Monday, July 25, 2016

A SCARLET PANSY, 84-year-old call for tolerance by emulation


Fordham University Press
$19.95 paper, available now

Rating: 4 quizzical stars of five

The Publisher Says: First published in 1932, A Scarlet Pansy is an extraordinarily vivid and richly textured depiction of American queer life in the early twentieth century, tracing the coming of age of androgynous Fay Etrange.

Born in small-town Pennsylvania and struggling with her difference, Fay eventually accepts her gender and sexual nonconformity and immerses herself in the fairy subculture of New York City.

A self-proclaimed "oncer" - never tricking with same man twice - she immerses herself in the nightclubs, theatres, and street life of the city, cavorting with kindred spirits including female impersonators, streetwalkers, and hustlers as well as other fairies and connoisseurs of rough trade.

While reveling in these exploits she becomes a successful banker and later attends medical school, where she receives training in obstetrics. There she also develops her life's ambition to find a cure for gonorrhea, a disease supposedly "fastened on mankind as a penalty for enjoying love."

A Scarlet Pansy stands apart from similar fiction of its time -- as well as the ensuing decades -- by celebrating rather than pathologizing its effeminate and sexually adventurous protagonist. In this edition, republished for the first time in its original unexpurgated form, Robert J. Corber examines the way in which it flew in the face of other literature of the time in its treatment of gender expression and same-sex desire. He places the novel squarely within its social and cultural context of a century ago while taking into account the book's checkered publication history as well as the question of the novel's unknown author.

Much more than cultural artifact, A Scarlet Pansy remains a uniquely delightful and penetrating work of literature, resonating as much with present-day culture as it is illuminating of our understanding of queer history, and challenging our notions of what makes a man a woman, and vice versa.


My Review: I am gobsmacked by several facts about this book: That it was *published* in 1932! and that it remains pretty much unique in literature as being told, unapologetically, from the PoV of a real flamer, a pansy, a nancy-boy...that is to say, an effeminate man. So much very, very much emphasis! placed in today's mainstreamed gay world on "passing" or being a "straight-acting" gay man! Our leaders are preaching tolerance, acceptance, inclusion, and the rank-and-file put up sex ads for "straight-acting" sex objects. What in the world does this convey except internalized homophobia? Is mainstreaming to blame for this? No. But believe you me, the disappearance of the gay ghetto, or at least its depopulation, is down to the mainstreaming efforts of the past 30 years. That makes the world a little bit *ironically quirked eyebrow* less safe for the effeminate men and the butch women in our community.

Fay Etrange would be no more welcome in a public panel on Gay Issues now than she would have been in a medical school lecture hall in the 19th century. Very much a queen, her passage through the world as presented by "Robert Scully" was a busy one, bestowing royal favors on a grateful American manhood:
This first meeting with a strange man was almost prophetic. For the rest of her life she was to meet his kind, wherever and whenever she travelled--always seeking her and the favors she could bestow.
This set-up makes sense to me, since I've never lacked for the company of "regular guys" in my own transit of gay life. It's been my design, willingly subscribed to by the parties of the second part, to educate and inform the unimaginative males of the USA of their other options. Sometimes the teachings took, sometimes not so much. But in all the attendant mishegas, I did my dead-level best not to make assumptions but let the situation teach me as much as it did him. Fay is the most unusual kind of character in non-romantic gay fiction, in that she practices this behavior as well. In a strange way it was a relief to me to have the intimate details of Fay's affairs left to the imagination. It's not that I'm squeamish, perish forbid!, but the fact that Fay isn't in first-person narration would make any detailed description of the various acts and positions feel peculiarly and unpleasantly prurient.

Fay arrives at this sort of thinking by attending to her own inner moral compass, and educating herself broadly though never at the expense of delving deeply into topics that fascinate her:
Electing to take religion as one of her college courses, she had obtained a wide knowledge of the teachings of the East. Practically all began with assumptions of infallibility, which, though unproven, the disciples then proceeded to teach as basic facts. Their leader, she found, ignored the selfish reasons which led them on and caused them to set aside reason and endeavor to inculcate blind faith. She had no faith. She could see no reason to have faith. She was happier without it. Nothing was explained ultimately; why accept puny, childish explanations?
Soul sister! I know from several deep conversations with my gay uncle, a sailor as it happens, that people aren't products of their times and stations unless they choose to be. Even in what we view as unenlightened, hag-ridden by gawd, times there were mental and even social non-conformists. The past is made up of once-living people; history is indeed (sometimes lamentably completely) his story; we're really not unique in our deepest selves as we're all human. This is always a welcome reminder for me, find it where I may.

