I’m teaching an introductory undergraduate course in LGBT history and politics this spring, encountering anew the alternating confusion, resistance and delight of students as they start to take in the full implications of the simple claim that gender and sexuality are historically constructed. As they arrive in my classroom, most understand LGBT “identities” as inborn or otherwise fixed; they bring with them an understanding of politics shaped by the marriage equality movement (though some come with versions of radical, genderqueer politics already well developed). They take the ride with me through Freud and Foucault, reading history, anthropology and queer theory texts with eyes wide open, questions flooding the room. It’s always fun to hear them work through ideas that challenge their working assumptions.
But eventually we arrive at an impasse. Having shed notions of biological or psychic fixity, having worked through ideas about historically embedded social and cultural construction, many feel frustrated. They want to know how some of us come to embrace dissident gender and sexual practices, while others do not. They want to know how gender and sexual identities come to feel so real, and for some so innate and fixed. Something is missing: how do we link the historical forces that shape genders and sexualities with lived subjectivities? Queering psychoanalysis goes some way toward addressing these questions, but for students with a keen awareness of transnational and temporal variation, those theories can be too universalizing.
I struggle with ways of addressing these questions, this frustration. Dissident gender and sexual practices and modes of living emerge in specific contexts, there is no way to generalize, to abstract any “cause” beyond local conditions and meanings. For myself, I have come to understand my own “difference” as an exit strategy, more about making an alternative world than about abstract sexual desire or gender identity.
Vortex of Hell
I grew up in the Vortex of Hell, located in the spaces in and between Richmond and Virginia Beach, Virginia. Born in 1954, I first learned about family and the bonds of intimacy from my alcoholic Irish Catholic father and reserved, caustic lapsed southern Baptist mother in a ticky tacky suburban tract house, and from the gleefully sadistic nuns at Star of the Sea elementary school. My father was intermittently violent, and my mother clinically depressed. The nuns provided a model of alternative, non-family living so horrifying in its manifest meanness that Sister Miriam Patrice effectively controlled us by threatening to make us live with them if we misbehaved. Both settings taught me more about the stoic endurance of church and state approved long-term commitments and the twisted paths of confined desire, than about the vicissitudes of human interdependence and intimacy.
Under the circumstances it was hard to know what to want.
By high school, heterosexual dating looked like a viable exit plan. Though I announced to all assembled in any setting that I would never marry (that path had not worked out well for my mother), I plunged into sex and romance with gusto. My mother interfered at every turn, restricting my choice of boyfriends, policing my attire, telling me my “emotional dependence” on boys was pathetic. Her ambivalence about the actively heterosexual life was palpable. She wanted me to be Mary Tyler Moore of the TV show, a respectably straight and ladylike but largely celibate professional.
Clearly this was the unlived life for which she yearned. Born on a Mississippi dirt farm, raised in poverty and partly in an orphanage, she aspired. Her mother, Golden, shot and killed her own father at the age of eleven to stop him from raping her. She married Claude Green, becoming Golden Green, and considered naming my mother Olive. They settled instead on a made up southern name composed of two aunts’ names, Marinelle. Divorced, remarried, and repeatedly violent toward her step children, Golden was treated with electroshock therapy. My mother and her sister were sent to live with their grandmother on the farm, then left at a southern orphanage (that she referred to as a “boarding school”) for a number of years.
Marinelle Green honed her focused aspirations and planned her escape. With steely determination she put herself through Louisiana State University working as a police reporter on the night beat. But after World War II options for women contracted, she married a Catholic and popped out two infants in quick succession, then found herself trapped by her own adherence to the rules of gendered respectability. Her class aspirations drove her forward then stopped her dead in her tracks, tied to an alcoholic who sold concrete for the mobbed up real estate industry in Virginia Beach. She began to use abstinence as birth control and withdrew into depression. She was personally offended when a highway near her house was named the Powhite Expressway.
Marinelle wanted me to escape. Her plan: I should have no feelings. Because she believed feelings led to heterosexual marriage and childbearing, this plan would keep me from ending up like her. The problem: I wouldn’t cooperate. I was passionate—angry, rebellious, sexual. She was disgusted. A pitched battle raged through my teenage years. She wanted me to stay home, read Victorian novels, and aspire as she had. Instead I hiked my skirt hems and dated a football player. I fucked my boyfriend in the living room and left the condom under the rug—risky behavior before Roe v. Wade in a Catholic household. In hindsight I realized my mother wasn’t all wrong to be worried. I moved out just after high school graduation, and borrowed the money to go to UVa.
