No. But interestingly, it definitely makes the people around you raise an eyebrow. They smile to themselves all too knowingly, if you’re lucky. If not, they grow worried and ask you to explain this newfound investment. “What is at stake for you?” Then begins their quest to unravel you. They suspiciously read into your mannerisms and your words, your interests and your circles. Everyone turns into nosy neighbours. You wonder to yourself, have I said too much? Should I defend myself? Am I not living my truth—my whole truth, committing only halfway to the process? Wait, am I gay at all?
E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice is a tale of homosexual love in early 20th-century England. It follows Maurice Hall from his school days through university and beyond. Today, it would be called ‘gay fiction.’ Forster was reluctant to publish this novel. It is not that he had not dabbled into revolutionary topics in his already published works, so then why did Forster feel the need to keep this one secret? Maurice was only published in print in the year 1971, a year after Forster’s death.
His contemporaries expressed frustration with his work. Commenting on Forster’s work Howards End, Katherine Mansfield complained in her journal in May 1917 that “E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea”. What Mansfield seems to be expressing in her journal is very similar to what we would understand contemporarily as the frustration surrounding ‘queer baiting’ — when a show advertises a character as queer, only to bring them back into the grip of heterosexuality. This frustration is justified as long as we are considering shows, but should not transcend over to individuals. Perhaps that is what Forster feared — a queering of his very self that existed outside of the novel. His fears were not unfounded. In a letter to novelist Forrest Reid, with whom he had shared the manuscript of Maurice before publishing, Forster succumbs to referring to homosexuals as ‘perverts.’ He goes on to question whether these ‘perverts’ are good or bad — whether they have a “disproportionate tendency” to badness owing to the criminal blindness of Society? Or whether they were just “inherently” bad? Forster assumes Forrest Reid to reluctantly answer in favour of the former. He then passionately states, urging him on, “to answer vehemently”. David Leavitt, a novelist and biographer, even more passionately interprets Forster’s “vehement” request as “evidence” of his homosexuality. Forster’s interest in the area was seen as not just that, but transcended over into an interpretation of his identity.
This tendency to ‘read into’ something to try to interpret or analyse it does not exist only within the literary eye. It is a lived reality that makes taking an interest in queer matters a complicated field. Minal Hajratwala collects stories from the new queer India in Out!, which offers a glimpse into the lives and dreams of India’s misunderstood minority. It begins with reflections from Danish Sheikh, a lawyer and critic, on the ruling down of Section 377. He relates how he had received a forced, casual call from his father, asking about “this academic piece on homosexuals you wrote which I just found online.” He registers back to his father the use of his own word — “academic.” Almost a plea to his father, he asked him to consider it just as an academic interest. The consideration of whether the author is indeed a homosexual or not comes later, and is frankly irrelevant to this argument. What interests me is the idea that if you support gay rights too strongly (if there even is such a thing), people start assuming you are queer. You must be. Why else would you take it that personally? It does not cross our mind that these are questions we should all be invested in—it is after all a matter of human rights.
Our obsession with ‘uncovering’ identity is frankly troubling. Even terrifying. We sit restless, wanting to uncover the truth about identity. There is an insistence that something lies beneath, lurking. The underbelly is scary and the surface is never the surface. We must dig deeper and deeper, view every identity with suspicion, so that we can get to the bottom of things. It is fundamental for us to discover—are they hiding something from us? Are they homosexual? Is the homosexual, quiet in the shadows, going to catch us by surprise? Truth is, that we are obsessed with uncovering sexuality because we continue to see it as a threat. We urge people to come out, reveal themselves, and lay bare in the open with no surprises. The threat of homosexuality is the threat of an unpredictable sexuality. ‘Coming out’ then isn’t as much a matter of liberation as it is a security against the threatening sexualities that spill over and exist outside the known.
What confounds this fear even further is that there is no real way to know just by looking at someone. On the surface, they are indistinguishable from everyone else. Historically, to be better able to serve the purpose of criminology and law, homosexual bodies have always been seen as inherently textual. For example, James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Another Country, expresses: “How could Eric have known that his fantasies, however unreadable they were for him, were inscribed in every one of his gestures, were betrayed in every inflection of his voice, and lived in his eyes with all the brilliance and beauty and terror of desire?”. Though the laws we live under today are not as cruel towards homosexuality, homosexual bodies are still constantly being read. With the emergence of the following century, we enter an era in which homosexuality can be expressed. It is no longer socially diffused. Expression leads to recognition. Gestures, language, clothes, particular public spaces, all of these have specifically homosexual connotations and are being used to assume the so-called truth of certain identities. Sexuality comes under a hermeneutics of suspicion that becomes impossible to escape.
One might argue that Forster certainly had his reasons for not wanting to be known as a homosexual. It would have made him vulnerable in the England of 1914, to prosecution under the so-called ‘blackmailer’s character.’ This was the Labouchere Amendment of 1885. According to this amendment, ‘acts of gross indecency’ between adult men in both public and private was a punishable offence with up to two years in prison. However, recent laws have apparently progressed us into an age of safety. What reason could we then have for not coming out? Instagram infographics urge us to live our truth and be out with our secrets—we do not need to fear our sexuality any longer. But why this insistence at all? In spite of laws protecting us, why should we come out?
The insistence to push identities into the public sphere is not a quest towards liberation. It is born out of a fear, a fear that is quite homophobic and does not do a good job at hiding itself. We are afraid of not being able to tell who is who. What if the homosexual catches us unaware? The unconscious of the contemporary audience is paranoid. It thinks, ‘if we know, we can protect ourselves against its unpredictable deviant nature’. Once we identify it, we can proceed to regulate and control it. It will not be as much of a threat. We can then retreat into heteronormative comfort and complacency. Sleep sound at night knowing that there is nothing under the bed—no monster that I have not already uncovered, recognised and categorised.
- J. Middleton Murry (ed., Journal of Katherine Mansfield (London: Constable, 1954), p.121.
- Letter to Forrest Reid, 13 march 1915. Quoted in Furbank, E.M. Forster, Vol.2, p.14.
- Forster, E. M. et al. Maurice. Penguin Books, 2005.
- Baldwin, James. Another Country, 1962, New York: Vintage.
- Hajratwala, Minal. Out! Stories From The New Queer India. Queer Ink, 2012.