Science Fiction Studies

#77 = Volume 26, Part 1 = March 1999

Wendy Pearson

Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer

Fiction, then, can be divided according to the manner in which men’s relationships to other men and their surroundings are illuminated. If this is accomplished by endeavoring faithfully to reproduce empirical surfaces and textures vouched for by human senses and common sense, I propose to call it naturalistic fiction. If, on the contrary, an endeavor is made to illuminate such relations by creating a radically or significantly different formal framework...I propose to call it estranged fiction. -- Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (18)

1. Introduction: Fear of a Queer Galaxy. On November 25, 1998, the memberships of the U.S.S. Harvey Milk and the Voyager Visibility Project (offshoots of the lesbian and gay sf group, the Gaylaxians) issued a call for a boycott of the then soon-to-be-released Star Trek: Insurrection. After nearly two decades of lobbying the producers of the various Star Trek shows and movies for the inclusion of a lesbian or gay character1 in a cast intended to represent all types of humans (including a variety of racial and ethnic types, as well as both sexes2) and quite a miscellany of aliens, the group’s membership has finally, it seems, had enough. Curious as it might seem at first glance, sf shows seem to be the last hold-outs in a medium that is rapidly accommodating itself to the idea that there really are lesbian and gay people in the "real" world that television claims, however peculiarly, to reflect (in precisely that mode that Suvin labels "naturalistic").

Spokespeople for the Voyager Visibility Project note, trenchantly enough, that despite the addition of visible lesbian and gay characters to non-sf television shows, "it is just as important as ever to show that gays and lesbians will exist and will be accepted in the future." The heteronormative assumptions behind much science fiction, both cinematic and literary, are very neatly exposed by the circular reasoning with which the producers of Star Trek refute demands for visibly non-straight characters: homophobia, they say, does not exist in the future as it is shown on Star Trek; gay characters therefore cannot be shown, since to introduce the issue of homosexuality is to turn it back into a problem: in order for Star Trek to depict a non-homophobic view of the future, it must depict a universe with no homosexuals in it.3 Clearly, logic is not a pre-requisite for would-be television gurus.

Nevertheless, while I certainly acknowledge that a visible gay or lesbian character on the cast of a Star Trek show would be a politically astute move for those whose day-to-day politics are focused on an inclusionary, rights-based approach to ameliorating the conditions in which lesbian and gay people live, it’s worth asking whether the inclusion of a gay character on a show that presupposes an already heteronormative view of the human future can be said to "queer" that future in any significant way. If a lesbian officer is shown on the bridge, for instance, or a gay male couple is shown holding hands on the holodeck, either might certainly be an instance of "cognitive estrangement" (to borrow Suvin’s term) for many audience members, but neither instance would necessarily be queer. Of course, the producers will have to use a little -- and one might suggest that it would only take a very little -- imagination in showing us that their new lieutenant, shall we say, is lesbian, without making her sexuality into a "problem."

Moving from a consideration of Star Trek to sf in general, I suggest that the presence of a lesbian or gay character, while not per se a radical or subversive strategy, may change one thing, for a particular reader, the reader who is unused to—and is perhaps searching for—a gay/lesbian presence within sf. In this case, the naturalization of a lesbian or gay character within a plot that has nothing explicitly to do with sexuality may, temporarily, function as a novum for this reader, just as the incidental revelation in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers of Johnny Rico’s blackness did for Samuel Delany.4 In this case it is not so much the character as the character’s environment that produces cognitive estrangement, since the character goes unremarked within his world and is not marked as different, either racially in the case of Rico or sexually in the case of our putative gay/lesbian character. It is precisely this revelation that the Voyager Visibility Project wishes the producers of Star Trek to provide for its viewers: the vision of a future in which queerness is neither hidden nor revealed as difference, but is simply there. Given the ubiquity of political, religious, and social commitment to the continual reinscription of hetero-normative "family values," this strategy may be queerer and more subversive than one might at first think.5

For the remainder of this essay, I want to explore what might be implied when one combines the terms "queer theory" and "science fiction." This contemplation will circulate around two quite different strategic interventions of "queer" into the world of sf—one is the performance of a "queer reading" and the other is the recognition of a "queer text." In speaking of queer readings, I want to make it clear that this is not necessarily a strategy most usefully applied to already queer texts; similarly, I want to suggest that the inclusion of gay and lesbian characters or issues does not make a text queer. The answer to my earlier question—what would queer Star Trek?—presumes, then, a movement beyond the inclusionary towards a radical re-writing of the assumption within the show of the naturalness, endurance, and fixity of our current understandings of sexuality and its relationship both to the sex/gender dyad and to sociocultural institutions. To return to my Star Trek example one final time, the portrayal of a marriage between, say, Lieutenant Tom Paris and Ensign Harry Kim would certainly be gay—likely in both senses of the word—but it would not necessarily be queer.

What, exactly, do I mean by "queer?" Or, as an esteemed elderly colleague of mine was heard to say, after reading my partner’s M.A. thesis proposal, "Isn’t queer a bad word?" Of course, queer is a bad word. Despite the particular joy with which both academics6 and activists (often they are the same people) have reappropriated it, for the majority of gays and lesbians "queer" is still an insult, too often accompanied by bottles, fists, or the blows of a baseball bat. Because queer theory is a politically engaged form of academic work, most people immersed in the field are only too conscious of the ethical implications of this reappropriation. Queer resonates not only with its pejorative usage, but also with its mundane connotations—odd, strange, eccentric. In fact, the first definition in my dictionary explains it as "deviating from the expected or normal." Any attempt to define "queer" within a postmodernist theoretical milieu must take into account the context through which we come to understand this deviation: is the deviation itself a misunderstanding by society at large of the fact that we are all human, that lesbians and gays deviate from the normal only in terms of our choice of romantic and sexual partners, a difference which is itself understood in this formulation as minor, even inconsequential? Or does queer deviate from the "normal" in ways that are radical and subversive, dedicated to exposing and challenging an ideologized teleology that reaches beyond sexual attraction to reveal the deeply un-natural and constructed nature of our understandings of biological sex, the performative nature of gender roles, and the sociocultural institutions founded upon this ideology? Or, to put it in its simplest possible terms, is queer a politics of identity or a politics of difference?7

