast gay coming out: the erotic identity of the person to whom
you come out is itself often caught up in the erotic identity that is being revealed. This is
because erotic identities are always relational, never to be circumscribed simply as itself
(p.81). The incoherencies and contradictions of homosexual identity are woven together with the
incoherencies and contradictions of heterosexual identity.
5) In Esther, there is never any suggestion that the King might be a Jew in disguise. But
gay people do face others who are themselves in the closet. To come out doesnt end anyones
relation to the closet--there will always be relations to the closets of others, both friends and foes.
6) Queen Esther knows who her people are, and is immediately answerable to them.
Sedgwick compares the experiences of gay people, who seldom grow up in gay families, and
who are exposed to high ambient homophobia long before they find communities---and who
find those communities only by patching together fragments, a heritage, and a politics of survival
or resistance. By contrast, Queen Esther has a noble identity and history to hand.
Sedgwicks emphasis in each of these points of difference between Racines scene of coming out
and the contemporary scene of coming out is the same: to bring out the incoherencies that
quicken modern conceptions of same-sex desire and gay identity, contradictions that are
connected to and that in fact answer to the incoherent ways in which heterosexual desire and
identity are conceptualized (p.82). As Sedgwick notes, by nowi.e., the early 1990'sshe is able
to assume rather than argue the extensive research work that has already been accomplished, in
the wake of Foucault, that interrogates the self-evidence of the supposedly symmetrical
opposition of gay and straight lifei.e., the question the way in which that opposition is made to
feel self-evident, natural, something that always was and always will be. We now have an
extraordinary weight of evidence pointing to how this opposition is a relatively recent oneto
talk of a person in the Renaissance or the early modern period as being a homosexual, for
example, would be a terrific anachronism. As we know from Foucault, it isnt until the19th
century that we see a period of intense interest in naming this new kind of creature, the
homosexual, a project that is so urgent that it spawned in its rage of distinction an even newer
category, that of the heterosexual person (p.83).
As Sedgwick says, to unsettle the self-evidence of the gay/straight opposition is not to dismantle
it. Why would anyone want to do that, since so many men and women find the name
homosexual, or its what she calls its more recent synonyms, a useful, powerful, and apt
description of their own lives. As she says, applying it to yourself can seem well worth it,
notwithstanding the enormous risks and costs. Sedgwick notes that after the Stonewall riots, the
mostly male gay liberation movement offers little in the way of discussing or analysing the
hetero/homosexual definition itself other than speaking of what comes after the moment of an
individual coming out (p.85). Those analyses miss the productive incoherencies or
contradictions of the hetero/homosexual definition. Two contradictions, two scenes in which

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explanations of queer life compete for attention, interest Sedgwick, and quicken most of her
argument here:
1) The culture holds a minoritizing view of gay life and a universalizing view at the
same time. That is to say, that there is a well-established view that there is a distinct population
of people who are gay, unproblematically and self-evidently gay; plus there is the view that
sexual desire is an unpredictably powerful solvent of stable identities, i.e., that desire can
unsettle identity, that apparent heterosexual persons can have same-sex identifications and
desires, and the vice versa for homosexuals. Think of the ways in which masculinist culture
appears to require the scapegoating of same-sex male desire, it seems to demand the existence of
sissies to be itself (p.85). Another example of minoritizing and universalizing understandings
operating simultaneously is to be discovered in AIDS education, Sedgwick suggests. AIDS
education is energized by a minoritizing discourse of risk groups that threaten an imagined
general population. But this minoritizing discourse competes with a universalizing discourse of
acts, of safer sex, where the focus is less on unsafe identities and more of unsafe practices.
A universalizing discourse in AIDS education insists that what matters when it comes to HIV is
not who you are but what you do.
2) But the co-existence of minoritizing and universalizing understandings is not the
only major conceptual siege under which modern homosexual and heterosexist fates are
enacted. The other pressure point surfaces in attempts to define the relation to gender of
homosexual persons and same-sex desires (p.87). In the last pages of Epistemology of the
Closet, Sedgwick turns towards this additional dominant contradiction--what she calls the
contradictory tropes of gender through which same-sex desire could be understood, or could
be thought to be understood (p.87). As she points out, there are tellingly competing ways of
experiencing and understanding homosexual gender (p.89).
a) There was once, and still exists, in the image of sissy boys and mannish girls,
figures for sexual life that remain available to gays and lesbians who are seeking a language with
which to describe themselves. It is certainly not the only language, but Sedgwick affirms its
ongoing pertinence and richness, notwithstanding the fact that the same language can also be put
to the most homophobic ends. Here, homosexuality is imagined as a kind of inversion: a
womens soul trapped in a mans body, and vice versa (p.87). Whats worth emphasizing here is
how this argument preserves a certain heterosexuality within desire itself. In other words, this
understanding of homosexual experience reproduces the oppositional elements heterosexuality
within itself. In this model, desire is a kind of alternating current that runs between one male self
and one female self, whatever the sex of the bodies these selves may inhabit.
b) There is also a trope or figure of gender separatism, a very different way of
imagining homosexual life that operates at the same time as the figure of inversion. Here,
gender-separatist models put the woman-loving woman and man-loving man at the defining
gender of their own gender, not at the threshold between genders. Under the aegis of this kind
of understanding, much has happened: for example, a stunningly efficacious coup of feminist
redefinition to transform lesbianisms, in a predominate view, from a matter of female virilization
to one of woman-identification (p.84). Under the terms of this understanding, lesbians look for
identifications and alliances among women in general, including straight women....since, as
women, they are part of Richs lesbian continuum (p.89). Sedgwick suggests that it is

