Pruitt, John. “Heterosexual Readers in Search of Queer Authenticity through Self-Selected LGBT Novels.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 42.4 (2015): 359-74. Web. 16 Aug. 2015.
John Pruitt builds on questions raised by his experiences as a member of a gay men’s book club as well as by discussions with heterosexual students about a novel depicting the struggles of a gay Latino character. Positing that critical awareness of a text and its relationship to culture can be strengthened by seeing how that text functions for different audiences, and hoping to understand how students respond to difference before teachers frame their classroom analyses, Pruitt received a grant to conduct a case study of eight heterosexual students as they read and discussed novels by LGBT authors that addressed LGBT issues. Central to the students’ interactions with the texts was the issue of “authenticity,” which Pruitt, quoting Dana L. Fox and Kathy G. Short, defines as “the reader’s sense of truth in how a specific cultural experience has been represented” (qtd. in Pruitt 364). Pruitt concludes that a focus on authenticity can lead to essentialized responses to difference (372).
In Pruitt’s view, extant approaches to teaching LGBT literature emphasize the teacher’s role. They include assigning LGBT readings and carrying out discussions with LGBT individuals outside of the classroom (360). Critics of assigning readings in hopes of undercutting homophobia contend that such strategies leave untouched the oppression inherent in heterosexual cultural norms. Similarly, Pruitt’s sources argue, book clubs, which are often made up of middle-class white women, reinforce rather than help to dissolve current norms (360). However, other theorists defend the use of literature to “inspire both large-scale political action and less precarious face-to-face interpersonal interactions” (360).
In his effort to gain insight into the efficacy of LGBT literature for students encountering difference, Pruitt drew on members of the Sigma Kappa Delta English Honor Society, the “national English honor society for two-year institutions,” of which he is the sponsor. The eight students agreed to meet monthly in 2013-2014 to discuss novels they chose on LGBT issues. Pruitt wished to see how the students reacted to the novels without a teacher’s intervention; he did not attend the discussions but video-recorded them (361).
The group consisted of three white males, three white females, one African American female, and one Latino male (361). Asked what they “hoped to learn,” the students cited their desire for knowledge about gay experience within their own cultures, their concern about gays enduring oppression in other cultures, and their interest in understanding how stereotypes might have affected their perceptions (361-62). Quoting Pat Hutchings, Pruitt emphasizes that he focused on the research question “what is,” which “aimed not so much at proving (or disproving) the effectiveness of a particular approach or intervention but at describing what it looks like, what its constituent features might be” (qtd. in Pruitt 362; emphasis original).
The books selected by the students included historical fiction, “military novels,” novels from a range of cultures such as small-town culture in the United States, skinhead culture in England in the 1970s, Gypsy culture, the culture of Chinese prostitution rings, and gang culture in the Bronx. A novel about early twentieth-century artist Tamara de Lempicka depicted her relationship with a female model (363).
In their discussions, some of which became lively, students interrogated a number of themes and issues. The different levels of support for gays in different environments afforded opportunities to explore perceptions of sexual identity across race and ethnic boundaries, with attention to the role the understanding of family plays in a given community (368-69). Some of the characters, the students noted, chose to create “alternative families” when needed support was missing (368). Several of the novels inspired discussions of the definition of masculinity; one student noted that violence was often brought to bear in the novels in an apparent belief that a gay individual could be “toughen[ed] . . . up” by “beat[ing] the manliness into him” (“Keaton,” qtd. in Pruitt 366). The contradictions exposed by the depiction of a “gay skinhead” (365) and a “thug type” who was gay (“Frank,” qtd. in Pruitt 370) led to investigations of “shifting subject positions in which the identity marker of ‘homosexuality’ becomes both politicized and destabilized” (366). In one discussion, students noted that the very state of being different allowed the characters to imagine possibilities other than the difficult situations they found themselves in (369).
Such contradictions were among the factors that led to recurrent concerns about “authenticity.” The students questioned some of the more extreme elements in some of the novels and noted that some depictions did not match what they felt they had observed in their own culture (367-68, 371). Pruitt explores their “search for the elusive authenticity of LGBT life and culture” (371), noting their expectation that members of a community will depict that community reliably. Students intending to write and teach felt that knowing members of minority communities would be vital if they were to represent and teach about those communities (370). Quoting James Graham, Pruitt notes the value of “realistic” literature in “mak[ing] minority identities knowable to a majoritarian audience” (qtd. in Pruitt 371).
However, Pruitt cites Ana Maria Sanchez-Arce’s term authenticism to posit that the need for authenticity can lead to an essentialized portrayal (372), in which the depictions of a culture earn their authenticity by subsuming differences among members within a “reflection of the values, attitudes and worldviews considered worthy of acceptance by members of that culture as a whole” (364; emphasis original). This qualification leads Pruitt to question the authenticity of depictions of heterosexual culture, and he urges teachers to incorporate investigations of these depictions in their classrooms (372). He responds to the possibility that awareness that they were being recorded may have been shaping the students’ responses: even so, he posits, their concerns about authenticity mean that critical attention to the concept should be central to any classroom discussion about LGBT fiction (371).