The Torment of Queer Literature


James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room sits on my bookshelf in slim melancholy. I’ve been meaning to read it for years. I’ve been circling it, scared. Baldwin’s face is on the cover; he’s not paying attention. He doesn’t need me in the least. “Don’t read this,” my partner says when she finishes it. “At least not for a while.” When I finally do read it, I have to do it in spurts. I say “read it,” but I actually listen to most of it as an audiobook while driving down I-44 through central Missouri, one earbud in and one out, the highway a blind stretch in front of me, most of my attention in Baldwin’s Paris. In Paris, David, an American, desperately tries to avoid confronting his attraction to men, all the while having an affair with a beautiful Italian boy, Giovanni. I am on my way back from dropping my five-year-old son off at his house where he lives with his mom. I listen to the bland tones of the reader; I listen as the book begins with David’s admission of having lied to Giovanni about never before sleeping with a boy; I listen as David breaks up first with Giovanni and then with his fiancée, Hella; I listen, and I almost have a panic attack. I almost have to pull the car off the highway to keep from running it into the back of a semi.


Being queer often means being isolated. Young queers are often stranded, without communities, support structures, or resources. They make do with what they can find, and what they often find are stories: books, music, movies, a small but growing pool of cultural representation—and a chance for identification. Here, finally, we might say, is a legible queerness. Here is queerness connected to the world, rich and sad and complex. Here is queerness unlike our own oppressive environments. And look, here is queerness in Hollywood.

I often encounter people, in person and online, who believe that embracing queer cultural representation is a way of stimulating inclusion and personal fulfillment. This discourse comes up every time a piece of cinema brings queerness to a mainstream audience: Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, The Danish Girl. Representation correlates with identification, and identification is an unalloyed good, a kind of emotional rescue. People ask, Don’t you want to recognize yourself in stories? In the mirrors of narrative spaces?

But what if the only available act of identification is one of stigma and shame? Embracing queerness is often embracing abjection. Sometimes identification is loss and despair. Sometimes identification isn’t even an option.


I’m transgender. I grew up in Mexico, the homeschooled child of evangelical missionaries, amid such a scarcity of unusual creatures, queer and sexual and ambiguous creatures, that the very scarcity was almost invisible. How can you miss what you don’t know exists?

Only I did know it existed. It’s pretty much impossible, as much as my mother tried, to the exhaustion of us both, to separate sexuality from the bodily-inhabited world, even a world as narrow as mine. Censor the books, break the DVDs in half, confiscate the music, but something always gets through. I learned about deviant sexuality from a revival book. I learned about the struggle for marriage rights from a thick, printed essay my uncle wrote in support of the Anglican synod’s rejection of same-sex marriage, which I found sitting on my dad’s desk. I learned about AIDS from an HIV-positive uncle I never met, who worked for a gay conversion ministry (my mother only started talking to my aunt again when her “contagious” ex-gay husband died). I learned about other people’s perceptions of my own sexuality when a Mexican friend called me maricón—and then had to explain the word to me.

I’m not sure if I hid from God or from my parents under the covers as a twelve-year-old with my artist reference book. My mother had missed the two nude models hidden in the middle of the heavy book. The male model, whose clinically lit body I returned to again and again, had a penis that lay across his thighs like a banana. I was repulsed by it, by his entire body, and troubled by the fact that he didn’t seem be paying much attention to its existence. Why should he be able to ignore his body when I couldn’t? When your hunger is endlessly and invariably greater than the bread that you hold in your hand, do you eat the bread, or do you put it away, resentful and still hungry? And then doesn’t that hunger itself become, at least for a while, its own satisfaction?

Take my fascination with paintings of St. Sebastian, tormented for his faith, bound with ropes, writhing under arrows. His martyrdom didn’t inspire my faith in God, exactly, but it did flip my stomach over with strange hunger. When I was seven, I told my mother I wanted to be a missionary. But perhaps what I wanted was to be a saint—as long as someone else wanted to tie my hands up, stand over me, and pierce my naked body. Queer masochism? Perhaps my mother sensed this. She hid the art books from me, making my proclivity for art also suspicious, tantamount to an admission of sexual deviancy.

Under the pressure of Mexican summers, when the sun was a blind club and the air had more mass than the earth, I raged my way through adolescence, reduced, a powerless, frustrated child, developing an inwardness outside of which it felt impossible to communicate, especially over the contradicting voice of God. So under the cover of education, I read. I read Ernest Hemingway and Dante and J.R.R. Tolkien and Beowulf and Agatha Christie. I read T.S. Eliot and John Donne and Shakespeare. I read Billy Budd and E.M. Forster’s Maurice and all of Oscar Wilde. I found impossible pleasures and powerful ideas and dear friends in their pages. But not even Oscar Wilde taught me to be queer.


