We Need a Queer Canon

Novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on Nov. 6, 1979. 

Photo by Ralph Gatti/AFP/Getty Images

This is the fourth entry in an Outward dialogue. Earlier, Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart celebrated the impending demise of gay culture, June Thomas wondered why Vitiello Urquhart was so misguided, and Vitiello Urquhart rhapsodized about assimilation.


Let me get this straight: The gay contribution to culture is a few terrible novels and every queer movie before Kevin Smith made a film about two straight men crushed out on a lesbian? No Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde, W.H. Auden, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop, Audre Lorde, or David Sedaris? None of the legion of queer artists, musicians, fashion designers, playwrights, architects, and philosophers—from whom, we should note, mainstream culture has a long history of gleefully appropriating (e.g., the musical)? Nothing even vaguely camp? That seems eminently reasonable.

The lack of a clear definition of queer culture is a real problem. It’s hard to love and respect something when you can’t even say what it is. Is it any art created by LGBTQ people? Art that’s directed at us? Work that speaks in a coded language that only we will understand? A way of looking at mainstream culture from the margins? Is it the vibe that’s created in a queer space? Some of my most thrilling experiences of lesbian culture have come in live performances by out artists. Hearing Rhiannon perform “Shenandoah,” a traditional folk song more than 200 years old, feels viscerally different to me than hearing a straight singer’s rendition. It’s more thrilling, somehow, because a lesbian is singing a love song to another woman. (I also suspect that Rhiannon’s many straight fans experience her performance differently than I do, just as I experience it differently than the singers in the audience, or the South Dakotans.)

As you said, gay children don’t learn about their gay heritage from their parents. My worry is that many queers never learn about it at all. It would be condescending of me to respond to your notion of gay culture as bad lesbian novels and awful direct-to-video movies by compiling a list of great ones that you need to read and watch immediately, but I was really, really tempted. Even in the hyperconnected age of the Internet, we don’t have an easily accessible queer canon. Despite the existence of blogs like Outward, and of sites that specialize in highlighting fresh LGBTQ culture, it’s still hard to find out about gay novels, movies, and events. And in my experience at least, queer people of different ages rarely talk to one another about the writers, artists, and filmmakers they love. I’m sure that great books, movies, and musicians have been unfairly forgotten or ignored because we don’t share our favorite things. (Marijane Meaker’s Shockproof Sydney Skate, Ferron’s Shadows on a Dime, and the Basque film For 80 Days. You’re welcome.)

Assimilation is indeed a very American process and perhaps inevitable. Like you, I look forward to a day when sexual orientation is just one marker of personal difference. I disagree, though, that it must be “a minor part.” In the future, as now, some LGBTQ people will avoid gay film festivals, get their hair cut by heterosexual stylists, and be embarrassed by gay pride celebrations. Others will go full homo. And isn’t that freedom of choice what makes America great? Some of your fellow Italian Americans feel no love for bocce ball; they feast on none of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve; and they would walk miles to avoid the San Gennaro Festival. Others are more Italian than the pope. Wait, no—well, you know what I mean.

Finally, you ask if, by wanting queers to take pride in gay culture rather than joining you in a pas de deux on its grave, I’m “secretly rooting against the continued progress of our people.” Nope, I really do want full equality for queers around the world—and I believe we’ll achieve it some day. But as we assimilate, I hope we’ll remember the lessons of our years of exile: We must watch out for one another; respect diversity; and question whether institutions really serve our needs before we leap on the bandwagon. When it comes to creating art, there’s something very valuable about being an outsider, about maintaining a bit of distance from which to clearly view and perhaps critique the mainstream—queers blending in completely would represent a great loss to world culture.

Please tell me you’ve read The Price of Salt,