All month long, Buddies is hosting a blog salon with some our favourite writers and artists responding to one question: How do I connect with my queer heritage? Follow the conversation on our blog, or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #GayHeritageProject. Here’s an entry from our friend and regular contributor to Xtra’s History Boys, Michael Lyons.
Merry Men: Homosociality, fandom and queer readings
As an awkward, closeted child-turned-adolescent, I was constantly seeking out stories of friendship and love between guys around my age. I devoured books about young men living together and going on adventures. The likes of Canadian young adult author Gordan Korman’s Bruno and Boots series comes to mind: novels about Bruno Walton and Melvin “Boots” O’Neal, two troublemaking roommates at the all-male boarding school, Macdonald Hall. Sure, Bruno and Boots had female counterparts from Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, but in my subconscious the real relationship was between these two young guys.
This was childish fancy in comparison to my introduction to something called fandom. Wikipedia eloquently defines fandom as:
a term used to refer to a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest. Fans typically are interested in even minor details of the object(s) of their fandom and spend a significant portion of their time and energy involved with their interest, often as a part of a social network with particular practices (a fandom) […] (emphasis mine)
In my case, fandom was a convenient gateway drug to homosexuality. My cousin, a fellow burgeoning sexual deviant, introduced me to online Digimon yaoi (Wikipedia: a Japanese popular term for female-oriented fictional media that focus on homoerotic or homoromantic male sexual relationships) fandom. I was enthralled and terrified with the thought that there were people who cared enough about fictional characters’ fictionally gay relationships to create art (fanart) and stories (fanfiction) about them.
This was actually my introduction to the idea that same-sex relationships were even an option, which probably says a lot about me (read: nerd). Same-sex love in the abstract, dreamed up mostly by women, packaged as perversely cutesy-romantic, with sub-dom dynamic a lot of the time. As I grew into myself and came out, the fervent, obsessive nature of these online fandom communities always fascinated to me.
Fandom is a modern form of transposing queer readings onto our otherwise heterosexist culture; works of art and media with little to no LGBT representation. This is not a new phenomenon. In his seminal work, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, author and historian Graham Robb explores historical traditions of queer readings; in essence, proto-fandom.
For example, Robb looks at interpretations of Jesus Christ as a queer-messiah (think about it, an unmarried man of extreme wisdom traveling around with 12 other men). Homosexual readings Christ were well documented, which includes his “beloved disciple,” and illustrations of “eunuchs” (read: androgynes or homosexuals). Enlightenment-age writer and art critic Denis Diderot wrote, “[…] if Christ, at the wedding at Cana, tipsy and a little nonconformist, had run his eye over the breasts of a harlot and the buttocks of Saint John, wondering whether or not he would remain faithful to the apostle whose chin bore the first wispy growth of beard,” which imagines Christ as a wholly human figure, aroused by androgyny, free from repressive religiosity.
Robb explores a similar narrative cycle of a man leading devoted, loving followers in anarchistic do-gooding. Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire, first published in 1883, synthesized a number of tales of the titular outlaw and his Merry Men into a single children’s book. The delightful tales offer a homosocial world ripe for good queer readings.
Pyle begins the novel explaining that, on his way to an archery competition in Nottingham, Robin ran afoul of a group of foresters. An altercation left one dead, killed by the expert archer our goodly Robin. Traumatized by the murder he had committed, he becomes an outlaw with a bounty on his head: “But Robin Hood lay hidden in Sherwood Forest for one year, and in that time there gathered around him many others like himself, cast out from other folk for this cause and for that.” The story goes on to explain how Robin’s Merry Men join him to escape crimes similar to his, or abuses of power and corruption: “[…] all, for one cause or another, had come to Sherwood to escape wrong and oppression.”
Pyle’s Robin creates a homosocial world of outsiders with nary a woman in sight. The Merry Men are affectionate, intimate; they essentially create an all-male commune homosexual in all but name, with Robin as their well renowned, hunky leader. The stories’ queer bent may not be intentional, but to a queer reader it’d be hard to put aside. Rife with (b)romantic instances, in one of the later chapters Robin is attempting to escape the oppressive forces of the Bishop of Hereford. Alone, after a day of exhausting, cunning efforts, Robin takes a bed at an inn, strips down and falls into a heavy sleep. The rest of the inn fills up because of a storm, so when a traveling friar seeks out a room, he’s told he’ll have to share a bed with a cobbler (our disguised outlaw):
When he came to the room where he was to sleep he held the light over Robin and looked at him from top to toe; then he felt better pleased, for, instead, of a rough, dirty-bearded fellow, he beheld as fresh and clean a lad as one could find in a week of Sundays; so, slipping off his clothes, he also huddled into the bed, where Robin, grunting and grumbling in his sleep, made room for him.
To anyone who has ever climbed in bed with a sleeping lover, it’d be hard to imagine this passage without sexy undertones.
Robb’s Strangers culminates with this theme of queer readings, exploring the life of the world’s most famous (fictional) detective. Few couples compare to the domestic bliss and professional adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his life partner, Dr. John Watson. The fandom surrounding this homoromantic duo (and especially modern interpretations of them, like the BBC’s ongoing, referentially homoromantic Sherlock series) warrants entire books written about them… or maybe entire blogs.
Last year while out shopping with a friend and fellow queer, he bought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s complete Sherlock Holmes on a whim. We went back to his house and took turns reading chapters from A Study In Scarlet, Doyle’s introduction to Holmes and Watson.
We giggled like the fanboys we are when we read the passage: “My companion [Holmes] flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty.” Again, the stories are rife with these instances, which has not escaped the notice of readers, both historical and modern. My friend continued on with the series, and the homo-tastic BBC show, and his growing obsession for Sherlock-fandom inspired a Tumblr blog, Sherlock Homo (yesobviously.tumblr.com), now full of quotes from the books, among extensive Sherlock fandom-culture, and with significant followers.
Homosociality breeds homosexual fantasy, and to queer readers throughout history my experience delving into my sexual desires through these types of readings is a shared way of exploring queer desire. Even in a society constructed for heteros, we find a way to survive, express ourselves, and thrive by subverting culture. As a young queer I connected with my queer heritage by exploring my desires through fandom-queer readings. Fandom is simply a delightfully perverse modern extension of deeply routed queer literary expression.