Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

Entering New Worlds

“We must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds” (Muñoz, 1).

Immersing oneself in the world, an endless activity that a person can spend their entire life experiencing. Immersion and opening the eyes to the endless possibilities of pleasure and enjoyment goes against social expectations, making it queer. People are expected to follow a certain route in life, to end up in a similar position as their parents did, and be content with it. Jose Esteban Muñoz combats this by promoting the “what if’s” of the future. He declares the present as a “prison house” (Muñoz, 1) that restricts human beings from reaching the most euphoric pleasures. We have limited ourselves as human beings to a tight schedule of enjoyment while so much more exists. We oftentimes cage ourselves because we fear society’s judgement, but society cannot stop one from dreaming. Muñoz wants us to imagine our future and fill it with whatever we please, devoid of restrictions. “Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport” (Muñoz, 1). The unfortunate truth is that most people do settle for that minimal transport. Thinking of Queerness as a mental key expands the mind, as it unlocks new ways of conceptualizing the world inside and around us. The mind should always be expanding, and queerness seems to make reference to the bridge between levels of consciousness. Questioning reality is a queer exercise of the mind that draws out what we see around us. The world works in very odd ways, and it’s important to wonder if everything is what it seems. Along with questioning our surroundings, we should imagine our futures in any way we’d like. We must dream infinitely, and aspire to transfer our thoughts into reality.

Family, Race, and the Monolith in Cereus Blooms at Night

“Pohpoh cupped here ears and aimed them at the house. She heard nothing. She imagined bedrooms with a happy family, a fairy-tale family in which the father was a benevolent king. There would be a fairy queen for a mother, and enough little cherub siblings to fill a very large shoe or pumpkin carriage, their fat, pink faces smiling even as they slept” (156).

 

In the above passage, Pohpoh’s imagination reveals not only what she associates with happiness, but also what she desires herself (the latter can be gathered from the idealized, almost envious tone of her fantasy): a nuclear family, one that fits the monolith in structure with a male head of household, a loving mother, and multiple siblings. This desire to fit the monolith underscores the suffering that Pohpoh has faced because of her unconventional family structure. Without a mother to protect her, her father has been able to viciously abuse her. (It is worth noting that Sara would not be needed as a protective figure in the first place if Chandin were the “benevolent” figure of both the monolith and Pohpoh’s fantasy.)(In other words, Chandin may be a very human kind of terrible, but he is still terrible.)

Changing directions a bit, it is also significant that the children in Pohpoh’s fantasy are “pink” in the face. Pink faces suggest whiteness, which in turn suggests that Pohpoh associates happiness and normalcy with whiteness instead of with other people of color. This relates back to Chandin’s own attempts to escape his racial identity and be as much like the white missionaries he encounters as possible. Although Pohpoh doesn’t go as far as Chandin, she seems to associate both whiteness and conventional family structures with the happiness that she lacks. In fact, one can argue that whiteness is as much a part of the monolith as heterosexuality given the fact that being white is often treated as a standard from which all other races deviate. Thus, the racial aspect of Pohpoh’s fantasy family is not separate from but related to the actual structure of that family, forming another way in which the family that Pohpoh associates with happiness (and safety) embodies the monolith.

Finally, it is understandable that Pohpoh would desire a life that is shaped around the monolith, as living differently from the monolith has only brought her suffering; however, we know from her interactions with Tyler that she does not view the monolith as a restrictive force, for she accepts people who live outside its confines. Thus, it is a structure that she desires for her life, but not the only way to structure a life that she will accept.

Queerness and the Panopticon in Cereus Blooms at Night

“His eyes roamed my face. I felt as though he was looking for an angularity to my jawline and cheekbone, inspecting my moustache and other facial hair to help confirm a notion. The muscles of my cheeks became devilishly ticklish. I was afraid my eyes would begin to flicker on their own, as they were given to doing whenever I became shy” (Mootoo, 69).

In this scene from Cereus Blooms at Night, Tyler is speaking with Mr. Hector, the gardener at the hospital. Tyler, the narrator, is pausing during their conversation to note his thoughts to the reader. I believe that Shani Mootoo is using this moment in the text to hint towards Tyler’s queerness and his awareness of self around other people.