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impossible not to acknowledge a certain sympathy for this separatist projectthe argument that
gays, lesbians, and others might be forgiven for segregating themselves by gender in order to
escape the enormous cultural sink-hole or gravitational well of a hetero normative culture.
3. Queer and Now
This essay forms the introductory chapter to Sedgwicks influential 1993 book,
Tendencies, arguably the first of her books to move the discussion away from one centred on
gender to one centred on sexuality and the specific matter of queer. This essay is written in the
form of a series of bulleted points, as it were, bringing to mind a dispatch from what Sedgwick
experiences as a front-line conflict. Into these dispatches, Sedgwick caches a short description of
three Projects, three research endeavors. She provides these descriptions to demonstrate by
example the productivity of queer theory and critical practice, the ways in which it fruitfully
generates many different sorts of work. But Sedgwick is also staging something hereand that
is the scholar who doesnt have all the answers and is instead very much a thinker-in-progress.
Sedgwick starts thought with the haunting image of the suicides of queer teens, and with an
indictment of a culture that despoils queer energies and lives. (As you know, queer teen
suicides are very much in the news these days, a phenomenon that has prompted the It Gets
Better Project [http://www.itgetsbetterproject.com/], in which individuals record videos
affirming the sanctity of queer life. But it should be said that IGB isnt without its own
problems. As Jasbir Puar argues, "Although lauded by gay liberals for having done something to
address the recent spate of queer youth suicides, critics note that queer people of colour, trans, gender
queer and gender nonconforming youth, and lesbians have not been inspirationally hailed by IGB in the
same way as white gay male liberals." See:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/nov/16/wake-it-gets-better-campaign )

Sedgwick points to some of the different ways in which the despoiling of queer energies and
lives functions:
some parents say that they would rather see their kids dead than gay.
gay and lesbian teachers are routinely harassed or fired.
kids are denied information, support, and respect.
kids are denied access to condoms to protect themselves from HIV.
the examples of under-funding and de-funding of research into sexuality and youth.
all adolescents are subjected to ferocious pressures to conformbut not equally. Some
youths experience this pressure in ways that are hardly imaginable to heterosexual youth.
As Sedgwick argues, the long history of the administration and regulation of queer youth leaves
a profound mark on queer thinkers and activistsi.e., the men and women who were once queer
kids, but are now queer adults in a position to think rigorously about queer life. For Sedgwick, it
matters to acknowledge what queer survival means, a condition of hurtfulness but also defiance.
She is moved by what it means to have lived through a queer-eradicating youth, and then to be
living in a world characterized by the violence of gay and lesbian bashing, as well as the fear

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and loss of the HIV/AIDS emergency. What can it mean not only to live in a time when the
deaths from AIDS related complications is peaking in North America (i.e., around 1993), but also
during a period in which homophobia spikes because of the irrational belief that HIV is a gay
disease? (Characterizing HIV as a gay disease is in Sedgwicks terms a terrifically
destructive instance of the minoritizing view of queer life.) Sedgwick registers the fear and
loss in which she is steeped at that moment, including losses to AIDS that often remain
ungrieved, because without being allowed to mourn them publically. Amid these deleterious
conditions, though, she maintains that there is a great deal to affirm. Sedgwick views her work
as an example of that affirmation, of keeping faith with vividly remembered promises made to
ourselves in childhood. Note how for Sedgwick, childhood is a space of queer performancesof
speech acts like promises that make otherwise invisible possibilities and desires visible. She
calls for others openly to challenge queer eradicating impulses deforming the culture. And
where that is not possible, she calls for the smuggling of queer things where they can and need to
be smuggled. Some queer work remains clandestine.
Sedgwick associates this queer work with her own academic life, and locates it in the unique
relationship that she had long forged with poems and novels, literary works that have a kind of
incandescent suggestiveness for her, a strange opaqueness and recessiveness and indirectness
from which she always drew solace, sustenance, affirmation. She points to the passionate work
of struggling to rest from literature sustaining news of the world, ideas, myself, and...my
kind. Literature and life taught her to be a perverse reader, a reader reading texts against their
own grain, and attending closely to those voices that seem at first seem to be the least accessible.
Sedgwicks emphasis on literature marks one difference between her project and that of Judith
Butler, whose archive tends to be more philosophical, and is often developed in the context of
philosophy. Sedgwick routes her queer project through literature, a strategy we see very vividly
in her use of Racines Book of Esther.
An important part of Sedgwicks work as a perverse reader is her long history as a queer
teacher. She recalls teaching a gay and lesbian studies course at Amherst College (in
Massachusetts) for the first time (in 1986, a date that always pleasantly shocks me, if feels so
early, so prescient and courageous), and pauses to reflect on the special pedagogical challenges
that were associated with teaching what was then a hardly realizable field in the university.
Consider Sedgwicks account (White Nights 4-5) very closely, for she is speaking of
undergraduates like you. Why is this classroom scene included in her essay? How is she using
this particular setting to explore questions of desire, sexuality, heteronormativity, teaching, and
learning? What revealing resistances did she face in her class?
Sedgwick goes on to ask a question weve seen before in this course: Whats queer? Although
she acknowledges that it is impossible and unproductive to answer this question decisively, she
points to some of the answers that have quickened her own work. Queer stands as a term for the
myriad ways a theorist might unsettle or unbind all the elements that are condense in the notion
of sexual identity, elements that she lists on p.7. The list gathers together knowledges and

