Failures to Communicate: On Howl and My Big Fat Queer Identity

The following post is, without contest, the most difficult thing I’ve written thus far on Buzz Cuts and Bustiers. Besides the fact that it inexplicably took me four days to complete this, I’m not even sure now – after rewrite after rewrite after rewrite – that I’m satisfied with the result. Maybe I should just appreciate the meta-ness of struggling to express my struggles with expressing myself. A failure to communicate within a failure to communicate. I did love Inception, after all. Keeping that in mind, I hope you can excuse these weird, rambling thoughts that are the product of a weird, rambling couple of weeks. I promise my next post will be more a legitimate post and less a sleep-deprived stream of consciousness.

Lately, I don’t seem to know how to talk about myself. Well, I mean, not completely – I’m kinda talking about myself right now – but in a more existential way. What is my gender identity?  What does that encompass? Is it female, butch, masculine female, masculine-of-center, gender nonconforming, or all of the above? What is butch to me? How do I see butch in other people? Do I have the right to even look for or somehow determine butch in other people? Why do I feel comfortable using female pronouns, but bristle at being called “lady” or being regarded as “one of the girls?” How can I explain that though I am female and ID as female and not as a trans person, I don’t feel like “cis” is a completely accurate word for me? How do I say, “Please interact with me the way you would interact with a man, even though I am a woman” without sounding like a misogynistic prick? How can I express the gender dysmorphia I experience when I see the outline of my breasts under a freshly ironed button-up, but that those same breasts are welcome in bedroom situations? How can I say all this without offending women, without offending lesbians, without offending trans people, without offending myself? Lately, I can’t. Just can’t. And it’s wearing me down.

In the course of describing this ongoing dilemma to my GF, I came to an interesting realization. During the many times throughout my journey of queer self-discovery when I’ve struggled to express myself – or specifically, myself as a product of my butchness – the femmes in my life have been the ones who required of me the least amount of explanation. As a whole, they have always seemed to “get it” very quickly, or at least, to be able to make sense of my existential whining and frustrations. Since then, I’ve been trying to focus on positive, reliable truths like this – things I can explain, and therefore, find comforting. Patches of calm waters in an otherwise tempestuous sea.

Please note that this is not some transparent attempt to flatter or otherwise woo my femme readers (unless, of course, it’s working), nor is it meant to be a universal representation of butch-femme communication; it’s simply a factual observation of my experiences. Whether these femmes have all been experts in the field of Butch Studies (or Studying Butches), or whether they could just empathize with the importance I place on my self-applied label and physical presentation of gender identity, I can’t be sure. But it’s always been my belief that, in so many wonderful ways, butches and femmes are two sides of the same Gender Presentation and Identity Commemorative Collector’s Coin. To put it another way: if you take the overly simplistic gender expression scale and bend it into a perfect circle, those two opposite ends are bound to connect.

Besides leaning on the perfumed shoulder of a sympathetic femme, my other favorite Cheap Alternatives To Professional Therapy For Dealing With My Gender Issues include writing (shocker), Tweeting (‘nother shocker), buying things I don’t need (but are still cheaper than therapy), and re-reading my favorite poems. As utterly cliché as it may sound, poetry has been an emotional refuge for me since my teen years, back in those days when the first gleamings of queerness were flashing across my consciousness and I was scared shitless. Back then it was mostly T.S. Eliot, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sylvia Plath – a cheerful trio! – but recently, it’s been Allen Ginsberg. Specifically, my refuge is Ginsberg’s iconic and controversial “Howl.” It would break the hearts of my college journalism professors if they knew how deeply I just buried this lede, but “Howl” is really at the heart of what I want to wax poetic (heh) about today.

Ginsberg wasn’t just one of the founders of the Beat Generation and, in my professional opinion (translation: based on my college minor in English Literature), one of the greatest American poets – he was also a fellow queer person. He had the unfortunate disadvantage of coming of age – and coming out – in 1950s America, a time and place where homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. After being committed to a psychiatric facility (which he nicknames “Rockland” in his poetry), Ginsberg escaped a lobotomy and won his freedom by promising the doctors that he would be a good and proper heterosexual. Historical records, however, show no evidence that he pinky-swore to it, so I think we can all forgive his failure to uphold that promise.

Like so many of us who travel somewhere outside of the dotted lines of society, Ginsberg’s experiences — and the words he used to bring them to life — were subjected to mainstream America’s hair-trigger censorship attempts. When “Howl” was published in 1956, it set off a firestorm of controversy, starting with the arrest of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti on obscenity charges and culminating in the 1957 trial that helped make Ginsberg and his Beat buddies into household names. The debate focused around the often rough language of the poem and the frank, somewhat graphic depictions of sexuality of both the hetero and homo variety.

