Gay Gothic: A Review of David Storey’s ‘Radcliffe’

Radcliffe

The front cover for the original 1963 edition. Radcliffe is currently available through Valancourt Books but for the sake of saving a few bucks I bought an old copy.

When Valancourt Books first announced it would be reprinting David Storey’s novel Radcliffe, I was intrigued by it for two reasons. Firstly, its title seemed to reference the 18th century gothic novels Ann Radcliffe, of whose work I am particularly fond, and, secondly, the romance at the center of the story is between two men.

My personal library includes few works by queer others and none involving same-sex relationships. That’s an odd omission for any gay man to make and so when I came across Radcliffe I knew I would have to read it. After all, it combines two of my favorite things–gothic motifs and gay sex! What could be more sublime?

With any old novel that centers around same-sex relationships and homosexuality, I often worry how respectively it will treat it subjects. Our current understanding of sexuality has changed, as has our comfort with depictions of same-sex intimacy in media. I fully expected Radcliffe to confirm some of these expectations and in some respects it has. Its understanding of homosexuality, expressed at the end of the novel by the protagonist in a courtroom testimony, is outdated, cringe-worthy, and bordering on homophobic and sexist. Through the the protagonist, Storey describes homosexuality as an artistic love superior, rather than equal, to heterosexuality; that it is an uniquely masculine love that is responsible for law, art, politics, and religion. (Depending on your view of these four domains of society, that might not be counted as a virtue.) It’s an unfortunate scene that is both harmful and unnecessary to the story. However, because it comes up at the end of the story and plays only a small role in the conclusion, I am somewhat willing to overlook it for the sake of the excellent story that precedes it.

Early events in the novel also suffer from it use old gender-related stereotypes often attributed to gay men. The two men, Leonard Radcliffe and Victor Tolson, are opposites of each other. Leonard is affluent and effeminate, while Victor is working class and masculine. This theme is established early in the novel, when the two characters are school children, and unfortunately relies on old stereotypical assumptions about queer men but this is thankfully a minor problem and is ameliorated by how it expands on this theme later in the plot. Their differences, both social and personal, create conflict between the two men, who feel very different about their attraction to each other because of their class status and personal motivations. This is where the gender theme become more relatable. Leonard has the freedom to be more motivated to embrace his sexuality because his femininity makes him stand out, whereas Victor’s masculinity allows him to pass for straight and fit more inconspicuously into heternormative social group. Leonard’s affluence also buffers him against the impact of discrimination and stigma, whereas Victor can easily lose his livelihood and any future opportunities if his sexuality becomes known. Storey never goes too deeply into this theme but it works with the tragic structure of the story.

The romance between Leonard and Victor is fraught with conflict and their sexual tension is often borders on sado-masochistic. Their first sexual encounter is quite sweet, as they share a bed during a cold night. Naturally, their encounters become more sexual as the plot progress and Storey handles these scenes in an compelling manner. Sex isn’t exactly an easy thing to describe in fiction without it coming across as “porny” but Storey’s poetic prose effectively avoids this and enhances the eroticism of these scenes.

The plot focuses mostly on human horror but occasionally strays into a suggestive kind supernatural terror, similar to the ambiguous tone of Shirley Jackson’s stories. While there are no ghosts or monsters, Leonard perception of reality is occasionally distorted in a strange manner that seems to be linked to his family’s decaying ancestral home. It works in a brilliantly unnerving way and is perfectly supported by Storey’s elegant, poetic prose. It also never undermines the human horror, which is consistently effective throughout the novel. To contemporary readers, these plots twists may not be quite as capable of surprising or shocking as they once were but they are genuinely disturbing, provided that you care for the characters and their fates like I did. Storey finds a good balance between the uncanny and the horrific reality of human cruelty. I only wish that he had given the uncanny elements more weight towards the conclusion of the novel, where a more enigmatic ending would have felt more appropriate than the anti-climactic scene in the courtroom.

Radcliffe is a beautifully written and intriguingly told gothic tale about unrequited love. As a gay man, it was hard for me not to find the romantic and erotic elements very compelling. For all of it horrific and beatific merits, Radcliffe is marred by outdated attitudes towards gender and sexual orientation but, while these problems cannot be ignored, they never quite rob the narrative of it power. Despite its shortcomings, I found it a rewarding read and particularly enjoyed the novel’s poetic prose, moody atmosphere, and effective eroticism.