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presumptions about oneself and others that a heteronormative culture assumes you and I have to
hand, knowledges that then are assumed to align, buttressing each other. These include:
you should have or believe you have a sex, male or female.
you should have a gender assignment, corresponding to your sex.
you should know the sex and gender assignment of your preferred partner.
your sexual fantasies and desirous life should be congruent with your sexual practices.
But as Sedgwick points out, many individuals live lives for whom these silent presumptions
just dont match everyday life. Contrast the life lived under the aegis of all these interlocking
assumptions and presumptions (p.6-7) with what Sedgwick calls queer life, the open mesh of
possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when
the constituent elements of anyones gender, of anyones sexuality, arent made or cant be made
to signify monolithically. On p. 8, Sedgwick provides a richly suggestive list of the sorts of
queer lives she is imagining. In what ways does this list remember....and revise, re-perform, the
list that we saw in Foucault, i.e., the account that he provides of the proliferation of species of
sexual identity in the 19th century??
Queer can mean still other things for Sedgwick. True, it can mean simply, same-sex object
choice....as if that in itself could be characterized simply! As she points out, it is always
perilous to deny this elemental meaning to queer, or even to move this particular meaning from
queers definitional center, since such a move is made in an environment that is already so
risky for queers. Judith Butler acknowledges a similar danger in her own work when she
discusses destabilizing the meaning of lesbian and of being a lesbian. How is her
acknowledgment different from Sedgwicks? What is the difference in the critical vocabulary
each thinker uses on this question? But it is also possible and indeed important, Sedgwick points
out, for queer to include articulations that cant be subsumed under gender and sexuality at all:
the ways that race, ethnicity, postcolonial nationality criss-cross with all the other available
identities and identity-producing discourses. And history has proven Sedgwick right. Since the
publication of Tendencies, queer research has extensively explored the various ways that desirous
life is never isolated from these other founding experiences, including race, ethnicity, and
nationality. Another way of thinking of this question is to consider how, for Sedgwick, the
hetero/homosexual definition forms a kind of gravity well whose effects are far-reaching,
forming and deforming elements of the culture that at first glance you might not think were
involved. Other essays in Tendencies, for example, investigate the complex ways in which
modern sexuality emerges at the same time as the emergence of the nation-state, or the
emergence of other identities, including the identity of the addict, on the one hand, and the
strictly sober person, on the other.
It may well be, Sedgwick wagers, as if thinking aloud, that queer is finally something which one
can only say about oneself, i.e., that it is most productively a designation rooted in how you
experience and understand and intuit yourself. Queer is what I am at this moment that I describe
myself and experience myself as queer. At the very least, anyones use of queer about

