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Epistemology of the What?: Queer Anachronisms in the Modernist Classroom 

In 1990, when Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick declared the closet “the defining structure for gay oppression in this century,” she followed that claim with a reference to the legal discourses of privacy, specifically those concentrated around the 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld the existence of anti-sodomy laws.[1] As she describes them, the conversations following this case zoomed in on “the image of the bedroom invaded by policemen,” implicitly affirming that queerness belongs behind closed doors, while policemen belong in the street. In 2021, the image of the bedroom invaded by policemen evokes quite a different context: a no-knock warrant, the shooting of Breonna Taylor, and the miscarriage of justice that followed. It has also evoked quite a different political response, one that dares to chant “Whose streets? / Our streets” and to suggest that policemen do not belong there either. One reason that this image works differently now is that white America is beginning to learn what Black America has known all along. Another reason can be found in yet another legal precedent, that of Lawrence v. Texas. Explicitly overturning Bowers v. Hardwick, this 2003 Supreme Court case invalidated anti-sodomy laws across the United States, affirming the right to privacy and providing a foundation for further political and legal activism. And while the fact that one of the men in that Texas bedroom was Black can and should serve as a potent reminder of how deeply these two forms of state violence are entangled, the broader effect of the case has been to decenter the closet from the cultural imaginary attached to queer life.[2] 

This decision, and the activism that followed, wrought changes in the relationship between queerness and the closet, both in terms of its centrality to gay experience and in terms of what exactly we mean when we say “the closet” or use the term “coming out.” Those of us who are of an age to teach queer modernisms are mostly old enough to remember these decisions, even if some of us may have been young enough to be more worried about protecting the sanctity of the bedroom from the prying eyes of parents, rather than the police. Most of our students, by contrast, do not remember a time when gay sex was illegal in any US state. In this century, their century, the closet is no longer the defining structure for gay oppression.

One result of these changes, of course, is that we must teach our students to historicize the socio-political realities that have structured the closet and to understand the way that climate shaped both literary markets and literary form. You can’t, I think, understand The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas without understanding the very public closet it so carefully reorganizes, airing out the linens without ever quite letting you see who sleeps between which sheets. When I teach the Autobiography, we spend a lot of time on a single nighttime scene; it is a wartime scene, in which Gertrude wakes Alice because there has been an alarm; Alice, afraid, starts to turn on the lights, and Gertrude, fearing an air raid, says, “You had better not.” At the end of the scene, noises from outside tell them they’re safe, so, as Stein/Toklas narrates, “We lighted the lights and went to bed.” Here, Stein shows us the playful affection between the two women, but she also shows us the fear they share, as Alice’s knees knock together “as described in poetry and prose” and Gertrude gets her a blanket.[3] A miniature drama of concealment and exposure, the passage demonstrates their intimacy while keeping readers in the dark about who is in what bed, even once the lights are on. Seeing how the closet structures this scene helps students see how it structures the whole book, and then things really get going.

In what follows, though, my aim is not just to describe how I teach my students but to articulate the ways our discussions build on the knowledge they already have, allowing their understanding(s) of queerness to inflect our shared engagement with modernist texts. In a sense, this is an invitation to follow the example of Carolyn Dinshaw’s queer “touch across time” and think about what might happen if we take a cue from our students’ understandings of queer experience and allow ourselves to read anachronistically, locating new paradigms in old texts.[4]

Coming Out: Disclosure or Revelation

In a recent essay, Kevin Ohi describes coming out as a performative utterance that is also an originating act. Coming out, for him, operates thus: “I am gay because I say I am, and, by saying it, I bring my visible identity into line with the condition my utterance retrospectively constitutes.”[5] Having exactly the kind of reaction about which Ohi urges skepticism, I felt instinctively that this was true. But I also felt that my students would disagree. For queers of Ohi’s generation, or mine, the verb “coming out” has an implicit predicate that is so obvious it can be elided; even for those of us who are not in any meaningful sense “in the closet,” we are always coming out of it. In this paradigm, to come out is necessarily an utterance; you are not coming out if you are not saying anything. Even as Ohi refuses the born-this-way narrative that positions queerness as an immutable truth that precedes its disclosure, this model of coming out centers the moment of disclosure, a moment in which queerness is made apparent to an other.