My answer to this question is dependent on my own sense of where queer comes from: a dissatisfaction with both the universalizing (all gays are alike) and the segregating (gay men and lesbians are different) style of "identity politics" influenced by an ethnic model of gayness; the late twentieth century’s intellectual shift to a more contingent, discursive, and localized understanding of the production of knowledge; and AIDS. The construction in the West of AIDS as a disease identified with homosexuality and the concomitant rise of an overt and death-dealing homophobic has discourse reinforced the existing tendencies towards political engagement and consciousness on the part of those theorists, critics, and activists whose work has been gathered under the rubric of queer—even when that term has not always been used by the individuals themselves. Nevertheless, queer remains, both within the academy and among gays and lesbians in general, very much a contested term. As Annamarie Jagose points out in her survey of queer theory’s origins and meanings: "Given the extent of its commitment to denaturalization, queer itself can have neither a foundational logic nor a consistent set of characteristics" (96). Queer’s very slipperiness, however, its tendency towards instability and its pleasure in resisting attempts to make sexuality signify in monolithic ways, are all parts of its appeal. Furthermore, queer suggests a move towards not just a different conception of sexuality, but also towards a different understanding of subjectivity and agency. Lee Edelman notes, in "The Mirror and the Tank," that

To the extent that we are capable of identifying those junctures where the gay subjectivity we seek to produce recapitulates the oppressive logic of the culture that necessitated its emergence, we have the chance to displace that logic and begin to articulate the range of options for what might become a postmodern subject; we have the chance, in other words, to challenge, as Andreas Huyssen suggests postmodernism must, "the ideology of the subject (as male, white, and middle-class [and we must add, as he does not, heterosexual]) by developing alternate and different notions of subjectivity." (111)

How, we might ask, does sf allow us to develop alternate notions of subjectivity? What practices of representation have developed within the genre to allow for the expression of a subject who is not male, white, middle-class, and heterosexual? To see the potential within the genre for postmodern and, specifically, queer subjects, we need only look at the works of Samuel R. Delany and Joanna Russ. As with each of these writers, sf provides for the potential queer author more than a possible field in which to represent an alternative subjectivity. Its very popularity, its resistance to interpellation within the "mundane" field of literature, provides tools for the author who wishes to avoid the dangers of mimesis that have typically hampered gay and lesbian writing in the naturalist mode. The Cartesian subject of realist fiction always risks reincorporation back into a naturalized and faithful reproduction of "empirical surfaces and textures vouched for by human senses and common sense" (Suvin 18).

Furthermore, sf has a long history, dating back at least to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, of questioning systems of thought, particularly those we now label metanarratives (science, history, and so on), even as it appears to—and sometimes does—valorize notions of scientific method, objectivity, and progress. Queer, with its denaturalization of master narratives and its movement towards subcultural and subaltern understandings of texts, operates, by analogy, on some of the same levels as sf. As Earl Jackson points out, "Science fiction offers a tradition of representational formalization of a worldview in which the subject is not the cause but the effect of the system that sustains it" (102). This insistence that the subject is the effect of the system neatly recapitulates the imbrication of alternate narrative strategies with dissident subjectivities, with a refusal of the Cartesian subject. This resonates for me with precisely the strategic rationale behind Samuel Delany’s call to resist attempts to reclaim sf as "literature." In Jackson’s words,

Delany’s theoretical blueprints for and his own examples of the kind of critical fiction that the science fiction writer can achieve revalorizes the "fictive." The specific importance Delany places on the paraliterary differences of the genre at once constitute a challenge ... to the dominant obfuscating obsession with "authenticity," while providing eloquent theoretical grounding for that challenge as well as for textual practices that prioritize specification over referentiality, the production of meaning over the repetition of "Truth." It is science fiction’s foundational infidelity to the "real world" that affords the fictive world the status of a critical model. (125)8

In the remainder of this essay—which is literally un essai, an attempt, to see how sf and queer may illuminate each other—I hope to bring some of this "theoretical grounding" to bear on the actual practice of sf as it has evolved over this century. In so doing, I am going to suggest a variety of models for understanding the intersections of queer with sf at the level of the text. These may include, first, the sf narrative that is not overtly queer, but that can be read analogically within a specific historical context and sensibility; second, what one might call the "proto-queer" text that, although not queer itself, effects a kind of discursive challenge to the naturalized understanding of sexuality and its concomitant sociocultural surround; third, the text that is coded as queer, but in such a way as to hide in plain sight—this is the narrative equivalent of the "open secret," the one which everybody knows, but no one wishes to call attention to, at least not within the specific historico-cultural milieu in which it was written; and finally, the overtly queer text, the text which questions the "naturalist fiction" that sex and gender and sexuality are matters of "human senses and common sense."

While this list may have the appearance of being categorical and complete, I want to insist that these "categories" are nothing more than tentative and temporary attempts, readings-in-process of a subject (and subject matter) that is itself in process. None of these readings, then, are necessarily authoritative nor can they take place outside a historical and cultural context, since what is hidden from one audience is plainly visible to another, and what can easily be seen from one perspective is indecipherable from another viewpoint. Like "queer" itself, my discursive strategy in this essay will require movement backwards as well as forwards, will prove on occasion slippery and even fractured in its attempt at narrative, and will remain, no doubt, contestatory and contested.

2. (E)strange(d) Fictions: Who Goes There?

Each of us with an eye on the other to make sure he doesn’t do something—peculiar. Man, aren’t we going to be a trusting bunch! Each man eyeing his neighbors with the grandest exhibition of faith and trust—I’m beginning to know what Connant meant by ‘I wish you could see your eyes.’ Every now and then we all have it, I guess. One of you looks around with a sort of ‘I-wonder-if-the-other-three-are-look.’—John W. Campbell, Jr., "Who Goes There?" (108)

I once asked my science-fiction class, during a seminar discussion of The Left Hand of Darkness, whether they could draw any parallels between the construction in the novel of Estraven as a traitor9 and the history, recent at the time Ursula Le Guin wrote the novel, of the House Committee for Un-American Activities. What, they responded, was a House Committee for Un-American Activities? I asked if any of them knew who Joseph McCarthy was—and received eighteen perfectly blank looks. What did the phrase "commie pinko queer" mean? Well, they could parse parts of it—"commie" was a communist and "queer" was, well, you know—but they couldn’t put the parts together. What could being communist possibly have to do with being gay, or vice versa? And what did either have to do with The Left Hand of Darkness?

