I’ve come to think of Boystown as a ghetto, especially upon reading Guillaume Dustan’s semi-autobiographical novel, “Dans ma chamber”. He describes the neighborhood where he lives in such a manner as to render it nearly indistinguishable from, say, Boystown: the economics of his neighborhood revolve around hair and tanning salons, bars and nightclubs, sex clubs, and posh restaurants. In this space, he muses tellingly, one can do almost anything, except work or bring family. In other words, this is a ghetto organized around consumption–of drugs, alcohol, sex, fashion, and overly-priced “haute cuisine”. This is, in no small measure, a very strange ghetto.
How then are we to understand gay enclaves–by which I mean those spaces politically or socially (or both) recognized/designated as “officially” gay-centric–as being ghettos? We are familiar with the term in the wake of the Final Solution as a site of an earthly Limbo where Jews, stripped of citizenship rights and robbed of their possessions, awaited deportation to death camps. In American political discourse we typically refer to such spaces as under-resourced, inner-city areas usually populated by racial minorities. But, perhaps we should look further in history, to the original ghetto in Venice, for an understanding of the sense in which Dustan uses this appellation self-referentially. We know well from Shakespeare’s tragic portrayal of the hostilities that colored Jewish/Gentile relations that Jews were money-lenders, as Gentiles were forbidden (by religious edict) from borrowing money from one another. Metaphorically speaking at least, one left the city of Venice “proper” to transact what would otherwise be sacrilegious. Restated: the ghetto in its original iteration is a place outside of what is proper, where one can transact what inside the city walls would be illicit business.
I think it is this valence that the ghetto carries, as a space “outside” the walls of normalcy where illicit business can be transacted, that may account for Dustan’s characterization. The play on the “proper”/”improper” that the French Freudian feminist Sarah Kofman deploys is alive (as it were) in the dynamics of this scene: organized around an economics of impropriety–after all, sex is _THE_ unspeakable (which is spoken most fervently)–that is perversely proper in its carriage; the extent to which Boystown is a ghetto is reflected in the propriety of its impropriety. We may even say that, like the ghetto of Venice, Boystown is structured in such a way that it is necessarily a ghetto: a place where “legitimate” business can be transacted with “illegitimate” partners.
Of course, this resonates on a full harmonic scale: gay sex is “proper”, but those who have it are “improper”; dancing with multiple men is proper, but only amidst the impropriety of a gay nightclub, ect, ect. Thus, Boystown, quite apart from offering a space for queers to move unrestricted, is a necessary locale for straight people: it is a site of impropriety, that, not unlike Venice’s ghetto, serves, ultimately, the privileged class: Boystown is the geographical con-tainer of psycho-sexual-pharmacological vice which can be safely entered, and swiftly disavowed.
What then of the status of those for whom this very impropriety _IS_ proper, that is, the queers who more or less claim this space as their own in spite of the fact that it is becoming increasingly over-run by young, upwardly-mobile professional straights (YUPpieS)? Or, rather, and more to the point: what is it that the queers in Boystown appropriate as their own? Here, again, I think we see Dustan’s justified characterization of his Parisian neighborhood as a ghetto when we recall Shylock’s famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech:
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? if we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should he sufferance be by a Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
While wildly provocative and controversial, we can take Shakespeare’s main point to be the assertion Shylock makes throughout regarding the transmittable status of cultural norms: we are no different than you, he declares, and your villany, too, is our villany, which you taught us. I think it wise to read this passage as both a lamentation and a wrathful damnation. The sadness that plagues Shylock is, no doubt, his despair that he has no choice but to move in this hierarchically arranged relationship (the proper/improper); while, on the other side of the same coin, his lust for revenge is equally born of this resignation. In Lacanian terms, Shylock pursues the “jouissance” of a lost equality which he literalizes in biological likeness, and thus, in no uncertain terms, this accounts for his undoing. (Importantly, and no doubt the brilliant ambiguity of the Shylock figure, the “bios” of the Jew _AND_ gentile may be cast in terms of precarity–the vulnerability of the body to invasion, loss of control–and here revenge, too, is an infection, a loss of bodily control: a dis-ease.)