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themselves means differently form the use of it about someone else. Queer is here what she
calls a speech act, a provisional and inherently unstable declaration that brings something
about, rather than simply describing something that already exists. Sedgwick experiments with
this notion of queer as a way of dissenting from a culture that often assumes authority over gay
identity. Queers are told so forcefully what they are by others that they can become distanced
from themselves. Recall how in Epistemology of the Closet Sedgwick remembers how
coming out is often met with a kind of policing skepticism: Are you sure you are gay? What
about seeing a therapist? I.e., queers account of themselves, their attempts to do justice to their
own lives (to recall Butlers essay), must compete with the presumed authority of others
accounts of their lives. Queers are strongly encouraged to cede naming authority to an other. It
is against that surrender that Sedgwick argues for the value of queers having the chance to name
themselves---although it is important to note that that performance is a performance, a speech act
this inherently changeable and experimental, because shifting from context to context. And as
Sedgwick notes in Epistemology, naming oneself will include naming oneself a homosexual.
This is a term that does have real power to organize and describe their experience of their own
sexuality and identity, and for that reason this categorization commands respect. She puzzles
about the robustness of this category, and registers the fact that it hasnt disintegrated over
time. That fact that it hasnt is not because of its intrinsic meaningfulness to those whom it
defines but because of its indispensableness to those who define themselves against this
pressure.
Sedgwick turns to describe the range of her current research interests, each an expression of the
critical energy that is unleashed by a queer understanding:
Project 1: This work explores the different ways to make legible the culturally central,
apparently monolithic constructions that naturalize heterosexuality. Heteronormative
understandings go without saying, a fact that she contrasts with queers, who are often compelled
to speak, compelled to say who and what they are....or be dismissed as dissimulators, liars, as
withholding information that should not be withheld. There is a weird and destructive
asymmetry between speech relations surrounding heterosexuality and homosexuality (p.10), an
asymmetry that has binding legal force in the U.S. in the form of the 1986 Supreme Court
decision called Bowers v Hardwick. This is the case that Sedgwick also discusses at length in
Epistemology, a case that cannot be reduced to a mere legal judgment, but is instead treated as
symptomatic of much larger cultural assumptions that are as forceful as they are incoherent.
(Recall that one of the main theses of Epistemology is that heteronormativity is incoherent,
i.e., it makes utterly contradictory demands in which queers find themselves caught.) Briefly,
Bowers is the court decision that officially declared that privacy rights were limited in the U.S.,
but limited in a very telling way. The Supreme Court upheld already existing state sodomy
laws, arguing that privacy rights applied to consenting heterosexuals but did not and could not
apply to consenting homosexuals. Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau famously said that the
state has no business in the bedroom of its citizens, but the American Supreme Court ruled that
the state in fact has business to conduct in the bedrooms of queer citizens. Technically speaking,
the sodomy laws applied to both heterosexuals and homosexuals, but the Supreme Court was

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conspicuous for narrowing their terms so that they were applicable only to homosexuals....or to
those it imagined were confirmable as homosexuals. For as Sedgwick and others pointed out,
the Court proceeds as if it were capable of reading minds, and somehow knowing who or what
a homosexual was. How could that be? The judge who wrote the Courts opinion argued that to
claim homosexuals had the right to privacy and liberty under the American Constitution was to
make a joke of the Constitution! In other words, the Supreme Court justices, the most respected
legal minds in the country, deemed that Mr. Hardwick, the man from Georgia who had been
charged with sodomy, could not competently make his case in the first place, since he could not
be taken seriously and could not be arguing from a serious premise. The Bowers decision
concentrates a broad set of deforming assumptions at work in the culture, an incoherence about
what is private and what is public. In America, as Sedgwick points out, public names a space
where cross-sex couples have the discretion to display or not display affection, while same-sex
couples have no choice but to conceal; whereas private names a space where cross-sex couples
are protected from state scrutiny, but same-sex couples are open to surveillance and legal
intervention and prohibition.
Project 2: Sedgwick points to her ongoing interest in how queer desire is caught up with speech
acts, utterances that dont merely describe things but actually perform the actions that they
name.
Project 3: Focusing on speech-acts returns us to the question of what Sedgwick calls
experimental self-perception and filiation (p.9). To describe a life as queer is in this sense to
describe a life-in-progress, a contingent and self-devised life, within the already existing identityproducing and policing discourses, or what Sedgwick often calls the hetero/homosexual
definition. Project 3 speaks to this possibility, noting how, in the near-term, she wants to be
thinking and writing about herself as a breast cancer survivor. In ways that surprised her, the
diagnosis, surgery, and treatment associated with breast cancer were connected to questions of
gender, sexuality, and identity formation that she had already been exploring. As she wryly
notes, losing all her hair to chemo, and walking around as a totally bald woman, is one way to
get a handle on the social construction of women. On p.12-13, Sedgwick speaks movingly and
precisely of her experience with breast cancer, and especially the ways in which enduring this
illness and its treatment brought out, as never before, the instability of the supposed oppositions
that structure an experience of the self. Those presumed-to-be-stable oppositions waver and
shatter in the midst of the illnessor rather, are shown to have always already been unstable.
These tensed oppositions include fear and hope, thought and act, safety and danger, each set of
opposed terms also quickening and troubling queer life. [You might be interested to know that
Sedgwick was for several years a writer for MAMM Magazine, perhaps the leading breast-cancer
advocacy magazine, writing a column called Off My Chest in which she answered often quite
pragmatic questions from readers...questions that she later told me were all made up by her.] But
Sedgwick does not dwell on her cancer, and instead hurries on to speak about something else--the way in which her experience of illness, first diagnosed in 1991, connects her more complexly
with the community with whom she had always most closely identified, namely gay men and gay
male cultures, men and cultures which, at that very moment, are enduring terrible and

