Out persons. Queer: used as a “slang” alternative to

Out
of the 40 characters to whom Jennifer Egan has given a name in A Visit from the Goon Squad, three are
non-white. Two men are black and only one of them (Bix) has a speaking role.
Bennie Salazar’s Hispanic ethnicity is never fully confirmed, but his skin
colour is described so often as to make the attempt at writing ethnically
diverse characters seem forced and insincere. According to the 2010 U.S.
Census, 12.6% of Americans described themselves to be of black and 16.3% of
Hispanic origin. In the book, this comes down to 0.05% and 0.025% respectively.
There are no Asian, Native American or Pacific characters (5.9% total).
Furthermore, A Visit from the Goon Squad
shows a blatant lack of biracial or foreign (non-American, the only exception
being Lulu’s mute fiancé from Congo) characters. Keeping in mind that the
narrated time spans about sixty years – including between fifteen and twenty
years into the future (from 2010) – the lack of cultural diversity is startling.

What ought to be even more shocking, however, is to find not one openly
gay, trans, bisexual, genderfluid, intersex or asexual character in the 379-page
book. Members of the LGBTQ+ have often been misrepresented or fully omitted in
history, politics and culture – literature is no exception. Nevertheless, the
conductors of several surveys in 2010 estimated the number of LGB Americans to
be around 3.5% (e.g. National Health and
Nutrition Examination Surveys). Six years later, 12% of U.S. citizens identified
as LGBTQ+ (GLAAD 3). In this time of globalisation and open web access, hetero-
and cisnormative literature has no place in a modern, sexually and
gender-diverse society, where it not only represents the existing inequality,
but perpetuates it, as well.

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First, a clarification of some terms which will be used throughout the
essay. LGBTQ+: all non-heterosexual,
non-cisgender, or both, persons. Queer:
used as a “slang” alternative to LGB, unless explicitly stated, or part of a
quote. Transgender: “umbrella term that describes many people who
transcend ‘normative’ embodiments of masculine and feminine, including …,
crossdressers, drag queens and kings, genderqueers, and other gender variant
people” (Wentling et al. 49). Trans:
transgender and transsexual (pre-, mid- or post-transition) persons taken
together. Heteronormativity: “the
suite of cultural, legal, and institutional practices that maintain normative
assumptions that there are two and only two genders, that gender reflects
biological sex, and that only sexual attraction between these ‘opposite’
genders is natural or acceptable” (Kitzinger qtd. in Schilt and Westbrook 441);
Stevi Jackson adds to this that “institutionalised, normative heterosexuality
regulates those kept within its boundaries as well as marginalising and
sanctioning those outside them” (105). Heterosexism:
“ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any
nonheterosexual form of behaviour, identity, relationship, or community” (Herek
316). Cisgender: “a person who by nature or by choice conforms to gender/sex based
expectations of society” (Gender Equity Resource Center). Cissexism: “the belief that gender is authentic only when it neatly
aligns with sex” (Serano qtd. in G. Davis 42).

According to
Laurie Barth Walczak, “when homophobia is an inevitability in stories, when
anti-queer words and actions stand as a sign of realism in young adult
literature, oppressive binaries threaten to remain in place in the genre”
(115). The same goes for all other literature, as well. Be it picture books for
children (inevitably written by adults who are part of the society and system (Barth
Walczak 142)), young adult or adult literature, recent writing is usually a
reflection of a certain reality – and a mirror of it for the readers. And
examining heteronormativity, homophobia and stereotypes in various narratives
can help to recognise and eventually combat the “hegemonic forces or
ideological apparatuses at play” (Barth Walczak 142).

The only possibly closeted gay or bisexual character in Egan’s novel, Robert
Freeman Jr., is the focus point of chapter ten, “Out of Body;” yet at the very
onset, his prospect seems grim. The chapter is written from a second-person
point of view, and together with the title, hints at a certain disassociation
between Rob’s body and mind. Reading on, it is revealed that Rob is a
depressed, suicidal youth, currently without a purpose. Whenever a mention of
his sexuality is made, the accompanying terms are negative: his “pop,” who is a
football coach, puts great emphasis on masculinity (e.g. Bobby is a “girl’s
name after the age of ten” (Egan 216)), his sexual encounter with a football
teammate, James, is not described in any
kind of detail, and he finishes the tale with a denial of his possible
homosexuality. The next paragraph shows a strong feeling of guilt and disgust:
“It wasn’t you in the car with James. You were somewhere else, looking down,
thinking, That fag is fooling around with another guy. How can he do that? How
can he want it? How can he live with himself?” (Egan 223).