 

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R.I.P. Pete Burns

The sudden death of singer and Dead or Alive front-man Pete Burns struck me hard when I first read about it this morning. Not only has his music brought great joy to my life, his brave defiance of gender norms was a crucial source of inspiration for me when I was a teenager.

tumblr_nh7u1qg9cx1rl00x0o1_500I first discovered Pete Burns and Dead or Alive in 2006, not long after I came out as a gay man and was beginning to struggle with my gender identity. I grew up in the 1990’s with few examples of queer people in the media. Gay men and women were only beginning to creep into our collective comfort zones but representation was still strictly limited. Consequently, gender variant people were practically non-existent in popular media of any kind. Unlike many of my peers, I saw no one like myself in the media, and felt acutely lost when I struggled to make sense of my gender. What I felt I was and wanted to be did not seem to exist outside of myself. Seeing Pete Burns’s androgynous appearance was like a light in the darkness. He set me on a path of self-discovery and, ultimately, self-acceptance.

Over the years I have gotten used to hearing Dead or Alive dismissed as a “one hit wonder” and Pete Burns’s personal appearance ridiculed but I am deeply grateful to see how many people fondly remember him and his music. His music will always have a special place in my heart, not only for the simple aesthetic joy it has brought me, but for the strength he gave me during a period of great personal change.

My Life So Far

When I think back upon my twenty-seven years of life two things come to mind.  Oh, dear god, I’m nearly thirty!  and the fact that I have been living openly as a gay and gender-fluid person for a full decade now.  The last ten years have not been easy but I count them among my happiest yet because I was able to live them as myself.

Often a Mistress but Never a Bride

When I look back on my love life prior to meeting my husband I cannot help feeling uneasy about discussing it. My love life was almost void of physical interactions yet it was filled with emotionally intense interactions that shaped how I perceived and evaluated myself. My first boyfriend lived many miles away and over the seven months of our relationship (and the year of strained friendship that followed) we only spent three weeks within touching distance. A friend of mine at the time dismissed it, insisting that the distance did not make it a real relationship, but despite my friend’s objection, it felt very real to me. We were emotionally involved and committed to a relationship, even if it was primarily long distance and dramatically shortened by mutual discontent. It may not seem like much to other people but these experiences have had a significant impact on my life. Strangely, it was the lack of activity in my love life was a part of a more complex and personally painful problem.

I got off to a slow start. I wanted to date more than anything after I came out but I was rather shy about. The internet helped to compensate for my social anxiety and connected me to many people I would never have known without it. However, even as I was making friends, I wasn’t having much luck meeting guys and it was largely due to my purposefully androgynous appearance. I did not fit the masculine type these men wanted. That I preferred to wear skirts instead of pants was enough of a reason to reject me outright. This kind of rejection is always painful to me and has frequently intensified my gender dysphoria. On a number of occasions, I was bluntly told, “If I wanted to date a woman, I wouldn’t be gay.” The fact that I was and intend to remain physically male did not make a difference to them.

My first boyfriend was not exception. He liked me at first and flattered me with many compliments but all throughout our short relationship he frequently tried to turn me into the kind of man he actually wanted. He openly told me that he thought I wasn’t cute enough and discouraged me from wearing women’s clothing. f course, he wasn’t always as mean as this and we had our good times but our problems never went away. It became increasing clear to me that he would never accepted for for what I am and this hurt me considerably because I sincerely believed there would be no one else for me. The pain became so bad that I started cutting myself, punishing myself for not being the person he wanted me to be, and even spent two nights under psychiatric observation after I stabbed myself with an X-Acto knife.

The only men (apart from my ex) who expressed an earnest desire for me were what are colorfully known as “tranny chasers.” These are men who are specifically attracted to transgender women or crossdessing men. At the time, I thought little of it. I was young, inexperienced, and eager to make a connection. Their attention gratified my need to feel attractive and wanted by men but interacting with these men quickly became unsatisfying and even humiliating.

