Unspoken things have a tendency to indicate shame, denial or ignorance. Some topics can create tension among certain types of people, and an example of this is visible in The Line of Beauty. In this paper, I attempt to apply Sedgwick’s argument on homosexual panic to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. Also, I intend to highlight the problem of silence around homosexuality in the 1980s which was the time when the AIDS epidemic emerged. The silence that surrounds Nick Guest’s sexuality and the fact that his homosexuality is never explicitly mentioned gives insight into 1980s Britain’s view on homosexuality.
In her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, published in 1985, Eve Sedgwick gives the literary version of the term “homosexual panic.”
So-called ‘homosexual panic’ is the most private, psychologized form in which many twentieth-century western men experience their vulnerability to the social pressure of homophobic blackmail.” (Sedgwick, )
With this statement, Sedgwick argues that heterosexual men of the twentieth century are afraid of even a slight possible connection to anything that is labelled “homosexual”, and that they avoid homosociality altogether. Men build friendships with other men at a very young age and bond, however, the implication of anything sexual makes them anxious and uneasy. According to Sedgwick, men who are afraid of having their masculinity threatened feel an intense fear and panic in the face of homosexuality. This homophobia prevents men from showing and expressing their feelings for one another. In addition, it is fair to assume that men who spend time socialising with each other are the most homophobic ones.
Sedgwick, in her work “Between Men” articulates that homosociality and homosexuality’s core difference is that homosociality requires women for male-male bonding to transmit the desire, whereas homosexuality does not include women in the relationship. She also theorizes that male’s panic about homosexuality is caused by their fear of losing “male privilege.”
Sedgwick, in her work Epistemology of the Closet, places the distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality in the centre of Western culture. She states that within the homophobic structure of the Western culture, men feel obliged to assert their heterosexuality to avoid “homophobic blackmail.” The feeling of constant pressure of trying to “prove” their homosexuality to no avail make men anxious and thus lead to “homosexual panic.” Sedgwick makes the distinction between homosexual and homosocial male-bonding by calling the former “proscription” and the latter “prescription.”
The distinctive part of Sedgwick’s argument is the fact that she does not place the men who are not openly gay but all men who have not come out of “the closet” in this theory of feeling “homophobic blackmail.” According to her, men who are in a “male homosocial bond” want to assert their heterosexuality even if they are not gay.
In her famous article, “The Beast in the Closet”, Sedgwick makes her argument on the closet and Western culture’s perspective by Henry James’s short story “The Beast in the Jungle.” John Marcher, who is the protagonist of the short story, tells May Bartram that from a very early time he sensed “of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible” (James, 334). They decide to wait for “the beast” together and see what it is. As the years pass by, the two develop a strong bond and become closer while still discussing whatever it is to happen to Marcher. They decide to wait for “the beast” together and see what it is. As the years pass by, the two develop a strong bond and become closer while still discussing whatever it is to happen to Marcher. They remain friends and on her deathbed, Bartram reveals that Marcher will never know what “the beast” is and that he should be content because the event they were waiting for has happened and she has seen what “it’s not” (James, 334). In the final chapter of the story, Marcher visits Bartram’s grave; here, he makes eye contact with a man who happens to be at the cemetery as well. This eye contact makes him realize what it was he had been waiting for his entire life. The most common interpretation of this scene is Marcher having an epiphany, understanding how he wasted his life without acknowledging May’s unconditional love for him and without loving her back. James writes, “The escape would have been to love her; then, then he would have lived.” Marcher’s failure to love May appears to be the main reason for his unhappiness. Sedgwick, however, reads James’s short story from a different angle. She argues that “to the extent that Marcher’s secret has a content, that content is homosexual.” With this sentence, Sedgwick moves against the interpretation which claims that Marcher missed an opportunity by not loving May. Instead, she claims that the beast which Marcher had waited for his entire life is “homosexuality.” The interesting part of Sedgwick’s argument is that she does not insist on Marcher’s homosexuality, she suggests that the reason of Marcher’s anxiety his entire life and his panic in the final chapter is the result of the fear of his own homosexual potential.
If we read “The Beast in the Jungle” like Sedgwick, we see that Marcher uses May to be seen as a heterosexual man; admitting his sexuality, whether by saying that he does desire another male or a woman, will liberate him and free him from the homosexual panic.
