Thursday, November 21, 2013


Closeted Characters, and the Books That Love Them

This feature is dedicated to the steelworkers of America. Keep reaching for that rainbow!

Katniss, The Hunger Games

Poor Katniss can be forgiven an inability to recognize, let alone come to terms with, her own sexuality. Her childhood is rough even by the standards of the Seam: dead father, depressive mother, no money and a sweet little sister to take care of. By the time she hits adolescence, these experiences have hardened her; what with all the hunting, the caretaking, and the surliness, she has no time for music, let alone for introspective reveries about what—or, more properly, who—really turns her on.

She regularly decamps to the woods to get sweaty with Gale, the older, rebellious town hunk. He is capable, smart, and smoldering hot, and he would run away with her if she would let him. Yet not once do they take a moment between shooting rabbits to have a From Here to Eternity moment on the forest floor. Instead, all she does is yammer on about how she’ll never get married or have children.

No red-blooded teenage girl could resist Gale. Unless her interests lay elsewhere.

Enter Madge.

She’s in my year at school. Being the mayor’s daughter, you’d expect her to be a snob, but she’s all right. She just keeps to herself. Like me. Since neither of us really has a group of friends, we seem to end up together a lot at school. Eating lunch, sitting next to each other at assemblies, partnering for sports activities. We rarely talk, which suits us both just fine.

Sure: in bed.

Madge comes to visit Katniss before she leaves for the Hunger Games and gives her the gold pin that becomes Katniss’s trademark—and a kiss. Of course, clueless Katniss reacts to the touching moment by thinking, “maybe Madge really has been my friend all along.” But we know what’s really happening. We know that this is why Katniss also seems romantically uninterested in the cute, savvy, and talented Peeta, who has been crushing on her forever and is determined to save her life whenever possible, and is, instead, most comfortable with her stylist / gay BFF Cinna, who understands that he is essentially putting her in drag whenever he dresses her as a girl.

Then there is the enticing Avox girl about whom Katniss cannot stop thinking, the one with “dark red hair, striking features, porcelain white skin.” Can’t you just feel the heat?

Once you realize Katniss’s true orientation, the books make much more sense. Peeta vs. Gale is the wrong question. Of course she breaks both their hearts, and others too; she can’t help herself. She’s lusting after Avoxes and mayors’ daughters. Someday, after the revolution, Panem will calm down and go to the Capitol version of Bryn Mawr, and she will come into her own.

Also: No wonder she hates it when Haymitch calls her “sweetheart.”

Ishmael, Moby-Dick

A sensitive, thoughtful young man willingly gives up his freedom on land to join the crew of a whaling vessel, which won’t return to shore for months. In his last days before the ship sails, does said man do what any sailor would and seek out companionship, whether from a bar or a brothel? No, he does not, because he would rather spoon with Queequeg (“Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy we were”).

Free to be you and me, baby.

Ishmael and Queequeg cheerfully board one massive phallic symbol to go chasing another: whales—sperm whales, no less. In hundreds of pages of narration, Ishmael never once longs for a sweetheart or misses the soft touch of a woman. No, instead he frolics with orgiastic abandon in sex juice:

I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes.

Of course, I am hardly the first person to point out that Ishmael is a friend not merely of Queequeg’s but of Dorothy’s. The Amorphous Intelligence blog calls Moby-Dick the "gay American novel." In a more scholarly fashion, Diane Scarpa does the same in her essay, "Sex and the Sea." Plus there’s the whole book The Art of Fielding.

It is also worth noting that Ishmael is the most famous rejected son in the Hebrew Bible—an outcast, an exile, sent away for doing something objectionable to his brother, Isaac. Melville knew what he was implying when he chose such a unique and loaded name.

Speaking of outcasts and exiles:

Ender, Ender’s Game

By some measures, Ender is too young—and, like Katniss, too preoccupied with survival—to even think about sexuality. Also like Katniss, he is manipulated by powerful adult forces; he grows up too fast, has almost no one he can trust, and is trained to subdue his own kindler, gentler impulses in order to become a killer. At the same time, boys fall for Ender almost as often as they attack him, and his own desires are amorphous at best.