Near the beginning of Giovanni’s Room, David moves to Paris after almost dying in a car accident. In the name of self-discovery, and with increasing malaise, David roams the streets and hops between hotel rooms for over a year, more or less involved with Hella, a free-spirited American. While Hella’s in Spain, trying to decide if she wants to accept David’s marriage proposal, David meets Giovanni, who turns his world inside-out with a holy force. He ends up living with Giovanni in a dark, filthy room on the outskirts of Paris, a room that resists all attempts to clean or order or repair it. David eventually abandons Giovanni, a way of abandoning a future gay version of himself he’s not capable of accepting. So David deliberately bankrupts himself of love, without anything to replace it.

Identity is Giovanni’s Room’s dark and empty heart. Among all the revelations of the book, the biggest one is that self-recognition doesn’t always stabilize identity. Sometimes it shatters it.


In my first class in grad school, we read the Song of Songs, one of my favorite books of the Bible. Against the typological or explicitly heterosexual exegesis that I had previously encountered, my professor joyfully called the poem polymorphously perverse, which seemed apt but had never quite seemed like an option for language before—or for a life. It scared me. I was several years into a marriage that I had entered into while at a tiny evangelical college. By this time, despite my vows, I wasn’t monogamous; I had been secretly hooking up with men for the last few months.

After that class, I avoided feminist and queer classes. I invented in myself a kind of blindness. I doubled down on my studies and my teaching. It was like walking on a long, slippery beam over disastrous consequences. But, like Baldwin’s David, I was “one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower.” As Baldwin observes, such people “can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception.” But the deception was getting harder to keep up.

I’d come from a family and a religious practice where the Bible is read as a literal and objective truth, where hell is a pretty likely place for a queer to be cast into; now I had stumbled, almost accidentally, into a community where support for gay rights went almost without saying. But in both communities, I felt isolated. As a grad student in the liberal humanities, people assumed I had already “progressed.” But really, I only achingly accumulated conflicting selves. My queerness seemed to have no future, only ever a strangling past. Every time I hooked up with another beautiful boy, I performed an action for which the thought had not yet been allowed to manifest.

And so I lived in fear of stories.


More than God’s gaze, falling on me heavy as a stone, I was afraid that books—which I had turned to all my life more readily than prayer—would comprehend me and find me wanting; that is, they would find me in my wanting. Would comprehend my doubts and refuse to assuage them; would see my debts and refuse to annul them. The faces that rose from books were faces of stone: men dying of their desire for perfect boys; haughty and unreachable homosexuals; fierce dykes. They, too, held a yardstick in their hands, and I failed to measure up.

Queer literature offered only terror because it suggested a plasticity to life, as if one could press a thumb deep enough into the stuff of living to actually reshape it according to desire. As if one could actually live as a poet. As if one didn’t have to marry. As if one could wear makeup and dresses. I could see there were shapes other than the one my life was taking, but that didn’t feel like a freedom, it felt like destruction without remission. If I was beyond repair, queer literature could only shake the broken pieces at me in a taunting choice: either read a book like Giovanni’s Room at the risk of recognizing David’s denial and repression as my own; or read a book that celebrates queer lives and sex boldly and end up despising my own cowardice. How could I dare to see myself in a poem like Eileen Myles’s “Dear Andrea”?

I love you too
don’t fuck up my hair
I can’t believe
you almost fisted me
That was great.


In Giovanni’s Room, when David recounts his first experience of sleeping with a boy, his best friend, it is not the sleeping together that freaks him out. It’s awaking beside the boy, the bright morning light on the proximity of their bodies, that brings him fear: “The power and the promise and the mystery of that body made me suddenly afraid. That body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came.”

David finds himself an interloper to his own desires; that which can’t quite be shut out, but must be shut out, and so becomes hated and a source of shame instead of pleasure: “The very bed, in its sweet disorder, testified to vileness.”

I was more clever than David. David’s mistake was to wake up next to the boy, and risk waking up to himself. I never made that mistake. I was always out of the bed and through the door well before anyone fell asleep.


Before he meets Giovanni, David manages to stay ahead of his shame “by remaining, in effect, in constant motion.” But even his constant motion “does not prevent an occasional mysterious drag, a drop, like an airplane hitting an air pocket. And there were a number of those, all drunken, all sordid.”

Two years ago, a few months before I came out as queer, I was walking together with the friend who would become my partner. “No, come on, tell me,” she insisted. “Have you ever messed around with a guy?” We had talked about sex before, but mostly hers. I tried to say no, and couldn’t. I wanted to be honest with this friend. I felt her genuine curiosity and the complete absence of judgment. I hesitated for too long and then said, awkwardly laughing, “Ask me again when I’m drunk.”