There were other people in my childhood world, though I barely noticed. My father had his own backstory of misery and near escape. Born into a long line of Irish alcoholics, his brother poured gasoline on him and set him on fire when he was seven. The charity hospital saved his life with experimental skin grafting techniques. His father beat and humiliated him. His mother died with the delirium tremens in the state mental hospital. He joined the army, natch. My biggest fight with him as a teenager, after a childhood filled with his attacks and creepy sexualized efforts to make up after, featured my sitting in the living room reading The Communist Manifesto and his angry claim to have fought the communists in World War II. I calmly pointed out, as he stood over me swinging his belt, that he had fought with the communists in World War II. This further enraged him, as a historian was born.
After military service and marriage David Duggan went to college on the GI Bill, a psychology major. He then got the job selling concrete and went into and out of employed status with the rhythms of the local real estate economy and his drinking. My mother ridiculed him, he raged. When I engage in a favored practice I call Diagnose That Relative, I label him a narcissist with borderline tendencies. My mother I see as a depressive schizoid. The whole scene was later described by my brother’s social work professor as a “maximally distant” family constellation. That’s one way of putting it. I certainly didn’t learn much about close connection. I learned a lot about how to escape, something everyone in my family set out to do at some point, with disappointing results.
At UVa from 1972 to 1976 I joined a reading group at Black Flag anarchist press and co-founded the Radical Feminist Union. I listened to Joni Mitchell sing “we don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall.” But when my mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1974, I married my political theory instructor in blue jeans and work shirt in front of a Justice of the Peace who told us the story of Adam’s rib. It wasn’t that I was close to my mother. We hadn’t spoken in nearly a year. But I panicked, unmoored and suspended at the point of free fall. I didn’t yet understand why. I had no clue then that even the most abusive relationships of childhood form our internal worlds and patterns of intimate connection. I knew nothing of complicated grieving. I was a political theory major, though my new husband was training to be a psychoanalyst. I fled into marriage as into a bomb shelter during an air raid.
It lasted longer than one would think—three years. Enough time for the claustrophobia to set in. My husband Richard was a nice guy, fundamentally egalitarian, not in any way a patriarch. But we socialized with other married couples, mostly leftist male grad student instructors and their wives who divided up by gender for conversation and chores, who expected the wives to care for future offspring. A few of the guys cheated and lied to their wives. The other guys knew and kept their secrets. I needed an exit strategy. I followed a butch lesbian librarian named Purple home and crashed her parties. I got stoned and had sex with the bisexual co-founder of the Radical Feminist Union and her girlfriend.
I didn’t come to lesbianism via the standard 1970s coming out narrative. I never experienced a suppressed inner desire for women that finally found expression, both personal and political. I hit on lesbianism as an exit strategy, an escape narrative, a way not to repeat my mother’s life, my own childhood domestic confinement. I experienced gender dysphoria in that femininity felt like a trap, but I liked the clothes a lot. At first I tried the then currently fashionable androgyny, in flannel shirts and boots. But I left my flannel shirts unbuttoned below the décolletage, and felt desire for creatures with many so-called masculine features. I was thrilled to discover that I could find thrillingly sexy masculine partners who could not, or would not, reproduce the gendered norms of domesticity and sociality. I could wear skirts without regrets. In that time and place, queer life appeared to me as a free zone, a place for experimentation and innovation in the forms of gender, intimacy and social life, a landscape for desire as yet uncolonized by the lifelong monogamy of the couple form legally enshrined in wedlock.
Of course this vision was largely a mirage in the desert of my marital confinement. It took me awhile to make a transition to a more complex and less utopian world than I imagined. But still. It was worth the effort. I went to graduate school and followed the first butch I found down the street into a world of ecstasy, possibility and trouble. I never made a monogamous commitment (though I often practiced de facto monogamy) and I never learned to cook. My bonds with friends and comrades defined my life more fundamentally than my sexual or romantic partnerships.
But this is not a story of simple escape from suburban domestic confinement to a utopia of radical politics and queer nirvana. The social and political worlds I inhabited marked my existence with conflict, loss, pain, confusion and profound hurt as fully as with connection and engagement. Any history of this period will elaborate. I understand my own path, not as a kind of pilgrim’s progress, but as a trajectory shaped by my childhood, my race, gender and class, and the time and places that I lived. For many others, families and/or religious communities have provided the intimate context and foundation for progressive politics. Kinship, domesticity, religious faith and reproduction have widely varying meanings across time and space.
My own story leads me think of gender and sexual desire as always deeply embedded and context dependent—generating strategies rather than identities. For me, a queer life generated the escape velocity I needed to break generational continuities and attach to the other worlds and ways of the kind that my beloved friend José Muñoz both lived and wrote into being.