Nannette and Unmasking Queer Stories

Nanette is a comedy special in which the comedian, Hannah Gadsby, tells her story as a lesbian and gender-non-conforming person from Tasmania—a place where until 1997, it was still illegal to be gay and same-sex marriage wasn’t legalized until 2017. The premise of the comedy special is that performing comedy has left her feeling that she has not been telling the full truth of her story—a story that she has long kept silent with her shame. She points out that while she has turned to self-deprecating humor to cope with the trauma she has faced, telling jokes only adds to the hatred that she has internalized since she was a child. While she begins the special on a light-hearted note through joke-telling, the tone dramatically shifts part-way through when she describes her reasoning for needing to quit comedy. She draws in the audience, telling them a heartbreakingly real story about her own shame and self-hatred, the homophobia she has faced from her own family and strangers, and the violence that she has faced from men. The audience for this special is stated explicitly. She says that men, especially cis het while men have a responsibility to change the narrative surrounding what they have been taught about their own gender and to understand their privilege in society. 

This comedy special connects to many of the ideas we have talked about in class. In connection to the theme of mythmaking, it is clear that Nannette attempts to retell a story that has so often been silenced. Gadsby recognizes the ways that these stories have been silenced and glossed over and in response, tells her story completely straightforward to the audience with all of the real tension and discomfort that comes with it—no jokes masking the truth to make it easier for the audience to take in. She states at the end of her special “Laughter is not our medicine, stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine. I do not want to unite you with laughter or anger, I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood…” In this statement, Gadsby states a theme that is repeated time and time again in queer media—a desire for queer people’s raw and unaltered stories to be heard. Adrianne Rich’s “Study of History” conveys a similar feeling of frustration and anguish around the silencing of queer stories. She states “all we have never entirely known what was done to you upstream, what powers trepanned which of your channels diverted what rockface leaned to stare in your defenseless face.” Here Rich uses the river as a metaphor to describe the history of violence that queer people have faced. By saying that we will never know “what was done to you upstream,” she is pointing to the history of queer stories being erased, altered, and misunderstood. Both Rich and Gadsby aim to bring attention to this fact and to share their stories no matter how uncomfortable.

Power, Oppression, and Disease

Kushner uses Roy Cohn as a symbol throughout Angels in America to show how power, oppression, and disease are inherently connected. This connection is most obviously portrayed in Act I, Scene 9 in which Roy Cohn denies both being a homosexual and having AIDs when diagnosed by his doctor, despite both of these being true. In this scene, Kusher is drawing attention to the privilege that Roy has by having an immense amount of power. Since Cohn is a wealthy and successful white man, he has the power to be gay without facing any oppression. This can be seen in his statement “Say: ‘Roy Cohn, you are a homosexual.’… And I will proceed, systematically, to destroy your reputation and your practice, and your career in New York State, Henry. Which you know I can do (45). With this statement, it can be seen that Roy’s immense power not only protects him from being exposed and therefore oppressed by the homophobic system that exists in the united states, but it also protects him from even accepting it himself. This line also reveals Roy’s understanding of how easily this power can be taken away from him. Cohn’s greatest fear through this conversation is not that he is dying but that being labeled as a homosexual will change his status in society. He says “Like all labels, they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste but something much simpler: clout.” By saying this, It is clear that Roy is not only revealing a deeply internalized hatred for his identity as a homosexual man but further, a clear understanding that being labeled as a homosexual will instantly lessen his power as a highly respected lawyer. 

Kushner further uses Roy as a symbol to show the inevitable loss of social status that comes with disease and death. While Roy uses his privilege and power to avoid being oppressed, it is evident that by having AIDS, he will ultimately lose this power to control how he is perceived by the public when he dies. This fear of losing control over how he is perceived can be seen in Roy’s hallucinations of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. This fear of loss of power is clear when Roy says “I’m immortal. Ethel….I have forced my way into history. I ain’t ever gonna die.” To which she responds “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.” Roy’s denial of dying resembles the same denial of being a homosexual and having aids that he conveyed in his conversation with his doctor. It can be seen that Ethel’s appearance in Roy’s hallucination resembles this fear of death since Roy was responsible for her death and her true identity as a communist spy being exposed. By saying that “history is about to crack wide open,” Ethel expresses what Roy is too scared to admit—that once he dies, his history—his true identity—will be exposed and he will have no power over how he is perceived anymore. 