My students, I suspect, would like this description if it omitted a single word: visible. For them, the experience of coming out is not always a disclosure; it is sometimes a revelation. This is a usage that emerges largely from trans communities, but it has spread into a broader queer context, presumably because it is so useful. It is possible, even necessary, to come out to oneself. Here, the performative utterance still consolidates a sense of identity, perhaps even a sense of continuity in that identity, but it does so without being uttered, and more crucially, without being heard. If a tree falls in the forest, are you still queer? Of course you are. Speech does not order ontology; the tree is on the ground. Thinking this way about coming out does more than reframe the old question “when did you know?” It alerts us to the gap between knowing something and acknowledging queerness, reminding us how tentative and unformed that first knowledge can be and inviting us to attend to the structure of the gap itself. 

Being attuned to this gap is especially useful in the modernist context, where sexuality itself is still in the process of crystallizing into identity. At the beginning of last semester, in my conventionally entitled “Modernist Literature” seminar, one of my students began his first Moodle post[AEF1]  on “The Beast in the Jungle”—I give all this context so you can see that I didn’t prime them to read for queerness—by noting that he “found [him]self constantly questioning John Marcher’s sexuality for some odd reason,” at the same time that he was “uncertain” of the tenor of Marcher’s relationship with May Bartram and “unable” to resolve that uncertainty. If Sedgwick was the first to suggest that the climax of James’s novella ought to be read as a scene in which Marcher becomes “not the finally self-knowing man who is capable of heterosexual love, but the irredeemably self-ignorant man who embodies and enforces heterosexual compulsion,” my student’s responses invite us to attend carefully to the centrality of knowing to this dichotomy, and, what’s more, to resist the idea that we can or should posit knowing as a way to resolve it (Epistemology of the Closet, 210).

Books in a stack, A Queer Modernisms Syllabus Shelfie
Fig. 1.  A Queer Modernisms Syllabus Shelfie (Photograph by Elizabeth Blake)

Terminology: Umbrellas or Acronyms

This refusal to valorize knowing echoes many arguments for the utility of “queer,” an umbrella term that has often been associated with unintelligibility and indeterminacy—so much so that Heather Love once, in a move this post echoes, suggested the arrival of “a new scene for queer modernism: not the epistemology of the closet but an encounter with the illegible.”[6] Understood this way, queerness enacts an immanent critique of stable identity categories, decentering the individual and resisting the primacy of identity as a political category. As Judith Butler put it in a recent interview, calling oneself queer is “a way of affiliating with the fight against homophobia” that “began as a movement opposed to the policing of identity—opposing the police.”[7] By this logic, the adoption of an umbrella term is an act of solidarity and a way of building community. These are among the reasons I call myself queer.

For my students, the stakes of legibility are quite different. If one way of reading their re-imagining of coming out is as an embrace of indeterminacy, we might also read it as a reminder that Q sometimes stands for Questioning. For them, umbrella terms are both useful and insufficient, erasing the particularity of experiences and identities that fall under the umbrella of queer, but are nonetheless often forgotten by those who use the term as a casual shorthand for something like “not heterosexual.” Attending to the other letters that make up the QUILTBAG is a reminder that queer studies need not be all about sexual object choice. Moreover, this orientation toward acronyms contains a particular imperative to query the normative assumption that sexual desire is an innate quality of the human or that queer studies is all about sex. The idea that queer work ought to encompass the theorization of non-sexual and non-romantic relationships is of course not new, but my students frame it anew: for them, one object of study is the turn away from sex and away from sexuality. The acronym is not the end point in these conversations, but a starting point, a way of opening up further granularity.