In the final chapter of the story, after seeing the stranger’s face, John Marcher immediately assumes that “a woman was mourned.” Marcher, as a man who is ignorant of his own sexuality, fails to imagine the male stranger mourning for another male.
Sedgwick states that Marcher’s “secret of having a secret, functions, . . . as the closet.”(Sedgwick,) According to her, John Marcher is not necessarily a homosexual man; instead, he is a man who is afraid of not asserting his heterosexuality successfully. If one reads “The Beast in the Jungle” like Sedgwick, it can be seen that Marcher uses May to be seen as a heterosexual man; admitting his sexuality, whether by saying that he does desire another male, or that he does desire a woman will liberate him and free him from the homosexual panic.
Sedgwick argues that the rise of gay public images at the turn of the nineteenth century has caused homophobia and some people have become obsessed with trying to assert their heterosexuality. The rapid increase in homophobia brought on a decrease in male-male bonding. Even today, in the twenty-first century, there is an on-going hierarchy between heterosexuality and homosexuality. The silence around homosexuality is almost tangible.
The Line of Beauty, a 2004 novel by Alan Hollinghurst, clearly shows how homosexuals were tacitly repressed in the 1980s. It explores how gay people struggled with the prejudices against their sexuality in Conservative Britain, under the rule of Thatcher. The novel takes place in the 1980s Britain, the time when AIDS broke out. Nick Guest, the main character of the novel, is invited to stay at his friend Toby Fedden’s residence. As a young, gay man living in the house of a newly elected Tory MP, Nick has the role of a “guest” hence his surname. Although Nick felt like “a lost middle child”(Hollinghurst,) to the Feddens, his “guest” status is constantly reminded. The depiction of homophobia in the Thatcher era can be seen from the way the Feddens close their ears and eyes each and every time the issue of homosexuality is brought up. Nick, who is “The Other” in the household, cannot openly discuss or state his sexuality. Although every member of the Feddens know that he is gay, they do not talk about it but rather imply it; the tension in the household against Nick and every gay person in the country can be felt on every page of the novel.
The society has always considered homosexuality a problem and always searched for ways to punish gays and lesbians. There are innumerable cases to show this search in the history.
When the outbreak of AIDS, the alarming disease, began in the 1980s, life became even more problematic for gay people. The first AIDS victims were a gay couple, and this case caused many people in Thatcherite Britain to associate AIDS with gay men. This association of the disease brought about homophobia, and the government at the time enacted Section 28 in 1988. Margaret Thatcher and other homophobic Tory MPs considered homosexuality unacceptable and with Section 28, they vehemently opposed the promotion of homosexuality. As a woman who believed in the nuclear family, Margaret Thatcher was also known to be very conservative. Her idea of morals was strict and they did not have any place for homosexuality and bisexuality. Thus, gay men had to be silent about their sexuality and not be open about it.
Although it was not in the 1980s Britain, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the United States from 1993 to 2011, furthers the evidence that gay, lesbian or bisexual people were made to stay in “the closet” and not live their sexuality openly. For 17 years, “DADT” banned gays and lesbians who were open about their homosexuality from serving in the military, however, allowed those who are still in “the closet”. After the murder of Barry Winchell in 1999, who was sleeping when his killer battered his head with a baseball bat, the policy was reviewed but stayed enacted nonetheless. The murderer said that they killed Winchell because he was homosexual. Although American Psychological Association released a statement that goes “Empirical evidence fails to show that sexual orientation is germane to any aspect of military effectiveness including unit cohesion, morale, recruitment and retention”, the policy was not repealed until 2011. The reality that it was until six years ago that this appalling policy was in force, that it was very much in effect, is agonising.
The fact that homosexuals were forced to stay in “the closet” can be seen clearly in Alan Hollinghurst’s novel. Nick Guest’s sexuality is not a secret and is known by the Feddens, however, it is not ever discussed or mentioned. Much like the “DADT” policy, Nick never openly talks about his homosexuality within the presence of Gerald and Rachel Fedden, and they never ask him anything about it.
