restricted access Queer Formalism As "Queer Form"
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Queer Formalism As "Queer Form"

In my mind, what is queer about form is not form itself, but a special relation to it. Queers' desire for form: a queer formalism, you might say.

In Hilton Als's magical book The Women, one of the "women" he discusses is not queer. Or is she? The chapter on Dorothy Dean begins with her funeral, in which the mourners were "white and, for the most part, gay."1 Dean, Als writes, was "a cynosure" in the influential white gay "demimonde" of the 1960s and 1970s. She was "a member of the Lavender Brotherhood" of Harvard-educated GWMs, a whip-smart "fag hag" back when that term had currency and meaning, when it was not dismissible, or merely suspect.2 Dean wasn't gay, but she seemed queer. In many ways, Dean was queerer than "her" gays: "They could always go home again; Dorothy wouldn't."3 Why wouldn't Dean go home again? Als suggests why:

The principal attraction between Dean and the gay men she had begun to seek out in Cambridge was language, but language as a tool to obscure intimacy and enforce distance. […] Dean and her male companions tried to communize their language of isolation through academic study and drinking parties, but at its core this language was noncommunicative, since it had been cultivated in their childhood rooms, where books and an interest in aesthetics supplied the metaphors that approximated their feelings but could not describe them or be made to express them.4

Als positions "Dean and the gay men" of Cambridge as members of a "brotherhood" by their shared language—a language that was, paradoxically, "noncommunicative, since it had been cultivated in their childhood rooms." But, paradoxically or not, it was a language—or, more precisely, a special relationship to language—that they shared nonetheless, one they "tried to communize," this language of "isolation" and "aesthetics."

The question of queer form, then, is a question about what is distinctive about the queer longing for form—maybe any kind of form—which, according to Als, originated in the "childhood rooms" where queerness [End Page 274] was "cultivated" as a relation to form. The language of isolation became a paradoxically special bond. The pre—Stonewall antisocial thesis that Als implies here includes non-gay but racially, sexually, and culturally queer subjects like Dean, who refused the comforts of heteronormativity and shared a special relationship to language as formal. Language as noncommunicative indexes the misfit pleasures in aesthetic misconnection within this pre—Stonewall queer world. According to Als, this structure of feeling originated in childhood rooms and ended in "an interest in aesthetics" that paradoxically belied the promise to represent queer longings. Here, aesthetics could neither adequately "describe" nor "express" queer feelings, even as it sublimated them sublimely, sometimes scandalously, as in the story of Dorothy Dean.

If there is a queer relation to form, it would be this tenuous, historically contingent, paradoxical connection to aestheticized self-dispossession and aesthetic self-cultivation as one of the elite dispossessed in a pre—Stonewall lifeworld. According to Als, Dean, much more than "her" "gays," paid a real price for this refusal to relate to language in the proper (sexual, social, cultural) ways. The form of her life was queer, because she insisted on a sustained attachment to a queer relation to social language—language that was aestheticized, noncommunicative, but shared nonetheless. Back then, we wouldn't have it any other way.

Octavio R. González

OCTAVIO (TAVI) GONZÁLEZ is Assistant Professor of English and queer studies at Wellesley College, and is currently revising his book manuscript, tentatively titled Misfit Modernism: Intersections of Double Exile in the Early Twentieth Century. His work appears or is forthcoming in Modern Fiction Studies, Cultural Critique, and ARIEL. He has written on transatlantic Modernism, queer literature, and representations of HIV/AIDS and queer sexual risk. Hisfirst collection of poetry, The Book of Ours (2009), was selected for the Letras Latinas chapbook series at the University of Notre Dame.


1. Hilton Als, The Women (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998), 67.

2. Als quotes another figure from this period, Penny Arcade...