Once again, “The Beast in the Jungle” feels apropos. But my aim is not solely to suggest new ways of teaching Henry James. Moreover, no matter how compelling it is to read Marcher as asexual, thinking with the acronym is more than diagnosis; I’m not arguing for a return to ways of reading that aim to match characters with identities. Instead, this is an invitation to pay attention to variation. Thinking with the acronym invites us to think comparatively about sexuality, a mode that opens up unexpected connections both within and between texts. Reading for variation helps us see the way E. M. Forster teaches us about multiple, distinct (and distinctly classed) forms of male/male queerness in Maurice. What if Clive’s Hellenophilia is not simply a symptom of self-loathing or a way of decorating a closet but a central element of his orientation toward desire? Is Clive asexual? He’s a fictional character, so we’ll never know what’s in his heart—but it’s a very useful question nonetheless. And does Hellenophile deserve to sit alongside Sapphic in an expanded acronym? Probably not, but suggesting the possibility led us to put Forster in conversation with H.D., a pairing that’s surprisingly fruitful, if not exactly intuitive.

Instructor writing on whiteboard, Teaching Mrs. Dalloway
Fig. 2.  Teaching Mrs. Dalloway (Photograph by Steven King; used with permission)

Affects: Queer as in Happy or Gay as in #%$! You

As a colleague recently remarked to me, today’s students “aren’t as interested in transgression for its own sake.”[8] Transgression is an impulse central to both modernism’s ambitions of breaking with its literary predecessors and the heady early days of queer theory—days that involved, as Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner wrote in the normally quite polite pages of PMLA, plenty of “prancing and squatting on the academic stage.”[9] In both contexts, textual and sexual experimentation take on an extra charge precisely by virtue of their status as acts of rejection, rebellion, and (not to put too fine a point on it) anti-normativity. The slogan I’ve reorganized in the title of this section felt urgent—I had it on a button—and still does. One of the projects of queer theory has been to resist what Sara Ahmed calls “the unhappy effects of happiness,” meaning the way the idea of happiness “is used to redescribe social norms as social goods.”[10] And this project remains relevant; protest may always be a part of queer life. But as Berlant and Warner go on to point out, part of the value of indecorum lies in its ability to effect change.

And as my students insist, one change worth fighting for is the ability to understand queer life as happy life. My students like being queer. This probably doesn’t sound very revolutionary. Probably most of us who are queer like it, most of the time. The choice to live a queer life is at its base a choice that prioritizes doing the thing that feels best—but it’s hard not to end this sentence with a qualification like “whether or not that makes you happy.” But, my students ask, what if it does? Ahmed says that one of the problems with happiness is that “happiness is looked for where it is expected to be found,” so why not start looking in other places (The Promise of Happiness, 8)? Why not say, “Oh yes, gay as in happy,” and accompany that affirmation with the campiest wink you can muster? Does this feel apolitical? Do you wince when you read “Cheers, Queers!” on a t-shirt? But how do you feel when you raise a glass with your gay friends or read about the queer coteries of the Harlem Renaissance?

This campy affirmation might be more modernist than it initially seems. Consider, for example, the sly humor with which Stuartt, the protagonist of Richard Bruce Nugent’s Gentleman Jigger responds to questions about his sexuality; asked if he likes men, he parries: “Yes, don't you? And women, too. And I'm very fond of eats. Does that make me queer?”[11] To fully understand this moment, you have to understand the cultural imperative of the closet, but you miss something if your analysis ends there—you miss the emphasis on liking, and you risk missing how much fun Stuartt is having ducking in and out of the closet, as well as the corollary point about how much fun Nugent is having depicting it. But here’s the thing: this all applies to Stein and Toklas too (even the love of eats!). And while the Autobiography demands to be read as a portrait of a community, of a war, and of a world, it is also, primarily, the portrait of a (mostly) happy relationship. This is part of its power, and this is part of what my students want to think about when they read it. And thinking about this happy relationship, as I’ve decided to let them do, helps them see how the beginning of the twentieth century was a time of both pervasive homophobia and surprisingly joyful queerness.