Early in “The Line of Beauty”, it becomes clear how the society in the 1980s viewed homosexuality with the case of Hector Maltby, a junior minister in the Foreign Office, who “had been caught with a rent boy in his Jaguar.”(The Line of Beauty,) While discussing the subject in the Feddens house, Nick feels “as if he’d been caught in a Jaguar himself”() because of the tension in the kitchen and because he knows just exactly how Gerald and Rachel feel about homosexuality. Nick feels restrained and shy when he is around Gerald after this talk.
The Feddens like to think that they keep their social image by not mentioning “delicate” subjects. An example of this is visible when Catherine’s godfather and Rachel’s friend Pat dies. Rachel and Gerald try to hide the actual reason for Pat’s death by saying that he died of pneumonia whereas he actually died of AIDS. This outrages Catherine, and she makes her family face the truth of Pat’s death. The desire to uphold an image of “respectability” in the upper-class society prevented these people from openly discussing homosexuality which was considered as a taboo.
Sally Tipper, the wife of Sir Maurice Tipper, is ready to criticise anyone whose lifestyle is not “proper” for her. When talking about Pat’s death with Sir Maurice and Nick, she implies that Pat had it brought AIDS on himself by having sex with men, and says that the homosexuals are “going to have to learn.” After Nick’s statement about oral sex, Sally asks if Nick meant kissing. “Nick went on flatteringly. . .’there are other things one can do. I mean there’s oral sex. . .’ Sally took this stoically. ‘Kissing, you mean.’ ” (The Line of Beauty,) Turning a blind eye and adopting a “see no evil, speak no evil” policy is the way these conservatives of upper-class live.
Nick’s first lover, Leo Charles, takes him to his house where he lives with his sister and his religious mother. Mrs Charles, who is Leo’s mother, does not accept that his son was gay even after his death caused by AIDS. Her choice to stay silent and not talk about his son’s homosexuality is fueled by her intense religious belief. Leo’s sister Rosemary makes clear that Mrs Charles chooses to close her ears to the fact his son loved and had sex with men. ” ‘She doesn’t accept he was gay. It’s a mortal sin, you see,’ said Rosemary, and now the Jamaican stress was satirical. . .’And her son was no sinner.’ ” (The Line..) Mrs Charles likes to think that Leo got AIDS “off a toilet seat at the office, which is full of godless socialists.” (The Line of) In addition to Leo, his sister Rosemary is a homosexual. Gemma, who is her lover, knows that Mrs Charles will never be okay with Rosemary’s homosexuality, and will never accept this fact. Mrs Charles’s attitude towards homosexuality is the reflection of conservatives.
The homosexuals, unlike the heterosexuals, were not able to meet in public places and be open about their sexuality in the Thatcher era. Nick and Leo cannot find a place to meet and feel comfortable without people judging them. The two cannot even talk on the phone without the stare of Gerald: “Gerald looked at him again as if to say that the brute reality of gay life, of actual phone calls between shirt-lifters, was rather more than he had ever imagined being asked to deal with. . .”(TLB) After their first date, they cannot find a place to be alone together because there is not a single place they know where they will not be stared at and judged because of the intense homophobia at the time.
