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.
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.”
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.