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disproportionate losses to HIV/AIDS. Her diagnosis, illness, and treatment unfold in the midst
of this larger historical context, AIDS and the critical politics surrounding it. As Sedgwick
remarks, this moment in history is one in which men, women, and children sicken and die, but it
is a moment in which AIDS disproportionately affects and devastates gay men. And it is also the
moment in which AIDS galvanizes an activist movement that is co-incident with the emergence
of queer theory. Activist groups seek better drugs, better health-care; they forge community
organizations in the complete absence of anything like a social safety net in the U.S., in which
protecting the general population is deemed to be much more important that coming to the
assistance of HIV+ gay men. AIDS activates a certain queer assertiveness, and Sedgwick
notes how AIDS activism owes a great deal to the womens health movement of the 1970s, and
how the breast-cancer activists in turn owe a great deal to AIDS activist, modelling some of their
strategies on that activist. For all their differences, Sedgwick notes, both AIDS and breast-cancer
are each caught up in the question of secrets and outness, of being made available both to friends
and to those who are the farthest thing from friends (p.15).
Her illness, and the illness of so many others, is happening in the midst of another context, which
Sedgwick calls, ironically, My War Against Western Civilization (p.15). This point in her life
is also the period in which Sedgwick and her work gets scandalized. Ordinarily the work of
humanities scholars is ignored by the media and by the state, so it is extremely telling to note
when that studied indifference to the university gets lifted, which scholars are publicly
denounced as dangerous. It is important to remember that in the U.S. there is a form of
journalism, often written by academics or former academics, that is deeply censorious in nature
about the university and especially about what is imagined to be unfolding in humanities
classrooms. Talk about strap-on dildos comes to mind in the context of our class! These
writers normatively categorize some scholarly work as degenerate, wasteful, and harmful. The
publication of Sedgwicks essay, Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl, triggers this
denunciation and contempt in the American media...although, as she notes, the essay was so
troublesome that it was denounced before it was published, and even before it had been read!
(The reaction Sedgwick worries here recalls some of the reactions to Dr. Laura Robinson, a
professor at the Royal Military College, who argued in 2000 that Anne of Green Gables is a book
rich with evocations of lesbian desire....and assertion for which she was publically and
repeatedly denounced.) The viciousness of the attacks, the deeply anti-intellectual forces that
they expressed, seems all of a whole with other insults, Sedgwick says, i.e., other ways in which
the culture goes out of its way stupidly to deplete its own resources. Consider the remarkable list
of the ways that this wasting happens on p.16. What appals Sedgwick is the wide-spread and
long-standing anti-intellectualism that these journalistic spasms (or sex panics, as Rubin might
say) express, the ways in which this impulse restricts and suffocates public discourse and
democratic politics. And as Sedgwick is scrupulous to note, anti-intellectualism is hardly
confined to the political Right. It can be expressed by the Left as well, especially in the form of
the claim that scholars are elitists in ivory towers who unwilling or unable to speak to the
concerns of the real world, so called. The response to Sedgwicks work is probably homophobic
in its impetus....but it is also part of a larger societal denunciation and fear of reflection,
speculation, experimentation, contradiction...daring...close reading, among other things....all

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those things she calls thought or thinking. As for the claim that academics are elitiststhat is
more complicated than it at first appears. For as Sedgwick notes, one source of the resentment
directed against humanities scholars, the anger that is way, way out of proportion to the actual
effects that humanities scholars have, comes from a hatred for those whose work rhythms are so
entirely at odds with the rhythms of others, the millions whose working days are in the service of
corporate profit, and who have little or no control over their work. Academics, especially
tenured academics, have an unusual degree of control over the nature and timing of their
research; moreover they connect to their work in a unique way....with palpable pleasure.
Knowledge and pleasure, as Foucault says, are two sides of one coin. And so when you have
academics whose object of study is sexuality, and when sexuality is so closely identified with
pleasure, then you have the potential for all sorts of odd reactions.
4. Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl
As Sedgwick notes, the very phrase and title of her essay became an index of depravity in
academe (p.109). Question: what is the connection between denouncing scholarship about
masturbation as degenerate and denouncing masturbation as degenerate?
Sedgwick notes that, in a certain way, it looks like weve come a long way since earlier in the
twentieth century, when masturbation was vilified as pathological, self-destructive, sickly, and
degenerate. As several authors on this course have noted (including Rubin and Foucault),
masturbation was the focus of several sex panics since the 19th century, periods that see the sharp
intensification the scrutiny and regulation of bodies. The youthful masturbating body and the
youthful masturbator was installed as a means to exert control, while at the same time inventing
the very idea of an masturbator-identity. But now, youd think masturbation was okay, given
how it forms the butt of so many jokes in popular media. Yet Sedgwick notes the nervousness
surrounding her work when it was first aired. Perhaps this unease is a tacit acknowledgement of
the ways in which the palpable pleasures of focussed scholarly reflection and those of
masturbation overlap. Theorists like myself, i.e., scholars that not only study objects but also
study the study of objects, are said to be engaging in mental masturbation, meaning that we are
pleasuring ourselves with no obvious productive or reproductive ends in sight (p.110).
Sedgwick notes the curious ways in which masturbation also has a history, but how that history
swerves from the history of sexuality as Foucault and others have described it. Before the
hetero-homo cleavage, before the modern notion of sexual identity organized around same or
opposite sex object choice, before all this there was an earlier distinction: between
autoeroticism and allo-eroticism (p.116). Phobias about masturbation are as old as the Old
Testament, but in Europe they suddenly become obvious and compelling in the mid 1700's.
Anti-masturbation discourse appears at first to apply to everyone, but then quickly and revealing
divides or differentiates along gender lines. Anxiety about boys masturbating leads to all sorts of
mechanisms of school discipline and surveillance. Anxiety about girls who masturbate feeds into
the emergence of modern gynaecology, and indeed to calls for forms of genital surgery (we get a
horrifying account of such surgery on p.120-1), or contributes to the birth of new illnesses, like

