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 ), 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 ). 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.