Queer how things have changed, isn’t it? And now—belatedly—I should warn you that discussions like this, of sexuality and particularly of sexuality in the context of the fluidity and semantic sensitivity of queer theory, inevitably lead to bad puns and worse jokes. The stories invoked within the complex field of attempting to understand how we exist in the world as sexual beings are fraught with double entendres, contradictions, misapprehensions, and (un)faithful reiterations—so much so that one might, in fact, be tempted to agree with Leo Bersani when he argues that, at heart, most people really don’t like sex (95). Certainly we fear its power, just as we fear being exposed as different. But unlike the differences of race and biological sex, sexual difference is often invisible.10

I would like to offer, as my first example of a possible application of queer theory to sf, a reading of John W. Campbell’s classic "Who Goes There?"(1938) against the cultural anxiety that enveloped ideas about homosexuality in the era surrounding WWII. At its height, this anxiety was related to a widespread desire to return to a vision of pre-war morality and lifestyle,11 in part by persuading women to return to the home, and in part by repudiating a practice of unspoken but official tolerance—within fairly strict limits—for gays and lesbians in the military and in government service.12 The backlash was spectacular, exacerbated as it was in most of the Western world both by xenophobia and anti-communist propaganda. It is also one of those historical events that exhibits particularly well the imbrication of misogyny and homophobia: both the women and the queers had to be put back in their place. At the same time, the need to reassert heteronormativity was reflected in cultural production by a proliferation, particularly within sf, of both stories and movies which demonized the Other—already a prevalent theme within the genre. While these sf tales are normally viewed as allegories of the dangers of communism, they can also be read as warnings of the dangers of homosexuality to the emergent nuclear family: whereas in Nazi Germany, the Jew and the homosexual were metonymically the same person,13 in the US and Canada, the communist and the homosexual were seen as representing so clear and present a danger to the American way of life as to render them virtually indistinguishable.14

However, in order to carry out such a policy, or to police it, one must be able to identify "the enemy." Women, except for the occasional passing butch, were relatively easily identified. But how does one recognize a "homosexual"? The problem of how to identify the alien in our midst, the queer who could pass, remained fraught both for governmental institutions and for "ordinary" people. Lee Edelman, in his study of the discursive contradictions underwriting the conceptualization of sexuality in this time period, points to the ways in which, on the one hand, queerness was envisioned as always already written on the body, while, at the same time, queers were feared in part because of their ability to "pass" ("Tearooms and Sympathy" 151-156).

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising to find a proliferation of stories and films fixated on the danger of the alien who is able to assume human guise and travel unseen amongst us, wreaking havoc on the nation and destroying the family. Among films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is probably the best known, although the film version of Campbell’s story, The Thing (1951), certainly merits an honorable mention. Just as Frankenstein’s tale of the monster created from within can be read in a multitude of ways that focus on the revelation of different kinds of monstrous births—in at least one of which it can be read as an originary story about the parent’s, especially the father’s, fear of producing a queer child (queer as different serving always synecdochically to bring into view queer as sexually different)—so "Who Goes There?" serves as a near perfect example of the way in which the story of the alien who passes as human derives from the precise confluence of anxieties that serve to claim, at the same time, that homosexuality is always written on the body and that it is always able to pass.

In "Who Goes There?" the alien—and a very nasty alien it is, too, with an immutable drive to conquest that may be part guilty imperialist conscience and part fear of the Other—has been frozen into the ice of Antarctica for twenty thousand years. A team of researchers finds the alien ship, retrieves the solitary frozen specimen, and sets out to thaw and study the apparent corpse. That the alien is not innocently dead is presaged by the dreams of various members of the all-male team; even frozen, it appears to be able to exert some sort of telepathic and perhaps suggestive pressure on the human mind, luring men into unconsciously betraying both themselves and their species.

The revived alien takes over the bodies of other species, merging with them and consuming their physical being, so that each in turn becomes the Other. The alien imitation of the "normal" man is so perfect, however, that it remains undetectable by all the tests that the men are initially able to devise. They know that some of them have become monsters, but they do not know which. The threat is internalized, as all of these apparently human males are involved, one way or another, in a race to discover a test that will reveal (that is, make visible) the monstrosity lurking in the guise of human before the alien is able to muster enough strength to escape Antarctica and conquer the remainder of the planet. The tone throughout the story is minatory, every scene replete with the unseen but omnipresent threat: "An air of crushing menace entered into every man’s body, sharply they looked at each other. More keenly than ever before—is that man next to me an inhuman monster?" (118).

The conversion from human to alien is figured in bodily terms that are reminiscent of the sexual act. The men, caught in the monster’s gaze, are passive victims of its alien seductions—Connant, for example, stares into the living red eyes of what is supposed to be a corpse but it seems to him "of no more importance than the labored, slow motion of the tentacular things that sprouted from the base of the scrawny, slowly pulsing neck" (95); he puts up no resistance, psychological or physical, to his absorption by the alien. The actual moment of alien takeover is never shown to us, taking place discreetly "off camera"; yet it is figured in terms of both consumption and consummation: the alien inserts a part of its substance into the men, taking them over completely. Contacts with identifiable versions of the alien are depicted in terms of violence of very specific types: the men burn it with a fiery probe, they fall upon it and virtually tear it to pieces which they then cauterize, and they attack Blair—the first convert and last survivor—with yet another equivalent of the red-hot poker:15

The huge blowtorch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue. The Thing on the floor shrieked, flailed out blindly ... crawled and howled. (123)

The alien seduces men into submission to its will and then uses their appropriated bodies as the means by which to assimilate the remaining men. The men, some of whom are already aliens in disguise, argue about its imitative abilities, concluding that a perfect imitation "would take a superhuman skill" (102):

"It would do no good," said Dr. Cooper, softly as though thinking out loud, "to merely look like something it was trying to imitate; it would have to understand its feelings, its reactions. It is unhuman; it has powers of imitation beyond any conception of man ... no [human] actor could imitate so perfectly as to deceive men who had been living with the imitated one in the complete lack of privacy of an antarctic camp." (102)

The fear of the perfect imitation, undetectable even within an environment as intimate as the camp, resonates with the fear that the gay male can imitate "real" men so perfectly as to pass undetected in the most masculine of environments. The imitation should be detectable—written on the body of the gay man pretending to be straight—yet he remains undetectable within the military, the government, and—most frightening of all—the family.16

The alien is also unable to reproduce and is portrayed as having, by necessity, to recruit its forces by converting the normal in literally physical ways—consumption and appropriation—into the monstrous. In addition, what gives the monstrous alien away in the end is its selfishness, the one thing that distinguishes it from the valorous altruism of real humans. McReady explains that every part of the alien is a whole—even its blood once it’s split off—with the result that, being too selfish to sacrifice itself for the good of the species, the new part will strive to preserve itself: "the blood will live—and try to crawl away from a hot needle."17 There is a resonance here with the populist conception of the gay man as selfish, a conception which may have arisen, in part, because he’s seen as refusing to share his genes and perform his male role in perpetuating the species, but which may also be partially a bowdlerization of Freud’s theories of the role of narcissism in the psychosocial construction of the male homosexual.

