Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Queer Children: Losing What’s Been Lived?

I’ve found Judith Butler’s theory on melancholia and it’s relation to gender, sexuality, and gender performativity as outlined in “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification” useful in some of my own research on queer children in literature. Bryn Mawr’s Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowship program gave me the opportunity to spend a summer investigating female orphans (who I determined to be queer, both in terms of their non-normativity and their homosexuality) in children’s literature. I found a fascinating pattern in texts such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy of queer orphans having to inevitably orphan their own queerness by the text’s conclusion. In this model, queer adults in the child’s life help her to orphan this queerness, and this abandonment serves a redemptory and straightening function for both child and adult. Such a reading opens up many questions, and one that I’ve been grappling with is: what happens to this orphaned queerness? Does it truly disappear, or are there residual effects of queerness? Butler might argue that the newly found heterosexuality at the end of these texts is contingent upon the orphaned queerness which has actually now been internalized.

But this potential answer then stirs up some questions that came up for me when reading her essay regarding both the when of melancholy and the what (if anything) that precedes melancholy. Butler describes gender melancholy as something that is “repeated and ritualized” (250), suggesting that melancholy is continual and always happening; like gender performance itself, melancholy is never done, but rather must always be happening to maintain the illusion of true and static heterosexuality. But when does gender melancholy begin? Is there an origin? (We know Butler is wary of origins.) Does melancholy always necessitate the loss of an “unlived [homosexual] possibilit[y]” (249), or is it feasible for this “possibility” to be “lived” and then lost?

Children (real or fictional) are an apt example of how this latter scenario might occur. When behavior that is indicative of homosexuality or alternative gendered identification is suspected, brutal projects that aim to discipline gender (and its presumed accompanying sexuality) are often carried out on the level of family, school, community, and/or society. Whether in texts or on our playgrounds or in tabloids, gender performance and its possible implications panic those powers that mandate and naturalize heterosexuality, and extreme measures are often taken to “straighten” children out.

When these projects are what you might call “successful,” at least to a degree—and I argue that they are in my aforementioned research—they are only successful after there was a “lived” experience of homosexuality. These “lived possibilities” become impossible futures, but how might the fact that they were lived to begin with alter this concept of gender melancholy? What might it say about the when of gender melancholy that they can be lived to an extent in the first place, particularly during the time of childhood?

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