Friday, April 20, 2012

We Dast Not Speak Its Name

The year before he was implicated in the 1895 sodomy trial which sent Oscar Wilde to Reading Gaol, Wilde's "particular young friend," Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote a poem entitled "Two Loves." 

Milord Douglas
As literature, the poem is one of those florid pre-Raphaelite excrescences overperfumed by apostrophe, personification, atmosphere, moonlight and melancholia. In it, the young lord strolls through an untended garden where he spies two figures, one bright and frisky, the other forlorn and hang-doggy. Being a brash and sociable fellow, he flags them down, asks each to account for himself, and learns that both claim to be 'Love.' Douglas's poem concludes with him addressing the second, sorrier figure, and being answered in turn by each. The last line is familiar by now:

. . . I pray thee speak me sooth
What is thy name?' He said, 'My name is Love.'
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, 'He lieth, for his name is Shame . . .

. . . I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.'
Then sighing, said the other, 'Have thy will,
I am the Love that dare not speak its name.'

Homosexuality has been sparsely obscured in conversational euphemisms long before "gay" gained currency - the Victorians spoke of a "confirmed bachelor;" before that, the penchant was politely called "the Greek vice;" the stage called them "Bulgarians," and everyone knows any number of less polite words. The point being that everyone knows a few words, more or less polite, by which to refer to homosexuality without saying the word. Everyone from about the age of 12 onwards knows what it means, has seen it portrayed on television, in PG-13 movies, has by that age either been warned off it in church or been shown its finer points in church. The specifics of the Vatican's public relations problem are widely familiar . . .

. . . and it's not the hat.

In spite of the near universality of our American sexual vernacular, the Republican delegations in the state legislatures of Tennessee and Missouri, operating under the usual GOP presumption of an ignorant grassroots constituency, have each introduced sex education bills for vote which the press has dubbed "Don't Say Gay" measures. Missouri's current HB 2501 states with admirable brevity that, "Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no instruction, material, or extracurricular activity sponsored by a public school that discusses sexual orientation other than in scientific instruction concerning human reproduction shall be provided in any public school."

So when it comes to the spectrum of actual sexual practices, no teacher is entirely permitted to "speak me sooth" across the entire range of venery. By an act of legislative necromancy, if no one can say the word then the thing itself will magically vanish. And while they imagine no one is watching, the Republicans want to move "Don't ask, don't tell" from the back of the M1A2 Abrams tank to the front of the middle-school classroom.

"Not while I'm working, Cedric!"

And "Don't ask, don't tell" might take off in a dismaying number of directions: Missouri House member Dwight Scharnhorst (R-St. Louis), a co-sponsor of the Missouri bill, told HuffPost that teaching about LGBT issues would inevitably lead to other discussions. "There is no need to talk about Billy wanting to marry a goat," he said. Fair enough, and he's probably right - a conversation about the "homosexual agenda" would inevitably give rise to a conversation about the goat's desires and general wellbeing, and from that to PETA's radical "vegetarian agenda."

The version of the bill which Tennessee is attempting to enact further requires teachers to label adolescent hand holding as a "gateway sexual activity," so inflammatory that the teacher is not permitted to demonstrate its technique in the classroom upon pain of prosecution. Presumably, then, beneath an unspecified age it's permissible to clasp the hands in prayer, so long as the other hand is one's own.

So it may become matter of law that any form of sexual practice which doesn't result (with the best intentions, naturally) in reproduction is no longer merely the Love that dare not speak its name. It's the Love that may not speak its name, since it's a certainty that any teacher with the temerity to talk about that nasty business in class will end up as one of the nearly 2.3 million among the population currently in jail. The pupils of Tennessee and Missouri (and predictably also of states like Arizona and Alabama) are as yet exempt from prosecution for speaking on the playground about what they already talk about in pardonable ignorance mixed with a childish savoir-faire.

Rick Santorum's recent, fortunately capsized, presidential candidacy made uncomfortably clear (one might have thought) the Republican obsession over matters sexual - everything from marriage equality to contraception is now off their diminishing table, to the degree that one can only suspect a sizeable male contingent of the GOP of being either sexually ignorant, impotent or deeply, frustratedly sequestered in a dark, dank closet, fingering with sweaty palms its illicit lingerie purchases.

"Yet each man kills the thing he loves . . . ."

1 comment:

  1. The comment with the picture of the tank reminded me of a short-iived feature I proudly provided to my college newspaper called "Voices From History" in which I captioned pictures from my Western Civ text with voice bubbles. One, a photo of a particularly gnarled hag in an abject part of the world, scowling at the photographer in Popeye fashion, while leaning on a makeshift cane, was struck by school officials and, since done at the last minute, had to be replaced by a 3X3 inch black square, which only served to elevate the curiosity of the normal students on our Calvinist campus to a fever pitch. In answer to an obvious question, the hag said: "I don't know. How much do Bunny Girls make?" Apparently, the steamy reference so offended some of our faculty that they decided to protect their innocent charges and store the picture in a safe place only to be used as an occasional reminder of the evil that required constant vigilance to keep at bay. Post haste, I was duly notified that my creative contributions were no longer welcome. However, the feature was continued by the editor whose first shot was Renoir's "Girl With a Watering Can" accompanied by the caption: "Find the hidden innuendo." It flew freely over the heads of the censors.