Not only is there an extremely dark homoerotic tone underwriting both the construction of and the threat against this closed all-male society (traditionally the one environment in which homosexual activity is most likely to take place among men who do not define themselves as gay), but the threat is also conceived in terms that replicate the particular rhetoric with which the heteronormative forces of the political and religious right have chosen to characterize the threat of the (male) homosexual: he is endlessly but inexplicably seductive; he cannot reproduce and so must convert in order to continue his species; he is the monster who comes from within, since he is, by necessity, produced by apparently normal heterosexuals; and he is able to vanish and to remain nearly undetectable, free to work his wiles against all of those institutions Americans hold most dear.18

There are powerful resonances between the historical understanding of dissident sexuality, particularly homosexuality, from the turn of the century through to the beginning of the gay liberation movement and the construction of the alien in this story. Nevertheless, I do not mean to suggest that this reading of the story is necessarily more authoritative than or precludes other potential readings. It does serve, I think, as a useful example of how that peculiar, imprecise thing we have come to call "queer theory" can illuminate the connections between, on the one hand, a particular perspective on our sexual ontology and its origins and, on the other, a science-fiction story about the dangers of aliens who can pass invisibly in the midst of "normal" people. Not surprisingly, it is Blair, the first alien convert, who argues for a viewpoint not based on an attempt to naturalize a normative ideological formation, when he tells the other men that they "are displaying that childish human weakness of hating the different" (94). Given the events of the story, "hating the different" would appear to be just what the doctor ordered.

3. Alien Nation: Visualizing the (In)Visible

... it is a central purpose of art, in conjunction with criticism, to expand the realm of conscious choice and enlarge the domain of the ego. It does this by making manifest what was latent, a process that can be resisted, but not easily reversed. And so even those who dislike what I have had to say may yet find it useful as a warning of how things appear to other eyes .... Thomas M. Disch, "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction" (155)

Cultural constructions of visibility operate like magic: they make certain things disappear, or appear only in very particular contexts. Let me tell you a story. Once, about a decade ago, on a long and boring car ride with a young woman I scarcely knew, I found myself running out of topics of conversation. It was all too obvious that everything that interested me bored her. Her descriptions of her fiancé, on the other hand, bored me, but might, I thought, at least give us some commonality on an aesthetic level. So, as we waited at a stop light, I pointed out a particularly lovely young man. She perked up, gazed in the direction of my pointing finger, and finally said, with much puzzlement, "Where?"

"Right there," I said, "at the bus stop."

"I don’t see anyone."

"Sure you do—that good-looking black guy...." And at that moment I looked at her blonde hair and contemplated the story of her Norwegian husband-to-be and finally figured it out.

You see, now I’ve told you a story. It’s one that functions—as sf itself often does—on the level of analogy. On an academic and intellectual level, we are generally conscious—I hope—of race and racial issues. It’s no longer completely improbable to us that a young white woman, someone who probably would describe herself as not at all racist, would be unable to see a young black man in this context.19 We understand this story. It is less clear to me that we—that is, all of us—understand the other story, the one by which queer people in plain sight escape the heterosexual or, perhaps more precisely, the heteronormative gaze. This is the other half of the story: while "Who Goes There?" replicates the concern with the gay man (or lesbian) who "passes" invisibly within the larger society, other queer people, their history and their cultural production, remain invisible and unrecognized, even when that invisibility comes at the cost of a willful act of blindness.

Now I can theorize this peculiarity of the heteronormative gaze in reference to feminist theorizing of the gaze20 itself or—in a useful analogy to heteronormativity—to work by people like Richard Dyer on the visual and cultural meanings of whiteness, or to the larger discursive strategies of post-colonial theory. Furthermore, I can also explain the invisibility of queerness within the text, specifically, by reference to the work of critics and theorists such as Alan Sinfield, who have labored to make visible the invisible and to demonstrate the usefulness and importance of reading from a subcultural position, whether it be queer or racial, ethnic or gendered, a matter of class or location. Such theoretical constructions are useful, perhaps essential, to what I’m calling queer theory, since they help to explain the seemingly quixotic inability of heteronormative institutions (which largely includes academia itself and also, I’m sorry to say, often includes sf, both readers and critics) to see anything queer in a text, an image, or the world itself.

Thus, on the one hand, a queer reading can be a reading against the grain, where one looks at a text from what is clearly a subcultural position: often that involves reading the text through the cultural and historical milieu in which it is written; that milieu is not, however, understood in hegemonic terms, but rather through the historical and sociocultural perspectives afforded by the reader’s subculture. On the other hand, a queer reading may set out either to reveal or to recuperate what is already in some sense a queer text, usually a product of a history in which writing as a gay man or as a lesbian was impossible or dangerous. Such queer readings also provide alternative understandings of texts that cannot be labeled gay or lesbian, since those subject positions were not available to their creators. Thus, for example, we queer certain, indeed many, Renaissance texts. This does not, however, imply that their authors are "queer" or gay/lesbian or even homosexual, since those categories are all modern; it does imply, though, that we can recognize within the texts the traces of an alternative or dissident sexual subjectivity that may be revealed through close and careful reading within both a historical context and a theoretical framework. Such a reading is delineated, for example, by Earl Jackson when he attempts to map the strategies by which deviant subjectivities can be represented within the text. Jackson notes the necessity for a decoding practice, a cryptography of the text, which is historically contingent:

Like the Renaissance sodomite, the nineteenth-century "Uranian" relied on phallocentric mythographs of masculine self-overestimation to disguise his fantasies—he sought a visibility through which he could remain unseen. This defense allowed the writers or artists to elude surveillance while conveying their hidden meanings to those whose desires enabled them to read the codes. (51)

While it is possible to argue both that such subterfuge was historically necessary—and may still be necessary for those desiring to have their work commercially published, at least in some fields—and that it was a self-defeating strategy in terms of a nascent homosexual identity politics, such encrypting of meaning should not be understood as necessarily subversive. Both Sinfield and Jackson note the containment by hegemonic forces of coded texts: one can be a little subversive so long as one remains below the synaptic threshold at which the dominant regime is forced to take notice. Furthermore, as Jackson notes, "Although the perverse resignification of dominant masculine iconography provided a cryptography for an ‘outlaw’ community, its mimesis of patriarchal autoaffection was too well executed to disturb the dominant meanings of those expressions" (51).

The mimetic reproduction of a hegemonic vision of the world is itself a historically contingent process, in the sense that codes that are indecipherable to one decade or age or to one set of people may become obvious to another. Thus, for example, we have masculinist readings of the stories of James Tiptree. Jr—Alice Sheldon’s male pseudonym and alter ego—that are wholly lacking in irony. Tiptree was praised for "his" understanding of the male psyche, and texts that, to us, are not only obviously but almost paradigmatically feminist were understood totally within the domain of a reading practice that rendered women invisible. Tiptree’s works were not only not read as feminist but were defined—and not only by Robert Silverberg, although he seems to have been the only person unfortunate enough to put what appear to have been widely held opinions in print—as arising from a clearly masculine understanding of the world. Not only does Silverberg refer to Tiptree’s prose (having, ironically, just cited "The Women Men Don’t See") as "lean, muscular, supple," he adds that

there is, too, that prevailing masculinity about both [Hemingway and Tiptree]—that preoccupation with questions of courage, with absolute values, with the mysteries and passions of life and death as revealed by extreme physical tests, by pain and suffering and loss. (xv)

Men, it seems, did not see any of the women in "The Women Men Don’t See."

