This week, people are annoyed because Jeffrey Eugenides, the guy who wrote Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, was in a high-profile photo shoot of writers, actors, and models for the September issue of Vogue and, according to Bullett Media, he “slipped up.”
He was talking about Henry James, who he “played” in the photo shoot, and he essentially said that if Edith Wharton had been more of a babe, Henry James would have been less gay. Exact quote: “If Edith had looked a little more like Natalia (the model), literary history might have gone a bit differently in terms of Henry’s sexuality.” And now some queer people are up in arms, deconstructing the joke mostly to determine that it rings a little too true to the theory of gay conversion and thus, Eugenides — a writer who gave the world a piece of literature so complex, alternative, and strange that none of us could have produced it and certainly none of us could fully understand it — is homophobic.
What I think, as a super out gay with my own enthusiastic propensity for melodrama and whistleblowing, is that Jeffrey Eugenides is a liberal writer of books that have showcased hyper-queer characters and his awkward, overly academic joke was no big deal. First of all, I’m compelled to establish this most important fact that the whole world probably needs to know anyway:
It’s a rare writer that actually knows how to tell a joke out loud. Writers’ minds are so thickly clogged by self-centered musings about our own imaginary worlds that the charisma and overall social awareness required in order to perform a joke smoothly is plain and simply not at our disposal. There is a reason we chose a vocation that mostly entails suffering alone in front of a computer at strange hours. When I try my hand in the company of funny people, my jokes get cringes, seldom laughs. Maybe a sympathetic hand on the shoulder. Let’s fight for marriage equality but let’s also work on a social revolution where writers are globally cut some slack for the appalling degree of their social awkwardness.
The other thing is, the joke is as benign as the periodic announcement I make that I am straight for Steve Buscemi. It does no violence to gay people that Jeffrey Eugenides made a clumsily delivered tongue-in-cheek aside that sort of implies we would be straight if the opposite sex was hotter; especially not when compared to the gravity of the insane stuff coming out of the mouths of Republicans as elections approach.
I do have a straight crush on Steven Buscemi. It does not mean I’m coming out as straight when I say it as a joke, and, following the logic of Eugenides’ quote, doesn’t mean I’d pick Buscemi over the less-sexy girl at the lesbian bar. I’m gayer than Henry James and Oscar Wilde put together. If given the choice between a cute boy and a not cute girl, I’ll pick neither and hold out for the dream girl, and I’d reckon that Eugenides is smart enough to understand that that is what gayness is (and probably also what outrageously colossal superficiality is).
To “slip up” means that there are rules and Eugenides broke them. But who made these rules? Gay people? I’m gay and I wasn’t at Mount Sinai when we brainstormed our standards for straights. People should be able to say what they want to say, even if it’s annoying, and I wasn’t that annoyed. I am less interested in rules of proper conduct than I am in a fluid concept of people’s hearts being in the right places (and, more concretely, voting for the things that will eventually protect me). I am furious that we enormously lack equal rights, but I’m not going to throw my fury at fumbling straight people who ultimately want for me what I want for myself. That rage gets saved for the true haters; I am assured that Jeffrey Eugenides, whose work has inspired, comforted, and opened me up inside, does not hate who I am as a gay person.
The point is this: since I’m gay probably 90% of my facebook friends are gay and that means every day my newsfeed is loaded with status updates of PC freakouts. And everyone loves to indulge in their persecution complexes now and again; as someone who wore a “Legalize Gay” shirt practically every day of the summer that they came out, daring the world to throw them one dirty look, believe me when I tell you that I relate to the urge.
But it is tiring to be a victim all the time. The time has come to refocus on broader and bigger things to get hysterical about, like the possibility that Romney will take over and obliterate gays and women as a whole or the hoards of kids killing themselves over actual bullies raised by homophobic monster-parents. Let’s take a breather from nitpicking silly sentences by limousine liberals — especially intellectually sophisticated artists who gave us a character in Middlesex that was queer and complex and treated with absolute respect. Here’s something worth remembering as we face all kinds of crap, because the crap will never stop: “Homophobic” is a strong word. It’s a literal “fear of homosexuals.” Nurturing the reflex to fling out “homophobia!” every single time something a little iffy or touchy happens will eventually dilute its, at present, grave meaning.
It’s not just tiring to be a victim all the time — it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to be a socially challenged writer trying to make jokes in public. But one thing that is not exhausting, and will forever be energizing, is figuring out how to grow up, harness the rage, choose the battles, show some empathy — and be an activist.