Our interactions were pretty simple. They would send me a message, complementing my appearance and bluntly asking for pictures or for an exchange erotic emails. I was young and assumed this was typical for gay men. After a while, it became clear to me that the exchange was unequal, tilted forever in their favor because I was eager to gratify their desires for the mere promise of reciprocity. Many of these men became hostile when I refused to continue with these types of communications and several harassed me online for months afterward. (That’s in addition to the daily onslaught of harassing messages I got at the time from perfect strangers on social networking sites.) One man, in particular, pursued me for more than year. Of all the men I interacted with online, he was the only man I ever met in person or slept with. I took his consistent interest as a positive sign and, fortunately for me, he turned out to be very nice. Even when I broke promises to meet him again, he never became hostile or angry. However, as nice as he was, his interests were still exclusively sexual and was, to me, just one of many reminders of my undesirability. I was the mistress and nothing more to these men, without much hope of ever becoming the bride.

When I talked to a few of my friends about these experiences, they encouraged me to take it as a compliment. To be honest, I dearly wanted to take it as a compliment. To some extent it was nice, as sex often is for many people, but at the end of the day, it was all that I had or felt that I could expect. The inevitable disappointment this type of sexual contact entailed haunted me every day but I could not entirely draw myself away from it because my loneliness always returned. Although I stopped interacting with “tranny chasers,” I still sought out casual sexual encounters. Since I lived with my family at the tome, could’t drive, and had little money, I rarely ever met any of men with whom I made plans. When I look back now, I’m glad my circumstances had prevented me from taking on easy hookups. At the time it frustrated me but I do not doubt that the alternative would have been much worse.

Memories of my sexual past still evoke some pain but the wounds I once carried with me have healed. Time can heal some wounds but love is by far the stronger remedy and I found that with me husband. He gave me all the things I had always wanted but could never get from other men—romance! He took me to restaurant and bars, gave me gifts and introduced me to his friends. He wasn’t embarrassed to be seen with me. For the first time, I felt genuinely and completely appreciated and loved. He did not make me feel ashamed of my appearance as my first boyfriend had but embraced it. Before I met him I did not think I would ever find such a person, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have him in my life. With him by my side, I can finally close an unhappy chapter in my life and live as I always wanted to, a valid person worthy of love.

Our Second Wedding Anniversary

DSC02131Today my husband and I are celebrating our second wedding anniversary. It also happens to be the fifth anniversary of our first date. It’s a great convenience having only to remember one date for two significant events in our lives. It wasn’t entirely intentional either, as it was the earliest time we could schedule or civil ceremony following the repeal of Prop 8.

Our civil ceremony was very simple. We went down to our local courthouse, alone and without any friends or family, and tied the knot. Some of our family members were upset by our not arranging a ceremony but having one was both beyond our means at the time and not the most appealing option.

Speaking for myself, I’m not one for elaborate ceremony. They make me nervous. Nevertheless, I do somewhat regret having the opportunity the throw the bouquet. I can just imagine my best friend shouting at me from the crowd of our friends and family, “Gene, you’re not supposed to aim!”

For my husband, our civil ceremony holds a special meaning. His maternal grandparents both served during World War II and got married as soon as they could after the war. They weren’t even officially discharged from service and went to the courthouse in their uniforms; and since they had come alone, a witness (an old man who hung around the courthouse precisely for this reason) was provided. Coincidentally (or perhaps providentially), their wedding anniversary also falls on July 23rd.

They marriage didn’t require much to be special and that’s how my husband and I felt about ours. We love each other utterly and we felt confident about our future together pretty early on in our relationship. My sister-in-law frequently makes beeping noise and announces them as the “perfect relationship alert” whenever she observes us being affectionate towards each other. I don’t think she’s far off. I could not have asked for a more supportive and understanding husband.

My androgynous appearance and preference for women clothing, rather the conventionally appropriate dress for my sex, was a problem for my first boyfriend and frequently discourage a number of homosexual men from ever considering me seriously as a partner. My husband, on the other hand, appreciates my sense of style and finds it compelling for many reasons. My husband had not been very lucky in love either and fear, as a result of too many disappointments, that he would never find anyone who could tolerate him.

Even as same-sex marriage has been universally legalized throughout the US, it remains a controversial topic—even among queer people. Some reject it as a symbol of middle class values and the perpetuation of systemic power structures while others regard it as meaningful expression of their commitment and a necessary legal provision.

