Fear of Queer Sex in the Classroom
Recently when discussing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “Footnote to Howl” (here’s Ginsberg reciting) in an American culture course, students got up and left the class when the conversation turned to how Ginsberg uses gay sex as metaphor and imagery. Contextually, we had just come out of a few days of discussing Cold War conformity and domestic “containment,” as well as C. Wright Mills’ concept of the “happy robot” from White Collar. [Earlier this semester, students had also gotten up and left class during a conversation of orgasm and female sexual agency in Kate Chopin's The Awakening.] I’ve been teaching about sexuality in my classes since 1998, usually integrating the issues of power and normativity surrounding sexuality into other topics (I haven’t had the chance to teach a course on culture and sexuality since 1998). I’m not bothered by student discomfort in the classroom; I am however troubled by the willful refusal to engage with the bothersome facts and ideas.
Like many scholars in that bleed-over space between humanities and social sciences, I see my role in the classroom as being more than a dispenser of information. As a sociologist (trained in interdisciplinary culture studies, American studies, and history as well) I see one of my primary pedagogical goals as being to help students develop their “critical thinking skills.” And many university level courses ranging from biology to Women’s studies, from Physics to art history can challenge students learned perceptions, bringing habitual patterns of thinking and doing to light. As anyone who has ever taught knows, it can be very uncomfortable. But in terms of learning and pedagogy, I’m okay with students being uncomfortable with course content.
The phrase “critical thinking” is so banal as to be meaningless at this point, so I feel it bears some further explanation from my personal pedagogical approach. I do not mean a bland ability to spot someone’s politics in a newspaper article; nor do I necessarily mean the ability to scan a poem. Rather, what I mean is the ability to step outside one’s own experience and habits and see the social structures, power relationships, ideologies, and statuses that produced them and limit them on a day to day basis. To step outside oneself and engage C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination is no mean trick, and takes practice, exposure, and modeling to fully blossom. And even then, it requires students to be in what cognitive scientists term “conscious problem solving” mode, which involves effort, deliberate and purposeful thinking, abstraction, and will to execute. [Of course, we must admit that a perfect abstraction away from the self is not possible, in my opinion; but that it is a worthy end-in-view that enables worthwhile humanistic research.]
To this end, it often requires a shaking experience of some kind for people to think outside themselves. This can be tricky, as jolting people out of their comfort might raise ethical questions, and because they can resist the process. It should go without saying that heteronormativity structures and pervades a classroom. The students (and teachers) bring it with them and enact and reproduce it in the room, including all the privileges and powers that it bestows upon its adherents (if you’ll excuse the religious metaphor). There are many ways that a teacher can pedagogically lay these structures bare in the classroom, but my personality and teaching style tends toward the frank and the brash intrusion of queerness into a course design overall or into a particular discussion. Over the years I’ve had mixed responses, including students calling me faggot in class and writing homophobic comments in my teaching evaluations. But generally speaking from a pedagogical standpoint, my students learn to point out the systems of power, privilege, subordination, and oppression around genitals, bodies, desires, and pleasure.
But with “Howl,” male-male sex—specifically and explicitly, butt fucking and blow jobs—is central to the thing itself, and not a pedagogical choice. It is a queer production by a queer man at a time when deliberate shaming, ostracism, jailing, financial ruin, institutionalization, and suicide were the public face of homosexuality. It is in its writhing litany of the pain and foreclosure of American society in the 50s, among other things, a responsa, an apology, a hagiography to the queer. Ginsberg’s lost generation are those
who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may
The transposition of public gay sex reveling in its abjection with Jewish symbols of holiness (seraphim) and with Whitmanian symbols of “spiritual democracy” (semen and grass) challenges the reader (the student?) to demand difficult answers from the domestic containment of the 1950s, and indeed, from the pro-gay marriage campaigns of today.
By broaching these sexual topics and throwing them out there for students, I challenge them to see the ways that assumptions about desires and bodies creates imbalances of power in the society they live in. And it makes them squirm. But in a world where heteronormativity blocks Ginsberg’s sanctification of gay male sex—not to mention Chopin’s longed-for full female sexual agency—they can always simply refuse it, turn their backs on it, and slam the door behind them. And there was really nothing I could do to protect the handful of gay students in the room from that rejection.