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hysteria, and the birth of new treatments, like psychoanalysis (p.117). Foucault says that the
masturbator, male or female, was but one of a lush plurality of regulated sexual identities.
But as Sedgwick argues here (and as she does in Gender Criticism), what Foucault did not
explain was how that plurality got so ferociously circumscribedi.e., narrowed--by the 20th
century, overridden in this triumph of the heterosexist homo/hetero calculus (p.117).
Sedgwick says that what she wants to do is explore how the masturbator was not one sexual
identity among many, but was uniquely formative. It played a unique role in the history of
sexuality, and thus in the history of the remapping of identity that Foucault identifies with
modernity (p.118).
The masturbator drops out of sight in existing histories of sexuality, including Foucaults,
Sedgwick notes....and that leads to the masturbator dropping out of sight when we read texts that
were a vital part of that history, including Jane Austens novels. The question is how to develop
a reading strategy that does justice to the complexity of desire in early 19th century novels like
Austens wonderful Sense and Sensibility. (Id love a student in this class do a scene-by-scene
analysis of Ang Lees 1995 film of Austens novel...remember that Lee is director ten years later
of Brokeback Mountain. Is Lees Sense and Sensibility a Brokeback Mountain for girls? For
masturbators?) The dropping out of sight of masturbation and of auto-eroticism is the result of
the anachronistic imposition on Austens novel of a somewhat later point in the history of
sexuality. Looking back, we tend to view Austens characters through a certain hetero-normative
lens, and this does several injustices to Austens writings. It disguises the rich, conflictual erotic
complications of homoeroticism in the books, a homoeroticism that has not yet been
crystallized into something like sexual identity. And these readings heterosexualize novels like
Sense and Sensibility, when cross-sex loving doesnt sufficiently explain all that we are seeing
happening there (p.118). Even homosexualizing the novels may fail to do justice to the
complexities of the desires staged there; i.e., there are desires that are not easily described as
either homosexual or heterosexual. To be sure, parts of the bookespecially associated with
Marianne Ashwoods older and supposedly sensible sister, Elinor--make themselves available
to the heterosexual romance plot (p.119). Finding and marrying a suitable mate of the opposite
sex, thereby making desire productive, remains an important engine of the novels narrative. But
there are other plots, other forms of desire at work here, Sedgwick observes, if you have the
eyes to see them: how to bring these desires into the foreground? How in particular to see the
ways in which Marianne Dashwood, perhaps the most mysteriously constructed female character
in Austen, has an erotic identity that is neither same-sex loving nor cross-sex loving, although
she loves both women and men. She has an erotic identity that today no longer exists as an
identity: that of the masturbating girl.
What follows here are several pages of a close analysis in which Sedgwick brings out the
peculiar way in which the book characterizes Mariannes life, at once hidden and visible, desired
or even envied, as well as punished, the ways in which the novel seeks various languages,
including the language of addiction, to speak of the love, or the other love, that dare not speak
its name. Sedgwick boosts her reading of these desires by setting them alongside an 1881 case
history of a girl supposedly overcome with masturbatory desires.

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th

Sedgwick concludes by noting the ways in which Austen criticism in the 20 century has been
oddly complicit in regulating the queer masturbatory desires percolating through the novel. She
cites some inadvertently hilarious instances of Austen critics who bring to bear what she calls
punitive/pedagogical readings (p.126) on her novelsi.e., treating Austen and her characters as
if they needed some sort of normative correction. These readers include those who, for example,
speak of Austens female characters as girls being taught a lesson, or in need of being taught a
lesson, learning the importance of socialization, self-control; and critics who also treat Austen
herself as such a figure in need of discipline, one who grew as a novelist from supposedly
immature, writerly, self-indulgent, and privative desires to something more mature, productive,
public, and open to scrutiny. In both cases, these readers of Austen appear to be responding
anxiously and prescriptively, without even realizing itto masturbatory elements in Austen and
her work. Austen is subjected to the same heteronormative expectations as her characters.
5. How to Bring Your Kids up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys
This essay is kind of sister-essay to The Masturbating Girl, emerging in the early 1990s at the
same charged moment in the history of queer theory, and in Sedgwicks own history as a leading
queer theorist. Its always open season on gay kids, Sedgwick notes. In the U.S., one only
needs to look as far as the federal governments own statements: a Department of Health and
Human Services report that underlines the disproportionate number of queer kids who commit
suicide is denounced by the Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, then secretary of the same department as a
waste of resourcesand risky, since it is imagined to affirm lives that are must instead be
prohibited. Dr. Sullivan is a prominent black physician, founder of the Morehouse School of
Medicine, in Atlanta, a leading educator on the question of HIV/AIDS in the black communities.
The man is not an idiot. But in 1989 he was denying the very existence of queer youth suicide:
even to speak of it was to fail to advance traditional family values (p.154).
Sedgwick asks: where is psychiatry and psychology in all this, where are the so-called helping
professions when it comes to helping queer kids? Sedgwick turns to the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual (DSM), a text weve spoken of before in this course. Its the primary
reference book published by the American Psychiatric Association, now in its fourth version,
with a fifth version expected within two years. Originating in a manual prepared by and for the
U.S. Army (surely a revealing historical detail), the text compiles the diagnostic criteria for all
known psychiatric illnesses. It is used world-wide, not only by physicians: it is also a resource
for insurance companies, policy makers, pharmacists, and other health-care providers. Sedgwick
notes only under pressure from gay activist groups (i.e., not from the physician community itself)
did the DSM stopped speaking of homosexuality as a mental illness. That was in 1980, the same
year that the DSM contained a listing for a brand new mental sickness, namely Gender Identity
Disorder of Childhood (p.156), as if to fill in the gap created by the removal of
homosexuality. GIDC is an odd duck, weirdly and tellingly differentiated or different along
gender-lines. Girls are diagnosed with this illness only in the rare cases in which they claim that
they are anatomically male, i.e., that they have or that they actually want to have a penis. Boys
are given this diagnosis, and thus declared sick, if they merely fantasize about what it would be