Ender’s world is gayer than a piano bar. As Slate recently pointed out, “Consider the book’s aliens. They’re called ‘buggers,’ a nickname that derives from their insectoid quality. But the word bugger is principally a derogatory slang term for gay men and gay sex, meaning ‘to sodomize’ as a verb and one who engages in ‘sodomy’ as a noun.”

It’s not just the bad guys sending off those vibes. Check out this scene, which, as a terrific essay in Grantland notes, shows author Orson Scott Card as his best self—tolerant, worldly, and humane:

Alai hugged him back. "I understand them, Ender. You are the best of us. Maybe they're in a hurry to teach you everything."

"They don't want to teach me everything," Ender said. "I wanted to learn what it was like to have a friend."

Alai nodded soberly. "Always my friend, always the best of my friends," he said. Then he grinned. "Go slice up the buggers."

"Yeah." Ender smiled back. Alai suddenly kissed Ender on the cheek and whispered in his ear, "Salaam." Then, red-faced, he turned away and walked to his own bed at the back of the barracks.

Card at his queerest is Card at his best. Ironic, huh? Without everything gay about the novel, and conceivably the tortured boy at its center, the novel would lack its heart—and its punch. That is why, as detailed in the Huffington Post, queer theorists have had a field day with Ender’s Game:

Male-male attraction is as significant a theme as male-male violence in the book. When Ender meets his first commander, he was overwhelmed by his appearance: “A boy stood there, tall and slender, with beautiful black eyes and slender hips that hinted at refinement. I would follow such beauty anywhere, said something inside Ender.” There is no way to describe this passage without having to account for an attraction. …

It doesn’t take long, however, for violence to emerge out of that homosocial relationship. Bonzo threatens that he will “have” Ender’s “ass someday.” Later, Bonzo and several friends approach Ender to attack him in the shower. The pages of descriptions of the scene paint a picture that is more than vaguely homoerotic: Bonzo strips naked to fight naked one-on- one with Ender in a hot, steamy, slippery battle that is finalized when Ender connects “hard and sure” with Bonzo’s groin.

Ouchie. Equally painful: Bean’s unrequited love for his friend Ender, and our disappointment as readers that the author who gave us such a terrifying, well-realized fascist dystopia should be so closed-minded and myopic himself.

And last but not least:

Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby

Without much effort, several many of the main characters in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece can be read as gay: the flamboyantly fabulous party-throwing, clotheshorse Gatsby, with his closets full of pink suits; the unemotional, athletic, androgynous Jordan, with her "hard, jaunty body." Gatsby wants Daisy to prove that he has made the transition from shmo to shah; she’s merely a symbol, an ornament, as her name implies. If he really lusted after her, we would see it in the text, the way we see Tom’s straightforward, macho lust for his mistress, Myrtle. And Jordan’s a pro-golfer, for god’s sake.

The rainbow crown, however, goes to Nick, Fitzgerald’s narrator, a Midwesterner in exile who displays no emotional interest in women, even the one he is supposed to be in love with back home. Instead he pursues clandestine hook ups, like this one from early in the novel with the “feminine” Mr. McKee. As a Salon piece, helpfully titled “Nick Carraway is Gay and In Love with Gatsby,” puts it, “Why would Fitzgerald bother to include this strange interlude, a loopy Nick in bed with the “feminine” Mr. McKee in his underwear at 3 in the morning, if not to show the narrator’s sexual preference? What other purpose can it possibly serve?”

What, indeed. Fitzgerald is no stranger to man love (see: A Moveable Feast, wherein a disdainful Hemingway all but calls F. Scott a fag) and the necessary pains of hiding it. Notoriously insecure about his own masculinity, he is drawn to characters that wrestle with their less mainstream desires as well.

And, in Gatsby, two of those characters caught up in the same struggle recognize each other. As The Atlantic recently argued, that relationship—the one between Nick and Gatsby, each of whom is a pro at hiding his true self—is what sets the book apart:

This is also, I'd argue, why Nick is attracted to Gatsby. … Gatsby is a momentous, glorious, incandescent sham. If Jordan is deceitful, Gatsby is even more so. And just as he falls for Jordan and her dishonesty, so is Nick riveted by the transformation of poor, nobody from nowhere Jimmy Gatz into the wealthy somebody Jay Gatsby. Nick and Gatsby are alike not in their innocence, but in their capacity for subterfuge.

