Let’s Gay Up the Classics!

To illustrate the truly warped way that my meandering mind works, indulge me and follow along for a moment.

With the passing of Pride Month, as well as the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, I’ve been pondering the developments within queer culture, which seem to be unfolding at breakneck speed. Setting aside how monumentally things have changed just in my lifetime, it seems as though very recently there have been massive strides in LGBT rights and social acceptance.

As things continue to morph before my eyes, like New Delhi decriminalizing gay sex, and sporadic states in the U.S. legalizing same-sex marriage and passing anti-discrimination legislation, it still seems patently ridiculous that we have had to fight so hard and so long to attain basic civil rights.

Queer fiction has also advanced exponentially in the last twenty or so years. Gay protagonists are now regularly allowed to live all the way to the end of the book, and are only occasionally struck by lightning, consumed by syphilis, or the victim of a horrific javelin accident.

That being said (yes, yes, we’re getting there), I find myself wondering if the progress we’ve made would be even more significant if all the classic authors who had actually been gay or bisexual had written openly about queer relationships. I mean, sure, there were authors who walked the tightrope between sneaky and shocking— Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde— and a few bold souls here and there who tackled it head-on— Radclyffe Hall, Colette— but what if everyone had done it?

In fact, what if even heterosexual authors had recognized the inherent flair for the dramatic, which we, as a people, possess in spades? Can you imagine what the classics that we grew up with would be like? (And here we finally are at our bizarre destination. Welcome!)

How many 8th graders would find a new appreciation for Great Expectations if Miss Havisham had been a drag queen named Mistress Lavonia Pepperoni? (Which, let’s be honest, would take “flaming” to a whole new level.)

And what if in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff had instead been Heather? Sure, there still would have been all the initial anger and betrayal, but by the time Mr. Lockwood arrived and learned everyone’s backstory, a gaggle of lesbians (though my friend insists that more that three lesbians is referred to as a “pod”) would have shouted all that rage out, split with their new partners, reconciled, parted again, and eventually become those peculiar, co-dependent, ex-loving boundary-crossers that we all swear we’ll never be, but still inexplicably become at some point or another. So the book would have been decidedly shorter, yes. But I’ll bet at least one of them would have gotten shanked with a broken beer bottle, which is just slightly edgier than dying of consumption.

Let’s suppose that the monogram in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter had been an “S” for “sodomite,” and that Hester Prynne had been Hector Prynne. Granted, that would have made Pearl’s existence slightly harder to explain, but it certainly would have held my interest more. And though I’d love to say something like “but who would have believed an esteemed minister secretly having a penchant for young men?” there’s just no way I can even muster the appropriate sarcasm for that. My variation would be so much more socially relevant.

I also strongly believe that Thoreau’s Walden could use as much gay sex as it can possibly contain—perhaps more. Had it been written that way, it would have likely been the only thing that kept me from having to read the same page over and over as my mind errantly wandered off to process such fascinating topics as whether my next load of laundry needed to be whites or colors, or whether I thought James Buchanan was a sexier president than James K. Polk. (For the record, Polk wins hands down, though Buchanan gets points for his affinity for dick. Sadly, we can only speculate about the other presidents’ fondness for male members—though I have to admit Millard Fillmore pings my gaydar something fierce, but you know how those Whigs were.)

Likewise, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath certainly could use some fabulousness. With a story that makes Angela’s Ashes seem like The Parent Trap, the plight of the Joad family could have benefited from some good old-fashioned show tunes. Granted, I’ve never heard a snappy song about breastfeeding a dying stranger, but if anyone can pull it off, the gays can. I picture elaborately choreographed dance numbers amongst all the corpses, and optimistic lines like “dustbowl, shmustbowl!”

In a similar vein, Moby Dick might now be about exactly what it sounds like, and Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea could become The Old Fop and His Young Thing (and wouldn’t that have made the battle for one to claim the other much more thrilling?)

Little Women could have shown Jo just as I always suspected her to be—strong, brainy and decidedly lesbian. Instead of wasting her time with a boy named Laurie (a suspect name, to be sure), we could have had chapter titles like “Aunt March Gets an Eyeful,” and “Jo Buys a Strap-On.”

As you can see, the possibilities are endless in this regard. The real tragedy is that while I’m supposed to be toiling at my corporate job, I’m periodically getting flashes of these alternate novels and bursting out in audible laughter at inappropriate times.

So in some ways it’s unfortunate that these authors and their contemporaries decided to stay safely within the boundaries of heterosexual storytelling, for it hasn’t advanced our acceptance as mainstream. It only further relegated our place in the shadows— underrepresented and viewed as intrinsically “other.”

But it also allows my ridiculous mind to wander to improper places and dally there like an unsavory prostitute on a street corner playing “I Spy” between tricks. And as I cruise through conference calls on auto-pilot, jotting things in the margins of my notepad like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Hyde — A magic vibrator turns a bottom into a top, when I’m occasionally asked for my opinion, I’ll continue to respond with a string of useless buzzwords— something like “Absolutely. I think we need to focus on synergy and integrated bandwidth.” No one ever knows the difference.

Colette Moody

I'm an author of lesbian fiction for Bold Strokes Books and amateur mixologist.

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