Ask me again, so I don’t have to feel sordid anymore. Ask me when I stop walking. When I stop running.


The first time that David sees Giovanni, he realizes that he’s going to sleep with Giovanni later, and he becomes afraid. Everyone at the bar also seems to know he’s going to sleep with Giovanni, even the “transvestite” in the corner, who casually asks him, “You like him—the barman?” With unbelievable contempt and disgust, David tells the “transvestite” to go to hell. He thinks: “People said that he was very nice, but I confess that his utter grotesqueness made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs. They might not mind so much if monkeys did not—so grotesquely—resemble human beings.”

As I listened to this passage, driving in my car, my skin crawled under my knit top and makeup. In David’s refusal of the “transvestite’s” female pronouns, his reduction of her uncanny body—somewhere between man and woman—to that of a monkey, I heard my own internal self-accusations of physical obscenity and frivolity. I had a nightmarish flash-forward, to me in twenty years, alone and desperate, wearing too much makeup and hitting on strangers for company. It’s a dysmorphic but also curious sensation to look up and find yourself warped and twisted and given back to you by strange mirrors. Of course, this is also David’s experience with the “transvestite,” as he looks at an image of not-man that resembles him far too closely.

This same “transvestite” later tells him, “You will be very unhappy. Remember that I told you so.” As if David needed either a prophecy or a reminder of his own emptiness. So he finds his own hatred justified, in the face of the “transvestite’s” obscenity, and as sharp as lime on a cut. The white makeup on her face is the belly of his shame turned up like a dead fish.

Whenever David runs into what might be called the face of “queerness,” he toggles back and forth between love and hate, a dialectic that never seems to move closer to anything but more “sorrow and shame and panic and great bitterness.” David, weary with retrospection, admits that Giovanni’s “touch could never fail to make me feel desire; yet his hot, sweet breath also made me want to vomit.” David’s knowledge of his own conflict finds him a precarious place where he might say something true about his desires, his inability to love the men he loves, but it’s always too late. The whole of David’s story takes place on the knife-edge of the night of Giovanni’s execution, and however urgent David’s self-realization, it will make no difference. Giovanni will always die in the morning, and David will never exhaust his own hatred before he arrives at himself.

“But he was so beautiful,” David says, Giovanni in the past tense even before his death.

I wept at my first Pride parade, watching the drag queens, the faggots, the transwomen walk by with flags raised. “I never knew there were so many people in the world like me,” I said to my partner. But I also recognize myself in the belatedness of David’s self-realization. This identification is without consolation: never free of confusion, set against itself, and drenched in the blood of others.

This is all to say, the act of representation and the processes of identification and recognition are not—or not only, not always—cures, not guarantees of solace, or transformation. They can torment. They can be a dreadful nagging. They can make visible the high stakes of leading lives of different possibilities. They can burn behind your eyes like desire when all you want is a hot coal to cleanse your ungodly tongue that has dragged itself along so many muscled thighs, lapped the sweat of far too many men.

I haven’t found comfort in identification with queer books and their tormented, complex characters. I have found haunting and violence and failure. I avoided books about queer people for years because I thought they were going to tell me who I was, which I couldn’t have borne.

But now that I am reading gay and queer and trans literature—risking a highway accident or two along the way—I’m not asking them the question of “Who am I?” as if they carried with them some secret that I’ve been unable to answer myself. Queer literature isn’t a box to unlock so that it can unlock me. To the very end of Giovanni’s Room, to the morning of Giovanni’s death, David remains untouchable, to Hella and also to Giovanni, who he has resisted “with all [his] strength.He remains untouchable to himself, too, since he doesn’t know what his “body is searching for.” He is trapped in a mirror that he longs to “crack” and so “be free.” But he is, in a sense, touchable to me, although he doesn’t give me either love or affirmation. We can touch each other because our knowledge of each other isn’t continuous with our knowledge of ourselves. Because we know that we can’t free ourselves or each other. We don’t fully know who we are, or even quite what we are, and we know no final revelation is at hand. Queerness isn’t an identity decipherable in a text. It’s something that I desire, something never fully here, something given to me daily by those who love and name me. It’s a room somewhere slowly filling up with light.


Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.

Kelly Caldwell writes and works at Washington University in St. Louis. Their writing has been published in a number of print and online publications, including Entropy, PopMatters, MAKE Magazine, Slant, Pacific Standard Magazine, and VICE. They are the co-editor-in-chief of The Spectacle. More from this author →