In a not dissimilar way, purely feminist readings of "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" may not account for, or have any interest in, either the necessary lesbianism of these future women or the construction of the Andys as transgendered. Andy is variously described, mostly by Bud, the sexually aggressive male (of the three, one of the others is figured as a patriarch—literally, the name of the father—and the other, the narrator, is likely homosexual), as "a boy," as having "no balls at all," as "a dyke," and as a woman with excess androgen (thus the name). Yet a reading that foregrounds only the gender relations within the story is one that, in a sense, makes men central once again. The story is then read as a sad parable of the impossibility of heterosexual women and men being able to create a viable world together, since Tiptree, it seems, has already damned the men as innately violent, domineering, patriarchal, and sexually aggressive (although none of those constructions explain the narrator). The positive, loving, and intimate relationships between the women, the fact that they have survived and prospered, that they have, in fact, become "humanity," are seen as less important, in such a reading, than the failure to repatriate heterosexuality. Yet demonstrating the viability of a successful, happy, and entirely non-heteronormative world seems quite queer to me. Surely the story’s assertion that heteronormative relationships are irredeemable argues not so much for a feminist uprising in which all men will be slaughtered as for a rethinking of the ideological and sociocultural presuppositions that make it impossible to imagine relationships across the sexes outside the limited regime of what one might call the "heterosexual imaginary"?21 Is it then possible to consider "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" as a queer text, as well as a feminist one? Can it be both? I raise these questions not to answer them, but to suggest to the reader some of the potential ways by which one might perform a queer reading of this text.

4. Becoming Alien, Becoming Homosexual: From Cyptography to Cartography.

"Under the Hollywood Sign," I think, is a perfect example of that one quadruple somersault from the highest bars that Tom could manage again and again, but which Reamy-clones never seem able to pull off. In this piece, as I say, we can hear the singular voice of Tom Reamy, singing a dangerous song of primal fears so deep and yet so commonplace that we automatically reject them, precisely because they may be universally shared. No one likes to imagine him- or herself as a potential point-beast ready to run with the slavering pack.—Harlan Ellison, "Introduction" to San Diego Lightfoot Sue. (xiii)

I want to turn in this section of my essay to a story that was first published in 1975 and that was not, I suspect, read at the time as primarily a gay text or a text about either homosexuals or homosexuality, Tom Reamy’s "Under the Hollywood Sign." Reamy died in 1977, at the age of 42, having published only a handful of sf stories and one novel, Blind Voices (1978), that is more horror than sf. Reading between the lines of Harlan Ellison’s introduction to the posthumous collection of Reamy’s short stories, San Diego Lightfoot Sue and Other Stories, I deduce that Reamy was probably gay himself. If not, it is evident in the stories—especially "Under the Hollywood Sign" and "San Diego Lightfoot Sue" (which won the 1975 Nebula Award for best novelette)—that he was remarkably familiar with the gay idiom of the time. Either way, it doesn’t matter a great deal, since a text’s queerness cannot be said to reside in the sexual identity of its author. Yet having said this, I am aware of having, yet again, opened up the question of the ways in which "queer" can be construed variously as belonging to, being seen in, or being read into the text, the author, or the reading. "Under the Hollywood Sign," for all its being, I suspect, relatively unknown within the world of sf criticism, may prove a particularly fruitful (and, yes, the pun is deliberate) example of the ways in which queer theory can effect a re-reading—and not just of the text, but also, perhaps, of the heteronormative reading protocols that have constrained earlier readings. In this case, I will be reading "Under the Hollywood Sign" in part for its peculiarly (un)faithful reiteration of the trope of the invisible alien; as such, I will be reading it against the ghosts of earlier readings—difficult as those traces are to discern—both of the story itself and of that other story I have set up here as exemplary of the trope, Campbell’s "Who Goes There?"

"Under the Hollywood Sign" tells the story, in first person narration, of a self-identified heterosexual LA cop, Lou Rankin, who sees and becomes obsessed with a group of near-identical and extraordinarily beautiful red-headed young men who lurk in the background of vehicle crashes and other sites of lethal violence (and who are, in the end, revealed as aliens who feed on the life energies of dying humans). Invisible to everyone else, the young men exert a peculiar fascination on Rankin, to the extent that he eventually kidnaps one of them and takes him to a borrowed cabin in the foothills. There he chains the young man up and attempts to make some sort of contact with him. These attempts consist at first of highly unsatisfactory question and answer sessions; after three weeks, the narrator resorts to a violence that quickly becomes sexualized. It soon becomes apparent, however, even to the narrator, that the young man is not remotely what he seems. In fact, the narrator has interrupted some form of alien life cycle, which results in the stillbirth of a winged creature described (as the young man had earlier been) in terms reminiscent of traditional depictions of angels. After the death, the narrator returns to LA, where he finds his partner’s wife, whose sexual attentions he’s been trying to avoid, hiding in his apartment. The partner, Carnehan, turns up while they’re having (reluctant, on the narrator’s part) sex, kills the wife, knocks out the narrator, drives him to the Hollywood Hills, and eventually dumps him out on the hillside under the Hollywood sign, shoots him in the gut, and leaves him to die. Unable to acknowledge that he’s dying, the narrator attempts to crawl to safety—only to look up and find himself surrounded by four more of the beautiful red-headed young men who "look at [him] the same way Carnehan looks at an apple he’s been saving for a special occasion" (66).

From the very first sentence—"I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I noticed him" (40)—the story foregrounds the paradox that these exceptionally beautiful, and therefore one would think noticeable, young men are visible only to the narrator. Part of the crowd of gawkers around the site of a nasty traffic accident, the young man is seen, apparently, only by Rankin. The narrator makes three specific observations: first, that he has been seeing but not seeing the young man: "I suppose I had been subliminally aware of him for some time" (40). Then, he notes that the young man does not react the same way as the rest of the crowd: "That’s one of the reasons I noticed him in particular. He wasn’t wearing that horrified, fascinated expression they all seem to have. He might have been watching anything—or nothing" (40). And finally, the narrator makes an observation that situates the story firmly within the realm of the sexual, although he does so by denying that very interpellation: "Don’t get the wrong idea—my crotch doesn’t get tight at the sight of an attractive young man. But there’s only one word to describe him—beautiful" (41).