Tyler claims that he “felt as though” Mr. Hector was inspecting his facial bones and facial hair to “confirm a notion”. This notion, with what we know so far in the novel, is likely whether Tyler is a man. However, in any other context, this would simply look as if Mr. Hector was looking at Tyler during their conversation. I do not necessarily believe Mr. Hector was actually trying to confirm Tyler’s sex, but Tyler’s self-consciousness enabled this fear to blossom because of simply a look. As Tyler picks up on this fear, he becomes shy and suddenly overly aware of how he looks.

Tyler feels particularly visible, and thus vulnerable, during this moment. Mr. Hector has been nothing but kind to Tyler so far in the novel and there is no obvious reason he should feel so shy. However, because of Tyler’s otherness, any attention or gaze is construed as negative for Tyler. This moment reminds me of Foucault’s theory of the panopticon. Although not discussed in the section of The History of Sexuality we read for this class, the panopticon applies to sexuality as much as it applies to almost anything else in society. Foucault argues that we all carry a false perception that we are being constantly watched and observed by society around us, and thus police our bodies to be more normalized. At this moment, Tyler’s fear that he is being observed so closely by Mr. Hector results in his own policing as he fears his “eyes would begin to flicker on their own” and his “cheeks became devilishly ticklish”.

This is so important because it speaks to how queer people feel the need to police themselves because of a fear that they are being monitored into normalcy. Anything that hints at this supervision by outsiders alerts queer people immediately. Although some outsiders are truly policing and watching queer people, I do not believe that Mr. Hector was in this case. However, Tyler’s fear that he was being watched is nonetheless very real and extremely difficult to break out of when society has conditioned him to police himself into normalcy his whole life.

Tyler’s constant self-awareness around others is exhausting, time-consuming, and completely unfair, but can only be changed with time and revolutionary acts of accepting queerness as normal. One example of this is when Mala gives Tyler the dress and does not react with any big response, neither positive or negative, because “the outfit was not something to congratulate or scorn-it simply was” (Mootoo, 77).

How Foucault’s “History of Sexuality” works with Warner & “The Trouble With Normal”

Foucault’s thoughts on confession and sexuality in The History of Sexuality are reminiscent of Michael Warner (making the connection yet again), and that resemblance reveals a really large and overarching idea of the standards that queer people, as individuals with non-normative sexual identities, are held to. Foucault writes, “The obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us on the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, ‘demands’ only to surface; that if it fails to do so, this is because a constraint holds it in place, the violence of a power weighs it down, and it can finally be articulated only at the price of a kind of liberation” (60). When he says that “[confession] is so deeply ingrained in us” he means that society has, for so long, placed immense pressure and expectations on individuals with “secrets” to make them feel that way. The secrets he’s references are sexual acts, some of the most historically “locked-away” and “secret” of which are queer, which has been talked about in The Trouble With Normal with Michael Warner’s “list” of good and bad behaviors. Although his “bad” list – and writing, in general – extends to much more than just non-heterosexual sex acts, the stark difference between the good and bad, and the shame that comes along with it is exactly what causes the secrets that Foucault writes about people keeping (and being forced to confess). It is almost ironic, then, that people are forced to lock away parts of themselves via societal pressure and at the same time are compelled by that same society to confess the same things they locked up. Queer sex and sexuality becomes an almost “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation in which people are pulled in two very different directions – secrecy/shame and confession – that makes life that much harder for those individuals. One could even go so far as to say that this paradox is purposeful, because it has been traditionally effective at keeping queer individuals hidden away and quiet as they struggle between the two directions that they are forced to choose, and when queer people are subdued like that, it makes the “normal” people in society – the very traditional, heterosexual individuals, as Warner would probably say – more comfortable to live while thinking more of themselves and less of others in need.

To be an outcast

Queerness is not new to mankind, it did not just suddenly appear like the Christian God’s Creation. There is no question of its existence; yet there seems to be a debate upon its viability as a lifestyle or narrative, as if queerness were a choice. Society simply does not allow for the freedom of choice – it does not allow for queerness to just be. In Shani Mootoo’s novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, the narrator, Tyler, longs to explore his true self, his femininity, but is prevented by fear of persecution.

