I am writing a time travel novel. It’s also a romance novel. So far it doesn’t have any gay people in it. Now, I know time travel is as hackneyed an idea as, say, a gay utopia. So is romance. I mean, Please. Get over it. But . . . I don’t want to.
Why not? Umm . . . well, there was this time. A gay friend of mine came up to my apartment. We’d been friends for a long time but he had never seen my place. As we were climbing the stairs he kept making jokes about how he was about to go into a lesbian’s apartment and how there would probably be plaid couches and cat art everywhere. How shocked he was to discover my fabulous retro/minimalist style! Nary a pussy in sight, either representational or real. He goggled. He gaped. He turned to me and said, as if it were the greatest compliment in the whole world, “You are an honorary gay man!”
This festered. Not because he was a lesbophobic homo -- I have long ago stopped being shocked by the fact that a large number of my brothers have problems with womyn-lovin’-womyn. Nope, it festered because I was like, where the fuck IS my cat art and my plaid couch? When did I give that up for the empty, empty praise of a lesbophobe who bought all his tasteful crap in a single afternoon from Restoration Hardware (true)? Good God, I said to myself. What have I sacrificed? Where is my dog-eared poster of Audre Lorde, stuck up on my wall with blue tac bleeding through the corners? What happened to the struggle? When did the struggle become my mid-century modern furniture?
Which is not to totally freak out and say that I want to go back to the days when Sisterhood was Powerful. Sisterhood isn’t powerful. Or rather, it really really is, it’s super powerful, and it ALWAYS ends in tears. And recriminations. So I’m scared of it and eschew it because I am a coward. But still. Sisterhood is better than Restoration Hardware. Isn’t it?
Which got me to thinking about restoration and hardware and my not-so-secret love of the Regency Romance.
But hold on. I have more to say about my furniture. My beautiful bourgie modernist furniture is all “sourced” as they say, painstakingly, from here and there, across many years. It is, I would argue, with my eyebrow raised and my cigarette holder cocked at an arrogant angle, REAL. My modernism is REALLY modernism and yours is just a load of expensive hooey. So there. Having thus impressed upon you your own pathetic enslavement to the simulacrum of grooviness, I would hustle you out the door and scurry into my bedroom, dive under the covers and begin reading a romance novel. You, your furniture, my furniture -- all would be immediately forgotten.
For the uninitiated, the genre of romance novel that floats my little wee boat is that genre in which rich Englishmen court rich Englishwomen between the years of 1811 and 1820. The genre is now in serious decline because, to be really good, a regency romance requires that these individuals NOT have sex within the pages of the novel. They are uptight, frigid, unpleasant English people and their love blooms in an extremely chilly environment in which to get naked would mean certain social death. These days, romance novels are chock full o’ sex, throbbing manhoods, heaving bosoms, eager squishy comings together. Ick. And this ickiness is bad news for our friends from the English Regency. They are shuffling, in their uncomfortable clothing, from the stage. So I am an aficionado of regencies written between 1929 and around 1988. I buy them on Ebay from others who share my kink.
But I digress. What does Restoration Hardware have to do with regency romances have to do with queerness? The link is tenuous, but I am about to try to make it. You will see, when I make the link, that I am saying that in spite of the greater beauty of my stuff, I am as big a sucker for bullshit nostalgia as my Restoration-Hardware-shopping pal, the lesbophobe. And that my suckerdom constitutes a large part of my queerness. And that this is probably politically fucked, but it is what it is. Interested? If so, attend:
The great thing about those regency romances is their total dedication to the feeling of nostalgia -- the poignant yearning for restoration of some long lost (fakey fake fake) past. And the other great thing about these regency romances is their fascination with the stuff -- the clothes, the horses, the carriages, the paraphernalia, the hardware -- of a bygone era. The best regency romance writers -- ladies with unbelievable names like Georgette and Annalise -- fill pages with arcane knowledge about the gew gaws of yore. It makes you feel so lovely and warm and melancholy inside, reading, of an afternoon, about the sparkly crap that filled the lives of men and women rich beyond the dreams of man . . . and then to look up at the hustle bustle of everyday life and think, “oh . . . I was born in the wrong era!” You feel this way while lying on your “real” furniture. You indulge yourself in characterless fantasies of a neverland past full of rich people and beautiful objects, and it feels so good!