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may

After a parade of critics, scholars, and writers were trotted out to either defend or deny the poem’s literary merits, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that “Howl” had enough “redeeming social importance” to make up for all the curse words, drug references, and gay stuff it contained. If we can ignore for a moment the absolute weirdness of a serious legal ruling on something as profoundly interpretive and abstract as poetry, then we can celebrate this as a win for queers, outsiders, and lovers of what Ginsberg wryly called “sentimental bullshit” everywhere.

The redeemingly socially important imagery in “Howl” is a mixture of deeply personal experiences, such as the mental illness and eventual death of Ginsberg’s mother,

Holy my mother in the insane asylum!

inside jokes, like that one time when Ginsberg’s friend and fellow “Rockland” resident Carl Solomon (to whom “Howl” is dedicated) pulled a hilarious prank,

who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism

and more universal social commentary on the tortures, discoveries, loves, lives, and deaths of a generation of artists, thinkers, and rebels – commentary that in many ways echoes the experiences of generations to follow, including my own. I don’t think I’m the first queer person to see my own voice reverberating through the many Howls released in this text, and I certainly hope I’m not the last.

who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time

Sometimes the Howl that I feel rising from my core is one of joy and freedom, a celebration of victories both small and astronomical, both personal and political, of noting a point gained in the endless game of strategy and luck we call the Gay Rights Movement.

where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself   imaginary walls collapse   O skinny legions run outside   O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here   O victory forget your underwear we’re free

Other times, it’s a Howl of sexual ownership and liberation, of anticipation building to crescendo and blood coursing through veins like hot metal, or of the sudden acute awareness of my body or her body or your body or all the fine, queer bodies in this world. Admittedly, this is my favorite Howl.

who copulated ecstatic and insatiate and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness

With increasing frequency, the Howl is teeming with defiance, of wounds licked and teeth bared and muscles tensed for attack. It’s almost a dare, or a declaration to powers unnamed that yes, I am still alive, we are still alive – despite their best efforts – and ready to fight off whatever barrage of insults or injuries or injustices or cherry-picked Bible passages may be hurled our way.

who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication

But most often, if I’m being really truthful here, the Howl is one of pain, of anguish, or of raw, useless, impotent anger. It’s a guttural, animalistic release of human emotion too twisted, too jagged to ever take the form of intelligent speech – or poetry.

I’m with you in Rockland

where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of actual pingpong of the abyss

I’m with you in Rockland

where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse

I’m with you in Rockland

where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void

The thing about “Howl” and Howls and the expelling of bottled-up, hyper-intense emotion is this: you feel so much better afterwards. Or at least I do, but I bet you would, too, if you gave it a chance. Because while language can sometimes be a stumbling block in the way of adequately conveying personal identity, it can also be deeply therapeutic. Take it from me: when you finally find the right words, sound, and syntax – whether by your own creation or the work of a like-minded soul – to paint that clear picture of who you are in this world, the relief that follows is unreal. It’s a calm that whispers, “This is me. People recognize me. I’m safe. I’m home.”

I’m with you in Rockland

in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night

19 thoughts on “Failures to Communicate: On Howl and My Big Fat Queer Identity

  1. There are so many good poems in the book that Howl was released in, too. My favorite of these is “A Supermarket in California.”

    How do I say, “Please interact with me the way you would interact with a man, even though I am a woman” without sounding like a misogynistic prick?

    I don’t know, but compulsory femininity doesn’t seem too polite either, does it? I do think it’s okay to ask to, in essence, leave you alone — not participating in certain aspects of traditional femininity doesn’t have to be a rejection of traditional femininity (though it took me a really long time to figure that one out).

    • I friggin’ love “A Supermarket in California,” especially the part where he imagines Pervy Walt “eyeing the grocery boys.” XD

      Thank you for sharing your post, and for reminding us all that one doesn’t have to ID as butch – or a dyke – to feel restricted by societal ideas of what women “should be.”

      • Sometimes I joke that “I’m butch in that heavy-metal hair band kinda way.” I do love mah hair! But I also feel creeped out in Victoria’s Secret and own a shitload of motorcycle leather which makes me very happy happy to wear :-)

      • Oh, and total side note: did you go to Sinclair’s event in JP last night? (I have this inkling that you’re a (Boston) local). The writers were great!

      • I almost did, but I was so beat from a day at Boston Comic Con (geek alert!) that I ended up staying in. But I’m glad to hear it was a good time!

  2. Thanks for introducing me to Howl – I didn’t know Alan Ginsberg was gay, and I have never read it (err, music major here…). Powerful stuff. On your own expression and identity, I’m not in your skin or your shoes so I’m not sure what it feels like, but I wish you / we lived in a world where it was OK to just be who you are and not have people try to fit you into this or that box.