In 1973, homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric
Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders (Renn 133); twenty years later (Bill Clinton’s
election for presidency (Egan 215, 220)), heterosexism is still an essential
part of family- and school-life for Rob. So much so, in fact, that he regrets
not having had sex with Sacha because it could have made him “normal” (Egan
225) – a strong indication of the dichotomy between heterosexuality being the
norm, and everything else being “abnormal” (which is, after all, the original
meaning of queer). This description echoes many others of its kind: for example,
Junot Díaz’s short story “Drown,” in which the narrator is worried he will become
“abnormal, a fucking pato” because he let his best friend give him a hand job
(1672). Back to the present, the narrator admits: “If you could see Drew naked,
even just once, it would ease a deep, awful pressure inside you” (228). Between
Rob’s attraction to Drew and his deep love and lust for Sacha lies the
contradiction: if he gives in to his homosexual desires, he will become an
abomination (from a heteronormative point of view, clearly instilled in him by
the society and his family); yet he can no longer try anything with Sacha,
because she is in a relationship with someone else.

The ending of the story is, again, a recurring trope in literature with LGB
characters: the possibly gay and sexually confused Robert Freeman Jr. dies. Of
course, he is not the only character in the book to die young, yet he is the only one who is a clear outsider
– at least to himself – and has had a
brush with death before. This ending connects homosexuality and death – an
“equation which haunted the early history of gay and lesbian literature”
(Cart and Jenkins 15). A note needs to be made here, however. While there are
clear indications that at least Rob’s pop has homophobic principles and ideas,
which, in turn, are toxically internalised by his son, there are no mentions of
anti-queer violence in the story (Barth Walczak 141). Perhaps in this one respect Egan has stepped away
from the typical queer narrative,
and as small as it is, it is a step
forward.

There are other heteronormative indicators throughout the book which are
never countered. For example, when Bennie Salazar visits the Stop/Go sisters,
he is thinking that, if the band is to play on stage and his son Chris is to
participate, “Chris and Olivia would have to switch instruments. A boy on a
tambourine… author’s ellipsis” (Egan 33; ch. 2). In another chapter, Lulu’s room
is described thus: “Everything was in color. A pink shade encircled the
overhead lamp. Pink gauzy fabric hung from the ceiling. Pink winged princesses
were stencilled onto the walls …” (167; ch. 8). The girl’s relationship with
her friends sounds more like the relationship between a queen bee and her
underlings – again, a typically female arrangement. There is no clear
indication if either of these heteronormative comments or thoughts are meant to
be ironic or controversial, and without conscious analysis, they hardly
register – which is also the way with real-life heterosexist and homophobic
slurs. Unless this way of thinking is explicitly addressed, it cannot be weeded
out (Sumara and Davis 192). Sumara and Davis’ research’s ultimate goal seems to
be to disperse with sexual and gender-labels altogether, but for this approach
to be possible, the labels – and their various definitions and attributes –
need to be acknowledged first. Since Egan has not done so, this line of
thinking will not be further pursued here.

On to cisnormativity, which is in no way, shape or form even addressed,
let alone challenged, by Jenniger Egan. According to the Trans Murder
Monitoring project, between 2008 and 2016, 146 trans people were murdered in
the U.S. The only two countries with a higher rate are Mexico and Brasil – both
by all accounts less developed than their northern neighbour. A large number of
scholars writing about transphobia propose education
about trans persons and their personal lived experiences as a partial solution
to the problem. The Human Rights Campaign also puts a strong emphasis on
education (Johnson 177). The correlation between ignorance and hatred has often
been proven. An example of this correlation can be found in the work of Daryl
Davis, an African-American who engaged in dialogue with members of the Ku Klux
Klan, many of whom have since given up their cross-burning ways. Davis proves that,
if there is hope for the heavily brainwashed KKK-members to learn to empathise with
the people they were taught to hate, there is hope for trans-inclusion, too.

Wentling, Schilt, Windsor, and Lucal advocate the inclusion of
transgender topics in sociological curriculum (49), and a variety of other
courses (53). R.G. Johnson stresses the importance of trans education in public
affairs graduate programs, both as a way to further social acceptance of
non-cisgendered individuals (180), and to counter workplace discrimination
(172). He explains that, since the students are on their way to become public
servants, it is necessary for their “cultural competence” to be familiar and
comfortable with diversity in genders and gender identities, and sexual
orientations (170). Traci B. Abbott contends that even students whose chosen
career path is very far away from the social or public domains could benefit
from knowledge about trans persons: “courses which challenge traditional
binaries of gender and sexual orientation play a key role in reducing
discrimination and promoting empathy” (153).

