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Posted By Subaltern Queer

You’re A Queer

"You’re a queer girl, Anne. I heard before that you were queer. But I believe I’m going to like you real well." That's what Diana Barry says to Anne Shirley when she first meets her. They soon become best friends. 

Indeed, Anne is a queer girl, on many different levels, though not in the way we would use (or avoid) that word today. Lucy Maude Montgomery published Anne of Green Gables in 1908 and the word ‘queer’ appears fourteen times. It’s employed to indicate the strange sensation of a stomachache. Marilla speaks of both Anne and her brother Matthew (Marilla and Matthew have taken Anne, an orphan, into their family) as queer. Marilla describes Anne’s way of expressing herself as being queer. And the word appears in a long list of attempts to describe a shade of green—one that is like no “earthly color,” nothing natural. Marilla then says: “I’ve been expecting something queer for some time. You haven’t got into any scrape for two months, and I was sure another one was due.” It turns out that Anne, who hates her red hair, has tried to dye it. But, like all of us queers, she can’t hide who she really is.

We were driving home from Pasadena Christian School on one of those typical southern California days when the sun drenches everything. I said to my mother: “I’m not like the other kids at school.” She and I both remember this moment vividly. We have referenced it many times. I was either five or six years old. She valiantly tried to negate my statement by saying that I was just like all of the other boys at school. But I knew it simply wasn’t true. I was old enough to realize that she was trying to be kind. Still, I felt frustrated, because the depth of my insight into myself was not taken seriously by her. At least not outwardly. I suspect, though, that she knew I was queer in some sense. For me, my statement was empirically true in the same way that my eyes could see the sun shining and my mind knew we were in California. It was a simple statement of fact. What I didn’t know then, however, was exactly how I was queer. And I had absolutely no idea of how far that queerness reached into my soul.

There is a story that is supposed to come from India, specifically from Hinduism. That’s hard to verify. But the version that Clifford Geertz tells goes like this:

There is an Indian story—at least I heard it as an Indian story—about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? 'Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.”

At least for me, it is just queerness all the way down. I’m still plumbing the depths of my own queerness. I certainly didn’t know that word back when I first realized my queerness. I just knew that I wasn’t like the other kids.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I finally read Anne of Green Gables. It was on the book table at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Brussels. The church was a mainstay of the British expat community. People who went back to the UK often unloaded their books before they left. The copy was a first edition and the pages had obviously been cut by a child who was eager to get to the next page. The edges were ragged and uneven. How appropriate. When I started reading, I immediately had the thought: “I am Anne.” That was truly a queer thought. I did know that Lucy Maude was distantly related to me. My mother’s mother’s maiden name was Mabel Evelyn Montgomery. Lucy Maude was her cousin. Through Mabel, I am related—in some way or another—to most of the people with the surname ‘Montgomery’ on Prince Edward Island. I learned about Lucy Maude back when I did a genealogy of my family.

But I had no idea that Anne would turn out to be truly a Montgomery in spirit. Nor that we were, to use one of Anne’s favorite phrases, “kindred spirits.” The celebrated Scottish poet Robert Burns described the Montgomery Clan as “a martial race, bold, soldier featured and undismay'd.” The clan motto is “Garde Bien,” which means something a bit different in actual French than it does in this motto but “watch well” or even “be on guard” are reasonable translations. Anne is a very determined person. The positive version of this trait is called perseverance or tenacity; the negative version is stubbornness. You better watch out.

The problem with being queer in so many different respects is that one gets marginalized over and over. I’m still finding that out and have much to say about it. Stay tuned, as they used to say. Being queer, though, gives you a perspective other people don’t have. Being multiply queer gives you many different perspectives. You see the things that normal people don’t see because they don’t see how their ‘normalness’ is itself queer. The difference is simply that there a whole lot of them and only a few of us.

Perhaps the way in which I most stand out as queer—as a philosopher by trade—is that I ask questions in ways and about things that normal philosophers don’t ask. And I see things that other philosophers don’t see. It’s a blessing . . . and a curse—as Adrian Monk says about his OCD. Of course, philosophers are already queer simply because they’ve dedicated their lives to asking questions that generally get them into trouble. They notice stuff that other folks would prefer they not notice. I know quite a lot about getting into trouble and, like Anne, it seems to seek me out. But we queer philosophers are really the most problematic: we don’t even fit in with the usual misfits that end up being philosophers. We’re the ones who are well-dressed at the philosophy conferences.

I’m multiply queer. Does that mean I’m multiply blessed?

 
1 Comment(s):
Patrick Farley said...
Dr. Benson! I'm not sure if you remember me, but we're connected on Facebook, and I was in your Intro to Philosophy course about 8 years ago. Your teaching had more of an impact on me than was immediately apparent; since graduating I've found myself quite interested in consuming and doing philosophy. I've consulted my digital notes from that class a number of times to get context for philosophers I'm about to read. I certainly aspire to ask uncommon questions and notice things other people would prefer to go unnoticed. I appreciate you living out that example and not allowing the prevailing ideas of your community to skew your thinking or teaching. Hope you're well, Patrick
June 28, 2020 12:23:18
 
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