Personally, I do not regard civil marriage, as it currently exists, as the final or best form. Marriage should not be the means to gaining citizenship, healthcare, or financial support. We can and should do more to provide for the fundamental needs of all citizens. With the current health care system in place, we making important stride towards fulfilling these ideals but we still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, civil marriage establishes a necessary legal relationship between two individuals. It makes your spouse you next of kin and gives them the responsibility for making medical decisions when you cannot. While these privileges can be given through wills and advanced directives, it is convenient to have them specified in one legal document. For queer individuals without supportive families, this legal provision can be of consequence. Civil marriage won’t solve many of the social problems affecting queer people but neither will it’s abolition.

Of course, there are those who oppose same-sex marriage on the unreasonable notion of heterosexual superiority but those opinions are hardly worth discussion here, as they have been so widely discredited by intellect far greater than myself.

My attitude toward civil marriage is fundamentally practical and pragmatic. Aside from certain legal provisions and rights, I demand little else. The rest is between my husband and my self, the love we feel for one another and the life we intend to share together.

Gender Pronouns

CrispSeveral of my friends and family have asked me whether I mind being addressed as ma’am or in the feminine by strangers. The answer is no. While I tend to use masculine pronouns, I feel comfortable using or being addressed by either pronouns. This is why I describe my gender identity as fluid/androgynous. This does not mean that pronouns are unimportant to me but rather that they are two facets of my self identity.

Even as a child I wasn’t perturbed when people mistook me for a girl and I still don’t react that way. I actually rather enjoy it. 🙂

The Simple Joys of Maidenhood

My androgynous appearance has a funny way of bringing out the worst in some people. Ever since I came out during my senior year of high school and began dressing flamboyantly (or wearing dresses, make-up, etc.), I have frequently encounter harassment from strangers. For the most part, I can cope with it–as I have very supportive friends and family–but I must confess that it does rather get to me, especially when it occurs frequently or when the threats are violent or made by groups of persons. Humor has often been my coping mechanism and it is with a humorous perspective that I see many of the encounters I have had, with special exception to the violent threats I have received.

*  *  *

A while ago I crossed paths with two young boys who live in my neighborhood. I was on my way to a grocery store when the older of the two called after me, “You look like a guy.” I turned around and replied, “That’s because I am one.” The other boy, in a smart tone, said, “But you’re wearing a purse?!” I replied, with a grin and a flourish of the hand, “That’s because I like it.” Their curiosity seemed to be satisfied and I went on my way.

I have found that my ambiguous appearance (I think my sex is dead obvious but, then again, I have insider information) brings out a peculiar and frequently embarrassing side of people. They gawk, comment, and talk behind my back. It has been a long time since I have felt ashamed, humiliated, or intimidated by these incidents, largely because most of these people apparently have no talent for public ridicule.

When I was active on public social networking websites (you-know-where) I would receive nasty insults by private message. One writer compared my appearance to Michael Jackson’s but I fail to recognize the resemblance. After all, I have a larger nose.

Others have called out to me from their moving cars, rendering their intended insults rather weak and inaudible. It is very difficult to feel threatened or even insulted when my offender comes and goes in a flash. On one occasion a Spanish-speaking woman called out, “puta,” a word which means “whore.” I’m not sure why she assumed I would know the language but she is fortunate that I at least knew that one; otherwise her message would have gone nearly unnoticed and possibly misunderstood as mad ravings.

Those who have chosen to speak behind my back, oftentimes on the bus, attempt to discuss my sex covertly. They lean in to each other and whisper, making a scene of themselves as they attempt swift glances back at me or as they pass me in the aisle. It amazes me how much people will say as long as they think they are unheard. My partner has given stern looks to several bus gawkers and talkers. One woman even approached me after taking a series of photographs of me with her camera phone (I would have said something if I had only known for certain that she was photographing me) and asked me if I had any tampons. I politely responded with an informative, “No.”

There was even one occasion where I was insulted directly over the phone. A man who messaged me online gave me his phone number. Curious, I decided to give him a call and when he answered all that he said was, “Don’t call me again you fucking fag.” I did as he bid me, which was fine by me anyway, and proceeded to write his number on bathroom stall walls whenever the opportunity arose. Nowadays I would never do this but at the time it amused me immensely.

Still, of all the perplexed people I have encountered, those I find the funniest are those men who look bewildered when they see me leaving the men’s restroom and have to check the door again before they can enter with their senses intact. Attendants at Ross have consistently called after me as I casually enter the men’s fitting room, frantically informing me that I am going the wrong way. I am not at all upset by this and will gladly use the women’s facilities but it can become a bit annoying being frequently told I don’t know where I am going.