The Problem with Whiteness and Wealth Within the Queer Community

“We ate at a hotel restaurant, where I spent too much money on not enough food, served by men of color who were courteous in spite of our ever-changing party and ever-changing food orders. Jo and her friends were all going to the party after dinner and were dressed accordingly, in black plastic miniskirts and diamond earrings, three-piece suits and golden cufflinks, hair carefully molded and shaved in all the right places. In my blue jeans and faded chamois shirt, I felt conspicuous and embarrassed” (41).

In this passage, Clare draws our attention to the issue of class and race within urban, queer communities. Throughout this entire chapter, Clare draws on the issue of “metronormativity” being a large part of what makes him feel like an outsider as a queer person as he grew up in a largely rural, conservative, and working-class area. Through this detailed description of the national queer writers’ conference, he further lays out the issue of exclusivity in the queer community. 

This passage is filled with a number of binary oppositions. For example, when describing the group of queer writers he is with, he describes them as being “dressed accordingly” (41). With this word “accordingly,” Clare emphasizes that there is a “right way” and “wrong way” to be a queer person in an urban, academic environment. Meanwhile, he describes himself as being “conspicuous.”  By using this word, he emphasizes how he not only fails to fit within these expectations but feels like an outsider in a community of which he is a part. 

Another area where Clare’s writing especially stands out is when he decides to include that his party was “served by men of color.” Including the race of the waiters in the description, further calls attention to the binary of “fitting in” and “not fitting in” that is seen in this passage. This contrasts well with “ever-changing party and ever-changing food order,” implying that there was a sense of entitlement or superiority that was felt by these white, upper-middle-class, queer people in expecting their food to be served even with these high demands. 

In this passage, Clare calls the readers to see how intersectionality in the queer community is often overlooked, whether through accessibility (in this case wealth), appearance, or other identities such as race. This passage relates well to what Dennis expressed about his experience in the queer community as a Chinese-American man in “My Image of Myself: An Interview with Dennis,” stating that “there are a lot of gay images that emphasize whiteness…I’m angry about that” (15-16). Both Dennis and Clare are calling attention to an issue of exclusivity in the queer community in which white and wealthy individuals are seen as the norm while those who are not either of those things struggle to find a place. Clare states that he is often left “feeling queer in the queer community” (42), implying that while attempting to be inclusive of marginalized genders and sexualities, the queer community often fails at fighting for the many overlapping identities that come with queerness. 

The Desire for Motherly Acceptance in “The Blue Dress”


“Through the streets, is me floating in her dress through the streets/is only the moon sees me floating through the streets, is me in a blue dress” (3).

Saeed Jones’s “The Blue Dress,” is describing a deep and lasting impact that his mother has on his life and his identity as a queer person and the desire to be vulnerable and to receive motherly affection.

The passage that I have chosen to examine the most deeply is, in my opinion, the most crucial part of the work. At this point in the poem, it changes from describing the dress of his mother to describing himself wearing the dress. This is a powerful moment because it is showing that he is in control of this endless flow of water—that while it has the power to flood or drown, he is being gently carried by it through the streets. Further, he is wearing the dress— the thing that he is floating in, the endless flow of water. 

It can be seen throughout the rest of the poem the juxtaposition of the dress being described as both fragile and delicate as well as ruinous and harmful. For example, the dress is described as “the ring-ting-ring of water dripping from mouths of crystal bowls and crystal cups” as well as “leaks like tears from the windows of a drowned house” (3). One can see how the water that is the dress—being described as a river flooding and filling up a house—can have completely different impacts depending on the context. It can be as delicate as drops trickling over crystal or as disastrous as water bursting out of the windows of a home. 

Because he is describing the dress of his mother, I believe this juxtaposition is referring to the influence that his mother has on him. That, like the water, she can either be loving and delicate or harsh and cruel. As Jones describes himself wearing the blue dress in this passage of the poem, he is trying to encapsulate a number of ideas. To begin with, the dress represents his freedom to express himself as a queer person, as a person who does not fit within the gender norms that are expected of him. Within this freedom, there is also a desire to be vulnerable and accepted for who he is. Before this passage of the poem he says “is a current come to carry me in its arms” (3). He is expressing a desire to be held and cared for by his mother and this dress is representing the power that his mother has to give him love, affection, and acceptance or the opposite: rejection, hatred, and neglect.