May we not read the ghettoization of Boystown in precisely the same manner? Is not the literalization of a ghetto economy–that is, organized around “improper” transactions (bodily, monetarily, dialogically)–tantamount to speaking with the persecuted, humiliated, and marginalized Shylock: “The villany you teach me, I will execute”? To return to the prior question, “What is it that queers in Boystown appropriate as their own?” we have to ask this question against this horizon; to interrogate not just what is appropriated, but how. Shylock’s revenge, we are well served to recall, is also a revenge against himself: with his act he gives himself up and over to identification with the aggressor, the Big Other–in taking revenge Shylock becomes precisely the caricature of “The Jew” he loathes. May we now understand the ghetto that is Boystown as a necessarily _therapeutic_ space? May we now acknowledge its economy as one of that enables, supports, and sustains an active denial of the very position Shylock occupies?
At the conclusion of “Gender Trouble” Judith Butler argues for a politics of parody, a subversive transvaluation, a redeployment, of caricature into parody. Her (moving) target is juridico-discursive power’s ability to “essentialize” gendered/sexed identities (recall for Butler to speak of sex is always already to speak in the syntax of gender), to naturalize the body in a discrete binary structure; that is, to enforce the proper/improper dichotomy. Parody, she argues, is a direct assault on this ideological edifice precisely because it “queers” the dualism and she offers drag as an example of this politicized subversion: in drag “she” parodies “his” sex in “her” performative re-presentation of his “gender,” and vice versa. Dustan’s semi-autobiographical character is incapable of such a queering; he exclaims that he must leave the city if he is to survive–staying would lead him to psycho-sexual-pharmacological suicide. His inability to queer himself, and by extension, to queer the space, the gay-ghetto, may not, however, be due to a personal short-coming; it is conceivable that life in a gay ghetto is not amenable to such queering, that, as in Venice and the figure of Shylock, identity is entrenched, essentialized along a moralized binary schema of the proper/improper dualism.
At the outset of this entry I affirmed Dustan’s description of his gay neighborhood as a ghetto and it may be that precisely because he is so thoroughly assimilated into its economics that his claim has veracity; his self-reportage is _NOT_ critique, which nevertheless implicitly illuminates the very technologies of subjectivation characteristic of a ghetto. The question, then, is the extent to which a politics of parody is capable of meaningful intervention; can the ghetto overcome itself, which is to say: can the ghetto overcome a (Judeo-Christian) morality of revenge, a morality predicated on–as Nietzsche’s genealogy claims–the creditor/debtor relationship (On the Genealogy of Morals, Book II)?
Wanna join the Revolution? redeem our artistico-political potency? cultivate community? As my childhood hero, G.I. Joe, says, “Knowing is half the battle” (Foucault was a fan, too!). Buff-up your knowledge/power matrix with some of these titles carried at your Boystown Tulip:
–“Public Sex,” by Pat Califia–A series of essays on sex, politics, race, gender, and so much more. Written with fearless wit and disarming candor, Califia make reading orgasmic, and inaction impossible.
–“Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography,” by Christine Jorgensen–The engrossing narrative of Christine Jorgensen’s 1952 MtF transition, the celebrity that followed, and the battles she fought–and won. A womyn who actually lived by the words she wrote: “I don’t need anyone’s opinion; I’ve got my own.”
–“Arts and Letters,” by Edmund White–This pillar of gay intelligentsia never fails to stimulate the mind. This volume includes essays on Proust, Gide, Wilde, Joe Orton, Djuna Barnes, Genet, Foucault, James Merrill, Baldwin, and Nabokov. Also includes a devastating critique of Elton John!