Self-awareness is not a prerequisite in a hero, or even a narrator. Nick thinks he is the most honest person he knows, and Ender would likely make the same assessment of himself. But the internal conflicts between what society expects of them and what their actual desires are—conflicts of which these complex characters may not even be aware—animate their stories. A straight-shooting Ishmael, a conventional Katniss, would not be nearly as compelling as the versions that have already become classic, ones whose tensions with themselves reflect their external struggles with an inhospitable and often unfair world.


Some of Ester Bloom's best friends are straight. Follow her @shorterstory.

47 Comments / Post A Comment


Ester Bloom. ESTER BLOOM! You are so spot-on here.

Katniss, queer or not, is absolutely a Mawrter.

Ester Bloom@facebook

@stonefruit I'm going to put this on my tombstone.


@stonefruit YES.


@stonefruit Now the important question: how many Pinners are Mawrters?


@damselfish if you don't think I've been running a rough tally, you are *sorely* mistaken. (And it took me several months to realize that siniichulok was an actual friend of mine from The Mothership, so "rough" is a generous description.)


@stonefruit I wanna know! I love how we always seem to congregate in the same places, though, usually without anyone telling us to (and now I wonder if I know any Pinners IRL).


Laugh and cry until we diiiie!!@a

polka dots vs stripes

Yes, absolutely, everything about Katniss 100%.


I love this BUT how can we talk about Katniss without talking about Katniss/Johanna! SWOOOOOON


@madeleineld YES! I so 'ship Katniss/Johanna.


... and now I'm sad. Not because I think you're wrong about Katniss, but it's another one off the list of unfeminine straight girls of fiction.


@JanieS and "sensitive" boys...


@JanieS That bothered me at first too, but I realized just because you can read her as gay doesn't mean you can't read her as straight too! I personally believe it was a combination of Suzanne Collins terrible writing and Katniss's PTSD and fear of vulnerability in such a terrible environment and emotionally negligent childhood that made Katniss seem so passionless for both boys. I really got no heat from the scenes Ester describes. Katniss in general was such a repressed character. Also she can be bi as well! Sometimes bi / queer people feel attraction to different genders in different ways and at different times!


@JanieS ...as opposed to the list of gay girl characters in fiction, which is oh-so-long? I don't mean to be super critical or anything, it's just I've seen this air of upset a lot when it comes to speculation on characters/historical figures being gay (speculation! not even realfactz!), and I don't understand why. The character is the same, the text is the same, the MAJORITY of people who read this book are going to assume that Katniss is straight, but the suggestion of the fact that she MIGHT possibly be gay is upsetting because straight people can't identify with characters that have MAYBE GAY sexualities? Gay people have been identifying with straight characters for forever, and will be for a while because we are not at the point where it's not gonna be a big deal who a main character likes. And who knows, maybe Katniss was asexual, but it doesn't diminish my enjoyment of her un-stereotypical-femininity just her sexuality doesn't jive with mine. Just..why does it matter, if her character didn't care about guys canonically? I feel like any sexuality placed on her character is moving away from canon, so there's really no need to be sad, you can still think whatever you want.

I'm sorry if this came on strong, I just have intense feelings on this subject. I don't mean this as a criticism of anyone in particular, just the "aw, man! he/she's not on my team :(" feeling as it pertains to straight people, because sometimes they forget that's the background and status quo of a gay kid's life.


@avidbiologist I can't answer for @JanieS but my thinking is not "poor straight people," it's more that the gay community deserves better. Not better than Katniss, that's obviously not possible. But better than limiting fictional gay women to tomboys and fictional gay men to sensitive boys. There are lots of ways to be a gay person that don't get represented let alone celebrated.


@SmartCookie Thanks for answering. I definitely agree with you- the lgbtq community should have a wide variety of representation. As should women and men in general! I just think I'm still at the point where every character of ambiguous sexuality is a victory, especially since the pressure for a character to be straight (and therefore accessible to all audiences) is overwhelming if the author wants a book that isn't "about gay characters."

I agree there should be spaces in fiction for straight girl tomboys and effeminate straight dudes and everybody ALLlllLlll over the masculine/effeminate gay/straight spectrum! I guess I just got my hackles up when I thought it was implied that there are more gay girl characters in fiction than tomboyish straight girl characters.

