5.28.2011

What You Missed at the Lamdba Awards

Both [Terrence] McNally and Albee spoke of what it means to be a gay author. In accepting his award, Albee said, “I’m not a gay writer. I’m a writer who happens to be gay … I’ve written a number of plays with gay characters in them, but I have never written a play that could be considered a ‘gay play’ because I consider that a lessening of the creative act, to limit oneself to one’s own sexual practices as subject matter for one’s work.”

In the less then 48 hours elapsed since these words were spoken, I've already noticed a growing flurry of response to Albee's commentary on his life, which by extension feels like a commentary on the Lambda Literary Foundation, and further by an extension a commentary on writing and identity--our associations, allegiances, and, ultimately, our communities.

I received in my inbox a letter from a colleague who bemoaned Albee's stance, feeling in many ways slighted by this attitude. On the one hand, Albee's comment seems unnecessarily sharp, more a criticism of others than a statement of self. The statement, while brief, is bloated with connotation and assumption; that is what I think provoke confused and angry responses to his words.

On the one hand, Albee is prioritizing his own identities, putting his creative identity ahead of his sexual identity. Albee seems to imply his goal is to transcend self in his writing--that being gay is no more important to him than being straight might be to another playwright. I don't think anyone assumes that heterosexuals write more "legitimately" or more "honestly" about other heterosexual people or experiences. Or do they?

At its core, Albee's position takes up an ongoing tension in the community of gay writers and writers who happen to be gay. Writers in the first camp don't feel like homosexuality "happened" to them; instead, they may feel as if their sexuality provides a lens through which they view the totality of their lived experience. Writers in the second camp may not deny the lens is there, but might say the lens doesn't limit or dictate what they look at through it. There may be a misperception that "gay writers" use only their own "gay experience" as subject matter, but this is untrue. Some writers who self-identify as gay writers may use their own experience, but I would hazard to say this ratio is probably equal to the number of heterosexual writers who use their own life as subject fodder. We don't discount these straight writers, but we also don't consider them brave or trailblazing, either. In either case, disparaging the choice probably doesn't help.

The deep tension here, though, seems to be the break between gays who are fundamentally assimilationist and gays who are separatist. A gay writer is more likely to consider him or herself as separate from the dominant literary community--specifically from both heterosexual writing and heterosexual culture. A writer like Albee seems more assimilationist in approach, gaining--and then perhaps being scorned for gaining--wider appreciation for work that is generally more inclusive of different kinds of people. Almost in every case, a writer who takes Albee's position has a greater chance of success in the literary world, partly because his or her stories will have a wider audience and partly because segments of that wider audience don't want to encounter gay people in the work they read.

Futhermore, Albee is also ascribing to the word "gay" a simple idea--that being gay is a behavior, not an identity. Part of the gay rights movement has been dedicated to reserving the notion that what separates gays and straights is what happens under the covers (although, trust me, it's different). But amplifying gay behavior into a gay identity is a fallacy. Our world is full of otherwise heterosexual people who, either temporarily or on an ongoing basis, love having same-sex sex partners. It doesn't affect their overall identity to do so. This is because being gay is really something else. If it weren't, I would spontaneously revert to being a heterosexual whenever I'm not having sex--which, honestly, is most of the time. If I were to consider the only gay thing in my life to be the sex I was having, obviously "gay identity" overall would take on a much smaller part of my overall identity. This may be the case for Albee. For those who perceive their gay identity as having wider repercussions, for touching on most or all aspects of their life, a perspective like Albee's feels reductionist and oversimplified.

And this is perhaps the concerning implication of Albee's statement: is he, by virtue of this attitude, contributing to the "recloseting" of homosexuality? By not taking a stake in being a gay writer, Albee, from some vantage points, is able to "pass." In the entire history of oppression, those who pass are met with resistance and disdain from both the people like them who cannot or choose not to pass and those for whom they seek to pass. Writers like Albee ultimately end up alone, outside of the dominant community and unwelcome in their marginalized community. Aspiring to pass can be read as a desire not to be seen as gay, which is fundamentally the same as desiring not to be gay in the first place. Aspiring to pass, then, can be perceived as a rejection of this marginalized identity, a yearning to be accepted by the majority as "one of them," undifferentiated--equal.

Are gay writers responding to this aspect of Albee's speech? Yes. Is this implication troubling? Hells yes. Because of our current complicated moment, when gays and lesbians had their marriage rights revoked in California, when our rights are debated in front of us in coffeeshops and on news programs, it is very troubling. In fact, more than that, it almost seems antiquated. But perhaps this is because of our current moment, when LGBT writers who are invested in the furthering of our rights are the ones holding the microphones. It is unlikely that Albee's words will turn back the clock (or, as a gay writer might say, "turn back time"). It's interesting that Albee was introduced by McNally, who wrote one of the most incendiary gay plays ever (Corpus Christi), which was so controversial McNally received death threats after it premiered. There, in a nutshell, were two very unique approaches to work in American theater.

Gay literature/literature by gay people still has a lot of issues to work out in this area. I know this debate--are you a gay writer or writer who is gay?--is one that has come and gone a few times on blogs and elsewhere, but sincerely, these ideas bear repeating. I will never forget a moment in a workshop with C. D. Wright during my MFA program. One of my classmates, who was raised in South Carolina, asked C. D. Wright about how people try to classify her as a "Southern writer" and whether or not that label was helpful. Wright very plainly said when people want to classify you, "don't sign up." Don't sign up. Don't sign up. I keep repeating it to myself. It seems like she's saying don't classify yourself, but I don't think that's it.

I think she's saying, "Don't let other people determine who you are."

And, fundamentally, that's the debate here. Albee doesn't want to sign up. There are those in our community who are desperate to place him in our community, and maybe that impulse is even part of what prompted him to receive this award right now. And it's Albee's option not to sign up.

I think Albee's done nothing wrong in making this statement. It is his own prerogative to define himself, just as those with an opposing viewpoint want the same luxury, to define their creative identity as being inextricable from their queer identity. For every Michael Cunningham, there's a Bret Easton Ellis. The argument on both sides is flawed: both camps want to limit the kind of definitions that can take place, but by doing so, they negate their own right to self-define. What we need to do is give each other permission to self-define, even when those definitions don't jibe with our perception of the greater issues at stake. Albee's stance won't single-handedly roll back LGBT visibility or progress.

Imagine if we never knew Albee was gay. We wouldn't have experienced any sense of loss. But what might have been in bad taste was saying this while accepting a prestigious award from an organization that fosters and promotes writing by LGBT artists.

But even then, no one wins a Lammy for being a good queer, right?