So writes Eve Sedgwick in Tendencies (155). As I read more queer theory and more about the history of LGBT movements, I have become increasingly interested in the sissy: the faggot, the “effeminate,” the girlyboy. In LGBT Studies this week we’re reading a chapter from Piontek’s Queering Gay and Lesbian Studies about how the Gay movement has left the sissy behind, especially in regards to the inclusion of Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood in the DSM. Sedgwick takes this up in the essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys” in Tendencies as well.
What is the lot of the sissy in our current cultural climate? Maligned in his youth (beaten up, threatened, insulted) to the point that suicide rates for queer youth are two to three times higher than for straight youth. Ostracized from many gay men communities (“I only date men. No sissies,” the common mantra on online dating services). Only safe in urban settings (and a few rural settings). And even in those urban settings, it is only within certain pockets that one is truly safe. And then there is the dramatic, entertainment value of the sissy: valued more for his drama, flamboyancy, queeniness, drag performances â€” his caricature of the faggot â€” the sissy who is adored for his absurdity, his adorableness…
If I hear another straight woman who I do not know tell me how cute I am, I might scream.
I think there’s a lot of work to be done to understand not the sissy, but the place of a sissy in our culture, the reaction of others to sissies, the pathologization of this maligned class. As Sedgwick quotes psychoanalyst Richard C. Friedman’s views of the young effeminate homosexual: “The distinction between noncomformists and people with psycho-pathology is usually clear enough during childhood. Extremely and chronically effeminate boys, for example, should be understood as falling into the latter category” (Male Homosexuality: A Contemporary Psychoanalytical Perspective, quoted in Sedgwick 156). Sedgwick does not say this (she is writing academic writing, after all), but fuck you Friedman.
I didn’t grow up as that much of a sissy. It would have been a hard thing to do in Mount Ayr, Iowa. I wasn’t too butch, either, but I was an active leader in FFA, senior class president, active in 4-H. These things were important parts of who I was, but they may have been impossible had my gender performance been even slightly more feminine. I even dated a woman who lived a few hours away my senior year. Her straight, male friends read me for what I was (and wasn’t, and today am and am not): gay. I hated their ignorance.
The beauty of being “straight” at the time was the safety I had in wearing pink, in dressing oddly, in wearing fingernail polish, in wearing a dress to “Come as you future day” during Homecoming week (meant as a joke on those men who wore dresses during “Dress up day,” this act has, in retrospect, been a foretelling of my drag performances and comfortability wearing various gendered clothes). While these acts marked me as a fag to some, they marked me as brave to others because I was comfortable in my own masculinity.
I wish sometimes that I had more comfortable in my femininity.
But I digress. I feel like I could teach a whole course on the sissy. Learning along with my students: How does society react to the sissy? How is the sissy interpellated (he is a “boy” more than any other gay or queer man, he is a “girl,” a “boy,” a “faggot,” “queer,” and so forth). Even amongst gay and queer men, the sissy is maligned, marginalized. He doesn’t pass as straight in as many places, he calls attention to himself, he flaunts himself â€” why can’t he just be gay and be a man?
I’m excited to see where class discussion goes this week.