Of course it's one thing to remember that people been people forever, that our own "unique" needs and desires are only unique in our limited experience:
The avenue seemed full of gay people these days, persons as happy as she. At intervals were stationed the mounted traffic police. Their splendid figures, their neat, well-fitting uniforms, their highly polished puttees protecting perfectly formed legs, the thigh outlined by pressure against the horse's side, all combined to make a picture which she found irresistibly appealing. She found herself looking for the mounted police. She formed preferences for one or the other. She thought of the Aztecs with their idea that men astride of horses were some kind of god,and she smiled to think that her poetic sense was interpreting these horsemen in the same light. She liked especially to view the officers from the back, the torso, the carriage, the outline of the leg all accentuated.
...hmmm? What was that? Oh sorry, I went to mental Bermuda for a moment there. Yes, well, do you need any further evidence that we're all sisters under the skin? Some details tweaked, or twerked, and this statement of admiring desire fits in the mind of any one of us bald bonobos. The slightly namby-pamby modern mantra "love is love" is a short and punchy reminder that we're all sexual creatures. Desire, love, need, any and all of these things, are organizing principles in our own little lives, and we're well advised to protect others in their exercise of them if we wish to be protected in our turn. I think this statement would be whole-heartedly seconded by Fay Letrange, and the pseudonymous "Robert Scully" who created her.

With this realization comes a further revelation of the commonality of human experience, that of the honest and fearless and searching moral inventory. Know yourself as you really are, not as you and others would like you to be (or insist that you are):
"Perhaps it's natural to them; what is natural to them may not be natural to another. Imagine them married. What would their offspring be? Probably even more erratic. Perhaps they are fulfilling their destiny by not marrying. Did you ever consider that? I often think that people who do not wish to have children should not be criticized, for brobably there is some basic instinct which prompts them not to be parents. Perhaps they are really not fit to be parents."
Amen! That this conversation was put into the mouth of a person created by a Victorian writer, and set in the very earliest years of the twentieth century, was a small shock of surprised recognition to me. I've always kicked hard against the Cult of the Mother, the ascription to all females, ladies, womyn, uterus-havers of an innate and all-powerful desire to give birth to and nurture young. I applaud those with the self-knowledge to say "no, thanks" and the strength to stick to it. It isn't easy to swim against the tide, which makes most of us leery of doing it. How much more difficult, we think, it must have been for those poor benighted children who came before us! Stuff and nonsense. Reading this transgressive book from the past is listening to a voice shouting reason and reasonability. That it feels as transgressive today as it would have 84 years ago is more a statement of human nature's irreducible commonness throughout history: Bow to the Vox Populi, speak only the Norma Loquendi, or be marked out as Strange. But don't kid yourself that it was harder, easier, whatever then or now.
"You are sure you mean bliss?"

"Yes, an island or some place where we could all live or go to easily whenever we pleased and do all the things we wish to do without thought of the narrow-mindedness of others."

"You are asking too much. Oh, for the Isle of Crete! You are wishing a return to the good old Pagai times when all honor was paid even to prostitutes."

"No, not asking too much, just asking for a natural morality, a thing which varies with each bird, beast, and human and for which due allowance is not made in lawmaking."
We all long for Paradise. Some are willing to allow others into it with them. I like those of the latter opinion the best of all.

It seems as if the world considers a climate of tolerance to be asking too much these days as well as in those days. I don't need to give examples of events springing from the external pressure imposed by intolerance, or of the personal price paid by those subjected to it. I'm equally sure I don't need to give examples of those expressing their internal conflicts by mismatched rhetoric and inner monologue. I think this passage pretty much sums up the disconnect:
The professor would describe all sorts of aberrant types, their prominent, wild eyes, their too thick or too narrow chests or hips and their too thin or too heavy leg muscles; he would illustrate the swagger of the feminine type and the mincing short-stepped swaying gait of the masculine, the fluttering, so called; he would tell of their nocturnal amusements and occupations, and when he had finished he had so enthused his entire class that they were ready to go down town and start a laboratory course at once.
Heteronormative locker-room raillery, complete with ill-willed imitation, as medical school education. Charming. The response of the students isn't unusual, which is in and of itself unusual. Things really have changed little if this passage still speaks to the ordinary experience of the different. But then again, compared to fifty years ago, the intolerance of such a scenario is worth remarking on because it isn't simply the "oh well" resignation of the narrator but his sharp-eyed attention to the eagerness of the audience to go find some action for themselves that's a ray of hope. Soon dashed, of course, as is the way of things in an imperfect world:
"Have a sense of humor. Remember, Gawd must have his little jokes on the human species."