Now I know that this feeling, in the realm of reality or of historical accuracy or of politics, is a load of crap. Everything about way back then sucked in comparison to now, and those people were the worst of the lot. Slave owning shitheads living off the blood of the working poor. I know. And these books have nary a gay person in them. I’ve read about a billion and a half of these confections, and only three have gay characters. Tragically gay, my dear, tragically gay. And their tragic gayness ruins the lives of those around them, getting in the way of straight people and their love stories. Tragic gay people croak, of course, and it’s better for them and everyone else when they do. I know I know I know. I know. I KNOW!
But still. How I love them. Bring them on. Put me on a desert island with the same billion and a half novels that I’ve already read, and I’ll be happy. I could argue that this is my version of Camp, and we all know -- or should admit unless we are queenophobes as well as lesbophobes -- that Camp is powerful and world changing and a beautiful, beautiful thing. However. I am not making that claim. I think my nostalgia -- my pedantic, prissy nostalgia -- is different and actually far less pleasant than Camp.
My point is -- and I think we must all fess up to this, boys and girls -- empty nostalgia feels gay. Utopia feels gay. Dreams of other times and places -- times and places that may in fact be inhabited entirely by piggish straight people -- feel gay. I feel gay as a jailbird just thinking about the past, and thinking about it non-critically. Wallowing in it. Mmm mmmm mmmmmm!
Think about what Tony Bennett has to say about San Francisco:
The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay,
The glory that was Rome is of another day,
I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan,
I'm going home to my city by the bay.
He’s saying, back in 1962 . . . but wait. I’ve just Wikipedia’d the song, and it was written in 1954 by a couple of guys, who wrote it for some girl. But we all know it as Tony’s song, so that’s how I’m going to talk about it. What Tony’s saying is, that cities have their day. There is a perfect era, he theorizes, for every city. Paris’ day is over, he says, because it “seems somehow sadly gay.” Now, what is he saying about Paris? Just exactly what it sounds like he’s saying. It was a great moment for the word “gay,” when it meant both happy and homo simultaneously. Tony is able to access the simple fact that a big part of gayness is Schadenfreude. It is the wonderful feeling of feeling bad, and it attaches most deliciously to the past, to nostalgia. Ironic that he wants to escape that feeling by moving to San Francisco, which would soon become the gay capital of the world. Or maybe he knows that. Maybe the song is about the past and future perfection of gayness -- the lostness and the immanence -- never the presence. A nostalgia for a gay future in San Francisco as well as a gay past in Paris. And Rome. The glory that was Rome? It was one big muscle-bound circuit party but alas, that party boat left the dock long ago. And Manhattan, where it’s so fucking hard to get laid? In Manhattan, Tony is forgotten -- Manhattan has left him behind, alone in a past it has forsaken. But San Francisco! It’s his home -- a place he left, a place he left his heart -- but also a place he can return to in an imminent future. But now, heartless, he is caught in the yearning, suspended between past and future. San Francisco! Where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars!
I’m choking myself up here, sandwiching San Francisco’s great gay moment between Tony’s yearning for a future that can reconstitute the past (he left his heart there – can he ever get it back?), and the fact that San Francisco seems somehow sadly straight these days -- one big hetero-yuppie playground. Sigh, oh sigh, ye fags and dykes! Sigh for what was and what will be!
I guess I’m saying that sometimes I experience my own big hairy queerball status as an exercise in yearning, forward and backward along the timeline. My time travel romance novel with no gay people in it -- I feel at my smarmy gay girl best when I’m writing it. It’s a utopian feeling, yes indeed. A sort of gloomy, gilt edged, slightly musty utopian feeling. And -- it’s a utopia with no real people in it, a utopia without political effect . . . a utopia that’s pretty onanistic, really. A utopia without heart? I’m not saying that it’s redemptive or even good for me. It’s just . . . goddamit, it’s just the way that I feel, ok?
But seriously, folks. I feel gay lots of other times, too, I promise. Good times. Times that are all about making the world a better place for other lesbians’ children. And I’m going to try to turn my nostalgia toward plaid couches and cat art because I actually think that would be my Camp, and that unless I can achieve it, unless I can reanimate the mullet for myself and my sisters, I will never truly be free. But in the meantime, go away! The postman has just delivered a big new box full of little old paperbacks.