All his life, Tyler does not fit the role of what a man should be – he is a caretaker, submissive, and gentle. For Lantanacamarian society (for our society), this is unacceptable behavior and those who identify with these traits are branded aberrant and grotesque. His differences are highlighted when Tyler’s colleagues titter and jeer at him, a constant reminder of his being an outcast. Even as a child, Tyler is aware of his queerness, often “ponder[ing] the gender and sex roles that seemed available to people, and the rules that went with them” (Mootoo 48). The tale of Chandin Ramchandin as told by Cigarette Smoking Nana offered Tyler a glimpse of queerness elsewhere but also served as warning that queerness is a perversion, not to be tolerated.

When Mala Ramchandin acquires a uniform for Tyler, stolen from a clothesline, Tyler feels an overwhelming craving to have his womanhood acknowledged, for his queerness to be validated by someone else. However, Mala Ramchandin does not fulfill his desires, treating him no differently than she normally would. At first, this infuriates Tyler as he feels she should take ownership to her role in the creation of this moment. Suddenly, he comes to the realization that, to her, “the outfit was not something to either congratulate or scorn – it simply was” (Mootoo 77). Her blasé behavior toward what is a pivotal moment to Tyler is actually what he covets the most: acceptance.

In her own queerness, Mala Ramchandin is Tyler’s post in rough waters. She is a rope thrown overboard to save a drowning soul. The reason her story encompasses Tyler so is because she is a kindred soul, another outcast. Together, the two of them form a community that enables them to finally feel a sense of belonging. Their friendship runs parallel to our own society, to the communities that celebrate queerness within themselves and within others. The sense of kinship struck from being a part of these communities is a balm to angry, open wound that is constantly picked at. It allows ‘members’ to explore who they are within a safe environment and to simply be themselves.

Yet, why is that, within these communities of acceptance, there too are rules and regulations of what queerness looks like, what it sounds like, what is it is?

Confession

“The obligation to confess is now relayed to us through so many points, is so deeply ingrained in us that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us.” (Foucault)

Intriguing in the rest of the Foucault’s discussion of confession, these sentences are also particularly pertinent to the larger theme of queer studies. In this work, Foucault debates the role of confession and how, in his view, the “Western man has become a confessing animal.” The choice of wording of this observation that confession has become an “obligation” only serves to highlight how that, even if we see confession as an act of sharing between those who we chose to confide in, it is ultimately expected of us. After all, are our confidants really our confidants if there is no obligation of confession? Without the norm of confession, there is not a sense of being a confidant and this obligation we are expected to uphold is “so deeply ingrained in us” that we willing continue to cater the norm.

On that note, it is interesting to consider that society at large has created a norm of confession that is looming over us as a monolith—a constraining power in essence. This can relate to Foucault’s wording of “points.” Earlier in the essay, he discusses how one confesses or “is forced to confess” to a myriad of figures, usually of authority. He cites examples such as parents, doctors, educators, “to those one loves.” This is interesting because these examples are a demonstration of how these “points” have taught, or “relayed,” this sense of obligation to confess as a method of both control and of intimacy.  From a young age, our parents and educators, some of the most influential people in shaping thought processes, have introduced the theme of confession into our lives, perhaps to a detrimental effect. Because we are obligated to uphold these norms in our own spheres, we may place those same expectations on others as well, creating a cycle of constraining power.

Expanding into the wider sphere of queer studies, confession is reminiscent of the idea of coming “out.” There may be a perceived obligation of the need to “confess” to the world about who one truly is. The thought that we are “constrained” by an outer power—perhaps in this context the encompassing idea of heteronormativity—forces the idea that one is obligated to throw off these confines and come out and that if we do not do so, we are somehow hiding our true selves.  Worse, perhaps this perceived sense translates into feeling like we have betrayed the trust or assumptions of the other “points” from whom we have learned the mechanisms of confession.

Failure is Indeed an Option

The author Sarah McBride, is an American transgender rights activist. In her memoir, Tomorrow Will Be Different, she tells her story of entering the LGBTQ+ community, fighting for equal rights and what it means to be an openly transgender person. The first chapter titled “I’m transgender.” describes her coming-out story. The particular passage describes her time at college as a student body president. McBride explains that she enjoyed the position nevertheless, she also felt more miserable with every day that she had to spend pretending to be someone she wasn’t. So, she gave up on politics, which meant so much to her, because she felt lost. However, she points out that “… in a twisted way, giving up allowed me to begin to come to terms with my identity” (McBride 23). This statement stood out to me because she describes a moment of failure, of giving up, and while she might have felt defeated, she realizes that giving up was exactly what she needed.