If this education is to be successful, there are certain guidelines to
be taken into account to prevent damaging the image of trans persons further.
First, it is important not to “lump together” all non-cisgendered people:
“transgender communities and lives are as diverse and heterogeneous as any
other population, and should be taught accordingly” (Wentling et al. 51).
Secondly, the best way to learn about and understand a person’s experience is
by listening (or reading) their own account. Thus, non-fiction and fiction by
trans persons (scholars and “civilians” alike) should be the primary source of
information. Especially because “literature’s subjectivity … offers students
an emotive bridge to broader theoretical and social concepts, hopefully
complicating their own understanding of social categories in order to
denaturalise social hierarchies” (Abbott 154).

Of course, it is not always easy – or even possible – to teach a course
about LGB or TQ individuals. In the U.S. Bible belt, for example, religious
beliefs will not make way for inclusion of sexual or gender “deviants” into the
society, never mind the curriculum, anytime soon. Mainstream American
literature could fill the gap. Children’s and young adult literature with
(secondary) LGBTQ+ characters could be educational in the classroom without
putting too much emphasis on their non-conformity. Not only could this visible
diversity help students who struggle with their own sexual orientation or
gender-identity, it will also prevent the ignorant youth of today becoming the
bigoted adults of tomorrow. Again, the rules for correct representation should
apply.

 

On the more practical side of things, an inclusion of trans activism in
the vast field of feminist theory might prove to be mutually beneficial. Many
feminists – mostly (cis)women, such as Janice Raymond – are against letting
trans and genderqueer females participate in feminist activities or enter “safe
spaces” designed for women, for the cissexist reason that “they were not born
and educated female” (Withers 692). The irony of transphobia coming from
members of a group which, in its various forms, has been combatting sexism for
over a century is nearly unbearable. In holding on to such prejudices, the
feminist movement not only belies its struggle to free all women from patriarchal oppression, it reinforces the hetero-
and cisnormativity inherent in that patriarchy. Not to mention that trans and
genderqueer women are just as vulnerable – if not more so – as cisgenders to oppression
and violence (Bettcher and Garry 5). Krista Scott-Dixon poses that
“distinguishing between trans and feminist issues and scholarship erases and
silences individuals, ideas and struggles” (34).

            Throughout the essay, several
parallels have been drawn between ethnic and sexual/gender-minorities. On the
one hand because all repressed groups have certain things in common – in this
instance, being underrepresented in a novel – on the other, to draw attention
to intersectionality between different “parts” or domains of a person’s
identity, such as race, gender, class, etc. (Blackburn and Smith 626; Renn
134). Most (though, luckily, not all) scholars are white, middle-class,
able-bodied and cisgender (Ingraham 204; Renn 135), and so are the focus-groups
of most feminist and queer theorists (Scott-Dixon 37); the latter with the
single exception of the gender category. Western societies, the United States
chief among them, have been diverse for centuries: expats and refugees, disabled
people and religious outcasts, rich and poor, gay and straight have all been thrown
into one great melting pot and come out “American;” and yet, even now, minority
(white, middle-class) privilege reigns supreme.

            American society, politics and
culture have come quite far. A
hundred years ago today, women in most of the United States did not have
suffrage (DuBois 175). Half a century ago, homo- and bisexuals were considered
mentally ill and treated accordingly (Renn 133). Nevertheless, there is still a long way to
go. Today, many American films
– like White Chicks and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – ridicule
and reject trans persons, effectively replacing the anti-homosexual propaganda
films of the 60’s (e.g. Boys Beware).
Very positive (along with very negative) news has come from Hollywood in 2017:
a film about a black gay couple has won the Golden Globe for “Best Motion
Picture,” the #MeToo movement has exposed many instances of sexism, harassment
and sexual assault, both inside the film industry and outside of it, and
tentative foundations have been laid for a hopefully more equal working
environment. Yet old achievements should not be forgotten. Movies like American History X and Soldier’s Girl may not be manifold, but
they are the kind of (real or invented) stories which make the audience think
about race, gender and sexuality as a spectrum – a spectrum in which every
segment deserves equal rights and a proper treatment.

The United States of America is still deemed to be one of the – if not the – most advanced countries in the
world. Yet many of its citizens need to be reminded monthly, weekly, daily that
black lives matter, that bisexuality exists and that rape is absolutely never pardonable.
As long as modern American writers refuse to let go of the stereotypes and
stigmas attached to non-heterosexual and non-cisgender members of society, and do
not start including a representative and diverse number of
non-white-straight-and-middle-class characters whose sexuality- or
gender-struggles are not the only part of their identity (Barth Walczak 145), ignorance about and hatred of
“otherness” are not going anywhere.