DESIRE CAN BE agonizing in its specificity, especially when it is unexpected or otherwise unwelcome. While we’ve all experienced what might seem like an objectless want, an unanchored craving, even this ache is bound to coalesce into a designated yearning; no sooner is a desire born than it is attached to its object. The heart (along with the stomach and various lower organs) wants what it wants.
But when the conversation about desire (or, let’s bring the big sappy guns out on this one, Love) moves into the discourse of politics, it loses its specific objects and becomes what desire is inherently not: general. This loss of specificity has numerous detrimental effects on the debates surrounding the rights of homosexuals in America. First of all, it creates the absurd delineation wherein the right to a certain type of desire is subject to legislation. In being discussed as general, desire makes the linguistic slippage into promiscuity (general desire becomes a plurality of undifferentiated specific desires) and we end up with the longstanding myth that homosexual relationships are unstable and prone to infidelity.
But more importantly, when desire becomes abstracted, the human beings experiencing it become equally abstracted: millions of people whose loves and desires, their most personal, intense and meaningful feelings, become lumped into one group. That group is then set across the boundary implied by any binary (us/not us) and, as an abstract mass, becomes subject to derision, discrimination and violence.
The cracks in the binary walls of gender and sexuality have been showing for some time and within those cracks, ever-expanding populations push outward against both sides of the binary structure, in the process redefining labels that are lazy in their simplicity and often have the effect of distancing people labeled from themselves. In exploring the inner landscapes of women who enjoyed heterosexual relationships for a time and then went on to fully enjoy homosexual ones as well, this anthology sought to add a new literary perspective to the classic coming-out stories of consciously concealed identities and long-lasting shame and fear. Dear John, I Love Jane is a Molotov cocktail lobbed into the divide between gay and straight, and the fire it ignites illuminates the complexities of what it means to define oneself as gay or straight.
Edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre, Dear John, I Love Jane purports to be an anthology of women writing about leaving men for women. But like other labels, this one falls short of being all-encompassing. The stress here is rarely on the men who are left so much as the women who are found, and while in many of the stories the woman who is found is a long-time partner, in all of the stories, the woman found is the writer herself. For a surprising number of the women in the anthology, it is the very specificity of their desire that seems to shock them awake, less a realization that they want to be with women than a realization that they want to be with that woman.
Brought together by an open call for work that drew one hundred and thirty submissions, the writers showcased defy classification or stereotype. The butch/femme binary breaks down into a myriad not of types but of individuals. Here we have a Mormon housewife, a radicalized college student, an ashram-dwelling seeker, a country musician. Journalists, college professors, bloggers and stay-at-home moms people the book’s pages, and each one defines herself in her own terms. Some self-identify as gay or lesbian, some invent new terms for themselves (“dykeling” and “Leah-bian”, for example), and others slip the yoke of label entirely. While certain themes recur in many of the pieces, each story is unique in voice (some, naturally, stronger and more compelling than others).
I would feel biased in saying that local celebrity and fellow Ithaca Post contributor Amelia Sauter is the standout in the group, if it weren’t for the fact that much of the publicity surrounding the book and Dr. Lisa Diamond, the author of Sexual Fluidity who provides the book’s introduction, seem to agree with me. Many of the prize quotes pulled from the text by Dr. Diamond are from Ms. Sauter’s essay, and with good reason. In the manner of some of the best memoirists, Sauter manages to mix a compelling level of detail with deft insight and a command of language. Heartbreaking sentences like “I was in love, and I was terribly lonely” are personal enough to give the reader a strong sense of the narrator, but resonate at a shared level by leaving the reader space to insert their own experiences. It is precisely within a sentence like this that identification and empathy between reader and writer are cemented. If there is any one place where the overall argument of the book rings out, it is in Sauter’s reflection on her own story.
You won’t find me rewriting history to say that I was gay all along. I was straight. Now I am gay. I won’t insult my past self by saying I was in denial or confused.
While the exact sentiment is not shared by all the authors represented in Dear John, I Love Jane, it demonstrates the ease of slipping across what are supposed to be defining boundaries. Any boundary that can be so easily transgressed was probably never a boundary to begin with.
While never waved as a particularly political flag, one of the recurring themes in the book is marriage, both marriages left behind and marriages precluded by law. Reading Dear John, I Love Jane, it’s difficult not to wonder how quickly the debate over gay marriage would be solved if, rather than deciding whether, in principle, it should be legal for a man to marry another man or a woman to marry another woman, the legislatures, courts and voting public had time to meet each couple. To hear their stories and see the map of their desire for one another, how it moves over time and across borders. And then to ask whether society had any right to stop this person, whose love is so specific, so unique, from marrying this other person, who is lucky enough not just to receive this love, but to return it.