McBride describes it as “twisted”, that by giving up on her greatest passion and life-long goals she probably achieved more than what she would have accomplished otherwise. She says giving up “allowed” her to pursue her search for identity, and in this context “allowed” gives the sentence a positive turn after using the negatively connotated “twisted”. Sarah McBride needed time to find herself, which is exactly what “giving up” granted her.

Normally, “giving up” is something we understand as negative. Giving up means surrendering, losing control, abandoning or declaring something insoluble (“give up”, merriam-webster.com). Yet, in this case, “giving up” gave Sarah McBride something she needed even more than succeeding in her goals. People around her might have judged her or thought she was giving up important opportunities still, for Sarah McBride this wasn’t a negative thing at all.

The passage reminded me of a quote from Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure in which he states: “[t]he queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the remarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being” (Halberstam 88). Halberstam claims that “the queer art of failure” makes room for things that are unimaginable or unacceptable in non-queer circumstances. By “failing”, “losing” or “giving up” new space is created and new doors are opened. I feel like this is precisely what McBride is implying. A queer way of being and living is possible for anyone not adhering to society’s standards. What I am trying to say is, not succeeding or giving up on something society expects you to do, or what you expect yourself to do, does not make you, or your life, a failure. Especially when your life or your identity exists outside of the cultural monolith not succeeding at certain things could be exactly what you need.

Failure doesn’t have to be a negative thing at all.

The Deep Complexities of Coming Out as Transgender

In Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality, by Sarah McBride, Sarah explains what coming out as trans felt like to her. She says, “I was about to jump feetfirst into a world that I wasn’t sure I was prepared for” (McBride 2018, 4). The words in this sentence hold a lot of meaning to the truth of what coming out as trans entails. Saying “I was about to jump feetfirst” evokes sentiments of suicide. When someone is typically jumping off of something tall (as jumping into a world would appear to be), they typically don’t plan on continuing to live. This provides symbolism for how coming out as trans would be like living a completely new life, in a new world. Everything from how someone perceives you and treats you, to the opportunities that you have in the job market significantly change as a transwoman. In a study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, they found that one in four trans identifying people report being fired from their job on the basis of their gender identity (McBride 2018, 4). I could only imagine how scary it must be to lose all of the protections of stability that one experiences in their life. Sarah knew that she identified as a woman, but didn’t know how her life would be altered based off of how others perceive her. While Sarah’s life as a man ended, her life as a woman was just beginning. In this sense, “death” represents both renewal and loss. It represents renewal in Sarah’s connection to herself, and the alignment of her outside persona with her identity, and loss in that she is losing all of the privileges that she knew to have as a man. This statement allows the reader to see that coming out as trans is a deeply complex thing, that has much bigger life altering implications than just changing one’s personal pronoun.   

Additionally, the words “into a world I wasn’t sure I was prepared for” are significant to a reader’s understanding of Sarah’s experience. Specifically, the use of the personal pronoun “I” has a large effect on the reader’s understanding of being trans. Often times, society chooses to focus on the experience of others who are affected by someone’s transition, while truthfully the person who needs the most attention is the trans-person themself. In Sarah’s experience coming out, when she told her mom, her mom said, “I can’t handle this! I can’t handle this!”(McBride 2018, 26). The “I” in this statement, being her mother shows lack of acknowledgement for the experience of Sarah during this transition. When Sarah referenced her personal feeling of lack of preparedness for the life ahead of her, it allowed the reader to recognize that this transition is really about Sarah, and not the lives of the people in her life. From analyzing this quote, the reader can gain a deeper understanding that coming out as trans is something that alters every aspect of that person’s life. it is scary, new, vulnerable, and completely personal. Coming out is about the individual, and by thinking of how oneself, independent from the person coming out is affected, that person is completely disregarding the difficulties and challenges faced by that individual coming out.

 

McBride, Sarah. 2018. Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality. New York: Crown Archetype.

