My generation was one of the first to come across gay people in TV series and books without having to look for them. We didn’t have to go to specialized bookstores or video stores. During my childhood I saw that television included homosexual characters as an emblem of modernity in the Spain of get-rich-quick culture and gay marriage. In less than 20 years, that representation has spread as wide as the market’s imagination. On streaming platforms there are gay Christmas romantic comedies, gay Nordic dramas, and movies based on gay novels in which gay English princes marry the bisexual son of the president of the United States. As you might expect, all of these stories that I watch and read avidly are deeply unsatisfying in their desire to shoehorn the gay into contemporary (Western, capitalist) life.
Is that what we wanted? The late LGBTQ+ activists Paco Vidarte and Shangay Lily would answer no. There are efforts to find an identity that escapes this assimilation, such as the recent book Maricas malas (Bad Gays) by Christo Casas. It looks for subjects who have escaped this representation and maintained their dissidence. The key is whether that dissidence is something that can be debated in moral terms or whether it sometimes becomes aesthetic posturing. That is to say, can you want to be a “good bad gay?” A city-dwelling gay white man with a university education, like myself, can hardly be a dissident. And dissidence sometimes becomes an image that the market takes advantage of. Casas’s criticism of the figure of the “good gay” seems logical and inevitable to me. They are the ones who fit into the representation and who fill the diversity gap with their replicas of heterosexual privileges. But there are already cultural products that recreate types of “LGBTQ+” profitably, and in which diversity inevitably becomes an advertising claim, no matter how elaborate the script is or how well the characters are drawn: see Pose or Euphoria.
Instead, I find the strategies in a series of works that put forward stylistic rather than thematic forms more agile to escape from what is assimilated. The work of Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel, for example, presents dissidence as an almost dialectical form of speech. The cult novel The wretched life of Juanita Narboni, by Ángel Vázquez, does something similar, from the Tangier of the first Franco regime, and using the voice of a bitter spinster. The possibilities are many, but they all have some aspects in common. In 2005, Contra Natura (Against Nature), by Álvaro Pombo, a cruel and acidic novel about homosexuality(ies), was published in Spain. His characters are characterized by fundamental inequality: age, beauty, education, and class separate them. Although the cycles of desire bring them together, it soon becomes clear that these inequalities shape their own gay experience. And this issue explodes any notion of community. Multiple digressions and complex syntax mimic that frustration in a convoluted dance of wills and lustful inevitabilities. The conclusion is effective: for Pombo, homosexuality is multiple, inevitable, and insufficient. It is marked by all of the above but never goes away.
Accordingly, the author announced on television his rejection of gay marriage legislation, in the midst of debate at the time. Although at that time it meant aligning himself with reactionary positions, the writer was motivated by a vision similar to what Christo Casas defends today. For Pombo, homosexuals could not enter the family circle since their status that goes “against nature” was not only a legal issue, but a fundamental axis of their own definition. Marriage would become a fiction, a state deception that sought to “cover up” the homosexual. Although Casas criticizes this same strategy — although he indicates that gay marriage should be a right as long as heterosexual marriage is a right — the alternative identity he proposes seems to settle on dissidence as a sufficient category. And I suspect, as I said, that even that dissidence will end up being integrated (tamed and sanitized) at some point, if it is not already being integrated.
Sixty years before Pombo, Jean Genet invented another style to avoid the moral definition of identity, of which perhaps the best example is the recently republished, uncensored, The Thief’s Journal. This hyperbolic autobiography defends an anti-bourgeois form that shuns easy reading. Even in the times when homosexuality was illegal, he was aware that form had to intervene in the relationship between race, sexuality, and class. Genet wrote against the grain of the novel as a genre, to blur and destroy any similarity with it. Its wild explicitness is actually a matter of style, not theme.
James Baldwin insisted on this in Giovanni’s Room, a work in which homosexuality is a relevant issue because it poses a risk to the social position of its protagonist. The examples multiply: Tea and Sympathy, Vincente Minnelli’s film in which not a single homosexual appears, is perhaps the most radical example that gayness does not need to be seen to constitute a form. And at the end December, director Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn will be released, a movie in which she seeks to treat seduction as a class issue. The form may be a way of working with “gay stuff” based on its contradictions, since it seems to have no salvation as an identity taking on the market.
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