Out of the Closet and into the Classroom

Throughout this post, I’ve been careful to specify, every time: my students. My students are not your students, and their vision(s) of queerness are both generational and individual. To the extent that I can generalize about them, which is limited, that is because ideas are circulating among them and because they share certain broad qualities as a student body. As Matt Brim reminds us in Poor Queer Studies, our “ideas and pedagogies [are] class- and status-based knowledges that cannot be universalized.”[12] So, I do not mean to suggest that any of you should simply import the particular anachronisms I’ve sketched out here into your own classrooms—though if they resonate, you’re welcome to them. Instead, my point here is about the value of attending to your students’ anachronisms.

Listening to their twenty-first century visions of queer life can help you read even the most familiar texts of queer modernism in new ways. I do not think there is a defining structure for gay life in this century. Or at least, there isn’t yet; we’ve only just begun. And, as tempting as it may be to assign importance to a centennial, the point here isn’t about letting 2022 help us see 1922 anew; I’ve been attempting to sketch out a methodology that requires consistent, ongoing engagement with the evolution of queerness itself, a kind of layered historicism that lets anachronism do theoretical work. This is merely a snapshot of one moment in that method; if I’m lucky enough to still be doing this in twenty years, I can only hope for a whole new crop of anachronisms to animate the conversations I share with my future students.[13]


[1] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 71.

[2] For more on this point, see Jasbir K. Puar’s discussion of the case in Terrorist Assemblages (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), or Marc Spindelman’s review essay “Tyrone Garner’s Lawrence v. Texas” (Michigan Law Review 111, no. 6 [2013]): 1111–44.

[3] Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York: Vintage, 1990), 157.

[4] One of the most striking things about the introduction to Getting Medieval (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999) is just how many things—texts, affects, bodies, fragments of language, even the irresistible constellation of Roland Barthes, Homi Bhabha, and Dinshaw herself—touch and constitute communities “across time” within its pages. This phrase, or a variation on it, appears on nearly every one of them.

[5] Kevin Ohi, “Revision, Origin, and the Courage of Truth: Henry James’s New York Edition Prefaces,” in After Queer Studies: Literature, Theory and Sexuality in the 21st Century, ed. Tyler Bradway and E. L. McCallum (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019): 102–21, 116.

[6] Heather Love, “Introduction: Modernism at Night” PMLA 124, no. 3 (2009): 744–48, 747.

[7] Judith Butler, “We need to rethink the category of woman,” Interview by Jules Gleeson. The Guardian, 7 Sep. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/sep/07/judith-butler-interview-gender. The bowdlerization of this interview—in which Butler’s comments on relationships between TERFs and fascists were removed after publication—is a mark of how the enforcement of queer silence has evolved since the modernist era. No one here is closeted, and there are no police or courts involved, so it is not exactly censorship, but in some ways, all of that makes it all the more unsettling.  

[8] To be clear, this was not a throwaway “kids these days” comment—it was made in exactly the spirit I’m writing in, in a conversation about how we can learn from our students even as we teach them. 

[9] Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?” PMLA 110, no. 3 (1995): 343–49, 348.

[10] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 3.

[11] Richard Bruce Nugent, Gentleman Jigger (Philadelphia: Da Capo, 2008), 113.

[12] Matt Brim, Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 17.

[13] The conversations I’ve described here have taken place in many classes, and thanks are due to all of the students in those classes, which include “Modernist Literature,” “Queer Modernisms,” and “Queer Literature” at Clark University and “Time after Time” at Haverford College. Special thanks are due to the friends, colleagues, and students I’ve discussed this piece with, including Mandy Gutmann-Gonzalez, Robert Tobin, Rox Samer, Chris Muñoz, Myrrh Larsen, and Henley Ballou, as well as my writing group, Emily James, Kate Schnur, and Lily Sheehan.