Both “Oranges are not the only fruit” by Jeanette Winterson and “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner centralize queer people, but there are significant differences between the two pieces that highlight the unique experience of each individual within the community.
The protagonists of the two texts, Jeanette and Roy, have their own mother in mind on every milestone of their lives. Jeanette used to adopt the conservative and religious mindset of her mother from a very young age without even questioning about it once. For her mother, the world exists in a strictly dual fashion, with no middle ground in between two extremes of any spectrum. “She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies (p3)”. Jeanette’s mother tends to manipulate her life as evidenced by the way she treats her daughter. When Jeanette is sick, her mother visits but not to whole-heartedly take care of her but to give her a symbolic fruit that indicates her command on Jeanette’s life. As time goes by Jeanette discovers her sexual orientation, gradually deviates from the binary order and maps out a route for her own life.
Roy thinks about his mother in the last moment of his life. She is not physically there but Roy looks at the ghost of Ethel and sees her as his mother. This scene implies that at that moment Roy is very vulnerable and he is no more or less than a little child crying in front of his mother. He begs her to sing him a song: ”Good to see you Ma, it’s been years. I feel bad. Sing to me. Please, it’s scary out here”. Though it is a moment of weakness, the appearance of his mother helps heal his soul as opposed to the presence of Jeanette’s mother.
These parallel patterns between Jeanette and Roy are obvious in the text, but there are differences that shed light on the personalities of the two characters. While the self-portrait of Jeanette is quite innocent and full of pride, that of Roy is marked with shame and self-loath. Another contrast lies in the circumstances of Jeanette and Roy. Based on the definition of her mother about sin, Jeanette is blameworthy because her sexuality does not fit into the binary lens of her mother. Consequently, she is not approved within her family, let alone in the living community or in the society. Nonetheless, the general public respects Roy as a powerful conservative lawyer regardless of his sin because Roy lets no one but Joe knows about his manipulation of Ethel’s trial.
Given that contrasting background, Jeanette and Roy have opposite feeling towards themselves. Jeanette does not have any supporter and yet she is strong enough not to let her mother’s judgment, such as her having “unnatural passion”, bring her self-worth down. Her confidence is not backed up by the certainty that she can persuade others but rather grounded by her will to follow her passion. “I loved God and I loved the church, but I began to see that as more and more complicated. It didn’t help that I had no intention of becoming a missionary” (p 128). As Jeanette realizes she no longer believes in the values that she used to believe in, she still respects the past and acknowledges why she does not feel appropriate in further pursuing what has once nurtured her. She gains strength on the process of deviating from the old pattern, but she appreciates every piece of what have shaped her identity.
The opposite reaction can be seen in Roy. No matter how respectful others view Roy, he still hates many characteristics of him and he even abhors Ethel because she mirrors those traits. Though he claims that he hates traitors and communists, the real reason why he is hostile to Ethel is that she, being a Jew as Roy, reminds him of so many qualities that he considers weaknesses. He performs acts of hyper-masculinity to cover his insecurity and he forces himself to constantly prove that he is strong by bashing others for their weakness. For example, he not only calls Joe a sissy when Joe is about to turn down the job offer in DC but also calls Ethel stupid for believing that he deems her to be his mother. For the record, Roy does see Ethel as his mother but he lies because he does not want to admit his fault to Ethel. Such denying pattern of Roy repeats over the course of the narration, unlike Jeanette who is willing to accept all facts of her personality. There are so many secrets that Roy hides and there are so many facts that he does not dare to admit, such as when he asserts that he has cancer instead of AIDS. Having such strong intention to show off his power, he would never confess his affection to his mother unless stunned. The rare moment when he imagines his mother being in front of him reveals how desperately Roy need to count on his mother as a source of emotional encouragement. Once again we see the opposite direction in the behavior of Roy and Jeanette, one leaning towards his mother’s image to acquire courage while one becoming stronger as she deflects from her mother’s influence. They both respect their mother, but how they think about them reflects their self-portrait. The mother plays important roles in supporting the two characters’ coming out effort and also in reinforcing their pride.
The two extremes represented by Roy and Jeannette exemplify the campness in the two texts because both exaggerate based on raw materials to obtain an effect than move the audience better than the original story can. All in all, one observation can be drawn from the two pieces: self-esteem plays a critical role in the coming out process of queer individuals. There are many external challenges that can easily defeat the characters but how they view themselves after being exposed to other’s harsh judgment determines how happy they feel about their identity.