Maybe we can all agree to share Katniss.


@avidbiologist I do realize that my sad feelings are really, really petty in the overall context of our culture and how it treats LGBT people/characters*. I think @SmartCookie articulated my view better than I am able to. Making non-traditionally masculine boys/feminine girls gay - it's reinforcing traditional gender roles and I find it irksome.

*I have a moderately-loud voice in my head going "you are a straight, white, middle-class American seriously just shut up no 1 curr."


We all know, right, that the "sperm" is short for "spermaceti," and that Melville and Ishmael definitely knew the stuff they were practically swimming in wasn't actually sperm?

(Not to be that obnoxious pedant; I get that this is a joke! But still. Not really sperm.)


@SarahP ...and that pink wasn't gendered as feminine until later in the 20th century than Gatsby was written?



[u complete me]


@adorable-eggplant <3


@SarahP Yeah but spermaceti is just latin for whale sperm (yes that's right it's the whale-sperm whale).


@SarahP I could also go on a long rant about homosocial male relationships in early American literature, especially American Gothic lit, and how it didn't always indicate homosexual urges.


@meetapossum <3 u too, meetapossum


In the grand tradition of using academia to prove anything you feel like, and because hooray for queer subtextual representation, I love this piece, thanks Ester.


My dog was named Roscoe because of that Simpsons episode at the top! "We work hard... we play hard."


Great article! And yep, JoKat all the way! But I do have one quibble: "No red-blooded teenage girl could resist Gale." I dunno, I think the ones who are more into femmey androgynous boys than beefcake probably could.


@evil_echidna I can resist Gale as played by Liam Hemsworth. :( But not Peeta as played by Josh Hutcherson...

Dirty Hands

"Of course, I am hardly the first person to point out that Ishmael is a friend not merely of Queequeg’s but of Dorothy’s" yes yes YES!


I was re-reading Ender's Game today and thinking "... I bet queer theorists have a FIELD DAY with this one." AND THEN I WAS VINDICATED.

Jasmine Kershaw@facebook

My A-level English Literature coursework was on The Great Gatsby and I wrote an essay arguing that Nick was gay. The teacher marked me down for presenting a coherent argument that she didn't agree with.

Glad I'm not the only one to come to this conclusion though!


@Jasmine Kershaw@facebook Ugh, teachers without the ability to see beyond their particular point of view...

279th District Court

Yes. This. All of this.


my Aunty Eliana just got a nice year old Mercedes-Benz E-Class E63 AMG just by part-time work from a computer. why not try this out www.Best96.com

she came in through the bathroom window

I agree with all of these -- oh my god, YES, to Ender/Alai, forever yes to Nick/Gatsby.

I do have to shamefully admit that I ship Haymitch/grownup!Katniss. They would be so fucked up and beautiful, in a drunken, destructive, goose-herding kind of way.


@she came in through the bathroom window

Isn't that basically the plot of Homeland season 1?


I'm mostly just glad there was no mention of Draco Malfoy in this article.


There is so much homo-eroticism in Card's novels that it blew my mind when I discovered he was a bigoted jerk.

I read the Homecoming Saga over 10 years ago and the main thing I remember about it is a vividly described shower scene which actually details a dude bending over and spreading his butt cheeks to wash between them (not that that is necessarily homo-erotic, but the specularization of male bodies... wowzas). Shocking and titillating to 13 year old me.


I just got paid $5628 working off my laptop this month. And if you think that's cool, my divorced friend has twin toddlers and made over $8.1k her first month. It feels so good making so much money when other people have to work for so much less. This is what I do, www.Best96.com

Li'l Sebastian

I just wanted to let you know that I watched Catching Fire today with the lens of Katniss as a lesbian, and it made the movie a lot better. Thank you.

Ester Bloom@facebook

@Li'l Sebastian Thank YOU.

Stephanie Augustin@facebook

This is gold. Katniss is one of us, and clueless like some of us.

josh yudell

wow katnis,The Hunger Games character is a wonderfull one.Loved the movie very much.........

Maura Valis Lint@facebook

Just discovered this terrific article, and almost choked with laughter at the Bryn Mawr reference. Beautiful! Delighted to find another Mawrter, and would totally embrace Katniss as a sister when she matriculates!

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