The story thus circulates from the beginning around three related issues: the question of visibility, as it is expressed through the narrator’s ability to see the aliens; the sexual identity of the narrator, who, although self-identified as heterosexual, has an immediate and overwhelming sexual response to the aliens; and the identity of the aliens themselves, which is only slowly unveiled, as the objects of the narrator’s gaze slip from an initial identification as beautiful young men to a sense that there is something profoundly different about them to the final revelation that they are, in fact, an entirely alien lifeform—or, to be more precise, that they represent a stage, a kind of chrysalis, in a profoundly alien lifecycle that has nothing at all to do with human wants, desires, or identities. Because the aliens are never explained—never even overtly identified within the story as aliens—the story hesitates on the borderline between sf and fantasy/horror: a scientific explanation would tip it one way, a supernatural one would tip it the other. Furthermore, there is a marked refusal within the text to make a definitive pronouncement on the issue of the narrator’s sexual identity. Instead, the text plays with conventional notions of homosexual/heterosexual difference, never fully locating the narrator at a specific point on the psychosexual map of the homo-hetero divide. It does so, furthermore, within the framework of an outlaw cryptography, a series of codings, of in-jokes, that are only indeterminately available to the presumed heterosexual audience of sf. How many straight readers, I wonder, were familiar in the late 70s with The Advocate, the US national gay magazine in which, among other things, Pat Califia gave explicit sexual advice to gay men?

In 1984, on the only occasion that I have taught "Under the Hollywood Sign" to my science fiction course—it has since gone out of print—I found my students divided into two distinct camps: on the one hand, the majority, who saw only the most obvious signs of queerness in the text, assumed that, had the story really been about homosexuality, it would have been expressed by some other metaphor; on the other hand, I had several students from the nearby Bible College in the class, for whom the story was, it appeared, perfectly clear. Fundamentalists to the core, these particular students objected vehemently to the story’s inclusion on the syllabus, claiming that it was both pornographic and blasphemous. Both responses exemplify particular cultural assumptions about the representation of homosexuality in literature—the one, used to a reading protocol founded on assumptions of universality and "Truth," finds the homosexuality in the story insufficient in itself, so that it must be about something more "universal," which is inevitably then something more heterosexual; the other, used to a reading protocol that weighs everything against the "literal Truth" of the Bible, reads (and judges) the story against both a particular moral standard and a particular iconography, in which an angel, for example, can only be an angel and a homosexual can only be evil. Both interpretations locate the story at specific, albeit different, positions on the cultural map, positions which say a great deal about our sociocultural beliefs about queerness, if very little about queerness itself—or about the text.

As an intervention into or a rewriting of the story that reveals the menace of the alien passing invisibly amongst us, "Under the Hollywood Sign" reverses many of the standard tropes that inform "Who Goes There?" The monstrosity of these aliens, if it exists at all, resides not in their deformity, their ugliness, or their insatiable appetite for conquest; however, although these aliens are, by human standards, extraordinarily beautiful—"all the artists for the last thousand years have been trying to paint that face on angels, but their fumbling attempts never came close" (54)—they are not necessarily "good." As it becomes clear that the aliens need to feed on the life-energy of dying creatures in order to complete their metamorphosis (into winged beings who are even more obviously angel-like than their "human" forms), it becomes equally clear that they are somehow causing the sudden increase in human deaths. As Cunningham, the pretty cop who is normally on "Pansy Patrol," says to the narrator: "What got into people last night, anyway? Seems like everybody was trying to get themselves killed" (52). Thus, while the alien of "Who Goes There?" is never figured as anything but monstrous evil, the aliens in Reamy’s story are much more morally ambiguous. Furthermore, because, on the one hand, they are marked as "queer" by the text—compared with the "pretty boys" in the gay bars, as well as to Cunningham and even to Rankin’s partner, Carnehan, in a reproduction of the stereotype that certain men are too beautiful to be straight—and, on the other hand, they are marked as angelic and described in terms of a kind of beautiful neutrality, as if they are above the pettiness of human concerns, these aliens are only ambiguously interpellated as either monsters or angels. Metonymically, they fail to serve as warnings of the invisible "passing" Other, whether communist or homosexual, since not only does the text provide the reader with no clear way to judge the relative value of a human life against the birth of an alien/angel, but the narrator’s remorse at the winged creature’s death and his comparison of the angelic disinterested beauty of the alien with the fleshy demands of Carnehan’s wife suggest that the aliens/Others may be the true norm against whom humans, the not-Other, are revealed as lacking.

In addition, the text’s refusal to disambiguate Rankin’s overt sexual attraction to the apparently male aliens (they have penises, but use them neither to urinate nor for sex) and his repeated assertion of himself as a heterosexual man, call into question the very heterosexual/homosexual dyad by which our century has come to understand and to differentiate forms of sexual attraction.22 At the same time, both the style of narration, reminiscent both of hard-boiled detective stories and of the "lean, muscular, supple" prose of Tiptree, and Rankin’s position as a cop mark him as clearly male, disrupting the presupposition that effeminacy is a prerequisite for the experience of masculine same-sex desire. The text does not disallow the reading that suggests that Rankin has been, all along, a repressed homosexual; however, by making the discourse of repression overt in the conversations between the cops, and specifically between Cunningham, of "Pansy Patrol" fame, and the police psychologist, the text suggests both that such a repression is universal—Cunningham suggests the psychologist is gay, Carnehan reads The Advocate, the narrator concludes that Cunningham probably is gay—and that it is inadequate to explain either the specificity of the narrator’s desire for the aliens or the extent of his obsession. In constructing Rankin as the most masculine of men, the cop, the story also reveals the curious imbrication of the police, especially the vice squad, with their prey—pretty Cunningham goes out on "Pansy Patrol" with a padded crotch, Carnehan chuckles over an anti-cop joke in a gay magazine, both Cunningham and the narrator reveal an obsession with penis size, and all of them are familiar with the bars and restaurants, with the gestures and idiom of the gay subculture. Masculinity, it would seem, does not automatically equate to heterosexuality. Furthermore, the very location of the story in LA, where everyone’s first reaction, when the narrator asks if they’ve seen the aliens, is to talk about actors, grounds the story within a notion of performance: under the Hollywood sign, masculinity is most obviously a role played with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Or, as Judith Butler notes in "Critically Queer":

[i]nsofar as heterosexual gender norms produce inapproximable ideals, heterosexuality can be said to operate through the regulated production of hyperbolic versions of ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ These are for the most part compulsory performances, ones which none of us choose, but which each of us is forced to negotiate. (22)

As with "Who Goes There?," the construction of the masculine as the object of the gaze creates a profound uneasiness. Rankin’s ability to see the aliens is nearly indecipherable from his desire for them, a desire which is figured nearly as much in terms of wanting to see and to be seen, to be acknowledged, as it is in overtly sexual terms. After he rapes the alien for the first time, Rankin holds the alien’s face and forces him to respond, to be present:

"Don’t hide from me. It doesn’t do any good. I can see you. I can see you!" He swam to the surface and looked at me. "Did you enjoy it? Did you even feel it?"