    Howl away. Howl away.

  3. “Why do I feel comfortable using female pronouns, but bristle at being called “lady” or being regarded as “one of the girls?” How can I explain that though I am female and ID as female and not as a trans person, I don’t feel like “cis” is a completely accurate word for me? How do I say, “Please interact with me the way you would interact with a man, even though I am a woman” without sounding like a misogynistic prick? How can I express the gender dysmorphia I experience when I see the outline of my breasts under a freshly ironed button-up, but that those same breasts are welcome in bedroom situations?”

    This. Yep. That whole paragraph, actually. I can’t even say what a relief this was to read: you mean I’m not the only one? I have been wrestling so hard lately with whether the kind of person I think I am even actually exists. I know so many great, happy transguys, and I really don’t think that I’m trans, but if my boundaries are really that masculine-of-center (and they really are)…? I don’t want to use “he.” I don’t *feel* like a “he.” I’m not a man. But I do not, absolutely do not, want to be treated or addressed in public as a woman. When the waiter says “ladies” I get nauseous, my whole body gets hot, I want to disappear into the floor. That’s not me. But I’m not a man, either, and that isn’t necessarily what I want to be in public, even if it makes me less nauseous to be read that way. I want the person that I *am* to be seen, to be recognized, and I feel like I can’t explain who that person is. I say “butch,” but what does that even mean? When I read Bear Bergman’s essays it felt like coming home, but then ze transitioned (and that is hir own experience and I am not in any way questioning or criticizing that)…and what does *that* mean?

    Agh. I could keep going. Clearly, this post brought up a lot for me. Thanks for writing it. I’m with you in Rockland. Holy hell, how did I only just find out about this blog?

    • Dude, thanks so much for this comment. I can’t even tell you how happy it made me to see that somebody else got my weirdo body/gender issue things. Solidarity! I also feel ya with the confusion after Bear’s transition; I too am happy for hir, but was oddly sad because somebody I was ID’ed so strongly with was suddenly not as relatable to my personal experience. It’s all so complicated. :\

  4. “Why do I feel comfortable using female pronouns, but bristle at being called “lady” or being regarded as “one of the girls?” How can I explain that though I am female and ID as female and not as a trans person, I don’t feel like “cis” is a completely accurate word for me? How do I say, “Please interact with me the way you would interact with a man, even though I am a woman” without sounding like a misogynistic prick? How can I express the gender dysmorphia I experience when I see the outline of my breasts under a freshly ironed button-up, but that those same breasts are welcome in bedroom situations?”

    to echo PB (above comment) it is such a relief to find that i am indeed not alone in my gender identity “HOWL”ing. Recently, a young man opened the door for me…he was just being polite…but my intense reaction surprised even me. There i was in my button up, my favorite knit tie and there HE was opening the door for ME. My ears started to burn, i was quite sick to my stomach and felt for a moment…ashamed? ugh, i wanted to yell at him “no,dude…we are the same …don’t treat me like you would a girl.” and yet i am a girl….i am comfortable with female pronouns and do not feel the need to transition….
    how to reconcile these two concepts is quite frustrating sometime…but its nice to know i’m not plodding through it alone.
    peace, brother

  5. I struggle with this concept of ‘being treated like a girl/woman’. I try and treat people equally, and tend to get offended when people tell me to ‘treat them like a man’. As a lesbian and a feminist I don’t tend to centre my energies on men. But I do try not to feminize butches if they find that offensive. Is this what you mean? I dunno. I love butches, and identify somewhat with the butch experience, so this piece of writing makes a lot of sense to me in a primal way that I don’t know quite how to quantify on paper.

    P.S. I absolutely love Ginsberg, Poe and I’d recommend Richard Siken (gay poet) if you like poetry driven by imagery and emotions.

    • It’s super complicated, isn’t it, this gender expression thing we do? I guess “feminize” is a better way to put it than “treat like a woman.” But like you said, it’s hard to reject being feminized without also seeming like you find femininity objectionable – which I don’t! I’m glad you get it on some level, though. Makes me feel less crazy.

      I’ll definitely check out Richard Siken – thanks for the recommendation!

  6. Okay, I love poetry, but I have to admit I’d never heard of Allen Ginsberg. Perhaps because I’m European, though I know of other American poets and I love Frost. Now I know it’s impossible to know everything, but I do hate it when I find out that a person or thing of inspiration existed and that I did not know about it. Because of your blog I looked the poem, “Howl” up and am blown away by the crystal clarity of emotion, time and place revealed within it’s lines. I will be ordering the book of his collective poems. Thanks for the insight.

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