Sexuality and Gender in Cereus Blooms at Night

A few weeks ago, my mother and I had a conversation about the relationship between gender and sexuality. Specifically, she told me that the acronym LGBT confused her, and she didn’t understand why the T was included alongside the LGB. Why do we think of gender and sexuality as belonging under one umbrella? Why are straight trans people considered part of the same group as gay cis people? What connects them? This isn’t a question I’ve thought much about before, and I wasn’t sure how to answer her. I tend to consider gender and sexuality as inherently linked, in the way that a person’s sexuality relates to the gender(s) they’re attracted to, or how a person’s gender influences the way they define their sexuality. However, I think there is a deeper connection here than a simple reciprocal relationship, and I think Cereus Blooms at Night provides a good lens through which to explore this question. I want to use this text and the character of Tyler to explore how gender and sexuality are related, specifically in terms of Tyler’s own sexuality and gender identity. 

There are two main elements to Tyler’s queerness: his* attraction to men, and his femininity. Tyler seems to have become comfortable with his sexuality before the text begins, and though he never explicitly labels himself as “gay” or “queer” or even “attracted to men,” neither does he hide his sexuality or speak around the moments when it comes to the surface of the text. While his attraction to men is made very explicit early on in the text (at the moment when the officers bring Mala to the Alms House [9-10], and when the doctor arrives to examine her [22]), his femininity starts out as more implicit, shown through his preference for a traditionally feminine career and his lack of traditional masculine abilities (his account of the physical labor he was assigned at the Alms House especially affirms this [10]). It wasn’t until Mala steals the nurse’s dress for him (75-78) that I began to consider his identity as other than an effeminate gay man. As the text progresses, Tyler’s femininity and non-normative gender identity become more and more explicit, until the very end of the book when he puts on makeup and the nurse’s dress to meet Otoh and Ambrose, appearing the most feminine that he has throughout the entire text (247). 

Tyler’s experience with gender and the social repercussions of not conforming to heteronormativity reflect our own society and recent attitudes around queer identities, specifically in the way people tend to be more comfortable with queer sexualities than with queer gender identities. I think the reason Tyler is more explicit about his sexuality than his gender identity is because gender can be a difficult concept to tear away from heteronormative ideals, more so than sexuality. Identifying as a man who is attracted to other men begins to align Tyler with (straight) women and starts chipping away at the boundaries of heteronormativity. Once he is comfortable with his attraction to men, he can begin exploring what his femininity might mean – and that is the journey his narration shows the readers. 

 

* The first question I had when considering Tyler’s identity is what pronouns to use. Because the text primarily identifies him as male, I could use masculine pronouns for him; however, I could just as easily read the ending of the text as a declaration of identity, and argue that Tyler’s feminine presentation is a sign to use she/her pronouns. Or, I could read the ambiguity of Tyler’s gender as a reason to use they/them pronouns. For the sake of clarity, and because Tyler presents as a man for the majority of the text, I decided to use he/him pronouns to refer to him. However, it appears that the text would just as easily support a different set of pronouns. 

2 thoughts on “Sexuality and Gender in Cereus Blooms at Night”

  1. I find your idea that Tyler needed to wait until he was comfortable to further explore his identity pretty powerful. The book takes us on this journey of acceptance and exploration that is so important even in just this subplot (I’m not sure if this is a book where subplots can exist, which might be interesting to consider, but since Tyler says this story is about Mala that is what I will call it). I have had conversations with my friends about how we feel so satisfied with an understanding of self that was found through sexuality only to feel questions about gender creeping up next. I would consider this a negative outlook to have on identity, to wish you could simply be finished understanding your self. With all of the pain presented in Cereus Blooms at Night, there is also positive, unabashed “progress” for Tyler in his identity. Tyler never explicitly explains his new declaration of identity to the reader in terms of labels, instead he simply exists. This allows so much interpretation up to the reader, but, overall, leaves space for a labeless freedom in existence which I think opens a dialogue about the joy of exploration even in the less than supportive setting of Latanacamara.

  2. Often times I find that we’re given a definition of gender: how we’re supposed to act, feel, and react to things based on the gender we carry, in virtue of how we are gazed upon by others. To be a woman is defined in relation to the gaze of a man. We see that masculinity is built on much of the same heteronormative precognitions of what is appropriate in social situations as well. In this way, gender nonconformity is a nonconformity to heterosexuality. Women want a man’s man. Boys won’t like you if you’re too muscular, or if you have too much body hair. And because of this, being gay is also a form of gender nonconformity: not caring about how men see you is a criterion of being woman that you fail. Gender nonconformity is not the same thing as being transgender, and violating heteronormativity doesn’t necessitate that you are gay. But the two overarching forces at play are intermingled and overgrown into each other to the point that they are inseparable. To be a straight trans woman in the right sort of relationship, even with a perfectly “passing” body is still a violation of heteronormativity and gender conformity, and cis, hetero men’s attraction to trans women being met with shame and disgust towards their own sense of attraction reflects the fact that society’s discomfort with people under gender/attraction normativity has nothing to do with checkmarks on paper.

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