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like not to have a penis, orand this is the odder thing--if they demonstrate female stereotypical
activities, and participate in the games and pastimes of girls (p.156-7). What do you make
of this differentiation? Why are boys held to a different standard, as it were, for the same
supposed illness? In what ways does this medical diagnosis form part of a larger anxiety about
effeminate boys, boys she describes as the haunting abject...of gay thought itself. Effeminate
boys are disavowed both by a heteronormative culture that fears and despises effeminate men,
but also contemporary gay-affirmative psychiatry (p.158). The latter discourse forms the basis
for most of Sedgwicks analysis in this essay. Two influential psychiatric researchers interest
Sedgwick: Richard Green and Richard C. Friedman.
Sedgwick argues that supposedly queer positive psychiatry works in curious ways. Recent
psychiatry de-pathologizes atypical sexual object-choices; i.e., not to desire someone of the
opposite sex is no longer considered by physicians to be sick and sickeninghence,
pathological--way of being in the world. Thats a very affirmative sign. This new move for
psychiatrists falls into step with a move at the heart of theories of gender and sexuality, in which
sexuality and gender are distinguished. There is no longer a sexuality that is deemed to be
proper to a particular gender: the otherwise naturalizing connection between the two things has
been severed. But this de-pathologization of desire is accompanied by a new pathologization of
an atypical gender identification (p.158). (Recall the importance in Butler of the movement
from sexual desire or attachment to gender identification.) For psychiatry, to perceive oneself as
effeminate, feminine, or non-masculine while at the same time being male is now treated as an
illness. The way in which this uncanny return of the pathologization of queer life happens
among psychiatrists and psychiatric researchers is telling, even among prominent psychiatristresearchers who are in many ways gay affirmative. Some researchers propose something called
Core Gender Identityones basal sense of being male or female as a separate, first stage of
development before anything like a sexualityin a second stage--crystallizes for an individual.
Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood is said to attack the Core Gender Identity in the form of
the failure to develop a Core Gender Identity appropriate to ones biological sex (p. 158).
Researchers must posit this two-stage process to explain how it is that perfectly healthy gay and
lesbian adults do sometimes evolve from children who are seen as psychiatrically ill. So the
paradox with which to wrestle here is this: there are all sorts of reasons why distinguishing
between gender and sexuality is useful, not least of which is that it de-naturalizes sexuality.
There is no sexuality that is proper to a particular gender. But this move has led to a renaturalizing of gender, a sense that if one is born male, then identifying oneself as masculine is
said by some psychiatric theory to be the key to the healthy consolidation and maturation of the
self (p.159). The claim here is that there is a naturally occurring fit between the male social
world and a boys inner world, as Richard C. Friedman says (Friedman is a prominent Cornell
professor of psychiatry). Gay men, so this argument goes, emerge from childhoods in which
their Core Gender Identity fails to find confirmation in the outside world; these kids fail to
find other men to validate them as masculine. And yet, even Friedman, in certain asides and
throw-away remarks, concedes one central point: that so called gender-disturbed boys,
enduring all sorts of anguish and adversity, do in many cases, not all, but many, grow up to
be resilient, competent, and healthy gay men. Thats hard to explain, if you are working within