The fear of coming out is apparent with Wani Ouradi, Nick’s upper-class lover with whom he has an affair. The novel gives many examples of how the upper-class society in the 1980s view homosexuality and disapprove and judge it. As part of this circle, Wani feels repressed and does not openly live his “actual” life because of his heterosexist father. As revealed later in the novel, Wani’s mother pays Martine to keep her pretending to be Wani’s fiancee. This fact surprises Nick who never noticed that Martine was given an allowance, and realises what a lie Wani has been living. “ ‘What are you going to do about Martine?’ said Nick. ‘Oh, just the same. She’ll carry on getting her allowance, at least until she marries. . .’ “ (The Line of Beauty,) Wani and his mother are afraid that Wani’s father will find about his homosexuality, so Wani reveals to Nick that his son having a fiancee is “his last illusion.” (The Line,)
Nick wants to feel part of the Feddens family, but Gerald’s attitude towards homosexuality and his stern belief in a society which is only heteronormative keeps Nick from being himself around Gerald and Rachel. As he is a gay man not of upper-class, Nick is doubly marginalised in the 1980s Britain. His uncertain status in the household and society makes him “dangerous” in the eyes of homophobic society. At the end of the novel, right after Gerald’s affair makes the news and Wani’s illness is heard, Nick is chosen as the scapegoat and is humiliated and sent out of the Feddens house. The conversation he has with Gerald right before the end of the novel demonstrates how he likes to play the ignorant man who has no knowledge of gay life. When Gerald mentions Martine, Nick tells him the truth about Wani and Martine’s nonexistent relationship. ” ‘Oh yes, but she wasn’t actually his girlfriend.’ ‘No, no, they were going to get married.’ ‘They might have got married, but it was just a front, Gerald. She was only a paid companion.’ . . .The facts of gay life had always been a taboo for him.” (TLB)
Since The Line of Beauty takes place in the 1980s, it deals a lot with the AIDS epidemic. Nick’s first lover Leo dies of AIDS which the reader finds out almost by the end of the novel. Wani, who becomes Nick’s lover after Leo, has AIDS and is about to die. The AIDS epidemic and people dying around him caused by the disease terrifies Nick and he decides to get tested as well. Although the reader never finds out about the test result, the picture of the 1980s AIDS epidemic implies that there will be many more people suffering and dying from AIDS and Nick may be one of them.
A man of 49 years old died of AIDS in 1981 and marked the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the UK. The government at the time did not take action about the disease until 1987, which is the year when the final chapter of the book takes place. The British Government launched a public information campaign called “AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance.” After the campaign, the number of new diagnosis of HIV dropped dramatically. However, the heteronormative society adamantly believed that this dreadful disease was “a homosexual disease.” When the AIDS epidemic outbroke, people started calling it the “gay disease” and linked the disease to specifically to gay men. For years, public figures avoided the topic, and never referred to it. This silence around the topic and the stubborn belief that it was a “gay disease” caused an increase in homophobia among people. According to David France, the connection with homosexuality affected gay people’s view of sexuality as well. It is fair to say that gay men were almost too afraid to touch or kiss each other for fear of AIDS. However, after the first shock of the epidemic, the media started to discuss safe sex and homosexuality much more than before.
The AIDS epidemic brought six gay activists together; people around them were dying one by one and they could not do anything about it. The government in the USA at the time was not doing much about it, exactly like the government in the UK. Thus, these six men started to meet weekly to talk about the epidemic and discuss what they could do about it. They needed to share their stories and figure out whatever was going on. Brian Howard, who is one the six activists, remembers that when all of them were sitting at a table one evening, none of them spoke but stared at each other wondering who was the first to die. In 1987 they created a project called SILENCE=DEATH and made a minimal poster with a pink triangle on a black background. The pink triangle was an important symbol for gay activists because of its association with homosexuality, and it’s historical significance helped strengthen the meaning of the project. In Nazi concentration camps, homosexuals were forced to wear badges with a pink triangle on to be identified. Because of the indication of the victimisation and repression of homosexuals, the poster became the trademark of gay rights. Also, these six men issued a manifesto declaring “Silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.”
Ronald Reagan’s attitude towards the AIDS crisis, the government’s lack of giving importance to the issue, and the fact that Reagen never really addressed the issue until 1985 created a nightmarish environment for gay men in the USA. The choice to look the other way and play dumb was pretty much the attitude towards AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Examples of this can be seen in The Line of Beauty. Sir Maurice Tipper and his wife Sally identify AIDS with homosexuals, and this was pretty much the attitude towards the disease. The heteronormative society liked to think that AIDS was the punishment of homosexuality, a divine justice.
She looked up, and said with a great twitch, ‘I mean, they must have seen it coming.’. . . He said, ‘I think I heard you say your mother had a long final illness.’ ‘That was utterly different,’ Sir Maurice . . .’ ‘She hadn’t brought it on herself,’ said Sir Maurice. ‘No, that’s true,’ Sally sighed. ‘I mean, they’re going to have ID learn, aren’t they, the…homosexuals.’ (TLB)
When talking about Pat’s death, Rachel’s act of hiding the actual reason illustrates the taboo attached to the AIDS epidemic. When asked about Pat’s death, she says “ ‘He had pneumonia last November, he nearly died; but he came through it. Then things got, well, a lot worse in the spring. He was in hospital for about ten days at the end.’ ”