"Did it feel good? Did it hurt?"

"Yes." (60)

The alien’s responses to the narrator’s questions, as to his actions, settle nothing. On the one hand, they can be interpreted within the standard conventions of pornographic writing, in which the description of anal penetration in terms of "hurts so good" has become a cliché; on the other hand, they indicate the alien’s near-complete disengagement with anything human, as he strives to complete his birth. The alien’s transformation, the end of his life cycle, produces a moment of cognitive dissonance that resonates both in terms of sf and in terms of the deconstruction of our assumptions about gender and sexuality, as this apparent male quite literally attempts to give birth, an attempt that fails only because the narrator has prevented the alien from gathering enough life energy—an intervention which the narrator sees as tragic, but which, ironically, has no doubt saved the lives of humans.

It is possible then to read "Under the Hollywood Sign" as a text in the process of becoming queer; initially accessible through a kind of outlaw cryptography, the signs by which its queerness are produced have become more familiar to the "general population" through the proliferation of a visible gay and lesbian subject. It has become harder for the reader, however attached ideologically to a heteronormative reading protocol, to dismiss anything queer within texts as "a rag of extraneous meaning that had got stuck onto them" (Sinfield 63).23 Consequently, a queer reading of Reamy’s story might chart the movement from cryptography to cartography, from decoding a text whose signification is only apparent to the chosen few to locating its insights into the sexual epistemology of the culture on the map of our own sexual ontologies. Thus, both the narrator and the object of his obsession remain, in a sense, indeterminate within the text itself: it is through our reading that the narrator becomes homosexual (or not), just as it is through our reading that the beautiful young men become either aliens or angels. The quality of their otherness can only be understood as a doubling effect, just as the queerness of the text depends on the reader’s particular subject position and willingness to indulge in different reading protocols. The alien/Others are both ineluctably masculine and, like Tiptree him/herself, not masculine at all, since the mere fact of their otherness equates them synecdochically with the female, the black, the queer. As Jackson suggests, the subject of the sf story is "not the cause but the effect of the system that sustains it" (102); in "Under the Hollywood Sign," the narrator’s subjectivity is an identity-in-process, an effect of a system that can be variously understood, depending on one’s worldview. In the end then, I locate the text’s queerness not in a determination that the narrator is gay, because he desires and finally rapes the alien, but rather because the text itself calls into question the very system which effects the narrator as a gay subject.

5. Conclusion: An Alien Cartography

A text’s subversive potential is not dependent upon its generic innovation, but on how it maps and motivates the antagonisms constituting the subject(s) of representation, and on how it transfigures and recathects the available forms of cultural expression.... This rewriting is coextensive to the articulation of gay male identities-in-process as these deviant subjects confront culture and enter into representational agency within it. The most radical representational practices of deviant subjects not only challenge the official versions of their lives, but also transvalue the notion of deviance, and interrogate the mechanisms and meanings of representational practices—including their own.—Earl Jackson, Jr., Strategies of Deviance (44)

I have argued in this essay that a queer reading is performative in itself and that it is, in the long run, less about content—we have already considered the lack of queerness of gay and lesbian content within mimetic representations—than about worldview. Queer readings are informed by a desire to understand the text both in terms of its potential for representing dissident sexual subjectivities outside of a Cartesian understanding of the subject and in terms of the text’s engagement with a specific historico-cultural understanding of dissident sexualities and of the place of such sexualities within the sex/gender system that regulates and constructs normative—and thus also non-normative—ways of being-in-the-world as a sexed and sexual subject. When the questions raised by the formulations "queer reading" and "queer text" are brought to bear on sf, what is revealed is a complex and contradictory fictional arena. On the one hand, there is the particular aptness of sf, as a non-mimetic form of writing, to produce stories in which sexuality does not need to be understood in ways "vouched for by human senses and common sense" and to interrogate the ways in which sexual subjectivities are created as effects of the system that sustains them. On the other hand, there are also the variety of ways in which most sf texts, regardless of their identification as "estranged fictions," are completely unselfconscious in their reproduction of the heteronormative environment in which they were written.

A queer reading may then work through a range of different strategies— from decoding the outlaw cryptographies that have hidden—and may still hide—issues of sexual difference (often in plain sight) to delineating the specifics that may make a particular text queer, to disinterring the many and peculiar ways through which the dominant twentieth-century Western conception of sexuality underlies, is implicated in, and sometimes collides with sf’s attempt to envision alternative ways of being-in-the-world, ways which are always, no matter how deeply their signs are hidden, already about being-in-the-world as a person with a sex, a gender, and a sexuality. The subversive potential of sf as a mode through which non-Cartesian subjectivities can be represented is a function precisely of sf’s ability to create a "radically or significantly different formal framework" (Suvin 18), of its very estrangement from the mimetic attempt of naturalistic—or mundane—fiction to reiterate faithfully a teleological understanding of humanity’s being-in-the-world, to represent the subject as the cause rather than the effect of the system. Thus, sf’s "foundational infidelity" (Jackson 125) to the world "vouched for by human senses and common sense" at one and the same time makes it possible—although obviously not inevitable—for sf to tell alternative stories—other stories, alien stories—of both sexual ontologies and the systems that sustain and create them. Sf narratives may, seen from a queer viewpoint(s), provide a map or chart of those alien spaces—whether inner or outer—in which queers do, have, and will exist. Queer sf provides spaces to go beyond simply writing gay men and lesbians into uninterrogated hetero-normative visions of both present and future and may, at its best, answer Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s call to bypass the old familiar routes "across the misleadingly symmetrical map ... fractured in a particular historical situation by the profound asymmetries of gender oppression and heterosexist oppression" and, instead, to engage in

the more promising project [which] would seem to be a study of the incoherent dispensation itself, the indisseverable girdle of incongruities under whose discomfiting span, for most of a century, have unfolded both the most generative and the most murderous plots of our culture. (90)


1. Henry Jenkins has a useful discussion of this movement in the final chapter ("‘Out of the Closet and Into the Universe’: Queers and Star Trek") of Science Fiction Audiences; the history of the involvement of the Gaylaxians with Star Trek and the formation of the Voyager Visibility Project can be found online at the following url: <>.

2. There is, of course, some argument as to whether humans do indeed come in only two biological sexes. For a comprehensive discussion of this issue, see Marianne van den Wijngaard’s Reinventing the Sexes: The Biomedical Construction of Masculinity and Femininity. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997.