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the psychiatric model that Friedman is...and he throws his hands up at this point. What Friedman
utterly avoids is the possibility that these mysterious skills of survival, filiation, and resistance
could derive from a secure identification with the resource richness of the mother (p.160): he is
so resolutely focussed on the normative assumption that men can only become men in the
presence of other manly men, that he is blind to the roles that women might play in the formation
of a self.
It gets worse. As Sedgwick says, the re-naturalization and enforcement of gender assignment
is not the worst news about the new psychiatry of gay acceptance (p.161). The news is this:
not what gets said, research wise, by the caring professions about gay people but what is not
said, not said and done. In a searing and articulate paragraph on p.161, Sedgwick is openly
appalled by the ways in which physicians and psychiatrists claim to argue that gays and lesbians
accept themselves, but in fact are complicit with a larger normative impulse to wish gays and
lesbians away. The doctors who otherwise have liberal and progressive credentials, those who
admit that mentally sound gays and lesbians do in fact exist, nevertheless argue the most
atrocious things, as if oblivious to their wish that gay people not exist. These are researchers
who publish books that baldly state that the most ethical use of their skills is the prevention of
gay people (p.163). Note how Sedgwick brings a close readinga skill she soaked up from her
roots in literature and literary studies--to bear on what these researchers actually say: in this
case, looking at what a leading and influential researcher like Richard Green says. (Greens
1987 The Sissy Boy Syndrome and the Development of Homosexuality triggers a wave of
homophobic--because stereotyping journalism, as Sedgwick suggests in a note in
Epistemology [p.85].) Green in effect colludes with a gay-eradicating impulse by falling back
on homophobic platitudes: my desire to see you grow up straight, he suggests, my wish that you
were not gay comes from my desire to protect you from the cruelty of your peers, and from
social stigma. Look carefully at how Green comes to this sort of conclusion by following
Sedgwicks analysis on p.161-163. As Sedgwick notes, too often the same parents who similarly
claim to want to protect their gay kids from social stigma also throw them out on the street when
those kids fail to change (p.163). Green whole-heartedly agrees. It is the responsibility of
parents, he says, to oversee the development of children....Who is to dictate that parents may
not try to raise their children in a manner that maximizes the possibility of a heterosexual
outcome? Greens question is rhetorical: i.e., he assumes that it goes without saying that a
heterosexual outcome is the only right, good, and healthy outcome for children. Green is, as
Sedgwick says, obscenely eager to convince parents that their hatred and rage at their
effeminate sons is really only a desire to protect them from peer-group cruelty, and he does this
even when parents tell him directly that what they are feeling is hatred and rage (p.162-3).
Sedgwick treats Greens question as interrogative, not uselessly rhetorical in kind: Who
indeedif the members of this profession cant stop seeing the prevention of gay people as an
ethical use of their skills?
Sedgwick concludes with an eloquent calls for more work to be done on gender-nonconforming children (p.157). But she notes that even within gay studies, the effeminate boy
remains under-thought, under-discussed. The effeminate boy remains the haunting abjectthis

David L. Clark
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time haunting the abject of gay thought itself. Perhaps the effeminate boy remains so
worrisome because he is a figure for the dire problems associated with queer origins. Sedgwick
brings her essay to a close by recalling an argument that she makes in Epistemologythat there
is no unthreatened or unthreatening place for gay and lesbian beginnings, i.e., for where queer
life begins. Constructivist arguments are of course centrally important to queer politics, as they
are to feminist politics: under the aegis of these arguments, there are no essential identities, no
natural or in-born way of being a desirous, embodied human being. But as Sedgwick points
out, constructivist arguments are also filled with danger, for they inadvertently feed into the
overarching, hygienic Western fantasy of a world without any more homosexuals in it (p.163)
If sexual identities are culturally malleable, then there will be thoselike the psychiatrists that
interest Sedgwick in this essay-- who argue for therapeutic interventions that will ensure a
heterosexual outcome for children and assume that all parents agree. But arguments that look
less constructivist and more essentialist are also fraught with danger, even when they are evoked
as a way to resist the claim that queer life is a lifestyle choice, and thus a choice that could and
should be made differently. To those who say that queer life is a choice, the counter-claim that
I am born this way, and that this is simply who I am, can be a very powerful thing. Sedgwick
will not gainsay its importance in gay-affirmative life and politics. Yet these arguments play into
the hands of those for whom a therapeutic intervention might well begin in the womb, and feed
into fantasies of genetically manipulating unborn kids so that they are born right. In an age
that increasingly dreams of gene-therapies and of manipulating the human genome, the idea of
the medical prevention of queers from even being born isnt far-fetched, not in a cultural
setting that has for so long and with such forcefulness indulged in precisely these fantasies. As
Sedgwick argues in Epistemology, she isnt interested in working with the
constructivist/essentialist language, since it narrows the terms of the exploration of queer life
rather than expands and complicates it. Sedgwick concludes How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay
with what is perhaps her most powerful claim in the essay: where are the discourses that not
only treat queer youth as non-pathological, but also, and perhaps more important, that actively
affirm queer youth, that deliberately and imaginatively seek ways to grow queer youth, to make it
possible for more and more queer kids to emerge and to thrive? Where are the books, studies,
schools, and psychiatrists who offer good advice to parents on how to bring their kids up gay, to
ensure that proto-gay kids grow up queer?