Academic journal article Criticism

The Walk-In Closet: Situational Homosexuality and Homosexual Panic in Hellman's the Children's Hour

Academic journal article Criticism

The Walk-In Closet: Situational Homosexuality and Homosexual Panic in Hellman's the Children's Hour

Article excerpt

A Temporary Aberration?

Is it possible that we have ignored half of the history of homosexuality? Might we have strategically forgotten one of the most important, long-standing, and hard-fought debates in sexology - namely, whether homosexuality is congenital or acquired? This essay will argue that we have overlooked this history precisely because the basis on which many of the legal rights and protections afforded gay Americans turns on the thorny legal question of equal protection: Is homosexuality an "immutable characteristic"?1 Because conferral of this designation would make gay people eligible for special protection, queer theory has been hesitant to discuss the fraught etiological history of sexuality, focusing instead on epistemological questions. Eve Sedgwick exemplifies such wariness in relation to etiological approaches: "[G]ay-affirmative work does well when it aims to minimize its reliance on any particular account of the origin of sexual preference and identity in individuals."2 In particular, she fears that accounts of gay ontogeny are not easily divorced from "gay-genocidal nexuses of thought."3 This essay keeps this powerful caveat at its forefront, even as it argues that attending to and recovering the "plural" and "multi-capillaried" set of origins, via a reading practice that I will call "historical etiology," provides a gay-affirmative resource.4 1 want to be especially clear at the outset: I have no interest in arguing that homosexuality is either congenital or acquired, but rather my aim here is to chart a historical, scientific, and political debate (without regard to the truth of either position). Thus, I hope to highlight the high political stakes of the recent methodological debate in queer studies that asks "How to do the history of homosexuality?" as I offer my own answer to this searching question.5

The first section of this essay traces the opposition between congenital and acquired bases for sexuality, focusing on male homosexuality, in the period between Carl Westphal's "Contrary Sexual Feeling" (1870) and Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948).6 These texts demarcate the outer poles in the debate among historians of sexuality about the date of emergence of the homo/hetero binary.7 In this historical moment, male homosexuality was understood as much as a habit, vice, and addiction as a kind of personhood. Thus, I mean the forgotten "half" of homosexuality to signal both an etiological division as well as a historical chronological period. I argue that the sexological production of congenitality crucially enables the implantation of sexuality in the body and thus plays a key role in the "radical condensation of sexual categories" into homo- and heterosexuality.8 The demise of acquired modes of sexuality that I chart in this essay therefore enables the conflation of the history of sexuality and the history of congenital ity (though importantly not the history of sex). While we know that "sexuality represents a seizure of the body by a historically unique apparatus for producing historically specific forms of subjectivity," I contend that the temporality of congenital ity - its implicit always - produces the body as an especially productive site for sexual identity.9 This section aims to illustrate one of the central values of a historical etiological approach: namely, that different bases for the origin of sexuality provide different modalities for theorizing sexuality.

The second part of this essay examines the emergence of a congenital seat for lesbian sexuality, charting the uneasy historical incorporation of acquired homosexuality into the increasingly congenital and identarian sexual matrix in 1930s. Reading Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934) as positioned at the confluence between congenital and acquired understandings of sexuality, I argue that the sexual regimes of the 1930s transmute acquired homosexuality into "situational homosexuality."10 Hellman's work proves a powerful barometer of cultural attitudes about sexuality both because she is one of the most important and successful American playwrights of the past century and because her work forthrightly takes up the question of the origins of sexuality. …

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