"I feel bitter, bitter against the half-men who make our laws. Come on, let's legislate against the tides too."

"Be practical," suggested Miss Bull-Mawgan. "The only recourse is to see that every ecclesiastical student is properly seduced, and thus liberalized. The pulpit, after all, makes the laws in this country."
I'm happy that I live in a state where marriage equality is law. I am sad to live in a world where that equality of access to the law's protections, duties, and rights is so controversial that such a protection is necessary. I can barely imagine what the gay men of 100 years ago would think of such a protection! Impossible dream! And now that it's a given in some places I wonder how it was ever not. The scary monsters are out in the open, and whaddaya know! They're the neighbors.

Not everyone is comfortable with that. The neighbors are supposed to be much like us, after all, that's why we elect to live in certain places and not others. I can see that. After all, not everyone can hold up their end in the stereotypically gay witty, dirty badinage:
"Aunty Beach-Bütsch, control yourself! I shall lend him out to friends and near relations. We are coming back in two years."

"And I shall have drunk myself to death by that time," wailed old Aunty Beach-Bütsch. "But Mason, we shall be friends to the end."

Another opportunity for Miss Savoy. "Which end? I didn't know you loved Mason so much, Aunty Beach-Bütsch!"

"Love him? I love every inch of him, from the ends of his hairs to the tips of his toenails. Why I love his very guts!"

"That's a very vulgar but adequate description of the depths of your passion, Aunty Beach-Bütsch!"
Need I mention that the female monikers are hung on males? Mason, on the other hand, is a man, and a newly married one, being bartered off by his blushing bride Marjorie, née Dike, as she is known from that moment on. It sounds like ordinary conversation to me, but the people I tried it out on were flustered and taken aback. No wonder straight people fear the gays buying the house next door! They speak Camp, and there's nothing scarier than having the neighbors speak a different language from yours, right?

But in the end, we all succumb to a common malady, that of falling in love. She's been a "oncer," a one-fuck-and-bye bye gal, since her earliest years. But that changes because the pressures of going to war, being under fire, trying to do her duty as a doctor in service of men shattered by modern munitions. It's grueling work, most often sad in its outcomes; watching a generation of men vanish before her eyes makes Fay susceptible to a sentimental attachment that she would have rejected only a short time before. Her medical studies having taken her to Berlin, her first true love is a German officer; after his tragic death in her arms, Fay falls head over heels for a soldier boy on his way to the front in France's trenches.
His body was sweet and clean smelling. As she finished [massaging his dislocated shoulder], Fay bent and gently kissed him on the neck, that part where the skin is so soft abd sensitive, midway between the angle of the jaw and the hair line at the back of the neck. He opened his eyes, startled, then smiled as he murmured, "Oh! It's you. That's all right." He folded his arms about her, bringing her head close to his, then like a contented child sank into a deep sleep. His clean body odor gave her keenest delight. She hesitated to attempt to alter their relationship, and possibly lose him entirely. He had accepted her as a pal, that she would be.
Some variation on this sentiment is familiar to everyone who is an adult. It's amazing to me that anyone could grudge this simple rapture to another soul. Because that's what homophobia is, denial of the commonality of the experience of love, loving, cherishing someone for their inner being while reveling in the sensory pleasures of their outer being. How is that a good thing in anyone's mind? Shouldn't we all be promoting anything, anything at all, that can stitch us tighter into the social contract of being alive and a player in the world's arena?

Here's an eighty-four-year-old reminder that this should indeed be our goal. How amazing to find such validation for a "modern" world-view here. It's also a bit sad to need this reminder in the twenty-first century. We are all as Heaven made us, the Confucian quip goes. Let's aspire to be that commonsensical in our dealings with the Others who make up our entire world.

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