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How Walt Whitman Predicted What It Means to Be Queer in 2015

And why you should care about 150-year-old poems.

June 1, 2015

Queer Whitman
Photo-illustration: Carly Piersol

I never expected that the person who could best describe my queerness would be a hundred-plus-years-dead male poet. But as it happens, that person is Walt Whitman, who 160 years ago this summer published the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

The United States of the 1850s was not particularly inclusive of queerness (shocking, I know). Physical affection between men was largely seen as normal, but heterosexuality was more or less assumed. Even in this climate, lacking the language we have today to describe non-heterosexual attraction, Whitman’s poems imbued everyone with equal sexual power and erotic possibility. The result was a body of work that, intentionally or not, celebrated queerness in a way that did not demand a label. And today, more than ever, it is urgently important to pay attention to that.

The idea of sexuality as a fluid identity is not new, nor is the idea of Whitman as a queer icon. But as LGBT identities and equal rights gain wider acceptance throughout the United States, popular media has begun to consciously reject the impulse to label sexual orientation, taking up Whitman’s mantle of expansive queerness.

This queerness is present in every edition of Leaves of Grass, which Whitman rewrote throughout his life, publishing six editions between 1855 and 1892. His arguably most famous poem, “Song of Myself,” sets the tone:

Urge and urge and urge,

Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,

Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.

Which is just so much hotter than what you think of when you think “1800s poetry.” And the “you” there is important. Countless times Whitman turns to a genderless “you” as an object of desire. Elsewhere in “Song of Myself,” he describes “how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, / How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, / And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart.” Several verses later he entreats, “I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land, / Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse, / Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.”

This reader could be anyone — male, female, “you,” a member of any group — and these distinctions do not affect Whitman’s attraction. In that context, his love and eroticism for the reader is queer, subverting what is expected of him as a man and as a poet.

All hell broke loose in 1860, when Whitman published his longest and most controversial edition. The book contains a section called “Calamus” (named for a rod-like plant, which seems fairly on-the-nose) that addresses his love of “comrades.” Whitman celebrates attraction to men in lines like, “When he whom I love travels with me, or sits a long while holding me by the hand, / … Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom — I am silent — I require nothing further.” Though the section mainly focuses on men, Whitman also rejoices in the “love for the woman I love, / O bride! O wife! more resistless, more enduring than I can tell, the thought of you!” Without the vocabulary that could label these feelings, Whitman describes them using only the language of erotic power.

Today, of course, many words exist for identities that are not the hetero norm. But now, popular culture is beginning to consciously eschew those labels.

One of the most written-about films of 2013, Blue Is the Warmest Color, documents the story of a relationship between two women without focusing on sexual orientation. Neither Emma nor Adèle identifies as a lesbian (or any other label) throughout the film, and when Adèle cheats on Emma with a man, the betrayal is treated solely as that — a betrayal, regardless of the gender play at the center of it. Here’s the scene:

Throughout Comedy Central‘s “Broad City,” Ilana’s attraction to women draws the occasional casual reference. In one episode from which I may never recover, Ilana begins dating her doppelgänger, played by her near-twin Alia Shawkat (a resemblance that caused Abbi Jacobson to confuse Ilana and Alia during improv classes). Throughout this relationship — the first time we see Ilana engaged with another woman — sexual labels go largely unaddressed. At one point, Ilana comments that “I have sex with people different from me.” That is, to date, the most detailed explanation we have about her orientation. And it works.

The web series High Maintenance gives us another look at a character whose identity does not demand an explicit explanation. I watched “Rachel,” in which a man wears women’s clothes at home while his wife is at work, in a haze of dread. But the moment I expected — when she would walk in on him and freak out — never happens. We discover at the end of the episode that she is supportive of his gender presentation, which she addresses only with delighted surprise that he had let a weed delivery man see him “dressed like that.”

None of these characters need labels, and their lack of one is neither a cause for angst nor a source of confusion. None of these works existed 10 years ago. I wish I’d had them then. What I did have was Whitman.

I largely ignored my own queerness for a long time, devoting myself to partnerships with men that seemed to serve as evidence that I was straight. But it was there. I bought books filled with pictures of young women in vintage bathing suits and told myself I was really interested in 1950s fashion. I worshipped femme icons and hung their pictures on my wall. I recently dug through the drawers of my childhood bedroom and found a scrapbook filled with clippings of women from magazines who I know now are totally my type.

Once I did realize it, I panicked, thinking that I could never fit the label of “lesbian,” nor did I want to. And likewise, “bisexual” never felt right, implying some sort of 50-50 split that never accurately described what I wanted.

There are plenty of people for whom these words are sufficient and empowering. But I still felt an absence. What was the word for describing my dream woman to a male partner? Of feeling like, because I wanted people of all genders, I could never fully satisfy any of them? I pictured a team of referees making a clipboard tally on the sidelines, making check marks next to various partners and frowning at the totals.

On the other side, I imagined, was Whitman, the bearded friend on the edge of the field. The one who didn’t need me to describe exactly what I wanted — only to live it. Bit by bit, I began to understand my sexuality as inclusive, as shifting — and to be comfortable with that. He says as much in “To You, Whoever You Are” (1860), addressing the reader directly: “Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem; / I whisper with my lips close to your ear, / I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.”

Whitman’s wish for his readers is that they live out the fullest expression of themselves, “Old or young, male or female, rude, low, rejected by the rest, whatever you are promulges itself; / … Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui, what you are picks its way.”

The poem leaves open the question of “whatever you are.” It is an ambiguous, glorious, genderless, and tender expression of love — one that is as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 19th. I’m hoping we’re all, finally, beginning to take the hint.

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  • Meredith Darnell

    You might enjoy a short piece of fiction called Little Fuckers by Robert Olen Butler. It’s an interpretation of the rumored relationship between Whitman and Oscar Wilde (and other supposed encounters between historical figures).


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