3. These arguments can be found online in copies of the correspondence between the producers of Star Trek and the Voyager Visibility Project that are documented at the Gaytrek web page (<>).

4. This now well-known story is told by Delany in "Shadows":

What remains with me, nearly ten years after my first reading of the book, is the knowledge that I have experienced a world in which the placement of the information about the narrator’s face is proof that in such a world much of the race problem, at least, has disappeared. The book as text ... became, for a moment, the symbol of that world. (94-5)

5. As Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner have pointed out with reference to the political climate in the US, this reinscription is not merely the policy of right-wing fundamentalists but reflects a broader sociopolitical climate "whose highest aspirations are marriage, military patriotism, and protected domesticity." They add that

It is no accident that queer commentary—on mass media, on texts of all kinds, on discourse environments from science to camp—has emerged at a time when United States culture increasingly fetishizes the normal. A fantasized mainstream has been invested with normative force by leaders of both major political parties. (345)

6. There is sometimes a tendency among people whose only exposure to queer theory is through academia to forget that, like earlier theorizations of same-sex and/or dissident sexualities, "queer" is not merely about playfulness and fluidity, but also about an active political engagement in the realpolitik of queer people’s lives. One might think, to take only one example, of the two major threads of political engagement that run through Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work—the need to create a world that’s safe for queer kids and the desire for an ethical, humane, and sex-positive response to AIDS. See, for example, The Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: U of California P, 1990) and "How to Bring Your Kids up Gay," in Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (ed. Michael Warner. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993): 69-81. The fact that queer theory is so heavily imbricated in the study, theorization, and practical and political response to AIDS is itself an indication of the extent to which "queer" does not and, I think, should not exist purely as an intellectual construct whose primary feature is its jouissance.

7. Annamarie Jagose has a useful discussion of the meanings and contestations of "queer" in chapters 7 and 8 (72-126) of Queer Theory, as does Michael Warner in his "Introduction" to Fear of a Queer Planet (vii-xxxi).

8. Delany has frequently argued this position. See, for example, "Science Fiction and ‘Literature.’" Analog 99 (May 1979): 59-78, and "The Semiology of Silence: The Science-Fiction Studies Interview," in Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1994): 21-58.

9. For an examination of this construction in both The Left Hand of Darkness and Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords, see my "Queer as Traitor, Traitor as Queer: Denaturalizing Sexuality, Gender and Nationhood" ( in Flashes of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Nineteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, ed. David Ketterer [Westport, CT: Greewood Press, forthcoming]).

10. The difficulty of ascertaining who is and who isn’t homosexual, within a conceptual framework that renders the homosexual/heterosexual dyad as the axis of difference, preoccupies science, which seeks "objective" proof of this difference, first through psychoanalysis, then through a variety of supposedly accurate physiological tests (such as the RCMP’s infamous "fruit machine"), and most recently through the drive to discover the "gay gene."

11. Like all "Golden Age" narratives, this one also imagines an era that never did exist; one might trace several genealogies for this particular cultural anxiety—one, at least, that tracks back to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and another that recalls that WWI also had its Rosie the Riveter and her equivalents, whose labor freed men for military service. Yet another trace might chart much the same territory as Christopher Isherwood’s I Am A Camera and its cinematic offspring, Cabaret.

12. For a discussion of gays and lesbians in the military during WWII, see Allen Bérubé’s "Marching to a Different Drummer: Lesbian and Gay GIs in World War II," in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (eds. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. New York: New American Library, 1989): 383-94.

13. I do not, obviously, mean this literally, although the rhetoric of the time (from the early 1930s to the late 1950s) suggests that some of the people persecuting Jews, communists, and homosexuals saw them as being literally the same and not just as occupying the same structural position as threats to the white (Aryan), male-dominant, and heterosexual social structure.

14. See both chapter 4 of Sinfield (60-82) and Lee Edelman’s "Tearooms and Sympathy."

15. Think of Marlowe’s Edward II.

16. See Lee Edelman’s "Tearooms and Sympathy" for a discussion of this formation.

17. Today it is impossible not to think of AIDS in the context of the role that blood plays in determining who is human and who (what) is the alien Other; in the West, where AIDS has been popularly conflated with the figure of the homosexual, "bad blood" becomes a marker not of one’s HIV status but of one’s queerness (which, as an aside, explains why lesbians, who have a very small incidence of AIDS, are widely presumed to be as much at risk—and as much a danger—as are gay men).

18. We can see how the figure of the vampire might also serve to carry the same burden of monstrosity in this context. See, for instance, Ellis Hanson’s "Undead" for a critical discussion of the ways in which AIDS and vampirism have become conflated in popular discourses since the onset of the AIDS epidemic (Ellis Hansen, "Undead," in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss [New York: Routledge, 1991]: 324-340).

19. There is, of course, that other improbability to be taken into account: that I, as a self-described dyke or queer, should recognize a beautiful young man when I see one. For some people, including some gay people, that, too, defies explanation.

20. It is interesting to note, in regards to the gaze, the unease generated among the male characters in "Who Goes There?" once they become the objects of each other’s gaze; they spend a huge amount of time staring at each other, and even talking about the way in which they look at each other ("Your eyes—Lord, I wish you could see your eyes staring—" [104]). Theoretically, of course, the object of the gaze is always a sexual object—and cannot be a (heterosexual) man. To quote Laura Mulvey, "[a]ccording to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification" (27-28). See Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. (London: Routledge, 1992): 22-34.

21. I first encountered this useful phrase in an eponymously named article by sociologist Chrys Ingraham; it indicates a worldview that cannot imagine certain relationships as "heterosexual," even when they occur between two people of opposite sexes. At its most heteronormative, the heterosexual imaginary cannot conceive of either a sexually aggressive woman or a sexually passive man, still less of a heterosexual man who wishes to be the receptive partner in anal sex. Anything outside of the heterosexual imaginary is thus conceived as either a perversion or a fetish.

22. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s introduction to Epistemology of the Closet gives a good historical overview of contemporary understandings of this development:

It is a rather amazing fact that, of the very many dimensions along which the genital activity of one person can be differentiated from that of another ..., precisely one, the gender of object choice, emerged from the turn of the century, and has remained, as the dimension denoted by the now ubiquitous category of "sexual orientation." (8)

23. The quote is part of Laurence Lerner’s response to the idea that gay readers might read W.H. Auden’s poems for some sort of gay meaning. Sinfield notes that

Lerner allows that there will have been gay readers. "That Auden was a homosexual is well known, and it is perfectly possible, even likely that some of his friends winked when they read his love poems and gave an extra smirk ... But in doing this they were not reading the poems; they were noticing a rag of extraneous meaning that had got stuck onto them ... They, like Sinfield, were unwriting them." (Sinfield 62-63).


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