Bloomed Cereus

Tyler in Cereus Blooms at Nightis conspicuously lost. He craves the female nurse’s uniform given to him by Miss Ramchandin, “I was certainly excited by the possibilities trembling inside me”, yet after he put the dress on, he felt “horribly silly” (MooToo 76). Miss Ramchandin did not react to Tyler’s transformation and this causes him to feel out of touch with his identity, “not a man and not ever able to be a woman, suspended nameless in the limbo state between existence and nonexistence” (77). Tyler becomes unsure of his identity because of the lack of response given by Miss Ramchandin. His unsureness shows that peer validation is necessary to feel confident in one’s own identity. Tyler expected Miss Ramchandin to fawn over him when she saw him in the dress, and therefore validate his desire to be the woman he dresses up to be. When she did not respond to his transformation, he lost what he thought was the answer to his identity. It was not until Tyler realized the reason why Miss Ramchandin paid no attention to him in the dress that he felt sure of his identity and confident in his transformation, “to her mind, the outfit was not something to congratulate or scorn-it simply was” (77). People understand themselves through community acknowledgement, and this is exemplified through Tyler.

Foucault says, “a guarantee of the status, identity, and value granted to one person by another, it came to signify someone’s acknowledgment of his own actions and thoughts” (Foucault 58). Looking through lens of Foucault, a person “granting” you an identity shapes the thoughts and feelings of yourself and makes you more self-assured in that identity. In Cereus Blooms at Night, Tyler feels lost when he does not receive a remark from Miss Ramchandin (MooToo 78). Without physical or verbal affirmation from Miss Ramchandin, Tyler completely questions his identity; he does not feel his true identity is male, nor female without the reassurance from Miss Ramchandin. However, after his realization of why Miss Ramchandin did not react, Tyler reflecting on the evening said “I had never felt so extremely ordinary, and I quite loved it” (78). He felt comfortable and confident in his identity as a woman because he felt assured by Miss Ramchandin, and felt as though she granted him freedom in this particular identity.

Tyler’s struggle with his identity connects to the novel in a larger way: the title. During his transformation of wearing the female nurse’s uniform, Tyler is the bloomed cereus. The cereus plant in the novel is ugly when not bloomed and it only blooms at night for a brief amount time, but when it does it is beautiful. The cereus plant parallels Tyler when he puts on the dress. He not only feels beautiful in a physical sense, but discovering his true identity is beautiful to him as well. He only blooms, or puts on the dress, briefly at night for fear of being caught, but when he does he finally feels ordinary instead of different. He feels a sense of belonging.

A Contradictory Revelation

“The reason Miss Ramchandin paid me no attention was that, to her mind, the outfit was not something to either congratulate or scorn – it simply was.”

Tyler is weary from the lack of response from Miss Ramchandin after his cautious reveal of his wearing the dress that Miss Ramchandin stole for him. After momentary shame and regret, Tyler experiences a revelation as seen in the quote above. Tyler is finally dressing the way he wishes too and feels like himself in his truest form, and Miss Ramchandin recognizes this.

The act of Tyler putting on the dress to reveal to Miss Ramchandin is an act of confession because he is seeking her validation. As we have read in Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, “…one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console and reconcile…” in other words, one confesses to either be praised or punished by a figure of authority. This is contradictory in Tyler’s case because Miss Ramchandin is not the figure of authority, he is. Yet he is still seeking her validation. Tyler then goes onto say that “she was not one to manacle nature, and I sensed that she was permitting mine its freedom.” This statement is contradicting Tyler’s revelation because he has just realized that no confession was needed for him to be granted his freedom and be accepted as who he feels he is, but he is still taking note of what Miss Ramchandin may feel about him.

Foucault also states, “the sexual act- and how it was done; but of reconstructing, in and around the act, the thoughts that recapitulated it, the obsessions that accompanied it, the images, desires, modulations, and quality of the pleasure that animated it. For the first time no doubt, a society has taken upon itself to solicit and hear the imparting of individual pleasures. Here Foucault is saying that people have begun to insert themselves into other people’s sexual lives wanting to know everything about what they do for the purpose of critique. To contradict this idea is Miss Ramchandins lack of response to Tyler wearing the dress. Miss Ramchandin, already a woman of few words, does not critique or pass judgment. She has the ability to see Tyler as he truly is, not what he wants to be, which is what others may see. There is no praise or punishment in this confession, it just is.

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